32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Thomas Asbridge's excellent "new history," "The First Crusade," accomplishes the complex task of demonstrating both the truth and the lie of the (currently popular) statement, "the Crusades were when Christians attacked Muslims for money." By combining both serious scholarship (considerable critical attention is paid to original sources, with long passages quoted) with a hefty dose of common sense (Asbridge does not accept anything from the original sources blindly) and a gift for clear concise writing, Asbridge has produced a work that is sure to become a standard for the study of the First Crusade. For the first time, I feel I have read a balanced account of the Christian campaign to retake Jerusalem in the late 11th century.
Asbridge probably hits his highest marks when he analyzes the complex motives of the Crusaders. It's not always easy to explain a complex situation, and the Crusades, Asbridge reminds us, were incredibly complex undertakings. He starts with an excellent exposition of the political and religious events that brought Pope Urban II to the papacy, which goes a long way towards demonstrating Urban's motives for initiating the Crusade. But Urban was no warrior-pope -- he had to inspire others to take up the quest, and the disparate, competitive leaders of the Crusades each had their own agendas. Sure, there was some demonization of the Muslims and there was a considerable amount of religious fervor involved (Asbridge makes a convincing case that a sinful knight would eagerly look at the spiritual salvation offered by the Crusades), but there were also several folks who went along on the Crusades for less noble purposes.
Asbridge resists the temptation of so many historians to bite off a "silver bullet" and say that "X is the reason everyone went on the Crusades." This is refreshing and has the benefit of probably being true. Some of the book's most entertaining passages come from when the competing agendas and conflicting purposes of the Crusaders threaten to bring down the entire operation, particularly where the Roman Catholic Crusaders are playing dice with the Greek Orthodox Emperor of Byzantium/Constantinople, Alexius (one heck of a character!).
Another high mark for Asbridge is his attention to the chaotic political state of the Islamic world at the time. Asbridge points out that far from demonizing all Muslims, the Crusaders made treaties with Muslims and played one Muslim sect against another as long as it suited their purposes. While Asbridge never goes so far as to say that the Crusaders didn't really consider Muslims "the other," he makes a convincing case that not all Crusaders viewed all Muslims as the embodiment of evil --thereby refuting a currently chic notion.
Asbridge does not spare the reader the horrors of the Crusades, either, which in addition to battle included starvation and disease. He does refrain from adopting a "you are there" style of reconstructing the battlefield, although he does provide lengthy quotes of battle scenes from contemporary writers. Quick to point out the medieval trait of greatly over-exaggerating the numbers of soldiers involved in battles, Asbridge paints a good battle scene, but if you're looking for a riveting "A Bridge Too Far" style account, you're probably going to be disappointed.
A lean work, clocking in at under 350 pages, "The First Crusade" includes helpful maps and a charming attention to detail -- Asbridge notes, for example, the irony that Pope Urban dies after the capture of Jerusalem but before he can learn the "good news." Highly recommended, "The First Crusade" offers an explanation of the unique characteristics of this campaign and in its conclusion, makes a convincing yet brief case for its future impact. Check it out.
66 of 75 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2004
This is one of the best history books I have read in a long time. It is incredibly well-written and contains a fascinating account about the first crusade. It will keep you riveted until the end.
Asbridge doesn't merely give a blow-by-blow of the action - although action is certainly not lacking. He explores how the crusade got started and the varied motivations of the participants. Characters like Bohemond, Godfrey of Boullion and Peter the Hermit come to life and fascinate.
One of the great strengths of this book is Asbridge's discussion of the history of crusade scholarship - the ideas scholars both modern and medieval had about why the crusade happened and how it played out. I also found that some of the things I learned in college (and I didn't graduate that long ago!) about the crusades have been disproved by further scholarship.
I always have found it ironic that, in a later crusade, western knights pillaged Constantinople when they were supposedly Christians united against a common foe. The roots of breakdown of the relationship between the crusaders and the Byzantine empire are explored, answering my questions.
Asbridge is remarkably balanced and objective when discussing the sensitive area of Christian and Muslim relations. My only complaint is that a couple of times in the beginning of the book that the author includes some snide comments about Christianity.
Kudos to Thomas Asbridge! I hope he decides to write another book about the other, less "successful" crusades.
126 of 148 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2007
The problem is with the sub-title: "The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity and Islam." Unfortunately far too many writers, teachers, students and even scholars share this misconception today. The Crusades were not the beginning of a millennia long antagonism between Christianity and Islam. Nor were the Crusades the cause of that hostility. To find the roots of the conflict one must go back another 461 years to the Islamic conquest of Christian Palestine and Syria (beginning in 634 CE). By the time Pope Urban II called upon the nobility of Europe (in 1095 CE) to undertake a Crusade for the liberation of the Holy Land from Muslim domination, Christendom had been continuously on the defensive against Islamic Jihadists for well over four centuries.
All the ancient sites of early Christianity from Antioch to Jerusalem to Alexandria had been conquered. All the Christian peoples of the Levant and North Africa as far west as the Iberian Peninsula had been subjugated and reduced to Dhimmitude - a third class status closely resembling the condition of the Jews in Germany during the 1930s. The Sassanian Persian Empire had likewise been overthrown and the ancient Zoroastrian religion all but eradicated. Later the Indian subcontinent would be conquered and the Hindu peoples subjugated and reduced to Dhimmitude. Buddhism was virtually wiped out in India by its Muslim conquerors. It survives today only in Tibet, China, Japan and Southeast Asia.
The simple fact is that Islam was by no means a peaceful or tolerant religion. On the contrary, as far as non Muslims were concerned, it was a militant, imperialist and tyrannical faith.
The Crusades were the first attempt on the part of Christian Europe since the Battle of Tours in 732 to push back the frontiers of Islamic conquest. The Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire had been at war with Muslim Jihadists in the East almost continuously since 634. Following the disastrous defeat of the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 the Emperor Alexius Komnenus appealed to the West for help in turning back the tide of Islamic conquest. This was the proximate cause of the Pope's call for a Crusade - a far cry from the unprovoked act of Christian aggression against a peaceful Dar al Islam imagined by most contemporary Islamists and their western apologists.
The First Crusade was as much a political as a religious war. Coming to the assistance of the beleaguered Byzantine Empire was an act of farsighted and self interested statesmanship. By defeating the Islamic threat in the East the freedom of Western Europe was secured for another four centuries. It was only when the West failed to act - standing indifferently aside while the remnant of the Byzantine Empire was extinguished and its Christian inhabitants reduced to Dhimmitude in 1453 - that the West once again faced the threat of Muslim conquest. The floodgates of Islamic expansion were opened, and by 1529, and again in 1683, the invading Ottoman Turks reached the walls of Vienna - the very door-step of Western Europe.
The religious component of the First Crusade was the liberation of the Christian peoples of the Holy Land and the recovery of the sacred sites of Christianity. All wars need a higher purpose - a mission or cause to inspire the armies and win the support of the people. The liberation of the Holy Land was the mission that inspired the Crusading armies and the peoples of Christian Europe. But they also fought in defense of their co-religionists in the Byzantine Empire, and ultimately in defense of European Civilization itself. The Islamic Jihad was pushed back in Anatolia and the Levant and held in check for three hundred years - until the fall of the last Christian stronghold in the East in 1291. At the same time Sicily was recovered and the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) from its Islamic conquerors was begun. These Crusades enabled Christian Europe to live in safety and security for four hundred years - until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.
All too often the Crusades are trivialized by contemporary Islamists and "politically correct" western writers who wrench them out of their historic context and portray them as an act of unprovoked western aggression against a peaceful Islam. In fact they were a long overdue response to four hundred years of Islamic aggression against the Christian World.
81 of 96 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2004
This is a wonderful book. The author, Thomas Asbridge, has written a taut, clear account of a time in history that, at least for me, has always seemed terribly murky and shrouded in fable.
The main strength of the book is its strong, direct, linear flow. The reader follows the First Crusade from its birth in Clermont and Pope Urban's preaching tour across France; to the Crusade's bloody finale and the Christian army's rampage through Jerusalem. Asbridge is, plain and simply, a good writer, and his vivid language bring the time and place to remarkable light. He has a good writer's eye for drama and the telling detail, and he brings in amazing writings from Crusade participants to flesh out the telling. Characters and events really came to life in my mind's eye while reading, whole landscapes and battles, so that I found myself setting the books aside more than once, simply to let the movie play for a moment. All in all, a great reading experience.
As the book progressed, I really came to visualize the Crusading armies marching from Western Europe across the known world, slowly transforming itself through the crucible of starvation, decease, horrific battles, and hardship. They had begun as an unorganized, splintered assortment of rabble and soldier, princes and false prophets, numbering perhaps 100,000 souls, barely able to mount a cohesive attack. By the time they had reached Lebanon, the army had hardened down to a pack of fast moving, ruthless veterans, sending terror through the Muslim world. Muslim cities, hearing of their barbarity, began begging for peace, throwing riches at them, usually to no avail.
Finally, this efficient juggernaut simply stormed against the heavily fortified Holy City of Jerusalem, taking it quickly and horribly despite overwhelming odds against them, then tore through the city like starved wolves, killing everything (including children and women). The image of the victorious crusaders, coming to fall in tearful prayer at the Holy Sepulchre, their faces and clothes still drenched in blood, is one of the most perfect in the book - at once capturing the strange amalgamation of genuine religious fervor and blood-curdling terror that marked the times. The author also poses many new ideas about the Crusades as well (such as his view of the effect of the religious relic, the Holy Lance, which the author feels had much less importance than is traditionally thought), which make this book good for both history novice and expert alike.
The author does a good job of viewing the times in a fair light. The magnificent achievement of the crusading armies is not understated. After reading what the soldiers and knights of this crusade went through, it is easier to understand why they truly considered many of their victories "miracles" and sure evidence of God's hand. The author does not overlook the grimmer realities of the First Crusade either, which can be summed up in this simple sentence near the end of the book: "In bitter revelation, these eastern Christians soon discovered that they had in fact been better off under Muslim rule than they were in a 'liberated' Jerusalem."
You will be glad you read this book.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2005
This is a scholarly yet accessible history of the first crusade, appropriate for nonprofessionals. In stretches it reads almost like a novel. Asbridge discusses the various motivations of the crusade, ranging from genuine religiosity down to the desires of younger sons to carve out their own fiefdoms. The history centers on the leaders -- the "generals" of the crusading army, the Byzantine Emperor, the Pope and his delegates -- giving relatively little information on the lot of the ordinary crusader. The key figures, however, come through more as titles, dates and events than as vividly depicted human beings; this may be a inevitable limitation of a book intended as history and not as an historical novel. Military tactics and weapons, too, are given only superficial treatment. By contrast, the politics, alliances and strategy are covered in some depth.
38 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2007
As previous reviewers have said this is a well written book that is easy to read and historically accurate. It is fairly even handed in its treatment of the crusaders and does a pretty good job of explaining their motives, actions and results.
The major flaw is that it neglects the historical context. By that I do not mean the cultural and circumstantial factors in which the first crusade took place. That is well reported. What is missing is the preceding 400 years of Islamic Jihad against the west. Mr. Asbridge asserts that because of the first crusade "The lines of discord hardened. Christendom and Islam had been set on the path to enduring conflict." Perhaps the first crusade had that effect on the attitudes of Muslims who were not used to being on the receiving end of religious violence. However, for the Christians who had been the victims of Islamic violence for the 400 years prior to the first crusade their attitudes concerning Islam as a religion of aggression and conquest had been shaped much earlier. They knew from bitter experience that Islam is a religion of bloodshed and conquest and that if not stopped all Christendom would be under its boot.
Can anyone doubt that the Islamic conquests of all of North Africa, the middle east, Spain, the "Holy Lands," and invasions in France caused "the lines of religious discord" to harden or that they set "Christendom and Islam on the path to enduring conflict?" These countries and regions all had predominantly Christian populations. Does anyone believe that those Christians thought there was no connection between Islam and the soldiers who yelled "Allah-Akbar" as they killed, pillaged and raped their way through Christian countries and homes?
All the crusades together lasted less than 200 years. That is half the time that Islamic Jihads against Christendom had taken place before the first crusade was initiated. The Muslims had also conquered large parts of India, western China and parts of Mongolia. Their wars of aggression in the name of Allah created an empire that stretched from the deserts of Mongolia all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. All of this happened before the first crusade took place. After the last crusade ended and the crusaders left the Holy Lands the Muslims resumed their intermittant Jihads for another 500 years against Europe, Central Asia, China, and elsewhere.
No, the first crusade did not set "the path to enduring conflict." It was in large part a response to centuries of Islamic aggression against the rest of the world including Christendom. This lack of perspective makes what is otherwise a good book a deficient history of the first Crusade.
25 of 32 people found the following review helpful
How refreshing it has been to finally find such an astute rendition of the Crusades without having to muddle through the usual Anti-Christian bias and the protrayal of the Muslems as innocent victims of Christian barbarism. As Asbridges's title suggest, A NEW HISTORY begins in the beginning. The First Crusade was called in 1095 in response to an urgent plea for assistance from the Byzantine Empire, the last Christian state in the East. Things had been going badly for Christians for several centuries, ever since the infestation of Muslim warriors out of Arabia in the seventh century. Egypt, Palestine, Syria, North Africa-the core of the Christian world-had been conquered by Muslim jihad warriors and subjected to Islamic rule and law. When Turkish jihad warriors invaded and conquered Asia Minor, they reduced Christendom to a tiny corner of the world.
Pope Urban II asked Christians to take up the cross and turn back these conquests as an act of penance. Thousands responded. The First Crusade, which was, in typical medieval fashion, governed by a committee of barons, marched thousands of miles across eastern Europe, crossed the Bosporus at Constantinople, and then pushed on to Nicaea, which served as the capital of the Turkish sultanate. After restoring Nicaea to the Byzantine emperor, the Crusaders crossed Anatolia and against all odds restored to Christian control the city of Antioch, one of the ancient patriarchates of Christianity. The Crusaders also acquired nearby Edessa and then continued south along the coast until they finally turned inland and caught their first glimpse of the holy city of Jerusalem. After prayers, penances, and many hardships, they captured it in July 1099.
Asbridge's history works well on many levels. He tells his story vividly, but he does not shy away from details that may muddy his otherwise clear picture. When a scholarly debate exists on a point, he brings it up forthrightly and describes it succinctly. Throughout his narrative he liberally sprinkles footnotes that direct interested readers to the best scholarship available. With knowledge of medieval siege weapons, armor, and basic army conditions, Asbridge argues that the internal command of the First Crusade was not as fractious as historians have generally believed. What really adds depth and color to this history, though, is Asbridge's familiarity with the region and the careful attention with which he describes it. Readers see the landscapes and fortifications through the eyes of someone who has studied them closely.
This is the most concise and readable volume I have found pertaining to the origin of the Crusades. I highly recomend this book.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Thomas Asbridge's new history, The First Crusade, is a breath of fresh air. Few topics in history have been as mistreated and misused as the Crusades, giving rise to a great deal of popular rhetoric that has all but obscured the actual events themselves. Asbridge's book, however, cuts through the great majority of the myths and confronts the reader with real 11th-century men with real 11th-century concerns and beliefs.
What struck me about the book was how carefully Asbridge highlighted the differences between modern and medieval modes of thought. This would seem to be an obvious goal of the historian, but too often a writer will criticize his subjects based on 21st-century values rather than examining the subject through his own. A few other reviewers have mistakenly said that Asbridge "justifies" or makes excuses for Crusader "atrocities." Nothing could be further from the truth. Asbridge simply puts the reader into the mind of the 11th-century warrior, repeatedly reminding the reader that, while we might cringe at the thought of civilian deaths today, during the Crusading era that was a way of life. This constant reminder of the differences between the past and present places Asbridge's history among the very best that I have read.
One of the most important aspects of Asbridge's work is that he carefully entwines medieval piety with medieval concerns for prestige, landholdings, and booty. The result is a very well-realized glimpse into the medieval mind, where seemingly contradictory concepts held simultaneous sway for centuries.
The book isn't perfect. Asbridge leaves little to no room for coincidence in the events he writes about. "All the evidence suggests," he says of the arrival of much-needed timber at Jaffa, "that the crusaders had not anticipated the fleet's arrival, but it would be incredible, almost miraculous, if such a timely boon had been wholly unplanned." In my admittedly limited experience, what all the evidence suggests is often the best interpretation. On a similar note, Asbridge seems to enjoy reading between the lines, conjecturing thoughts and motivations for figures--Urban II and Raymond of Toulouse in particular--that are possible, yes, but only possible.
The greatest of the book's few weaknesses lies in Asbridge's picking and choosing of when to take the Crusaders at their word. He repeatedly tells us that the medievals exaggerated the size of armies, that they tended to gloss over embarassing episodes, and that they tended to downplay the Christians' level of involvement with the Muslims, but buys unreservedly into Crusader stories of the slaughter in Jerusalem, something evidence from the Muslim perspective suggests has been grossly exaggerated.
But overall, despite one or two minor (and I emphasize minor) flaws, I really enjoyed Asbridge's book and found it to be among the best Crusade histories in recent memory. If only every crusade could get such a carefully-crafted treatment.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 2006
Thomas Asbridge's book The first Crusade, A New History, offers the reader a well-written and fast-moving chronicle of the First Crusade and the events leading up to it. The book is very readable and covers the period with enough detail to acquaint the reader with significant events while moving at a pace that encourages you to want more.
The author sets the stage by examining the political, cultural and spiritual milieu of the time. Some important points that he makes include:
-The pervasive influence the Roman Catholic Church had over the people of Christian Europe at the time, instilling within them a fear of eternal damnation that exhibited substantial influence over how they conducted their lives. This made many European Christians willing to "take up the Cross" once the idea of a Crusade was preached.
-The medieval mindset was completely different from the manner in which we think today. This environment allowed Church leaders such as Pope Gregory VII and Urban II, as well as Peter the Hermit and others to preach the idea that warfare could be conducted in such a manner as to offer salvation to the combatants. This extension of St. Augustine's "just war" conditions fit neatly with the desire of European Christians to achieve salvation through acts of penance, charity, and devotion.
- The First Crusade was not conducted under unified command, but rather, consisted of expeditionary forces under the command of nobles from various parts of the continent. Even after the various forces met at Constantinople, tensions existed among the various factions that caused the effort to lose direction and falter over the course of the march to Jerusalem.
-Even as the Christian forces had several factions, the forces on the Muslim side suffered from their own feudal and tribal differences. The Crusaders capitalized upon these factions, often entering into negotiations with one Muslim sect or population to gain advantage over another.
What is amazing is that, in spite of all of the challenges they faced, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem on July 15th, 1099 and held onto the city until Muslim forces under Saladin conquered it in 1187. The story of this conquest is a fascinating one as told by Thomas Asbridge, who made considerable use of primary and secondary sources in the course of writing this book.
I highly recommend this book to all those who have an interest in learning more about the First Crusade, whether you are a serious student of the topic or just a casual reader.
51 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on March 5, 2008
Asbridge pretty much ignores the history of Islamic aggression in the eastern Mediterranean that led up to the 1st Crusade. The prophet himself led forays into Syria in the 6th century. And Islamists overran a lot of previously Christian land before any crusading in response. How can you present "The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity and Islam" while ignoring hundreds of years of Islamic aggression prior to the first major counter measure?
My other major objection is turgid prose, for example from P.22
The sheer malleability of history - stretched and distorted by the imprecisions of memory and twisted through wilful manipulation and forgery - meant that the 'past' that informed and enabled Urban's sanctification of violence was actually a shifting, tangle web of reality and imagination.
I would prefer some evidence for this view rather than a wordy and overwrought assertion like this.