by Victor Davis Hanson
Claremont Review of Books
Book review of God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, by Christopher Tyerman. Belknap Press, 2006.
Few historical events have been evoked more frequently since September 11 than the Christian Crusades to the Holy Land (1095-1291). In the fossilized mind of Osama bin Laden they happened almost yesterday. For the jihadist, a Westernized Israel’s brief existence in Palestine since1947 is analogous to the two-century-long stain of Frankish occupation of the Levant. Worse still, the 1967 Israeli acquisition of Jerusalem, following the Six-Day War, is every bit as repugnant as the First Crusade that saw Westerners in control of the holy city for nearly a century (1099-1187).
More importantly still, bin Laden as the modern Saladin believes that the current clash of civilizations, like the Crusades, will persist for decades until globalization ceases and Americans vacate their bases in the Persian Gulf. And once again the fighting will end with the inevitable defeat and withdrawal of “global crusaders” — in acknowledgment of the greater spiritual will of Islam.
This is a battle of Muslims against the global crusaders…God, who provided us with his support and kept us steadfast until the Soviet Union was defeated, is able to provide us once more with his support to defeat America on the same land and with the same people.
In a war of civilizations, our goal is for our nation to unite in the face of the Christian crusade…. This is a recurring war. The original crusade brought Richard the Lion-Hearted from Britain, Louis from France and Barbarossa from Germany. Today the crusading countries rushed as soon as Bush raised the cross. They accepted the rule of the cross.
While bin Laden and Dr. Zawahiri — al Qaeda’s Alfred Rosenberg-like theoretician — allude to the hated crusaders often in their communiqués, their Western descendants go to great pains to avoid even the memory of those once-upon-a-time religious pests.
It is not just that a chastised President Bush or Tony Blair fears framing the current war against terror in terms of an age-old religious ‘clash of civilizations,’ or even an embarrassing post-colonial replay of Western interlopers occupying Muslim lands. Rather, the Western public at large a millennium later remains deeply ashamed of the zealotry and intolerance of their crusading ancestors. Or in the words of Tyerman, the knights who took the cross have “entered the sphere of public history, where the past is captured in abiding cultural myths of inheritance, self-image and identity. Many groups and nations find their memory awkward, even distressing.”Merely distressing?So toxic has the word “crusade” now become in postmodern society that in the age of political-correctness we increasingly avoid it altogether, as in the once common generic expressions like the crusade against drugs or illiteracy.
Present-day Western secularism explains much of the hand-wringing, since our elites believe that Christian fundamentalists who advocate, for example, Bible study in schools are not much different from radical Islamists who blow heretics and infidels apart. That the Ottomans occupied the Levant for nearly 500 years as unapologetic imperialists seems to matter little either, since that brutal subjugation can be understood as an internecine religious squabble, not a cross-cultural vendetta instigated by Westerners.
So lost mostly in Europe and the United States is any historical reminder that an ascendant Islam of the Middle Ages was concurrently occupying the Iberian peninsula — only after failing at Poitiers in the eighth century to take France.Greek-speaking Byzantium was under constant Islamic assault that would culminate in the Muslim occupation of much of the European Balkans and later Islamic armies at the gates of Vienna. Few remember that the Eastern Mediterranean coastal lands had been originally Phoenician and Jewish, then Persian, then Macedonian, then Roman, then Byzantine — and not until the seventh-century Islamic. Instead, whether intentionally or not, post-Enlightenment Westerners have accepted bin Laden’s frame of reference that religiously intolerant Crusaders had gratuitously started a war to take something that was not theirs.
Christopher Tyerman’s 1,000-page God’s War is not oblivious to this post-9/11 controversy over the Crusades. Indeed, he candidly informs us that he writes as a Western European (“My perspective is western European. This accords best with my own research experience.”). And Tyerman further confesses that it is through the lenses of a descendent of Crusaders himself that he must inevitably explore the paradoxes of such a movement, which are best understood only through the labyrinth of European church-state politics of the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries.
But after that brief throat-clearing, there is almost no reference at all to the relevance of the Crusades to the contemporary Western struggle against radical Islamists from the Middle East. Instead, Tyerman judiciously reminds us, “This study is intended as a history, not a polemic, an account not a judgment…not a confessional apologia or a witness statement in some cosmic law suit.” About the closest we get to contemporary allusion is something like the banal “Thus Islam’s holy war, the lesser jihad, remains a modern phenomenon.”
Well, then, if this erudite, disinterested, and exhaustive study offers almost no contemporary enlightenment about the context of our own episode in the long history of Christian-Muslim strife, some might wonder why such a massive history now? Tyerman, of course, consciously writes in the shadow of Sir Steven Runciman’s three-volume History of the Crusades (1951-4), a magisterial account that has ensured it a place alongside Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico or Churchill’s The Second World War as one of the most elegantly written prose narratives in modern English: “It would be folly and hubris to pretend to compete, to match, as it were, my clunking computer keyboard with his [Runciman’s] pen, at once a rapier and a paintbrush; to pit one volume however substantial, with the breadth, scope and elegance of his three.”
Tyerman is right there, for Sir Steven would never have written sentences quite like the following clunker, “The increasing interiorization of faith, shared to some degree by all sides of the major confessional divides, mitigated against certain of the showier forms of medieval devotions that crusading exemplified, the increasingly controversial sale of indulgences merely being the most notorious.” Even when (relatively) succinct, Tyerman often cannot convey a simple thought with any clarity: “Both activities are open to reductive interpretations of unavoidable cultural or social compulsion.”
If Tyerman, is to be frank, a very poor stylist, he nevertheless offers many things new and insightful — besides drawing on a half-century worth of archaeological, historical, and epigraphical scholarship since the time of Runciman. True, Tyerman seems oblivious to contemporary comparisons, but it is often for the good, since he insists on viewing both the Crusaders and their enemies in the context of the times. Thus he will not pass easy moral judgments on people who, in comparison with our own affluence and ease, lived short and miserable lives.
So it is not question of whether a Richard the Lion-Hearted (who in a few hours executed 2,600 Muslim prisoners) or Saladin (who butchered the Templars and Hospitallers after their defeat at Hattin) was cruel — who wasn’t in the late twelfth century — but rather cruel compared to what? Saladin, Tyerman reminds us, routinely slaughtered Christian prisoners. Once he had broken the tenets of his armistice agreements with Richard, the latter king did not wish to leave released enemy warriors at his rear.
Important here is Tyerman’s stance towards religiosity. He reminds throughout the narrative that it was not merely glory or money or excitement that drove Westerners of all classes and nationalities to risk their lives in a deadly journey to an inhospitable east, but rather a real belief in a living God and their own desire to please him through preserving and honoring the birth and death places of his son. The crusaders were not merely religious in the modern sense of devout or church-going, but more akin to present-day Muslims, in the sense that belief governed almost every aspect of their lives and decision-making. The Crusades arose when the Church, in the absence of strong secular governments, had the moral authority to ignite the religious sense of thousands of Europeans — and they ceased when at last it lost such stature.
Tyerman often offers some surprising revisionism. One of the great heroes of the Muslim world is the magnetic Kurdish al Malik al-Nasir Slah al-Dunya wa’l-Din Abu’l Muzaffar Yusuf ibn Ayyub Ibn Shadi al-Kurdi, better known as Salah al-Din or Saladin, sultan of Egypt, who ensured that the Third Crusade would fail, and Richard the Lion-Hearted would return to Europe without recapturing Jerusalem. But as Tyerman notes, most of Saladin’s early efforts were aimed at consolidating power by killing off other Muslims. He was serially defeated by Christian armies at Montgisard, Forbelet, Arsuf, and Jaffa, and lost both Tyre and Antioch — despite Saladin’s numerical and logistical advantages on his own familiar landscape. His chief success in warding off Richard was his skill as a diplomatic chess master of sorts, double-dealing and appreciating how often the Crusaders could be split off from one another, inasmuch as they sometimes hated each other as much as they did him.
For most moderns, the absurdity and hypocrisy of a moral crusade to restore Christianity in the Holy Land is best exemplified by the so-called Fourth Crusade in which Western Europeans sacked Constantinople (1204), killing thousands of fellow (Orthodox) Christians, and weakening the eastern church to such a degree that its subsequent defeat by the Ottomans over two centuries later was nearly preordained. But Tyerman reminds us that nearly half of the disillusioned Crusaders defected and turned home, once the “diversion” to Constantinople was decided upon, a result of siding with the young Byzantine usurper Alexius Angelus against his uncle Alexius III. The other half, mostly Venetians, was excommunicated in advance of the siege. “Neither some fanciful conspiracy nor a general mind-set allegedly susceptible to anti-Greek propaganda adequately explains the course of events. Instead, conflicting ties of solidarity, honor, obligation and advantage exerted the strongest pressures.” And Tyerman concludes that the motives of the Crusaders were “immediate, contradictory, self-deluding and muddled rather than treacherous or malign.”
Finally time ran out under the walls of Byzantium, supplies were exhausted and the inept Crusaders forced their way into the city. The subsequent looting and desecration of icons and art were the real damage while killing was mostly sporadic and limited to the first day of the siege — the infamy magnified by the failure to kill Muslims to the south and endemic hatred between Catholicism and Orthodoxy: “If the victors had proceeded to the Holy Land the following spring, the fall of Constantinople may have never acquired its reputation for unique barbarism.”
If there are few vivid battle accounts of Hattin or Arsuf in Tyerman’s often dry retelling, he uniquely locates the crusades to the Middle East in both a larger European and global context. The First Crusade, for example, arose as a complex response both to the Investiture Contest with the German king Henry IV, part of the Church’s effort to reform its corrupt relationships with European kings, and the call of the Byzantine Emperor Alexis who thought Western Christians might save his eroding rule from the Seljuk Turks. Crusades against the Muslims might restore the prestige of the newly reformed Church both by a demonstration of selfless zeal at home, and increased status and power won abroad. Once Tyerman guides us through this labyrinth of contemporary agendas and self-interested motives, sending thousands of novices to the other end of the Mediterranean somehow does not seem so lunatic as it now appears with modern rational hindsight.
By the same token, Tyerman envisions the Crusades in the broadest sense, well beyond the two-century interventions into the Holy Land, to include chapters on the collective and trans-national Christian efforts against unbelievers in the Balkans, Scandinavia, Russia, the Ottomans and their clients in the Balkans extending into the fifteenth century.
In the eleventh hour before the impending Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment the Church belatedly sought to galvanize the believers in an almost feverish effort at global outreach, sending its tentacles ever outward as the nerve center at home increasingly enervated. What, then, finally ended the crusading spirit? Not loss of pious devotion or belief in a god per se, but rather the rise of the modern competent secular state that won the primary allegiance of millions of devout Europeans who increasingly rendered onto Caesar what was Caesar’s.
Christopher Tyerman’s exhaustive new history is not easy going, but it is often surprising and ironic — reminding us that the crusading spirit is properly seen as tragic rather than melodramatic, and thus “cannot be explained, excused or dismissed either as virtue or sin. Rather, its very contradictions spelt its humanity.”
©2007 Victor Davis Hanson