Crusaders by Dan Jones
In Crusaders, Dan Jones applies his significant story-telling skills to the people who fought the wars for the Holy Lands. Seventeen pages of concise identifications of the major characters reinforce his emphasis on people and the roles they played. Jones has written “a series of episodes featuring people who were involved in the Crusades, arranged sequentially and chronologically to tell a tableau history that spans the period at large.”
Jones quickly disabuses us of the notion that the Crusades were simply Europeans against people of the Eastern Mediterranean. The story includes “women and men, Christians of the Eastern and Western churches, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Arabs, Jews, Turks, Kurds, Syrians, Egyptians, Berber and Mongols. There are people here from England, Wales, France, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, Sicily, Spain, Portugal, the Balkans, North Africa. There is even a band of Vikings.”
In the 11th Century “Baldwin” was “casting around for somewhere godless to conquer.” Roger of Sicily sent word that if he was serious “the best way [to proceed] is to conquer Jerusalem.” So it began. The Crusades may be said to have ended in 1492 when the Reconquista was complete along with “the transmission of crusading’s urges and energies west, to the New World.” Of course, the enmities so deeply ingrained then continue to reverberate in our world today. No one, it seems, can forgive or forget or seek common ground.
It was ironic that those who followed the teachings of Jesus, a man of peace and conciliation, could take up arms and rape, pillage, and murder in the most horrific ways. It was, Jones writes, an amazing demonstration of “the astonishing plasticity of thinking that had become a hallmark of Christianity in its first millennium.” They just looked back to the Old Testament and the text of the Maccabees which “presented a world in which guerilla warfare, forcible circumcision and mass slaughter were go-to tactics for God’s warriors.” The concept of the “just war” had emerged from Aristotle. Violence was acceptable, “even moral, so long as it was undertaken to protect the state and ultimately serve to produce or restore peace.” So long as “respect for the liturgies—and the property—of the church” was respected, killing and maiming was acceptable.
Amidst the blood and gore and the religious hatred, Jones reminds us that it was people, rich and poor, powerful and weak, who participated. Even with the suffering there were some events we can now see as somewhat lighthearted. One wave of the People’s Crusade, as it came to be known, was a “band of thousands of peasants who walked east behind a miraculous goose and a nanny goat whom they believed to have been possessed by the Holy Spirit.” Another band of actual soldiers was led by Walter of Sans Avoir (the ‘Penniless’),” a French lord.
Crusaders is a must-have book for those who want to understand the complexities of that world and the genesis of the enmities that continue to affect our world. The research supporting this assessment of the Crusades is wide and deep, linking a variety of human stories drawn from contemporary primary sources. These included chronicles, legal charters, personal letters, and diplomatic papers. And, these sources covered the range of participants and observers. It quickly becomes clear that the Crusades were not just about freeing Jerusalem. There were battles in nearly all the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The battles over the one true religion continue to this day as a neo-fascist attacks a mosque in New Zealand, for example, claiming that he had been sanctioned by the Knights Templar.
Jones ends with a personal anecdote. He and his family were vacationing in Sri Lanka when more than 250 people were killed in bombings churches and hotels frequented by Westerners. The Islamic State claimed they had targeted places in which “citizens of the crusader coalition were present.” And so it goes.