John France's contribution to Oxford's Great Battles series (Hew Strachan, general editor) centers on one of the most famous battles of the crusading era. Given the notoriety of the event, in which a western army nearly 18,000 strong was destroyed by Saladin in the hills west of the Sea of Galilee on 4 July 1187, Hattin is regularly referenced in military histories but has received surprisingly little attention as a stand-alone event. In print, only two books focus exclusively on it: David Nicolle's Hattin 1187: Saladin's Greatest Victory (Osprey, 1993) and the collection of papers The Horns of Hattin (Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Institute, 1992), edited by Benjamin Kedar. In other words, we have a popularly-oriented paperback and a volume of high-level academic studies, neither one of which is entirely satisfying to diverse audiences. Since studies on Saladin himself abound, this lacuna on Hattin is curious. France has therefore filled a significant gap by writing a narrative of the battle in learned, accessible prose that is buttressed with the latest research on crusading warfare. His book should become the standard reference on the Battle of Hattin going forward.
Hattin contains five chapters. The first two, "Salvation through Slaughter," and "Crusade and Jihad," are contextual. Chapter 1 relates the historical background of the Crusades, beginning with the seventh-century rise of Islam and its early conflicts with Byzantium and Persia and ending with the conclusion of the First Crusade and the creation of the militant Orders of the Hospital and Temple. This constitutes an enormous amount of material, jammed into just thirty pages, but although there is some generalizing it is on the whole pointed and satisfying. France displays his impressive range of expertise on the pre-crusade centuries as he efficiently outlines eastern and western militancy in the ninth through eleventh centuries. Chapter 2 picks up in the early twelfth century and covers the Second Crusade and, importantly, the military and political divisions among the Fatimids, Zengids, and Abbasids. It also addresses the shifting Christian and Muslim theologies of holy war. More germane to the book's title, the second half of chapter 2 is devoted to the early career of Saladin and the first western movements and victories (oft-neglected) against him. In the face of pressure from Christian opponents, Saladin nonetheless was able to exploit the divisions amongst his Muslim rivals and, by June 1183, seize Aleppo to become the unquestioned ruler of Syria.
France's focus is exclusively on Hattin in chapter 3, "The Battle of Hattin." This is the heart of the book: it is the longest chapter and includes both an extensive preamble to the battle and succinct discussions of the extant source material for it. It contains, by my reading, the most concise and understandable discussion of the complicated historiography of the Continuations of William of Tyre in print (74-75). France carefully chronicles each maneuver of the armies, covering not only well-trodden topics like the location of the Christian camp but also logistics: the route of march, the topography of the Horns and its surrounds, and the demographics of the crusaders. Saladin himself emerges as a master tactician, hemming in the Christian route, launching attacks upon the moving column, and exploiting water shortages in every conceivable fashion (including choking the crusaders with smoke from campfires and the psychological torment of emptying skins of water before them). Given the total encirclement of the Christian forces, as well as the infamous and disastrous cavalry charge led by Raymond III, count of Tripoli, it seems amazing that they fought for a full six hours before finally collapsing (97). France's conclusion, that King Guy de Lusignan was "a commander who failed at all levels" while Saladin "handled his army exceptionally well" and exhibited "generalship of a very high order," seems inarguable, given the course of the battle (100-101).
The final two chapters, "Hattin: Bloody Consequences" and "Hattin Today: a Poisoned Heritage" move beyond the battle and assess its immediate and later consequences and effects. Chapter four details how the disaster at the Horns of Hattin spurred renewed anguish and despair in the West and led to the Third Crusade, which France narrates in brief fashion. He then moves through the remainder of the Crusades and concludes with the Mamluk capture of Acre in 1291. Here, he makes an argument that is likely to generate some academic debate: that Hattin, while an important battle, was not actually decisive. His reasoning is based on the long view: in the wake of his great victory, Saladin was unable to capture the coastal cities, such as Acre, which were the true centers of western power, and this enabled further crusades over the next century (130-131). Dissenters might argue to the contrary, that in a shorter timeframe Hattin was decisive because Saladin's crushing of the bulk of the western forces in Palestine at that time led directly to his retaking of Jerusalem on 9 October later that same year. The capitulation of the holy city and the loss of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which the first crusaders had struggled so famously to save in 1099, set off shock-waves across the West. Chapter six studies the memory of Hattin from the Middle Ages into the twenty-first century. France has some fascinating insights here that will likely intrigue readers interested in general Middle Eastern affairs as well as Pan-Arabism, radical Islam, and Islamic terrorism: in all of these areas, he has located tie-ins with either the legacy of Saladin and/or his victory at Hattin. These include the "Hattin Brigade" of the PLO army and a reference to Hattin in the charter of the terrorist organization Hamas (156 and 162).
At this point, readers might have noticed that the actual battle at the Horns of Hattin--the title of the book and the reason for its inclusion in the "Great Battles" series--constitutes only one of these five chapters. Most of France's book, in fact, is not about the actual battle but rather about the context surrounding both it and the Crusades in general. Certainly the quantity of source material limits the amount of narrative possible, which France himself admits (97). He might have expanded his description by, say, explaining the armament and fighting norms of the Christian and Muslim infantry and cavalry in greater detail. Even so, this remains the best narrative of Hattin available because of its accessible, yet studied, storytelling and constant reference to the intricacies and minutiae of the Arabic, French, and Latin primary sources. And given France's overall argument that Hattin was not decisive, it makes some sense to prioritize its place in crusading military history and latent influence. Still, there are no doubt some scholars who, prizing operational military history above all else, will criticize France's approach.
That said, I would argue that Hattin is an important and very useful book. Hattin was Saladin's greatest triumph and clearly one of the most important battles of the entire Middle Ages. France has impressively placed it within a historical context spanning fourteen centuries and written a narrative that, while perhaps on the shorter side, is clear and evocative. This is a book that effectively demonstrates the relevance of military events to the broad sweep of history while simultaneously educating its readers about crusading politics, religion, and culture. It can be read profitably by scholars and students alike; a bargain at thirty dollars, I have already ordered Hattin for my fall 2016 undergraduate survey on medieval Europe.