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19.12.04 Throop, The Crusades

19.12.04 Throop, The Crusades

The Crusades: An Epitome is a very useful, very timely, little book. And while the physical version of the book is certainly a slender paperback, it must also be mentioned that it can be read as a free e-book on the Kismet Press website (or downloaded for $5). The open-access publication of this important intervention in the history of the crusades is particularly welcome, because it urgently needs to reach as wide an audience as possible. As most readers of this review know all too well, recent years have seen an alarming use and abuse of the history of the crusades (and medieval European history in general) by a wide array of bad actors, from the pseudo-intellectuals of the "alt-right" to contemporary fascist politicians, who seem to be sprouting up like weeds all over the place. Dr. Throop directly addresses this issue in her conclusion, where she enjoins the reader "to recognize the variety of ways in which history has been and still is mobilized for polemical purposes and to incite violence" (185). She has tried to counter the trend by writing a very accessible "epitome" of the history of the crusades, in which the simplified "clash of civilizations" version of the story is replaced by "complexity and ambiguity" (185).

The book is divided into six succinct chapters, with an introduction and conclusion. The introduction, entitled "What were the Crusades?" in an intentional nod to the massive influence of Jonathan Riley-Smith on the field, situates the book in the "Pluralist" camp, which has tended to look at the crusades as a broad phenomenon that affected all parts of medieval society, rather than as discrete military campaigns to the Holy Land. Throop goes further, establishing a Mediterranean-wide focus for the book to go hand in hand with the "complexity" at the heart of this re-telling of the story of the crusades (7).

Chapter 1 sets the stage by describing the Mediterranean world in the eleventh century, focusing in particular on sources of political instability and chaos, such as the Investiture Conflict and Saljuk expansion. The context so established allows the author to conclude the chapter by making one of the central arguments of the book: the Christian and Islamicate societies of the eleventh century were far from monolithic cultural blocs participating in a civilizational conflict.

Chapter 2, entitled "Constructing the First Crusade", follows the progress of the first crusade and the several decades immediately after, in order to examine the various ways in which the events of 1095-1099 were given meaning. Those events get a more thorough narration than any of the other crusades discussed in the book, as they created "a new political reality" in the Mediterranean world (60). Throop's account of the way in which different writers, be they Latin Christians, Muslims, Jews, or Byzantines, assessed and explained the First Crusade is especially strong. The chapter ends with a much more succinct narration of the Second Crusade.

Chapter 3 takes a step back to more fully discuss the political context of the middle- twelfth century, with a lengthy treatment of developments within the Islamic world. There is a substantial examination of the career of Zangi, who built a substantial domain for himself in northern Syria during the 1130s and 40s, and who was the first Muslim ruler to invoke the military jihad against the Crusader States. Throop successfully casts Zangi and his son, Nur al-Din, as state builders using all the tools at their disposal, including jihad, rather than as single-minded religious warriors. The chapter briefly takes a wider view of the Mediterranean world to discuss contemporary events in the Iberian Peninsula and the Kingdom of Sicily, before returning to the east to narrate the developments there that led to the victories of Salah al-Din, and the ensuing Third Crusade.

Chapter 4, "Allies and Adversaries", takes a broad look at the growing complexity of the crusading phenomenon from the end of the twelfth century to the middle of the thirteenth. This pivotal period includes some of the least-well-understood events of the history of crusading, such as the 1204 capture of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, and the war against "heresy" in southern France, known as the Albigensian Crusade. Throop deftly navigates these topics, framing the events in the larger context of Mediterranean power politics and theological developments with the Latin Christendom. The chapter also takes up the gradual institutionalization of crusading, especially under Pope Innocent III, but rightly points out that "crusading was never truly controlled by the church or the pope" (103). This strong chapter ends with a narration of the crusading career of Emperor Frederick II, who restored Jerusalem to Latin Christian rule with diplomacy rather than warfare, all the while at odds with the pope, who had excommunicated the emperor and forbidden his crusade. The episode neatly underlines the complexity and ambiguity at the heart of the book.

Chapter 5 continues the story of crusading in the middle and later thirteenth century by insisting that the period did not see a decline in crusading piety or participation. Rather, while "crusading continued to be a versatile tool, easily wielded on multiple fronts against a variety of targets," changing political circumstances in the Mediterranean world led to a decline in the political presence of Latin Christians in the Eastern Mediterranean (131). After another brief look at crusading in Spain--and in the Baltic--the chapter focuses on the potential for the creation of a larger Latin empire, a project pursued by the papacy and Charles of Anjou. Ultimately, of course, the project went nowhere, and the Crusader states were gradually conquered by resurgent opponents, including the Byzantine Empire and the Mameluks of Egypt.

Chapter 6 examines the development of crusading in the later Middle Ages, again focusing on the continued enthusiasm and excitement that the idea continued to generate. Throop focuses on the way in which crusading shifted in this period to more closely align with the ambitions of Christian rulers, as they worked to build new national identities in their realms. The crusade launched by Fernando and Isabella against the Kingdom of Granada is the "gold standard example" deployed here (170). However, the chapter includes a wide selection of events associated with these later crusades, from the Hussite crusades of the 1420s to the wars with the Ottoman Empire. The chapter ends by arguing that it is difficult to pick an end-date for crusading, and how the idea continued to have resonance and meaning in the seventeenth century and beyond. The book's brief conclusion continues to play with this idea by asking "Have the Crusades Ended?" (177). Throop discusses the ways in which people, in both Europe and the Islamicate World, have continued to find meaning and re-use the past to fit current needs. She closes with a very strong discussion of the ways in which the history of the crusades continues to provide grist for today's political struggles, far too often in the sorts of dangerous ways discussed at the beginning of this review.

In summary, this is a terrific and much needed book. It is short and accessible, and it immediately jumps to the top of the heap, so to speak, of books that might be used to introduce undergraduate students (and perhaps even high school students) to this complex but ever-popular part of medieval history. As with any book that sets out to summarize many centuries in a few pages, some things get left out. For example, despite the pluralist perspective, which Throop tries to take, events outside the Holy Land, especially in places like the Iberian Peninsula and the Baltic, get very brief, sometimes imprecise treatment. Despite the attention given to current scholarship, there are only a couple of brief mentions of the fascinating role of apocalyptic ideas in crusade ideology. The pace of the narrative is quick, and the story often cuts details in a way that many readers may find frustrating. But the author makes up for these necessary editorial concessions with brief and very current "Further Reading" lists, which make The Crusades: An Epitome an even more useful teaching tool. Susanna Throop has surely earned the gratitude of all of us who teach the crusades in our classes, and has created a terrific short introduction to the topic that will help even the most veteran researcher refocus on current historiographical trends in crusades studies.