Archive for May, 2017

Holy Wars Again


Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

I recently finished reading God’s War: A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman (it’s a long book so it took a while). As I’ve mentioned before, the florescence of Chaco Canyon in what is now the southwestern US was contemporary with the earlier part of the Crusade era in the Middle East, and I try to learn as much as I can about events elsewhere in the world contemporary with Chaco to gain a fuller understanding of the context in which it arose. As part of that ongoing tradition, therefore, this post is a brief review of Tyerman’s book.

It’s a good book, and provides a comprehensive overview of this long-lived and complicated phenomenon in world history. Tyerman starts with the intellectual origins of the ideology of Christian holy war that underlay the crusading effort, which is a very interesting topic given how difficult it is to fit such an ideology into Christianity as expressed in the New Testament. The solution that developed over the course of the early middle ages, on which the popes who launched the early crusades relied, depended heavily on a mix of emphasizing the Old Testament rather than the New and interpreting some of the writings of the church fathers in a highly tendentious manner. As much of an ideological kludge as this may have been, it fit well with the martial spirit of the Germanic warrior aristocracy that consolidated its power over secular affairs in this era, and in this light it is not all that surprising to see the crusades arising from this time and place.

Another interesting factor in crusade ideology that Tyerman draws out is its connection with the efforts of medieval popes to elevate their authority in both spiritual and temporal affairs over the secular rulers, particular the Holy Roman Emperors, of the era, as exemplified in the long-running “investiture controversy” of the eleventh century. Crusading offered an opportunity both for popes to consolidate their position and for secular aristocrats (and, increasingly, kings) to cast their warlike pursuits as holy Christian efforts. Over time, these tendencies led both popes and kings to try to cast their secular wars as crusades, with the accompanying spiritual privileges. As Tyerman notes, these attempts to co-opt the crusade for secular ends never attracted the same level of popular enthusiasm as the more “classic” crusades aimed at liberating the Holy Land from infidels.

I’m not going to try to summarize the long and complex history that Tyerman narrates, but a few notes about his perspective are worth making. This is clearly intended to be a magisterial work that will serve as a standard account for many years to come, and I’m sure it will do so. As befits such an ambition, Tyerman’s general approach is sober and measured, and in many places he seems to be intent on debunking sensationalistic interpretations of the crusades and simplistic narratives, including those that have become very common in recent years as religious conflict in the Middle East has made the crusades seem more relevant than ever to current events. Tyerman has a decidedly dim view of such interpretations. At times this makes him seem surprisingly sympathetic to the crusaders compared to other writers, as with the Fourth Crusade, which has been widely viewed as a debacle that weakened Christendom for centuries through its capture of Constatinople. More ambiguously, his account of the Third Crusade pushes back hard against the romanticization of both Richard I and Saladin, and here as elsewhere he tries to put the characters he describes in the context of the very brutal, warlike environment in which they lived and acted. His account of Louis IX, on the other hand, comes across as a brutal takedown of a remarkably unsuccessful crusader who was able to nevertheless parlay that record into a reputation as an exceptionally pious monarch and eventual saint.

Overall, then, this is a good book, but it’s not a breezy read. In addition to its length and heavy subject matter, it doesn’t seem to have been edited very well, and there are a surprising number of typos and other obvious editing errors. The prose style is also rather leaden and inartful, though admittedly this is a more subjective judgment. These quibbles aside, however, this is a magisterial effort and an excellent introduction to an important though complicated and ambiguous topic.

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