Catholic schools used to—do they still?—nickname their athletic teams “Crusaders.” Jefferson spoke of a “crusade against ignorance.” Eisenhower called his World War II memoir Crusade in Europe. In recent decades we have had crusades against crime, drugs, and poverty, to name just a few targets. George W. Bush proclaimed a crusade against terror. The word generally had a positive valence. But now, among groups as diverse as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Western progressives, the word is a slur. John Paul II even apologized for the Fourth Crusade (1215) that, instead of liberating Jerusalem, captured Constantinople. In recent years xenophobic crackpots of the so-called alt-right have embraced the crusades.
So what is a crusade, what were the crusades? In bare essentials, the crusades were a series of wars waged by European Christians against Muslims and pagans, and also against fellow Christians, in the Levant, of course, but also in Iberia, Italy, Southern France, the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Baltic. The so-called First Crusade—medieval people did not number the crusades; modern writers do—was preached in 1095 by Urban II, launched in 1096, and completed in 1099. The last crusade that met the technical requirements for crusading (see below) was launched by Pius II in 1463. Struggles against the Ottoman Turks down to the end of the seventeenth century bore some stamps of crusading. The crusades were, thus, the longest-lived phenomenon of the medieval Catholic world. It would be fair to guess that the crusades are one of the few things most people would mention if asked to say something about the Middle Ages.
With the death in 2016 of the Cambridge scholar Jonathan Riley-Smith, Christopher Tyerman assumed, by merit not by default, leadership among the world’s historians of the crusades. He is prolific. Readers of the book under review may wonder how it compares to his 2006 God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, which tipped the scales at 1,024 pages. The World of the Crusades is only half as long but it retains many features of the longer study. Both are based on a sovereign command of both sources and scholarship, and both seem to be addressed to general audiences more than to fellow specialists. Tyerman never argues with other scholars in his text and rarely does so in his notes. World moves at a livelier clip than God’s War and is more engagingly written. It is also festooned with features that will entertain and inform all readers: 161 images, almost all in color; seventeen maps; and thirty-nine essays of two to four pages called “The Crusades in Detail.” These treat, to pick just a few examples, Women and the Crusades, Plunder and Booty, Castles in Outremer, Paying Crusaders, Food and Drink, The Sociology of Crusading: Who Went?, The Children’s Crusade, and Medicine. Reading this book is as pleasurable as it is informative. I have been reading and teaching medieval history for fifty years. I wish I had cut my teeth on this book instead of Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades (1951–54).
Three themes run all the way through this book (and inform God’s War as well). The first is that the inception of the crusades drew upon a reservoir of enthusiasm for Holy War that persisted, now waxing, now waning, for some seven centuries. That enthusiasm was, at its core, fundamentally religious. The second is that each crusade can best be understood when set into its economic, social, political, and ecclesiastical context. The third is that geography matters: cascading turbulence in Western and Southern Europe, the Middle East, and the Baltic must be understood if the crusades are to be understood. Themes two and three generate Tyerman’s “world.” A further difference between God’s War and World is that the world is more central in the latter and war, in minute detail, more central in the former. Readers who want a blow-by-blow account of each crusading campaign will be happier with War.