The Medieval Review 10.01.01

Tyerman, Christopher. God's War: A New History of the Crusades. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belnap Press, 2009. Pp. 1,024. . $22.95 ISBN-978-0-674-03070-1.

Reviewed by:

Nikolaos G. Chrissis
Royal Holloway, University of London--University of Birmingham

Christopher Tyerman's voluminous work, God's War, aims to provide a comprehensive, new history of the crusades. It is the author's stated intention to produce a work that supersedes the dated, but ever popular, three-volume History of the Crusades by Steven Runciman, published in the 1950s. Scholarship in the field has advanced in strides over the past decades, and this work endeavors to incorporate such research. Tyerman is uniquely qualified for the task at hand: an eminent crusade historian, his expertise shines through, setting the crusades firmly within their wider context and tracing their impact in the politics, society, mentalities and culture of medieval Europe, since "extracting the thread of the crusade from the weave of the middle ages distorts both" (920).

Developments in the study of the crusades over the last thirty years have been spearheaded by the works of Jonathan Riley-Smith and his numerous students, which opened up new avenues of interpretation, particularly with regards to the crusaders' motivation; the focus on the "institutional" characteristics of the crusade (the crusade vow, indulgences, privileges, funding, etc.); and the "pluralist" approach, examining expeditions in other fronts besides the Holy Land, e.g. in the Baltic, the Iberian Peninsula, or against heretics and other Christians within western Europe. (Recent discussions of crusade historiography in: N. Housley, Contesting the Crusades, 2006, pp. 1-23; and G. Constable, "The Historiography of the Crusades," The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World, eds. A.E Laiou and R.P. Mottahedeh, 2001, pp. 1-22). Although Tyerman is the most vocal, and probably the best known, British crusade historian not to count himself in Riley-Smith's "school," his book reflects the pervasive influence of the topics favored by that historiographical tradition, in at least two ways: his emphasis on the organizational aspects of crusading, and the inclusion of various crusading fronts in his discussion.

Tyerman's account spans the eleventh to the fifteenth (or, in some respects, the late seventeenth) centuries. While it explores crusading activity in the Baltic, Spain and southern France, the main focus is undoubtedly on the expeditions for the Holy Land (at least seventeen of the twenty-six chapters, as opposed to four for the other fronts) and on the "classical" period of crusading, down to the fall of Frankish Outremer in 1291 (only the last two chapters, approximately 100 pages out of over 920, deal with the "Later Crusades").

The examination is arranged, for the most part, in chronological sequence. The Introduction provides a broad outline of the situation in Europe and the Mediterranean in the 11th century. This is followed by a chapter on the "Origins of Christian Holy War," examining the ideological background of the Crusade. Tyerman explores the notions of just war and consecrated violence, drawn from the Helleno-Roman, Jewish, as well as Germanic tradition, invoked to justify the needs of a Christian state to conduct wars and to defend itself. Nevertheless, the Church still considered fighting itself as inherently sinful, until the mid-eleventh century. It was only during the papal reform--and especially under Gregory VII--that the concept of fighting as penance came into being. War against the "infidels" and in defense of the Church (as opposed to that waged against other members of the Christian community) now led to the salvation of souls, and thus provided a meritorious outlet for the military talents of the aristocracy.

A series of chapters follows, examining the background, inception, organization and course of the First (chapters 2-4), Second (8-10), Third (11-14) and Fourth (15-17) Crusade. Chapters 5-7, meanwhile, focus on the establishment and development of the Latin states in the Holy Land in the twelfth century, and the impact that the birth of "Christian Outremer" had on the West. Tyerman argues against the notion that Outremer was essentially a "crusader" society, despite the image cultivated by the Frankish settlers to incite support from the West. In reality, "coexistence rather than either integration or persecution prevailed" between the politically dominant Latins, and Eastern Christians, Muslims and Jews (228).

The four chapters (18-21) under the general title "The Expansion of Crusading" follow the chronological arrangement more loosely. They examine respectively: the Albigensian Crusades against the Cathar heretics in southern France; the Fifth Crusade; the Spanish wars of (Re)conquest; and the crusades in the Baltic. Particularly the last two chapters, on "frontier crusades," cover the period to the end of the Middle Ages. Tyerman stresses that such crusades were much more closely connected to temporal interests and ambitions of local powers: the northern French nobility and the Capetian monarchy in the Albigensian Crusades; the Spanish kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula; the nexus of German merchants, churchmen and nobles, Scandinavian kings, and military orders in the Baltic. In those cases, Tyerman asserts, "political expansion and settlement drove the crusades, not, as in the Near East, vice versa" (652). In chapters 22-24, Tyerman returns to the chronological approach and the focus to the Holy Land, dealing with the decline and eventual collapse of the kingdom of Jerusalem, and the ultimately unsuccessful crusading efforts to reverse Frankish fortunes in the eastern Mediterranean in the thirteenth century.

The last part of the book, consisting of chapters 25-26, is a more sweeping overview of the "Later Crusades" in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and beyond. Crusading remained alive and embedded in western European culture, down to the early modern period. Tyerman examines the re-orientation of the Eastern Crusades, towards the rising Turkish power; the enduring social appeal of crusading (invoked both by members of the establishment and by revolutionaries); its integration in everyday life (through religious and social rituals, art and literature); its connection to the rise of national ideologies. He concludes that it was eventually the secularization of European states and the loss of the papacy's moral authority that brought about the demise of crusading: "The Crusade did not disappear from European culture because it was discredited but because the religious and social value systems that had sustained it were abandoned" (918).

The book is carefully presented, besides very few observable typographical errors or omissions (e.g. at pp. 120, 187, 201, 510, 534, 777) and the non-standard spelling of some names: e.g. the Byzantine emperor "Nicephoras Phocas" (instead of Nicephorus or Nikephoros), at 53; or "Nicholas Kannovos" (instead of Kannavos), at 549. The 24 maps are helpful, while the 31 color illustrations are pertinent and of good quality.

The scholarly qualities of Tyerman's work cannot be doubted. His analysis is lucid, avoiding over-generalizations; his arguments, in the majority of cases, eminently reasonable and well-balanced. One would be hard-pressed to point to any particularly important factual errors, despite the volume's staggering scope. Tyerman's stylish prose makes for a pleasurable read. Frequent displays of wit and dry humor enliven the narration. Two examples: his description of large areas in France, in the Capetian period, as "dominated by a castle and a local boss with a posse of armed thugs (later known as knights)" (17); and the story of Queen Isabella I of Jerusalem who, having lost three husbands through "extravagantly unlikely deaths", died herself at the age of thirty-three, "before other husbands could be put at risk" (723-4).

Tyerman's account is particularly valuable in three aspects. Firstly, on the organization and preparations for a crusade. As a rule an entire chapter is devoted to the preliminaries of each major expedition (chapters 2, 9, 12, 16); chapter 12, on the preaching, recruitment and response to the Third Crusade, can serve as an admirable case-study of crusading preparations in general. Secondly, the ideological developments regarding Holy War and religious violence; a topic that the authors revisits regularly, both in dedicated chapters (1, 8) and in smaller sections within chapters, and on which his analysis is most insightful. Finally, the rich use of materials from France and, particularly, England, on which the author has carried out much of his original research.

Nevertheless, while Tyerman provides what is arguably the best overview of crusading preparations, his examination of the expeditions themselves has little new to offer. Furthermore, he is less at home with developments in other fronts besides Outremer, and in the period of the Later Middle Ages; the corresponding accounts are considerably briefer and based mostly on secondary works. However, such chapters might actually serve the general reader better, as succinct syntheses. The chapter on the Albigensian Crusade is a good example. The treatment of the Spanish Reconquista, on the other hand, is rather disappointing in both length and depth.

Among Tyerman's points that deserve some additional mention, central is the contention that the successful conclusion of the First Crusade did not "witness the dawning of a pervasive 'age of the crusade'." For most of the twelfth century, there were few military expeditions to the Holy Land; "pilgrimage not holy war proved the most immediate legacy of Christian occupation of the Holy City" (251). It was only after the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 and the launch of the Third Crusade that crusading took off, and its influence upon western society gradually grew to become nearly all-encompassing from the thirteenth century onwards, particularly after the systematization of the crusade under Innocent III. Tyerman also downplays the association of the First Crusade with pilgrimage, as it was "a penitential holy war rather than...specifically an armed pilgrimage" that Urban summoned the faithful to (72); his correspondence shows that he did not use language associated with pilgrimage, and--Tyerman stresses--the ritual of taking the Cross was a novel one, meant to be immediately recognizable and distinct from the taking of the pilgrim's staff. It was mostly after Jerusalem was in Christian hands, that, on account of the explosion of pilgrimage traffic, Urban's radical vision of holy war was diluted through the fusion of crusading and pilgrimage. With regards to preaching and recruitment, Tyerman argues forcefully that preaching tours were meticulously planned and orchestrated, and response to such calls, far from being entirely spontaneous, was cultivated and fostered beforehand, as the preaching had to be addressed to a willing and prepared audience in order to be effective (e.g. 383).

Furthermore, I would like to raise a point pertaining to my own research interests (as is wont to happen with reviewers): Tyerman examines the aftermath of the Latin conquest of Constantinople in a brief section on "Romania and Byzantium," in which he does refer to the crusades proclaimed in support of the Latin empire (554-560 at 556). However, his statement that "no significant expedition, crusade or garrison ever came to aid or maintain Romania" is mistaken: like most other literature on the crusades, he overlooks, for example, the reinforcements from Flanders in 1208, William of Montferrat's expedition in 1224-1225, and the crusade led by Baldwin II from the West in 1239-1240. Unsuccessful as most of these efforts might have been in the long run, crusading activity in Romania certainly deserves more attention than six lines in a survey of the crusades that is over a thousand pages long. Given the fact that Tyerman himself had, in the past, identified Romania as one of the seven fronts of crusading activity (The Invention of the Crusades, 1998, 42-44), it is regrettable that he did not pay any more attention to it.

Tyerman has, indeed, produced a history of the crusades that takes account of recent research, and is sober and penetrating in its analysis. Praise of the author and his work in terms of erudition and acumen is, without a doubt, well-merited. Less unequivocal, however, can be the verdict on the book's suitability as a synthesis for the general reader or as a work of reference. There are some concerns that the present reviewer wishes to express pertaining to the book's overall purpose, structure and usefulness.

The first one is evident to the casual observer, namely its immense size. Reading the book cover-to-cover is not for the fainthearted. The detailed narrative and analysis, for all their precision, can sometimes make the overall picture less easily discernible, or render quick consultation impracticable: the examination of the First Crusade, from inception to conclusion, spreads over three chapters and more than 100 pages. A further point, to be combined with the above, is the structure of the work, particularly the lack of thematic examination of specific aspects of crusading. It is true that Tyerman does incorporate into the whole discussions on ideology, crusader motivation, mechanisms of preaching and recruitment, criticism and response, socio-political and military parameters, etc. Though this is most helpful when reading sections of the work in sequence, it appears less easy to consult diachronically, if interested in themes rather than events-- although it must be acknowledged that the index helps redress the problem to an extent, with regards to some major issues (indulgences, finance, etc). Similarly, an introduction on the current state of research and the major trends in relevant historiography--or at least some guidance where such discussions can be found would have been a helpful and quite necessary addition, if the book is intended as a reference work for the students of the crusades, as well as for the general public. Furthermore, the bibliography, even if expressly meant to be indicative, is surprisingly small (a mere six pages) for such a lengthy composition. A larger and somewhat more comprehensive list would have been a reasonable expectation for a survey work, or at the very least references to other bibliographies (see e.g. J. Riley-Smith, What were the Crusades?, 2002 (3rd edition), 101).

In conclusion, brilliant in its analysis of the intricacies of crusading; broad in its understanding of the context within which crusades operated; elegant and forceful in its prose; Tyerman's God's War is accurate, insightful and balanced, a remarkably detailed and up-to-date synthesis. Nevertheless, for all its virtues, it is a difficult book for the general reader, on account of both the complexity of its analysis and the length of its exposition. And if the general reader is not the target audience, then the aim to replace Runciman's work is illusory, as it has long been supplanted for students of the Crusade [see e.g.: H.E. Mayer, The Crusades (tr. J. Gillingham), 1988 (2nd edition); J. Richard The Crusades, c.1071-c.1291 (tr. J. Birrell), 1999; J. Riley-Smith, A History of the Crusades, 2005 (2nd edition); T. Madden, A New Concise History of the Crusades, 2005 (2nd edition)]. Such students would have probably benefitted from more compact thematic units, an extensive bibliography, and some discussion on historiographical issues. In this respect, Tyerman's book is less than the sum of its parts.