‘God’s War: A New History of the Crusades’

God's War: A New History of the CrusadesGod’s War: A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two caveats to an otherwise enthusiastic recommendation. The author, I am guessing, sleeps with a worn and weighty thesaurus not far from his head. And he is occasionally shunned at parties, if his storytelling is anything like his sometimes roundabout writing style.

Still, and especially if you are still reading this pithy review, enthusiastically recommended.

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I joke about a “worn and weighty thesaurus;” in truth, I was flat-out stumped, frequently, frustratingly, by the author’s vocabulary. Words like fissiparous, apothegm and termagant stud the numerous pages of this book, like angry thorns in an unsuspecting backside. In fact, they frustrated my early attempts to get through it all, and only after I endeavored to take a few notes and keep a dictionary close at hand was I able to gain momentum.

And I should not, probably, have maligned “his storytelling” either. I truly enjoyed this book. But many of the summary remarks that begin chapters seem to presume a reader is already halfway there. Proper nouns are casually introduced, events blithely referred to. But once the reader adjusts to the style, realizes that the early intricate compound sentences are expounded upon (in spades) later on, these introductions become welcome mileposts.


I have been craving the reading of this book for years. So. A few more things after all 922 pages of it (not including the footnotes):

The first was that it fits snugly into my developing Theory of Long Books. After you finish your first one, each succeeding doorstop-worthy title becomes easier and more satisfying to digest. (I wonder if anacondas think the same way.)

English: Medieval miniature painting of the Si...

Medieval miniature painting of the Siege of Antioch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second was how the subject remains timely stuff, and not for obvious reasons. I had just passed out of a multichapter seminar by the author, Christopher Tyerman, on the justification for holy war when I read a seemingly authoritative essay on how President Obama might justify his drone war in the words of Augustine, among others. (It says here that he cannot.) Later, I had digested pages on papal authority when I saw “Medieval Play” by the self-indulging playwright Kenneth Lonergan. (My nine-word review: The play makes Tyerman’s book seem breezy and short.)

Another was Tyerman’s seemingly magisterial grasp of the subject. Do not read too much into this — I am unnaturally in awe of writers like Tyerman, who I am sure had a lot of help researching and writing. Still, I was impressed by how he thoroughly defends his reasoning for writing the book in the first place — as described in the introduction — by continually pointing out how previous assessments had fallen short, for whatever reason. No less impressive were Tyerman’s own assessments, and his many moments of bright, light wit.

Tyerman displayed a nimbleness, too, in both introducing esoteric subjects and thoroughly dissecting them, all in a matter of pages, so that a novice reader can follow along with more experienced ones. By the time the Third and Fourth Crusades roll around, even a distracted reader is able to anticipate the failures — political, logistical, strategical or otherwise.

English: Capture of Jerusalem during the First...

Capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, 1099, from a medieval manuscript. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A fourth was the author’s willingness to make unsparing judgments of the actions of the various participants. These critiques, leavened as they were with clear warnings that a modern worldview has no place in medieval decision making, were among the highlights of the book. And the commentary covers everything, from inside-baseball analysis of crusader leadership (i.e. Why does Richard I turn back from Jerusalem, anyway?) to the hearts and minds of everyday people. I mean, why did any of these men and women sacrifice so much for what were consistently, obviously futile endeavors?

Tyerman’s book also makes a compelling case for how 500-some years of crusading informed the succeeding 500 years of world history. Nothing as consuming as the crusades would have failed to have impact, but Tyerman skillfully and persuasively connects a myriad dots — Spain to its imperial heights and Europe toward the Reformation, for starters.

And finally, a lasting impression is of all those upturned faces, breathing their last under an oppressive Anatolian or Levantine or North African sun. Nameless infantrymen who, especially for later expeditions, signed up knowing they would probably never return. Knowing, too, that their well-born leaders would probably let them down.

No final judgment on the crusades, or on its historiography, can be complete without accepting that their sacrifice cannot be simply explained.

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