How – and why – did the crusaders rise and fall? As Malcolm Barber writes in this lively history of what followed the capture of Jerusalem in 1099:
to the modern eye, the crusader states may appear no more than narrow strips of territory clinging to the coast on the farthest fringe of Christendom, but to contemporaries they were the guardians of the holiest shrines at the very heart of the Christian world.
Barber tells the story of the Crusades from the perspective of the Holy Land itself, above all from the kingdom of Jerusalem, but also from the other Christian principalities and counties that emerged at the end of the 11th century. He draws on an extraordinary collection of Western sources that drip with detail, gossip and the settling of scores. Barber is a highly distinguished scholar, whose touch is continually deft, and he navigates the biases of the main narrative histories with care, never prepared to take allegations and accusations at face value. The result is both genuinely illuminating and highly enjoyable.
As Barber makes clear, the crusader states were volatile and unpredictable. Things had to be made up on the hoof (laws, taxes, land grants, concessions), which proved highly problematic, especially when promises were made about areas that were not yet under Christian control. The newly conquered Latin East was a place where you could go missing, like the father of Agnes of Courtney, who was captured in battle near Aleppo in 1150 and never seen again; or where bad advice from guides could compromise the safety of the king and lead men to their doom, as happened to King Fulk in the 1140s; or where winds whipping up the desert sands could transform not just the fortunes of a single battle, but tip those of the crusader states violently in either direction. Muslim Damascus was saved, according to some accounts, by a particularly violent storm; had it fallen to the Crusaders, the fate of Christianity might have been very different.
Barber assembles a wonderful cast of characters and revels in their strengths and weaknesses. The crusader states had more than their fair share of chancers and brawlers, of outstanding commanders, and of selfish and inept princes, and all appear in their glory or ignominy. The importance of powerful women, such as Adelaide, who had been regent of Sicily and before that had navigated the choppy waters of Norman politics for 11 years, or Melisende, the queen who ruled Jerusalem through a turbulent period from 1131 to 1152, is also made clear. From the outside, the Latin East might have looked like a man’s world, but this was often not the case.
There are stories of knights whose heads were dragged through the streets of Damascus by gleeful Muslim victors, or petulant figures murdered over games of dice. Barber reports an Arab author’s comment that one battle was so fierce that it would turn black hair grey, and records that the first ruler of Jerusalem (who insisted on not using a royal title) ‘refused food with every polite expression of thanks, tasting only some oranges’ at a dinner, realising he was dying, before being carried away by companions supporting his head and feet.
There is much more to The Crusader States than stories of individuals; broader themes give the book its significance. One of these is the importance of timing. The loss of a leading figure to disease or in battle could shift the balance of power within the Christian states and make them suddenly vulnerable. The death of Bohemond II of Antioch, for example, could not have come at a worse time: in a matter of weeks, the crusaders moved from a position of ascendancy to one with their backs against the wall.
Another theme is the extensive contact maintained between the crusader states and western Europe. Communications were not limited to formal diplomatic exchanges but also included what Barber calls the ‘monastic grapevine’, those military orders which, though based in Jerusalem, soon acquired large property portfolios across the Mediterranean. These channels were used to pass news about what was happening in the East (not always accurately) and to attract support, especially at times when the situation was genuinely precarious.
But Barber’s book underlines, above all, the extent to which the foundations of the crusader states were built on sand. As he rightly notes, ‘the upper echelons of the kingdom of Jerusalem formed a tight-knit society in which the demand for land and patronage outstripped supply’. It was bad enough that nobles had to jostle endlessly with each other for position. But this was exacerbated because the obvious way to generate incentives for loyalty was to ensure that the surrounding area remained volatile. Attacking Muslim cities such as Damascus or targeting caravans could deliver short-term gain in the form of looted goods or tribute, but created instability that eventually provoked the one thing that the crusaders had managed to avoid since they reached the Holy Land: the unification of the Islamic world.
Religious differences and personal rivalries had been no less a feature of the Muslim world than the crusader one. This went far beyond the fracture of Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Muslim leaders in the ascendancy were often murdered by domestic rivals. ‘A people that has killed its main prop on its holy day’, Baldwin I purportedly wrote to the Muslim ruler of Damascus after the assassination of the governor of Mosul outside the city’s mosque, ‘truly deserves that God should destroy it.’
But in the 1160s, when the crusaders were contemplating a dramatic expansion of territory to the south with the annexation of Egypt, they succeeded only in sealing their own destruction. Finally the Muslim communities put their differences to one side and united under Saladin, an outstanding general greatly admired by his men and respected by the Christian knights. The death sentence that the crusader states had feared for ninety years finally loomed into view. In the past, they had survived through luck and skill on the battlefield, and by shrewd local and international politics. Now, their touch deserted them: a deadly cocktail of poor leadership, ineffective diplomacy, bitter rivalry and catastrophic decision-making led to crushing defeat at the Horns of Hattin in 1187. Jerusalem surrendered peacefully afterwards.
Christians in Europe tried to make sense of what had happened. One commentator had the answer: ‘the stench of adultery, of disgusting extravagance and of sin against nature would not let their prayers rise to God. God was so very angered at that people that He cleansed the city of them.’
The explanations offered by Malcolm Barber’s book are rather more subtle and nuanced. There is one disappointment: although the book does discuss the ramifications of the loss of Jerusalem and the immediate response that it generated from Richard the Lionheart (among others), it does not take the story up to the end, for the crusaders hung on to parts of their possessions until 1291, and indeed even succeeded in recovering the Holy City itself for a period in the mid-13th century. Nevertheless, this is a fine book, told by a historian whose handling of the ups and downs of the Latin East is a delight to read.