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A History of the Crusades Vol. I: The First Crusade and the Foundations of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (Volume 1) Paperback – December 25, 1987
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'I do not know when, in recent years, I have read a book which so enlarged my knowledge of and interest in a period of history ... It sets before us one of the formidable moral and romantic epics of our time, with scholarship and imagination worthy of it.' The Times Literary Supplement
'The three volumes ring with battle trumpets and drums, glitter with the splendor of noble parades, and are replete with true stories of bravery and cowardliness, rash daring and wily intrigue ... To the specialist (Runicman) offers a wealth of new interpretations ... To the layman, he tenders romance and suspense at nearly every page.' The Yale Review
' ... the best scholarly survey of the subject by a single author. It will always remain the first considerable work of its kind in the English language.' The English Historical Review
'One of the grand historical monuments of the twentieth century ... Written with imagination and based on immense scholarship, (the volumes) are filled with true stories of rash daring and wily intrigue as the flower of Western knighthood assaults the infidel East for God, gold and glory.' Washington Post Book World
Sir Steven Runciman's, A History of the Crusades, explores the First Crusade and the foundation of the kingdom of Jerusalem. It is one of the great classics of English historical writing and a great survey of the time.
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The remarkable thing about Runciman's work is that it is just as satisfying to the lay reader as it is to the scholar. Casual readers could be frightened by the prospect of reading a three volume history and instead turn to one of the "introductions" available on the subject by Jonathan Riley-Smith, Hans Eberhard Meyer or Thomas Madden. Believe me, you'll find reading Runciman much easier and more enjoyable than those books, which may be more concise but are also excruciatingly dull.
In the introduction to Volume I Runciman clearly lays out his intentions: "I believe that the supreme duty of the historian is to write history, that is to say, to attempt to record in one sweeping sequence the great events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man." Runciman is true to his goal. Modern scholars may disagree with some of his assertions, but no one can argue that he fell short in writing a captivating history of a crucial epoch in world civilization.
A couple of points on Runciman's style and conclusions bear mentioning. First, he places strong emphasis on the importance of individuals and their ability to sway the course of great events. (This is also a main reason why his work is so much more interesting than other books on the subject.) In his narrative of the First Crusade no figures loom larger than the papal legate Adhemar, Bishop of Le Puy, and the crusading prince from Italian Normandy, Bohemond.
Runciman suggests that Adhemar was the Crusade's indispensable man. The only individual with the talent, will and integrity to manage the polyglot crusading armies to fulfill the desires of Pope Urban II: cooperation with Byzantium and its emperor Alexius Comnenus and adherence to the fundamentally spiritual and penitential mission of retaking Jerusalem from the Moslems. His death from typhoid after the siege of Antioch in 1098 is described as a critical turning point in the history of the Crusades as it deprived the movement of the one individual with the authority to unite and control the warrior princes that swept into the Levant on their ostensibly holy mission. To make matters worse, Adhemar's replacement as papal legate - Daimbert of Pisa - proved to be just as ambitious, self-interested and manipulative as the competing princes, a fact that did much to promote the infighting and land-grabbing that led to the competing Christian states in Outremer.
Bohemond - arguably the greatest crusading general ever, not just of the First Crusades but the entire crusading period out to the thirteenth century - is portrayed by Runciman as something of an antagonist to Adhemar and the whole noble cause of the crusade as preached by Urban at the Council of Clermont and beyond. He is written as the embodiment of the rapacious westerner seeking a rich principality in the East under the cloak of Christian piety.
Second, from the perspective of military history, Runciman argues that the issues of logistics and sea control were critical to the success of the whole campaign. Time and again the crusading armies were nearly destroyed not by marauding bands of Turks or Arabs (although they did pose a threat) but rather by a lack of water and food or from sheer exhaustion during the 1,300 km march across Anatolia to the Holy Lands. On several occasions the crusaders were saved by the timely arrival of a Genoese or Venetian fleet bearing desperately needed supplies - including basic items such as nails and hammers to build the siege engines so critical in taking Jerusalem - and the challenge of capturing and maintaining control of a safe harbor on the Levantine coast as an entrepot for the Christian vessels. (For more on the military aspects of the First Crusade, John France's "Victory in the East" is fantastic.)
In closing, if you're looking to read only one book on the Crusades, Runicman's magisterial history should be your choice. Don't let the size of the work intimidate you. It is history at its finest and the extra time (and money) it will take to read his three volumes will be well worth it.
In setting the stage, Runciman begins by examining the loss of Palestine and Egypt from Byzantine rule. The battle between Byzantium and the Arabs ebbed back and forth like the tides. Just prior to the first crusade the Byzantine frontiers had shrunken under the pressure of the Seljuk Turks and the route to the Holy Land was unsafe due to instability in the region. However, Runciman points out that Jerusalem had been in Muslim hands since the 7th century and through most of this time pilgrims were still able to visit the Holy Land unmolested. Runciman discusses the popularization of the pilgrimage movement which was originally frowned upon by the Church. Runciman also explores the divisive conflicts with the various Christian theological sects. There was gross intolerance among the sects which sometimes made Muslim rule preferable to Byzantine. Runciman explores the development of the concept of holy war in response to Muslim conquest of the West.
After setting the stage, Runciman follows Pope Urban II preaching the crusade. He writes of the major crusader leaders and their travels to Constantinople. He tells us of the disaster of Peter the Hermit's expedition. He writes of the uneasy crusader interactions with Byzantium and passage to Asia Minor. Runciman then narrates the first crusade including the siege of Nicea, the battle near Dorylaeum, the siege of Antioch, and the expedition to and siege of Jerusalem. Runciman tells of the Armenian expedition by Tancred and Baldwin of Boulogne and Baldwin's Edessa detour. Runciman follows Godfrey's time as leader including the Battle at Ascalon and efforts to solidify the realm in southern Syria. Runciman ends this volume with Baldwin's coronation as King of Jerusalem.
Throughout Runciman tells us about division amongst the crusader leaders and Seljuk Turks. I found it interesting how after the capture of Antioch, the division of the crusader leaders prevented them from going any further and the desire of the army to complete their pilgrimage was the only thing that forced the crusade to its completion. Runciman has researched sources from all angles (Byzantine, European, Arab, and Armenian). Runciman provides good footnotes addressing sources for the story, discussing where the accounts are not consistent. He includes a useful appendix which discusses the major primary and contemporary chroniclers. He also has an appendix which discusses the strength of the crusader army. The book includes several maps including the route taken to Constantinople, through Asia Minor, and through Syria. There is also a good map of Antioch, but surprisingly no map of Jerusalem. The maps cover every place talked about in the book which is rare. All in all a great reference and highly recommended.
Gibbon is still beyond their teenage years, but Runciman's 20th Century prose is like reading words set to music. Every bit as impressive as when I picked up Runciman and started reading back in 1982.
The format is perhaps a little old, but these books are invaluable for anyone who is interested in the history of the crusades.
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