Although the Latin military/political adventure in the Holy Land was brief—with the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem enduring less than a century—the Crusades as a phenomenon were a central event to the history of the Latin West, had fatal consequences for Byzantium, and provoked a reorientation of the Islamic Near East. The Crusades were at once a religious, military, economic, political, mercantile, and colonial enterprise. They began with a call to aid fellow eastern Christians in Anatolia against invading Seljuqs, but they soon became a mission to reclaim Christian control over Jerusalem and the holy sites of scripture. Eventually, they became a “global” struggle waged against any and all non-Catholic princes and peoples as well as against any dissenters within Latin Christendom. For over five centuries it was the thread that ran through European history, and the vector by which Latin Christians and Christianity apprehended and engaged with the outside world while constructing their own cultural and religious sense of self.
The Crusades influenced art, literature, song, and popular culture, and facilitated the acculturation and adaptation of Byzantine and Islamic intellectual, technological, and cultural advances in the West. They channeled the popular messianism of the new millennium, harnessed the new rationalism of the scholastics, and transformed the Church, through the establishment of the Inquisition, the imperial papacy, and the indulgences that eventually contributed to the fracturing of Catholicism in the Protestant Reformation. Long after the ambition of reconquering the Holy Land had been (rather quickly) abandoned, the ideal of Crusade continued to be deployed as a rationalization for Latin expansion. It also provided the conceptual framework for the domination and colonization of the “New Worlds” of the early modern age.
Alternately lauded and decried by historians of the middle ages over the succeeding centuries, the rhetoric of Crusade (and its cousin, jihad) continue to inform political discourse in both the Christian and Islamic world today. For historians, their nature and significance remains a subject of discord and debate. It is therefore clear that students of both the premodern and modern West—not to mention the informed public—must have a grasp of the phenomenon and its impact.
Susanna Throop’s brief but lucid, The Crusades. An Epitome, fits that role commendably. At less than two hundred handbook-sized pages, with minimal notes, it provides a comprehensive overview of the crusades as a political, economic, and military phenomenon. The introduction, “What were the Crusades?” begins in the present with modern politicians’ and activists’ invocations and provides the reader with a primer on key concepts. Chapter one, “Connections and Conflicts in the Eleventh-Century Mediterranean,” sets the stage, not in northern Europe, but in the disintegrating caliphal/imperial Mediterranean. Next, “Constructing the First Crusade: Contexts, Events, and Reactions” reviews the genesis and execution of the First Crusade, from Urban II at Clermont to the taking of Jerusalem. Three, “Shifting Ground: Crusading and the Twelfth-Century Mediterranean,” focuses on the regional politics of the Holy Land and the eastern Mediterranean through to the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath. “Allies and Adversaries: Crusading Culture and Intra-Christian Crusades,” shifts back to the Latin West, focusing particularly on the relationship between Church and empire, and the deployment of crusade against Cathars and other dissidents. Five, “Changing Circumstances: Crusading in the Thirteenth Century,” moves to the peripheries, including Saint Louis’ adventures in Egypt and Tunis, the Baltic Crusades, a resurgent Byzantium, and the impact of the Mongols on the Islamic East. The final chapter, “Towards Christian Nationalism: Crusading into the Early Modern Period,” looks at the era of post-Black Death transformations, when crusading became at once more deeply entrenched culturally and institutionally, and less relevant politically—an evocative if hollow façade for political expansion across Europe, into Africa and the East, and ultimately, beyond. Wrapping up, her “Conclusion: Have the Crusades Ended?,” bring us back up to the present and the long shadow the Crusades have cast on western and Islamic culture and history.
This is not the first short history of the Crusades, but it is one that is truly short and impressively comprehensive, weaving together political, economic, institutional, and religious history in a compact narrative that does not scrimp on complexity in spite of its economy. The prose is clear and accessible to student and lay-reader, making the book an excellent supplementary or introductory text. The reviewer was repeatedly impressed at the amount of detail that was fit so neatly into so few pages. To be sure, it is not exhaustive—there are many aspects of crusade and crusading that are not covered. Crusade historiographical debates are not deeply discussed, nor is popular religion or social history. But The Crusades. An Epitome admirably achieves what it sets out to do. The book is generously illustrated with maps, and each chapter has a short list of recommended reading appended to it, making it a useful, reader-friendly pocket-sized overview of one of the crucial and most-often misunderstood episodes in the history of the West.