The First Crusade: A New History by Thomas Asbridge; The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople by Jonathan Phillips - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

The Cross and the Crescent

The First Crusade: A New History


Free Press 408pp £20 order from our bookshop

The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople


Jonathan Cape 374pp £20 order from our bookshop

THE CHAMBERS DICTIONARY gives three definitions of the word 'crusade': '1) a military expedition under the banner of the cross to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims; 2) any daring or romantic undertaking; 3) concerted action further a cause.' One assumes that when President Bush called for a crusade against Al-Qaeda he did not have the first of these definitions in mind. Even so, his use of the word was tactless considering that he was hoping to win the support of at least some Muslim countries where, as Jonathan Phillips writes, the Crusades are 'still viewed as a pretext for Western imperialism'. T his itself is, of course, a judgement based on a rather limited knowledge of history, given that in the four centuries before the First Crusade Muslim armies had overrun and occupied Christian provinces of the old Roman Empire, and that in the centuries which followed the failure of the Crusades Islam would conquer and rule over most of southeast Europe, twice even laying siege to Vienna. Greece and the Balkans would remain occupied territories of the Ottoman Empire until the nineteenth century. Considering the prolonged success of Islamic imperialism, it is remarkable and absurd that Muslims should still , centuries on, resent, or affect to resent, the comparatively small-scale and ultimately unsuccessful venture of the Crusades. But the Crusades have had a bad press in the West also, at least since the eighteenth century. The Scots Enlightenment history an William Robertson called them 'a singular monument of human folly'. Steven Runciman declared that 'the harm done by the Crusaders to Islam was small in comparison with that done to the Eastern Christians'. In short, they are believed to have been a Bad Thing.

The first, very considerable, merit of these two books - one on the First Crusade (which resulted in the redemption of Jerusalem and the establishment of Christian kingdoms in the Levant, or 'Outremer'), the other on the Fourth, diverted from the Holy Land to become 'a vehicle for the destruction

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