Friday, October 9, 2015

Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom by WB Bartlett

I've already given this book a bit of a review on Goodreads, but I thought now might be a good time to give a somewhat more in-depth review on the blog. Especially since we've recently seen the 444th anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto.

I've been studying the Crusades in a fair bit of depth lately, and will be continuing to do so for the foreseeable future. When I first decided to sink some serious research into the epic 200-year history of the Crusader states, I thought I'd be walking a minefield. The subject of the Crusades is so politicised, and there is so much misinformation out there, that I was sure it would be difficult to find any really trustworthy sources.

How wrong I was.

I pretty soon discovered that although it doesn't attract a lot of attention, Crusader history as a discipline boasts an impressive array of serious scholars studying the subject less out of a desire to make a political or religious point than out of a sincere love of the history. In addition, recent years have seem some amazing work being done on this period of history, so that the average contemporary English-speaker now has vastly more resources to draw on now than he did ten or fifteen years ago. The one problem? All the misinformation at the popular level, and the corresponding cultural swampage of the true story. As Thomas F Madden, author of the wonderful New Concise History of the Crusades and Fourth Crusade expert, says:
In the Middle East, as in the West, we are left with the gaping chasm between myth and reality. Crusade historians sometimes try to yell across it but usually just talk to each other, while the leading churchmen, the scholars in other fields, and the general public hold to a caricature of the Crusades created by a pox of modern ideologies.
What doesn't help the situation is the sheer dryness and inaccessibility of a lot of the modern histories. Bernard Hamilton's The Leper King and His Heirs, for example is worth its weight in gold to the serious researcher as a study of the reign of Baldwin IV--but it's also a more challenging read than most readers are willing to commit to.

That was why I was so thrilled to discover Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom, by WB Bartlett.

This book was a wonderful read. Fans of Ronald Welch's Knight Crusader, Rider Haggard's The Brethren, or anything to do with the battle of Hattin or the Third Crusade will want to read this book, since it explores the history of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem during the catastrophic 1180s and the leadup to the Third Crusade. This is one of the better-documented periods of crusader history, and this book amply demonstrates why: seething with epic battles, political intrigue, unforgettable characters, and desperate last stands, this was without a doubt the most dramatic and colourful period of a long and dramatic history.

Bartlett writes clearly and engagingly, without sacrificing historical detail. Where Bernard Hamilton, focusing on much the same period, zeroes in on details, or debates famous issues from one side or another, Bartlett zooms out a little, bringing us what is above anything else a story--a tragic and unforgettable epic. The details he does include--and they are very welcome--are aimed at setting the scene for this story. Bartlett puts us in Kerak at Isabella and Humphrey's wedding, while Saladin surrounds the walls. He puts us on the Hattin battlefield, making sure we're familiar with the weapons and the tactics used by each side.

The drawback of telling this as a story? A certain amount of writerly interpretation creeps in. This is unavoidable in any book, but more prominent in this one than most of the more scholarly histories I've read. Another factor is that the book was published in 2007, and since then a couple of groundbreaking histories have been published focused on this era. That's not too much of a problem: the footnotes prove that Bartlett, not himself prominent among modern crusader historians, is formidably well-read in all the right names, from contemporary historians like Riley-Smith and Edbury to primary sources like Ernoul and William of Tyre. All the same, with a few more recent works under my belt, I had to disagree with a few of his conclusions.

Bartlett follows more traditional views in a number of cases. For example, he tells us that Baldwin IV's leprosy was seen as punishment from God, while Bernard Hamilton in The Leper King and His Heirs makes a good case that medievals actually saw lepers as messianic symbols. Another example of traditional thinking puts the blame for Saladin's Hattin campaign on Reynald of Chatillon and his raid on a Muslim caravan earlier that year. Though time-honoured, this theory fails to take into account the fact that Saladin subscribed to an ideology of jihad and was already preparing to invade the kingdom when Reynald organised his 1187 raid. Scholarly opinion is even divided on whether Reynald broke the truce by attacking the caravan; according to Bernard Hamilton, it's been suggested that Saladin had provided the caravan with a ridiculously strong guard in order to give him an excuse for moving troops through Christian territory. I don't have a problem with saying that Reynald was quite enough of a hard-boiled pirate to go around breaking truces indiscriminately; I don't want to defend him in the slightest--but I don't think he can be fairly blamed for the loss of the kingdom. Bernard Hamilton argues persuasively that Reynald showed good strategic thinking in his raids, which may have infuriated the Muslim world but certainly didn't provoke them to take any action they wouldn't have taken anyway.

I also thought Bartlett painted the political divisions between "hawks and doves" in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 1180s somewhat simplistically, and I wasn't convinced by his argument that Baldwin IV's reign saw the nobles becoming too powerful for the kingdom's good. I'd argue that on the contrary, Baldwin IV was able to lead the nobles well enough when his health was up to it. It wasn't so much the nobles' strength, as the personal weakness and unpopularity of his successor Guy of Lusignan, that compromised the kingdom's safety.

Apart from these cautions, I can't recommend Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom warmly enough. Whether you've studied this fascinating period in any depth or not, you're almost sure to find this a highly informative and enjoyable read.

Find Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom on Amazon or The Book Depository.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Things REALLY start to get crazy when the Knights Templar get mentioned (although the book by Malcolm Barber is good).

-- Tony

Joy said...

Oooh, this book sounds like one I'd REALLY love to read for Crusader history. I know so little about medieval history, and though my sister Sarah is history graduate, (she's doing her Honours at the moment), we've delved precious little into medieval history. But it has always fascinated me so much!

I've put it on my TBR. Thanks for sharing, Suzannah!

Suzannah said...

Tony--I'm looking forward to reading Barber's book on the Templars! I've heard it's by far the best. I got his book The Crusader States as a birthday gift earlier this year and was HIGHLY impressed with it. A real slog to read, but SO informative, balanced, and comprehensive.

It's a real gift how many of the modern scholars--especially Madden, Barber, Hamilton, and Edbury--seem to sincerely desire to get inside the skin of the people they are studying. I wasn't so impressed with Thomas Asbridge, who seemed to understand his characters much less well.

Joy, you should read this! Such a good book :)

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