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Review: The First Crusade, Thomas Asbridge

The first crusade is one of history’s most peculiar moments.  Inspired by a speech that will probably never be known in its entirety, hoards of western Europeans embarked on a crusade to “save” their fellow Christians, the Greeks, from Muslims and recapture Jerusalem.  Against all the odds, the crusaders succeeded in a way that was never repeated, and changed relations between religions in ways that still affect behavior to this day.  Thomas Asbridge takes this familiar story and recasts it, considering again the evidence that historians have always relied upon and offering up new ideas for consideration.

I really enjoyed this detailed look at the first crusade.  I’ve read a number of books on the crusades, but they largely covered the whole of the crusading movement.  This narrative brought my favorite professor’s voice right back to me while still questioning some of the theories that historians have relied upon.  Perhaps my favorite of these was the way Asbridge explored, in detail, the motives behind the crusade.  He postulates that Pope Urban wasn’t the first to come up with the idea of a papal army and that the papacy desperately needed a way to assert their own strength in an age of weakness and poor communication.  He could not have truly expected the vast response to his call for a crusade.

More interesting is the way in which Muslims actually treated Christians fairly before the crusade.  There is no record of any of the cruelties Urban accused them of (according to witnesses after the crusade had already happened; the speech itself has been lost), but rather fairness and freedom of worship.  The crusaders abolished this, but he goes on in later chapters to write about dealings between Christians and Muslims, making it clear that eradicating Islam was not the crusaders’ goal, even if they succeeded in earning enmity from all Muslims because of their barbaric cruelty.  Asbridge doesn’t spare the details.

For a history which was clearly done with effective scholarship in mind, this book is not at all dry, and the action sequences can be quite exciting.  I often found myself feeling strong emotions towards the crusaders, generally disgust and irritation at their behavior towards the Muslims.  Mostly, I was amazed that this happened, and reading the history again only confirmed that for me.  This is the sort of history that is almost unbelievable, but it happened, and it’s very worth reading about.  Not only does it make for a fascinating story, but it even sheds light on the complex issues which Christians and Muslims still struggle with today in regards to their relations with one another.  This is an essential part of the development of the world and Asbridge’s book is a wonderful place to start thinking about it.

I highly recommend The First Crusade and I’m very much looking forward to Asbridge’s overall look at the crusades, which is publishing next year.  I will be reviewing that in 2010, so if this review has interested you at all, stay tuned.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book from the publisher free for review here.

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