230 of 237 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2011
A good, readable history of The Crusades has escaped me to this point, for whatever reason. I was very excited when Tynerman's God's War was released a few years ago, and quickly became disenchanted when I tried slogging through it and realized what a boringly-written brick it was. Couldn't finish it. Runciman's classic volumes, which have been the definitive essential reading for half a century now, are still valid, entertaining reads but have been long since over-taken by newer evidence and much fresher, more-encompassing interpretations. As a read, they're still great fun. As good history, they're quite biased and lacking today.
So, when I saw a shiny new tome promising a complete revisiting of long-held assumptions, I couldn't resist. Asbridge's chronology is straightforward; starting with a quick survey of Islam's rise and subsequent takeover of the Christian Holy Land, he moves to Europe to set the scene of the medieval papacy and nascent western kingships that would bring about the concept of Crusading. In a nice touch, he continues to revisit the contemporary meanings, definitions and assumptions behind crusading as it developed from an event without even a name ("crusading" was a later appellation) to the currently-understood form. From these basics, he moves us through each of the main five Crusades, deftly describing the expected peoples, places, and battles. He strikes a good balance between talking about the most important figures and key battles versus the less-glamorous but as-important topics such as trade and societal makeup that, while harder to make exciting, are very important when trying to gain a full understanding of the events.
Very crucially, he spends as much time covering the Arab viewpoint as he does the Christian. He also properly gives notice to the fact that, while western sources are fairly voluminous by the standards of the era, the Crusades just didn't have a major impact on the Muslim world at the time, and therefore sources from the Muslim POV are much less available. That said, he does an admirable job of situating the reader as best he can in the Muslim frame of mind during each crusade, giving admirable detail on outside pressures that might've existed, any internal dynastic or civil events that had bearing on their interactions with the Crusaders... other histories I've read of this era often fall flat in this particular regard.
He closes with an excellent overview of how the Crusades have themselves been viewed throughout history, both in the West and in the Muslim World; this may have been my favorite part of the book as it's not a topic I've ever seen covered before, much less so well.
The writing style is nice and lively as well. It reads almost like a strong historical fiction narrative, a testament not only to the author's skill but to the inherent drama of the period.
BOTTOM LINE: This will be my only answer for anyone asking for a recommendation on the period for probably years to come.
153 of 161 people found the following review helpful
on April 2, 2010
First and foremost, The Crusades is a great read. From page one, it pulls you in with a narrative that reads more like a great adventure novel than true history. I for one, did not know much about the Crusades prior to this. As i progressed, I found myself investigating more and more details from other sources to further gain insight into the battles and backstory. That is not to say there are not plenty of details in the book as it is. It is very rich. The way Asbridge divided up each piece of the story really worked to make the journey concise, literate and educational. For a fan of history, The Crusades is as good as it gets.
70 of 71 people found the following review helpful
on April 15, 2010
The Crusades is a fine historical work. It lacks some of the detail of the author's earlier work (The First Crusade) but it also covers a much longer time frame. I really enjoyed the in-depth personal accounts of the historical figures in the earlier book that are somewhat lacking in this work. I also feel that the author doesn't spend enough time on the importance of the Military Orders (Templars and Hospitallers). However the author does spend a great deal of time examining broader cultural issues which more than make up for a certain lack of insight into individual personalities. The author spends a significant amont of time assessing changing viewpoints over historical periods (i.e. does Richard Lionheart deserve to be considered a hero, was Saladin a true believer in jihad or a political opportunist, etc.) I enjoyed the analysis which is thought provoking and well researched. I highly recommend both works.
46 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on November 1, 2010
In a footnote to the intro, Mr. Asbridge states his intention of writing a fact-based book with careful effort to remove bias. I find Mr. Asbridge's single volume history on the Crusades to be remarkably even-handed. The author did not have any apparent anti-Western Western academic bias nor did he show any apparent Western enculturation bias.
The author paid careful attention to the player's motives. While those who enjoy history as enacted by larger-than-life caricatures may be disappointed, I found the portraits painted to be well-rounded and human. Asbridge did not cynically dismiss the players' professed spiritual motivations nor did he neglect other temporal and political motivations. Great players such as Saladin, Baybars, Frederick II, and Richard the Lion-Hearted rise and fall on their own merits without help from the historian. Motivations of individuals and groups are well-treated and in the context of their actions and contemporary sources.
Another reviewer stated that Mr. Asbridge's writing tended to be self-congratulatory at the expense of other historians. I did not get this. With a stated intent of clearing distortions and myth, Mr. Asbridge does discuss and challenge other perceptions; however, I believe these were not handled arrogantly.
Because this book is more socio-political, I do not believe the military buff will enjoy this book as much as those looking for a clear overview of the Crusades in the Near East. However, for military buffs just discovering the Crusades, this book provides an excellent springboard and context for more detailed reading.
The extensive notes provide an invaluable reference for further reading and exploration, most of which are considered authoritative in their own right. The writing is clear and the narrative flows well. Mr. Asbridge is clearly an authority on the Crusades; I expect to find this book referenced in many future volumes.
29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2010
Thomas Asbridge has produced a major scholarly, detailed discussion of The Crusades from the perspective of both the European people and the Middle Eastern Islamic peoples, in 681 pages. The writing is scholarly but not "dry" and evidently draws on the descriptions of the conflicts, as described in letters and texts, that are cited in 56 pages of notes. While the author at times has to "connect the dots" to make a story come to life, it is not distorted and gives valuable insights. Maps are included to orient the reader with regard to the sites of the action. The action also includes the invasion of the Mongols, and the conflicts involving the Byzantine Empire. In the last chapter "The Legacy of the Crusades," the author gives his perspective on the modern interpretations of our conflicting cultures.
48 of 58 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2010
As far as the content, others have said it better than I can. Great book, page turner. Unfortunately, in the Kindle version, most of the footnotes are not linked (just see the number, can't read the footnote). There are a few footnotes that are linked, but reading one of those got me stuck at location 14052 at the end of the book, making whispersync useless. I've been trying to reset the 'furthest location' with Amazon customer service- way harder than I thought it would be- 30 minutes with the front line phone support and 12 minutes with a specialist to fix the location.
I recommend getting the tree version of this book, the Kindle version is a mess.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2013
Though well-written and researched, Thomas Asbridge's tome about the Crusades may leave one with a sense of having read a history about the rise of Islam in the Near East. Yes, the account begins with the call by Pope Urban II for Christians to retake Jerusalem and there is narrative about key European participants but Asbridge weaves this into a history of Muslim nation building and militarism almost as if it were a backdrop. Most of this book of nearly 700 pages focuses on the battles of the five crusades, weighted toward Muslim efforts to expand and solidify their sphere of influence. The author ends his history with less than 30 pages about the Crusades' impact on the Church, Europe, the Byzantine Empire, trade and economics of the East and West and implications for today's relationship between Islam and Western society. He suggests that most histories about the Crusades have been written with a bias toward the West; perhaps a history presenting this picture is needed. However, there is much more to this movement not mentioned by Asbridge; he leaves me thirsting for another book or two on the subject.
39 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2010
Largely an account of the political power plays (religious & secular) that may have motivated the leaders involved in roughly 200 years of "holy" war and the numerous challenges they encountered as they struggled to bring armies together under their banners. The book seems, to me, a fairly balanced discussion of the crusades/jihad, with enough information about actual battles to keep it moving while the main focus is actually "behind the scenes." The author, though, felt a need to constantly criticize other historians. Asbridge frequently implies that no one else had seen what was obvious to him and in a few instances, stops just shy of calling others' interpretations stupid. Another annoying tic he has is using the same tactic, repeatedly, to make these not-so-subtle attacks. He mentions a counter-interpretation then follows it with "in fact..." or "in truth..." (or a similar phrase) and proceeds with his take on events; as if his own interpretation should not be regarded as anything but ultimate truth, when ~in fact~ several interpretations are possible and valid (especially as much of the evidence is tainted by political maneuvering, religion and/or fear). He also has a habit of invoking 20/20 armchair hindsight in his assessment of the strategies employed by leaders in both camps. This is a common human failing, but coupled with the repetitive one-upmanship throughout Asbridge's book, it's just too much. I think this book is interesting, well written and clearly very well researched. But it would have been so much better were it not riddled with arrogant asides. It's unlikely that I'll read another of this author's works as the ego on display in this one sorely tried my patience.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2012
This is a popular introduction to the Crusades that strikes a perfect balance between academic rigor and the expectations of a lay audience. It offers solid narrative and some analysis, while avoiding excessive proofs and obscure controversies. Best of all, it is simply fun to read and never unacceptably heavy.
The Crusades began as a kind of idealistic call to arms. When you look at it, the entire enterprise looks insanely impossible: a bunch of aristocrats, knights and their support infantries decide to travel to nearly the end of the world, to dislodge the far more numerous Muslims from Christian holy sites (Jerusalem, etc.) Against all odds, the first Crusade essentially lives up to its ideals, conquering a huge swath of territories and establishing independent kingdoms and Duchies in the mid east (largely in the territories of modern Syria and Israel). It is simply amazing that, virtually without supply support and lacking coherent leadership, they charged into battle with little plans and won. Many said it was God's will.
In a way it was colonial, but the author is at pains to prove that it was their ideals that drove them. He demonstrates the changes in theology required, including "just war" by Christians, but also promises of salvation from sin to varying degrees and under more or less clarified obligations. The twists of logic and the hypocrisy of land-hungry princes, I was convinced, were outweighed by their religious purpose. After all, what they wanted to do was far too ambitious, though to be fair they lacked clear and practical knowledge about the areas they were attacking; besides, God and the talisman of the "true cross" supported them. Their faith offered them an inarguable rationale to plunge head first into hopeless battle for glory and to fulfill their vows. For a short time, they were triumphant. The second Crusade was a catastrophic bust: exhausted from the logistics of arriving in the mid east, it imploded upon arrival in spite of the presence of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Of course, the muslim side had begun a decline that has proceeded more or less until the present day. They were not unified when the first crusade arrived and so were easy to divide and pick off kingdoms one by one. After being beaten, they did begin a long process of unification, eating away at Christian gains, but the process took more than a century. A series of great leaders did emerge, most notably Saladin, who strove to appear just and equitable, but had an instinct for amassing political power through military conquest. Nonetheless, the original dynamism of Islam was never regained. His duel with Richard Coeur de Lion is the centerpiece of the book: their portraits are wonderfully informative and psychologically deep. Both come off well, though Richard ultimately fails - Richard exerted extraordinary leadership, but it slipped from his grasp as over-zealous knights squandered the gains he had so painstakingly put together over a decade away from home and constantly worried about the machinations of his rivals back in Europe.
The fourth Crusade never gets beyond the shameful sack of Constantinople and the remaining ones blur together as desperate attempts to reclaim lost territories with the aid of enhanced theological clarity, i.e. what knightly vows consisted of and what precisely had to be done for salvation to be achieved. At this point, the Mamluks - Turkic slave warriors who took over Egypt and then the entire mid east - took over Saladin's empire and eventually triumphed over the Christian forces decisively. Europe then abandoned the enterprise without much thought and the Renaissance blossomed.
The entire process covered a span of approximately 200 years, a daunting tableau to paint. I often regret getting big fat history books because the degenerate into the driest of academic exercises. This one never does. Recommended with enthusiasm.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2014
I started reading this book after reading Susan Wise Bauer's HIstory of the Medieval World. While I found the latter very engaging, I found this book pretty dull and a struggle to get through. AND ITS ALL ABOUT GIANT BATTLES. I found it difficult to visualize the battle scenes the author was describing and could have used a lot more maps of the areas and maybe even a few pictures? I dont know. I enjoyed the descriptions of the "characters" and was able to remember the relationships between them well enough, even though many of them had the same name (lets be glad that naming your kid Bohemund has fallen out of vogue). I found this book much more like a textbook than Bauer's, which isn't exactly what I was hoping for. But I made my way through it and I learned something along the way.