“The World of the Crusades: An Illustrated History” by Christopher Tyerman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. 525 pages, $35 (hardcover).
General works about the crusades abound, yet “The World of the Crusades” easily stands head and shoulders above the crowd for its readability, attractive illustrations, thoroughness and value. This is an accessible, comprehensive and beautifully-illustrated volume by one of the greatest living scholars of the crusades. For those with interest in crusading but no background in either crusades or the middle ages, there is no better entry into the subject than this work. Yet experts, armchair and academic alike, will also find much to enjoy and little to complain about in this attractive and humane book.
The title, “The World of the Crusades,” gives a clear sense for Christopher Tyerman’s perspective on the subject. Readers unfamiliar with the last 40 years of crusade scholarship may be surprised at the breadth of activities discussed. Wikipedia and common knowledge assume that the crusades were a series of clearly identifiable, numbered expeditions to recover or defend Jerusalem from Muslims. The greatest achievement of recent crusade scholarship, however, has been to show just how widespread, varied and controversial crusading was in the medieval world. As Tyerman showed clearly in articles dating back to the mid-1990s, medieval people themselves were not so clear on what crusading really was: “there was no agreed or consistent word for the crusade in Latin or the European vernaculars” (20).
Rather than a tidy narrative about a clearly-defined object, “The World of the Crusades” insists on historical context, offering readers a guided tour through a vast panorama of related activities, beliefs and objects. From wars of territorial conquest against Muslims in Spain, to wars of conversion against pagans in the Baltic region and politically-driven wars against Christians inside Europe itself, crusading was one strand woven in with many other changes and patterns affecting Europe and the Mediterranean world during the Middle Ages. All of these are covered in this book, and more besides. As the preface clearly states, this work is an attempt to “examine crusading in its own muddied and muddling political, social, economic and cultural setting” (xx). It deserves the highest of praise for its ability to simultaneously distill the findings of contemporary scholarship, answer and refute generally-believed myths and stereotypes and humanize crusading without justifying or apologizing for it.
Tyerman insists correctly, as he has elsewhere, that parallels between medieval crusading and modern religious warfare or contemporary conflicts in the Near East are “spurious.” His last two chapters will be especially valuable for readers who wonder why crusading really does haunt the contemporary imagination. In these chapters, he explains clearly and concisely how our own interest in the medieval crusades derives, not from the middle ages themselves, but rather from their appropriation by 19th- and 20th-century European artists, politicians and colonialists. The ideas that 21st-century violence has “roots” in medieval crusades or that crusading is somehow “still with us” are among the most dangerous and pernicious myths Tyerman confidently puts to rest here.
The book’s greatest advantage, its comprehensiveness, is also its only real weakness. At 525 pages, it is quite long. This is a book best dipped in and out of, treated like a reference work more than a novel. Yet it is the best kind of reference work, one that is lively, full of high-quality illustrations (both black-and-white and color) and compellingly written. In addition to chapters on major periods in medieval crusading, the book is spotted with brief asides, listed in the table of contents as “The Crusades in Detail.” These are bite-sized and fascinating discussions of medieval objects (coins, castles, maps), people (Urban II, Bernard of Clairvaux) and events (the Children’s Crusade, the abolishing of the Knights Templar) that help bring the world of the crusades to life. People with even a passing interest in why we still talk about crusades or what the crusades were really like owe it to themselves to pick up this book.
– Reviewed by Jeffrey Miner, Western Kentucky University History Department.