THE Crusades have provided historians with a seemingly inexhaustible list of topics. New books and learned articles continue to flow from their pens, and it is difficult for even the most dedicated readers to keep abreast of the literature. Much of what appears deals with specific and detailed aspects of Crusading history, making it increasingly difficult to form an overall picture of the vast and rambling subject as a whole. The historian who attempts to paint the complete picture must, therefore, have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject and be able to see the overarching story, while illuminating the narrative with telling details.
Christopher Tyerman, Professor of the History of the Crusades in the University of Oxford, has undertaken this task. He could not be better qualified to do so. This book succeeds magnificently in giving a clear picture of the Crusades as a whole, providing, at the same time, much fascinating detail. After an introduction on what the Crusades were, there are 13 chapters tracing their history from the First Crusade of 1095 to the fall of Malta, home of the Knights Hospitaller, to Napoleon in 1798.
Besides covering the Crusades in the Middle East, the book has generous chapters on the European Crusades in Spain and in the Baltic, together with a final section on the interpretation of the Crusades by historians, artists, and politicians. Then, inserted within each chapter, there are separate sections providing specific detailed information about particular topics.
The wide variety of these can be judged from their titles, which include “Women and the Crusades”, “Coins in Outremer”, “Sacred Booty”, and “A Meal in Paris, 6 January 1378” — the last being the description of an extraordinary dinner party given by King Charles IV of France, at which a play about the Siege of Jerusalem in 1099 was performed.
This combination of broad history and detailed example works well, but the way in which it is achieved could have been improved. The “details” are printed in a slightly smaller typeface, but with no break in the pagination; for example, in the chapter on the Crusades and the defence of Outremer, page 169 ends halfway through a sentence, only to be resumed on page 173, with the “detail” about St Bernard in between. Once you realise what the system is, it is easy to understand, but it remains inelegant; surely, each chapter page before a “detail” could have been set to end in a full stop.
The book is subtitled An illustrated history, and there is a generous provision of 161 illustrations, mostly colour. The decision to integrate the pictures with the text is also admirable, but the price is that they are all printed on the same matt paper as the text. This has an adverse effect on the illustrations; the colours are muted, and colour balances are lost, making many pictures appear dull when they should be vibrant. A few become completely unreadable, such as no. 79, the Sacro Catino, or Sacred Basin, in Genoa. But these are small faults in a book that will be welcomed by all who want a modern history of the Crusades which takes account of the latest scholarship and yet is both readable and thought-provoking.
Alan Borg is a former Director of the V&A, London.
The World of the Crusades: An illustrated history
Church Times Bookshop £22.50