The Crusades by Jonathan Riley-Smith

How could I resist a book that took my alma mater‘s motto as its epigraph? Of course I couldn’t, all the more so because I wanted to read something about knights and journeys and castles, and none of the fantasy that was close at hand was as immediately appealing.

The version of Riley-Smith’s book that I have is a second edition, published in 2005 as a revision of the 1987 edition. The brief preface to the new edition was very interesting to me because it sketched how the concerns of historians had changed over more than a decade and a half, a glimpse of the historicity of history, so to speak. (It also leads me to wonder what has changed in the time since, though not, mind, enough to seek out a current book on the topic.) Here was one of the most interesting points:

The Crusades by Jonathan Riley-Smith

“Most historians also seem to have lost interest in the question of whether the Latin settlements in the East were colonies or not. This may also be a result of general disillusionment with Marxism, but it should be added that the conviction that the settlements were examples of early colonialism is still axiomatic in Arab and in some Israeli circles.” (p. xxv) There are some adjectives missing between “Most” and “historians” that would go a long way toward clarifying who Riley-Smith thinks matter. It’s an interesting glimpse into how history informs and is shaped by current relations and controversies to say that viewing the crusades as colonial enterprises is “axiomatic” in Arab circles. It sets the stage for, at best, a great deal of miscommunication.

More aspects that changed between 1987 and 2005, according to Riley-Smith, include growing interest in the motivation of crusaders, greater knowledge of the smaller crusades to the East in between the traditionally numbered crusades, deeper understanding of the Latin settlements in the East, and increased interest in the military orders including the order-states of Prussia, Rhodes and Malta. All of these changes were shaped by greater access to a wider range of sources, something that will have only expanded in the meantime, especially as archives have become digitally accessible. (I do wish the maps had been re-done with 2005 technology instead of keeping 1987’s dot-screen overlays.)

In the course of just over 300 pages Riley-Smith lays out the history of crusading, from the ideas about violence, penitence and just wars that gave rise to the First Crusade just before 1100 through Napoleon’s extinguishment of Hospitaller Malta in 1798, by which time crusading had long since ceased to be a vital force in Western Europe. Riley-Smith gives the most details on the First Crusade as a way of explaining the movement, its trials, its successes, and its many legacies. He takes what is called a “pluralist” view of crusading, showing how similar acts, theology and papal perspective apply to crusades in the Baltic, Iberia and within Western Christendom every bit as much as to crusades to the Holy Land. Apparently this was in opposition to a traditional view that crusading only involved lands around the eastern Mediterranean. I am not sure who supposedly held this view, as the German and Polish history I am familiar with certainly regarded the actions in the Baltic realm as crusades. (And not just historians: the title of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s popular novel from 1900 is Krzyżacy, which is usually translated as The Knights of the Cross or The Teutonic Knights but could simply be rendered as Crusaders.) At any rate, that is more a matter for the guild of historians than for the general reader at whom Riley-Smith’s work is aimed.

The Crusades is mostly a history of politics, military action, and religious ideas. There is a little bit about the underlying economics and about the social texture of both the Crusader States in the Levant and the Western European societies that provided the crusaders, but not much. To keep the length manageable, he chose to focus on rulers and leaders, who ruled where when, and what they thought they were doing. One aspect I very much appreciated was Riley-Smith’s emphasis on the penitential nature of crusading.

Going on crusade was a real hardship, with a significant chance of dying in the course of the journey. It often meant amassing — from savings or from loans — and spending several years’ of income on the crusade over and above the expenses of normal life. For noble landholders, it meant trusting that the church’s strictures would prevent jealous neighbors from occupying their lands. For everyone involved, it meant years of separation from the closest family. A crusade was like a multi-year pilgrimage, with additional opportunities for violent death. Riley-Smith explains the beliefs that led people to undertake these tasks, and how over time they grew into traditions among many noble families. He also explicates how the Catholic Church, and particularly the papal curia, found different interpretations justifying holy war, and how they put those into practice both in the Levant and in other theaters of war.

Riley-Smith also sketches the political shifts and divisions among the Islamic states that held, lost, claimed, and fought over the Holy Land and the surrounding areas. They were every bit as prone to dynastic rivalry, theological differences and sudden reversals as the states of Christendom. Just as Christian states at times regarded heretics or schismatics as worse than infidels, states with Islamic leaders were sometimes as fiercely opposed to their co-religionists as they were to the Crusader States. One item that particularly interested me was the importance of Cilician Armenia and the establishment of crusaders’ Edessa, north of the Holy Land in areas currently in Turkey and Syria. I knew, roughly, about the importance of Jerusalem and the surrounding sites to crusading, but learning more about the hinterlands that supported the crusaders’ primary goals, and also provided buffers against Damascus, the Seljuk Turks and others, gave me better insight into how the Crusader States fit into the wider sweep of history in the wider region.

I particularly liked Riley-Smith’s later chapters on the Latin East and the variety of crusading. Crusaders aiming more or less for the Holy Land affected politics throughout the eastern Mediterranean region, with crusader regimes in Cyprus and other Greek islands, with states on the Levantine coast, and not least by conquering Constantinople in 1204. The varieties of crusading included the Reconquista in Iberia and campaigns against pagan Lithuanians and other groups on Baltic shores. Riley-Smith also shows how the theological and military weapons of crusading were turned against non-conforming Christians in southwestern France, and against rivals to papal authority in Italy. Riley-Smith writes with some understatement that “France, which was swept by crusading fever in the 1320s … could not accept that a crusade to recover the Holy Land should be postponed in Italy’s favour.” (p. 264) As well they might.

Conceptually clear, brief given its sweeping subject matter, The Crusades is a terrific overview of a complex and wide-ranging set of events. It is also, I have to say, very dry in places. I did not keep all of the crusader dynasties straight in my head, nor did I attend to every detail of all of the battles that Riley-Smith sketches. If I should want that information, it’s available. In the meantime, I finished the book with a greater understanding of how crusaders saw themselves, how the ideas and the polities evolved over time, and how they fit into larger streams of history. The Crusades is a good scaffolding to support deeper exploration of the topic, if I should do that in the future.

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  1. […] Jonathan Riley-Smith provided an overview of crusading as a movement over many centuries, Jonathan Phillips looks closely at one particular crusade, with […]

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