18.09.28, Morton, The Field of Blood

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John D. Hosler

The Medieval Review 18.09.28

Morton, Nicholas. The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East. NY, NY: Basic Books, 2017. pp. 236. ISBN: 978-0-46509-669-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
John D. Hosler
Command and General Staff College

This book focuses on the Crusader States' early efforts to expand beyond the Levantine coastline and into the shallow interior of northern Syria, and in particular towards Aleppo, in the period 1118-1128. The Christian failure to defeat and control this region, Nicholas Morton argues, was instrumental in the long-term failure of the entire crusading enterprise: they came "extraordinarily close," in fact, to dominating the region but fell short in June 1119 at the Battle of the Field of Blood (ager sanguinis), which set in motion a series of events that led to the repulse of a Christian presence not only in Syria but, eventually, in Edessa and Antioch as well (7). The framing event of the book is this battle, in which the army of the lord of Antioch, Roger of Salerno, was destroyed by the Turkish forces of Ilghazi, the brutal and alcoholic general who had taken control of Aleppo the previous year. At the Field of Blood, the dust jacket relates, "the crusaders lost the Levant, and the face of the Middle East was forever changed." Morton promises to "go beyond the interests of the Franks to consider the perspectives of other protagonists" (9), especially the various non-Seljuk Turkish factions that sought control of Aleppo and, alternatingly, sided with both Christian and Muslim allies to accomplish their goals.

The main of the book is divided into five chapters, bookended by a Prologue and an "Afterword." The Prologue outlines the strategic situation in Antioch and Syria and briefly sketches the coming of the Turks into the region. Chapter 1, "The Rival Architects of the Crusader States," ambitiously surveys a staggering number of topics in just 35 pages: the route of the First Crusade; the battles and sieges conducted therein; western relations with the Byzantines; the state of the Levant in the aftermath of the First Crusade; the creation of the four Crusader States; the divisions and alliances between crusade leaders and their successors (such as Tancred, who assumed control of Antioch in 1101); European and Turkish battle tactics; the power dynamics between Fatimid Egypt, Damascus, and Aleppo; the strategic situations faced by both Antioch and Edessa; and, finally, their respective military exploits to the year 1111. Morton is an efficient writer, but I suspect that readers without a background in the history of the Crusades may find this first chapter a bit of a whirlwind.

Chapter 2, "Riding the Storm: Seljuk Turks and Arab Emirs," is a fascinating study of Turkish history in the years before the Field of Blood and, for my money, the best and most engaging part of the book. Morton examines the relationships between the Seljuks and lesser Turkish lords and explores the uneven cultural influence of Islam in the Turkish communities, as well as the on-again/off-again relations between them and both the Armenians and Latins. He argues, "this was no war of Christianity versus Islam, East versus West, Europe versus the Middle East. The reality was far more complex--and more interesting" (72). Although I think he perhaps pushes too far with this notion, most medievalists will nod their heads at the obvious relational complexities that defy simple "clash of civilizations" characterizations. More notable, I think, is Morton's ability to smoothly weave the intricate story of inter-Turkish rivalries. Crusade historians have spilt plentiful ink on Christian rivalries in the Levant, and we need more studies like this for the other side(s).

Chapter 3, "The Battle," is about the Battle of the Field of Blood on 28 June 1119. On the whole, it is somewhat of a let-down, especially given the prominence of that engagement in the book's title. Most of the chapter is actually contextual, detailing the mustering of the respective armies, the strategic situation, and (another) description of Turkish and crusader military tactics, such as mobile harassment, feigned retreats, and heavy cavalry charges. These tactical sections will read as unremarkable and rather general to military historians already well-acquainted with such subjects. Surprisingly, the battle itself is covered in less than four pages (109-112), with a somewhat rote narrative that sketches the main movements but never analyzes their features. Morton cites approvingly Thomas Asbridge's 1997 article on the battle, which remains the standard history. [1] The rest of the chapter considers the immediate aftermath of Roger of Salerno's defeat, including Baldwin II of Jerusalem's subsequent march north and his victory over Ilghazi on 14 August at Tel Danith.

Chapter 4, "Fields of Blood," takes a longer view of the aftermath of the Battle of the Field of Blood, not only for Ilhgazi and his successors in Aleppo but also regarding the continuing campaigns in northern Syria by Baldwin II and Joscelin of Courtenay, count of Edessa. This chapter contains a useful discussion of Armenian relations with Byzantium, the Crusader States, and the Turks, a subject that is sometimes neglected in other studies of the region and period (130-134). At this point, Morton also brings the Fatimids back into the discussion, explaining the threat of their navy to Jerusalem's interests and the successful Christian siege against them in Tyre in 1124.

Chapter 5, "Aftermath," provides even more of "the rest of the story," surveying the history of the crusader states all the way to 1187: the Second Crusade, the rise of Saladin, the Battle of Hattin, and the commencement of the Third Crusade. It is not controversial that later events of the twelfth century were, at times, influenced (sometimes directly, more often indirectly) by the struggle for Aleppo, but the race to pack another several decades' worth of history into the chapter is less than profitable. The narrative here is rushed and does not begin to consider the myriad complexities of the rise of the Ayyubids in Egypt and Syria. I appreciate that Morton is trying to link the Syrian experience to later campaigns, but this chapter feels somewhat like a space filler. It concludes with dubious interpretations of respective Frankish and Turkish siege methods and also risk-aversion in western armies (195-198); neither reference any of the numerous available studies on medieval siege warfare, combat operations, or strategic thought.

The book concludes with a curious, first-person perspective "Afterword," which reflects on modern memories of the Crusades in relation to the current and on-going conflict in Syria. Morton asserts that certain issues from crusading times may or may not remain pertinent, but he notes that the West cannot solve them. Rather, "a long-standing resolution can only take place at a grassroots level when these historic hostilities are finally confronted by all factions and at all levels of society with an eye to reconciling their differences. We can but hope" (202). Yes, world peace is possible if we can all just get along, but the connection between such speculations (whether in Syria or the Middle East in general) and the specific subject of this book is unclear. It seems as if Morton wants to engage with the conversation on so-called "recovered" Arabic memory of the Crusades, but I fear his excursus is too short and vague to have much effect.

This Afterword, which seems broadly directed, begs a question: what is the audience for this book? The prose seems popularly-oriented. There is little critical discussion of sources, and the inclusion of so much context in Chapter one suggests a nod to non-specialists, as does the Afterword. Morton includes some evocative legends to frame the story, as well as a lot of dramatic language (in just one paragraph, on page 15, we read of "the storms of war," a "glistening sapphire of the Mediterranean," "this Eden"). The beginning of Chapter five (166-172) takes readers on an imaginative journey alongside a flock of migrating storks: as we fly over each Crusader State, we look down upon rolling hills, rivers, ports, great cities, fortifications, and farms. It is a pleasant and creative device, though probably misplaced so late in the book. As a readable and fast paced survey, the book has much to offer readers interested in Middle Eastern history in general. On the other hand, Morton's book will also hold value for Crusades specialists through its surveying of neglected issues of Turkish cultural and political dynamics. As a complement to West-centered studies of the period, this would make an interesting comparative reading in a graduate course on the Crusades.

Given the book's title, I fully expected to find a complete, thorough analysis of the Battle of the Field of Blood in all its strategic, operational, and tactical elements. In this hope I was disappointed. The battle and siege accounts, as well as the other tactical discussions throughout, are related rather uncritically and without recourse to most of the mass of studies by specialists in medieval warfare. This book will not satisfy medieval military historians, and perhaps it was never intended to do so. But given the number and importance of the engagements covered, as well as their critical role in determining the fate of the Crusader States, I suspect that the book's impact would be more substantial had Morton paid deeper attention to martial issues. To that extent, the book is an important addition to the history of the Crusader States but also, in this reviewer's opinion, a missed opportunity.



1. Thomas Asbridge, "The Significance and Causes of the Battle of the Field of Blood," Journal of Medieval History 23 (1997): 301-316.

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