Melisende with your Saladin
Posted: 24 Nov 2009 @ 00:00
Holy Warriors: A modern history of the Crusades
Bodley Head £20
Church Times Bookshop £18
A HISTORY of the Crusades which includes one chapter on Queen Melisende of Jerusalem and another on Sir Walter Scott, Osama bin Laden, and George W. Bush is obviously adopting something other than a traditional historical approach.
All too often, academic historians are unwilling to stray beyond their particular specialist field to look at the legacy and relevance of historical events in modern times. This is what makes Jonathan Phillips’s new book unusual, stimulating, and thought-provoking — and, therefore, very welcome, all the more so because it is written in an easy, conversational style that disguises real learning.
It is probably the final chapter that will cause most interest and raise a few eyebrows, but before reaching this we are given an equally novel history of the Crusades, which places people such as Queen Melisende in the spotlight, showing her to have been a woman of exceptional political awareness and ability.
Not only did she survive in a male-dominated world, but she managed both to exercise real power, and to transfer this gradually to her son, Baldwin III. The case may be overstated — after all, she did end up fighting a civil war with Baldwin — but it is very refreshing to have such new angles explored in a book aimed at the general reader.
Phillips succeeds in bringing Melisende to life, allowing us to see the story of the Crusades in terms of the personalities involved. Several, such as the eloquent preacher Al-Sunami and the diplomat and scholar Usama ibn Munqidh, emerge from the shadows as key figures.
Usama is of course the same name as Osama (why, incidentally, use two different transliterations?), and that brings us to the final chapter, “New Crusaders?”. The question mark is important, because we are asked to consider whether we are again in a time of crusade, fighting an emotive war on terror against an enemy engaged in a jihad.
The author explores the use of the word “crusade” and of crusading imagery in 19th- and 20th-century culture and politics, from Walter Scott to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. To some extent, this is a matter of terminology. While it is thought-provoking to interpret the Jarrow March as a modern example of a medieval crusade, with an overtone of pilgrimage, what are we to make of Harold Wilson’s assertion that the Labour Party is a moral crusade, or Al Gore’s crusade against global warming?
This is not to deny the value of Phillips’s observations, but this final chapter does have a polemical tone.
It is as if it were intended to provide not only food for thought, but also texts for endless discussion at dinner parties. But that is no bad thing: any book that takes history out of the classroom and on to the dinner table is surely worth having.
Dr Alan Borg is chairman of the Foundling Museum, London.
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