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The Crusades: A History
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90 of 93 people found the following review helpful
on July 24, 2000
The previous reviewer (Jarvis) dismisses this book as a text. I beg to disagree. For the serious reader of history this is undoubtedly a useful reference work, but I read the book as someone who dabbles a toe in the military history of different ages. I found this to be an accessible and informative work. It is a history, not a novel, and as a history it delivers a good meaty narrative backed up with in-depth analysis of events. Although it is called a concise history the book is by no means a concise work. It spans a period of hundreds of years of history and examines crusades that I never knew were crusades and some I never knew existed. I hadn't realised that the war in Spain between Christian and Moorish kings had achieved official papal crusade standard, and I was unaware of the crusades that were fought along the German borders throughout the period. I recommend this book to anyone who has a thirst for information on this period, drink deep from this well and be satisfied. This is one of those rare books that crosses the line between textbook and non-fiction.
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112 of 122 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 2002
The previous reviewer is far more interetested in anti-Catholic bigotry than in the current state of historical scholarship on the Crusades. Dr. Riley-Smith's book is up to date while the previous work of Runciman (and others) is considered passe by the professional historian. Unfortunately, people with an axe to grind rarely are interested in the facts when their cherished preconceptions are in jeopardy.
Dr. Riley-Smith's book covers not only the medieval Crusades but also other religious wars in the later historic times. He demonstrates the complex motivations of the major figures in these various conflicts and shows that their primary concern had been religious, not economic or imperialistic. There is no "cover up" of some of the darker aspects of the Crusades, but Riley-Smith has a better understanding of the 'sitz im leben' of the Medieval world than many previous writers on this subject. Dr. Riley Smith is careful not to judge people from another time by modern standards. He dispels a number of myths that men like Runciman have unfortunately perpetuated.
This is an excellent review book for the general topic of religious wars since the Middle Ages. For more information, see these books:
The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades
The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (Middle Ages Series)
The First Crusaders, 1095-1131
What Were the Crusades? (Forthcoming)
The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume 4, c. 1024 - c. 1198, Part 1 (Forthcoming)
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54 of 59 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon February 6, 2001
As the back of this book states, this is a very concise account of the history of the crusading movement that occurred from the 12th to the 18th century. Riley-Smith really knows his stuff and his writing style is lucid and the book flows well.
This is somewhat of a survey book, in that the reader gets a good overview of the Crusades. The text goes beyond a survey however, in that there are vast amounts of names, places and dates. I read this book for a class on this topic, and I had some problems with the amount of minutiae that Riley-Smith included in this book. I'm just starting to learn about this topic; so obscure names are tough to slog through. What saves the book is that it is still possible to come away with a good understanding of the general themes of the text. I was amazed at the number of crusading campaigns that were undertaken, and not just in Palestine. There were movements in the Baltic, in Germany, and in North Africa. The attempts by the Spaniards to get the Moors out of Spain was considered a crusade, as was attempts to put down heresies against the Catholic Church in France. Eventually, the Church saw heresy as more of a threat against Christianity than the Muslim menace in the East. It is also interesting to see how the Church escalated the promises of indulgences to get people to go on crusade. I wasn't too happy about the author's tendency to skip about and play loose with his timeline. It made for some fairly confusing reading.
A tough book for a beginner, but it does have moments of brilliance. It probably is a good starting point for this topic, but since it is the first book I've read on the topic, I'm guessing on this point. Informative.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2005
On an impulse I purchased this work by Jonathan Riley-Smith in early 2004. At first, although I found the content interesting and thorough, it did not engage my simple mind at the time which up until that point had been lulled into more of an escapist mode with works of science fiction. However, that was before the release of the popular cinematic event known as, 'The Kingdom of Heaven'. After its viewing I was concerned that the historical content of the feature film may not have been completely accurate. Therefore, I dusted off my copy of this book and began to read it avidly. Within its covers I was able to discover the true events before, during and after the fall of Jerusalem into the hands of Saladin in 1187. I became acquainted with the true characters of the First Crusade and with those that followed after. While the film previously mentioned tends to show bias and even gravely negative in its approach to the Templar knights in particular, the work here refutes any such fanciful history. Riley-Smith is even-handed in his approach to all participants in the many and various crusades showing partiality to none. Further, I appreciated the style with which Dr. Riley-Smith wrote his book. It flows easily so much so that it is fitting for, IMHO, readers aged 13 and older. This is by no means a children's book, however. Far from it in fact. I would encourage anyone with a genuine interest in the facts of the often misunderstood and misrepresented Crusades to acquaint yourself with this, in my opinion, essential work. Within its covers you will find that the initial motivations for the First Crusade centered around the threat of Muslim warriors on the Eastern borders of Christendom and the endangerment of pilgrimage routes to and from the Holy Land. Further, you will be introduced thoroughly into the motivations and to the growth of the only unitive authority of Western Europe at that time, the Catholic Church. Also, you will learn of the intrigue and political manueverings of the Byzantine emperors and the early Crusade leaders as they made their way into the disputed territories. After the fall of Jerusalem to the Franks you will learn how the Latin Kings maintained order giving to the rise of the military orders. Jonathan Riley-Smith does an excellent job of describing the fortunes and misfortunes of the Levantine society while surrounded by a growing threat from the east. He carries the reader easily through and explaining the events of the Crusades in all of their forms from the Latin liberation to the reconquest of Spain to the Balkan conquests and the efforts taken to preserve religious unity and order throughout Western civilization. Ample ink is also spilled concerning the reactions of the Muslims to the Crusaders including, in like manner, the political intriguies and motivations within the varied Muslim dynasties and camps. He shows in great detail that no one group was completely without error in the almost 800 year old struggle even showing that there was much fighting to be had for Christian vs. Muslim, Christian vs. Pagan, Christian vs. Christian, Christian vs. Jew, Muslim vs. Jew, Muslim vs. Muslim, Muslim vs. Pagan, etc. Further, there is much evidence that often each monotheistic society would side with one another against the third in defense as well as in offense. (a side note: I found it intriguing that even Protestants, at the time no friend of the Catholic Church, cheered on the primarily Catholic defeat of the Muslim navy at the historic Battle of Lepanto thus ensuring their own survivability) Within its covers I discovered much detail of things I certainly were not aware of having only information based on the major media, Hollywood and the often unreliable Internet. I highly recommend this work to anyone who would like to get the straight facts of this prolonged struggle and also of its lasting effects both positive and negative on the formation of modern civilization as we know it.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2007
Granting each of the previous reviewers problems with this book, it still stands as the current best one volume history of the Crusades that I have encountered. Furthermore, as Crusade history has become a booming industry since 9/11, this book is also published by Continuum in both paperback and hardback with another printing coming later this year. There are some interesting reviews of this book under the Continuum paperback edition listing here on Amazon that the reader may wish to consult. There are no footnotes, almost no white space and the print density is weak. The publisher, Yale NB, has chosen to turn a larger 392 page hardback into a compact 357 page paperback. I will assume this was done to keep costs down. So being forewarned if you wish to understand the Crusades and have some background in the history of the Middle Ages in Europe and the Middle East, buy this book and read it. If you have no background in the history of the Middle Ages, it might be best to find one of the many excellent one volume considerations of the entire era and read it before this book. You will be rewarded with far greater insight into the author's analysis of the Crusades.

As the crusades are a specialist topic within the history of the Middle Ages, the author assumes that you, the reader, are conversant with such issues as the investiture crisis and church reform of the era for example. This may cause some confusion for the casual reader. However, there is still much to be learned here regardless of your knowledge of the Middle Ages. Further, Riley-Smith is a "pluralist." And this is a "plural history" in that it includes material on the Baltic, Spanish, Italian political, anti-heretical and other permutations of the Crusades as well as those directed at the holy lands and the Muslims. Each chapter within itself provides a reasonable narrative history of the topic under discussion. But to cover the subject fully, various specialized topics are considered at length that chop up the flow of material. The material is generally chronologically arranged but in no sense is this eloquent narrative prose. And yet out of all this, a detailed picture of the crusading movement and Middle Age Christian piety emerge. And, that unique European Middle Age Christian fervor is what drove the Crusades and make them explicable in a fashion that is not riddled by conceptual anachronisms.

It is this reader's opinion that only with a plural historical framework can the Crusades be considered adequately to be understood as a function of their own time and culture. This Riley-Smith accomplishes with more credibility than any other one volume history of the Crusades that I have read so far. And, I have read most of this material. A fascinating short historiographical essay closes the text, and a remarkable and detailed bibliography is provided with extensive helpful commentary from the author. If you have an axe to grind with the Catholic Church, look elsewhere. If you are looking for supposed contemporary relevance in the Crusades, other books will provide you with far more of what you want. If you are sure that the Crusades were an imperialistic and proto-colonial activity, this book is not for you. If you find the Crusades to be the last massive act of European barbarism, read Runciman. In remarkable detail, Christendom's decent into armed intolerance and coercion is explained and illuminated by this work. This is not a happy story, and one wonders what the man from Galilee who said, "Love your enemies...," would think about all this. This book is near mandatory reading for any reader wishing to have more than a passing acquaintance with the history of the Crusades.
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32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Make no mistake, this may be "a short history", but it is, very definitely, a reference book, complete with huge quantities of names & dates. The bed-time reader with a love of military history (which is what I am) is likely to be disappointed. Whilst there definitely is a story, the time-scale is a little dis-jointed, but excusable, given the, length, range & diversity of the whole crusading movement. One follows the saga with some interest, but the short, almost dismissive, pen-picture treatment of some of the principle protagonists, I found annoying. Typical history book, I suppose. Mind you, this is quite a heavy-weight, short history, & while one may feel cheated & frustrated at not finding out more about the characters involved, one cannot help but marvel at the nature of man, to take on this series of momentous, magnificent but ultimately naive & useless actions, over the centuries.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2009
The two words that this reviewer was left with upon reading Jonathan Riley-Smith's account of the Crusades was: balanced and encyclopedic. The first signifies high praise; the second not so much.

The casual reader looking for a fair account of the Crusades has his work cut out for him. Objectivity and balance is always a treasure in historical writing, but it seems exceptionally rare where the Crusades are concerned. So many treatments available to the casual reader serve as convenient platforms for political diatribe or vehicles for scathing attack on the Catholic Church. It seems likely that no modern treatment of the Crusades could reach uncritical conclusions, but reasoned and balanced criticism is a far cry from polemicism, much less naked anti-Catholicism.

Mr. Riley-Smith's work deserves solid praise in this regard. His book is by no means uncritical, but it's approach -- and tone -- is both balanced and reasoned. Considering the many other works with which it can be compared, this is no small feat. Mr. Riley-Smith shows how the crusading impetus developed in Catholic thought, contextualizing the movement instead of climbing atop a soapbox to assail it.

The shortfall of the book, though, is significant, at least for the casual reader. Put simply, it is just too encyclopedic. For a student steeped in medieval history, the book might be just what the doctor ordered, but for the casual reader, this weakness is no small thing. This is not to say that the book is poorly written. There is nothing wrong with Mr. Riley-Smith's prose. But it is extremely dense, and the calvacade of personages, place names and the like can become overwhelming. Perhaps this is a predictable result of a book whose temporal scope is as ambitious as Mr. Riley-Smith's. But even if understandable, the plain fact is that such an approach renders this book much less engaging than it might have been.

And that is truly a shame. For Mr. Riley-Smith shows keen analytical skills, an impressive breadth of knowledge and a commendable tone. He has no obvious axes to grind. A more focused approach, perhaps addressing one of the crusades instead of their panoply, could allow Mr. Riley-Smith to showcase these impressive traits and might provide a great book. This reviewer would give the present book 3.5 stars if Amazon's rating system permitted it. Considering Mr. Riley-Smith's strengths, this reviewer wishes he could have given an even higher rating.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2005
This book provides a jump start for knowledge of the Crusades. Riley-Smith covers a wide array of aspects, the only thing I would recommend: a bit of general knowledge prior to reading this book. This knowledge will prevent the first few sections from being dull, as they were in my case. The Crusades are a major part of religious history and the history of the Western world and this book is perfect for learning about them. Riley-Smith seems to present the history with the least bias I've seen on this subject.
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2006
Jonathan Ridley-Smith's "The Crusades: A History" is a comprehensive but dull look at the history of the Crusades from the 11th century until the last vestiges of the crusading movement died in the 19th century. Smith is a pluralist - he covers all of the Crusades, including those in Spain, Italy, and the Baltic area. Although this history is comprehensive in its coverage, its dry writing made it a difficult read.

Smith fails to bring the Crusades to life in his narrative. I never felt that he showed how a small group of Europeans managed to gain a foothold in the Holy Land and hold it for so many generations, and he never really illustrated life in the Crusader states. Also, his writing presupposes a certain knowledge and understanding of medieval societies and the medieval Church. Many terms and concepts about the medieval world and church are not explained adequately - if at all - and this makes it difficult for the general reader to fully understand this work.

This book is comprehensive and apparently well-researched. It would probably serve as a good resource for someone already familiar with the time period or the Crusades, but it is a difficult read for a general reader.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2013
I'm not sure what people mean when they insinuate that this book is boring; it was assigned to me as a textbook in a class on the Crusades and it is easily the most interesting text I've had to read this semester. Riley-Smith is a good storyteller as well as a great historian. I'd recommend this to anyone serious about medieval history.

A few caveats, though.
-Riley-Smith doesn't use footnotes or even endnotes. This sometimes aggravates me as I'd like to know exactly where he gets his facts for research purposes. This is the only reason for 4 stars instead of 5.
--Riley-Smith does like to jump around the chronology a bit in order to examine themes, and this can be especially confusing with the huge cast of characters in this period. I would suggest reading this book alongside of sourcebooks such as Peters's "The First Crusade" in order to get a better sense of what is happening when and who is who.
-Riley-Smith is a member of the modern day Hospitaller Order, and this is sometimes evident in how he treats them and the other military orders. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but keep in mind that he is perhaps a bit inclined to paint certain Latins in a glowing light.

While this admittedly isn't a book for someone looking for a titillating summer read on Templar conspiracies, it's great for anyone who cares about what actually happened.

(If only Raymond of Toulouse had been Advocate of the H.S...)
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