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The Fall of Christendom: The road to Acre, 1291 by W. B. Bartlett

by
07 January 2022

Alan Borg reviews an account of the ultimate failure of the Crusades

THE Crusades retain their fascination for historians and for the reading public; so a new book that deals with the end of Western domination in Outremer is to be welcomed.

The story of the initial success of the Crusaders and the subsequent gradual decline of their power has been told many times, although, as W. B. Bartlett acknowledges in his introduction, the three-volume history of Sir Stephen Runciman, published seventy years ago (1951-54), has yet to be surpassed, even if modern scholarship has added to our knowledge and modified many of his conclusions.

Moreover, most general histories are primarily concerned with the early phases of the Crusading movement, which were characterised by surprising military success and the establishment of the Latin Kingdom in Jerusalem. But, from the beginning, the seeds of the subsequent decline can be detected, making the eventual chaotic retreat inevitable.

At the outset, Bartlett points to the parallels between the fall of Acre in 1291 and the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, when Saigon was the scene of the mass evacuation of Americans and South Vietnamese. The book was presumably already in production when the still closer parallel of the evacuation of Afghanistan occurred in 2020, when thousands of soldiers and civilians escaped from Kabul. In this case, the evacuation followed a relatively brief period of domination by the Western powers, providing a salutary reminder that no foreign power has ever definitively won a war in that country.

author’s collectionFortress at Baku, which was attacked by the Mongols in the 13th century. A photo from the book

Here, the early history of the Crusades is outlined from the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099; but it was soon apparent that, without continuous support from the Western powers, the movement as a whole was bound to fail — that it lasted for more than 100 years is one of the more surprising aspects of Crusader history. The first major loss was at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, but this was soon followed by numerous other setbacks. Baybars, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, defeated both the Mongols and the Franks, preparing the way for the fall of Acre in 1291.

This book is designed for the general reader rather than the specialist, and relies largely on the existing body of secondary material. This is not entirely up to date, and Jonathan Phillips’s definitive biography of Saladin (2019) did not make it into the bibliography. This does give a small selection of the primary sources that have been published in translation, but some of the larger collections of documents which have appeared in America are also omitted.

The main text is occasionally cumbersome and has a tendency to state the obvious; “In our world it is all too easy to be cynical about the actions of politicians and rulers,” or “Back then slavery was widely practised and did not in many places attract the opprobrium that it did later.” The proofreading is occasionally sloppy, the name of an author being spelled differently in the notes and the bibliography. None the less, this book provides a useful narrative for the general reader.


Dr Alan Borg is a former Director of the V&A, London.

 

The Fall of Christendom: The road to Acre, 1291
W. B. Bartlett
Amberley Books £20
(978-1-4456-8417-8)
Church Times Bookshop £18

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