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Sunday Book Review: God’s War


Back in early 2008, partially in preparation for my visit to Israel, I read Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. I had not previously been familiar with anything more than the broad outlines of the Crusades, including the seizure of Jerusalem, the arrival of Saladin, and so forth. At 922 pages, God’s War is an exhaustively detailed exploration of the social and political meaning of the Crusades, with sufficient strategic action to appease those interested in the military history. Tyerman places the Crusades firmly in the context of early second millenia Christianity, either rejecting or heavily modifying materialist explanations for the extended military campaigns. Tyerman also details the enduring effects of the Crusades, most of which have little to do with the repeated efforts to seize and hold Jerusalem.

I have long been interested in the theological justification of the Crusades. This statement needs to be prefaced in three ways. First, I’m interested in by not at all puzzled by the development of Catholic just war theory as a way of managing conflict among Christian monarchs and between Christian monarchs and the outside the world. The reasons for the development of this body of theory are pragmatic, even as the theory itself was influenced by Christian doctrine. I’m also not particularly puzzled by the 19th and 20th century union of nationalism and Christian theory (God marches with the Germans, the Americans, etc.). Finally, I appreciate that group affiliation dynamics will tend to override any specific doctrine; even pacifists will learn to kill when they feel their group is under threat. Nevertheless, I’m fascinated (although not surprised) by how Christians theologians developed doctrines that would justify the killing of a foreign and distant enemy in the name of Christ. Christianity differs from Islam and Judaism in that there is no clear duty to defend the community of the faithful. Indeed, Christ seems fairly clear about the not wanting to be “avenged”; he didn’t call out from the cross “I hope someday we can take back Jerusalem!” Tyerman opens with a discussion of militancy in the Christianity of the ninth and tenth centuries, and argues that the mediated nature of the medieval relationship with Scripture (few Christians could read Christian holy texts), and the pragmatic body of Just War theory interacted with the Germanic warrior ethos to produce a new understanding of the role of the warrior in Christian society. This understanding came to be centered around the idea that the responsibility of the warrior (and most rulers were warriors) was not simply to defend his subjects, but also to defend the entirety of Christendom. In the eleventh century this concept was fully delineated by the Vatican, and the papacy began calling for “holy wars” to liberate the formerly Christian lands of the Eastern Mediterranean. As always, material interest interacted with ideational narrative, but Tyerman argues that it is impossible to understand the Crusades in strictly material terms; many Crusaders made enormous financial sacrifices with little hope of material reward, acting in the understanding that they were defending the faith and “avenging” Christ. Similarly, while Christian and Islamic states were engaged in an endless series of wars from the seventh century on, the Crusades cannot be understood as retribution or retaliation for any single instance of Islamic aggression. Jerusalem hadn’t been on the table for four centuries, and the Crusaders were committed to “redeeming” the Holy City.

When the goal of the Crusades is thus defined as “We need to get back at the people who killed Christ,” you know that things aren’t going to work out well for the Jews. The story of Christian depredations against Jews in the Holy Land is familiar; Jews had been allowed to return to Jerusalem following the Islamic conquest in the 650s, and were slaughtered wholesale (along with everyone else) once the Crusaders conquered the city in 1099. Jews were then banned from Jerusalem until Saladin retook the city a century later. Less well known are the pogroms which were associated with mobilization for the Crusades. In the process of whipping the faithful into a fury sufficient to get them to give up their lives, sons, and money, more than a few Jews got killed. In some cases, local princes protected (or tried to protect) the Jewish communities from Christian mobs. In other cases, princes were happy simply to seize all Jewish property in order to fund their own Crusading activities. I do wish that more people would understand that enthusiastic, violent Christianity tends to be bad for the Jews.

I also find it interesting that Christianity, as a whole, pretty much abandoned the idea of retaking Jerusalem just as it became clear that the Christian states had the capacity to reconquer the Holy Land anytime they wanted. Jerusalem isn’t quite irrelevant to the international politics of the early modern period, but it’s pretty close; even the Russians were more focused on Constantinople than on the Holy City. I don’t doubt that Allenby and the men of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force felt a chilling sense of awe when they entered Jerusalem on December 11, 1917, but the moment paled somewhat in comparison to the events on the Western Front. Moreover, Britain made clear in fairly short order that Jerusalem would not be governed as a Christian city. The moment for Christian revaunchism had passed, apparently. I suppose you could argue (as some Christian Zionists certainly would) that the Jewish reoccupation of Jerusalem is the fulfillment of the vision of the Crusades, but I think it’s fair to say that a Jewish dominated Jerusalem wasn’t exactly what the men of the First Crusade had in mind.

Tyerman makes the crucial point that the serial invasions of the Middle East were not the only, the most important, or the most lasting part of the Crusades. Using the same justifications that they used to retake Jerusalem, Christians in Iberia and Germany waged war against Muslims and pagans on their frontiers. In Iberia this had the long term effect of driving the Muslims (and the Jews) off of the peninsula, as well as setting the stage for the conquest of the New World. In Eastern Europe and the Baltic, the result was the more or less permanent expansion of the frontiers of Christendom. Imagine the surprise of the typical pagan in his Baltic village when Crusaders came to town, sacking and burning, and explained that they were there to “avenge Christ.” In Central and Western Europe, the Crusades had long term cultural effects that remained after the military aspect had become irrelevant. Even in the very late medieval period monarchs were “taking the cross,” which is to say taking responsibility for reconquering Jerusalem.

The concentration on social and intellectual history shouldn’t obscure the fact that Tyerman also treats military and political history at considerable length. He explains the fraught conditions that afflicted the First Crusade, and the unlikely path that it took to conquering Jerusalem. He further explains the basic military situation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as its political dysfunction and dependence on the largess of Western monarchs. The collapse of the Kingdom is explained in terms of political changes within Islam, brought about to some extent by the Mongol invasions. If you read this book and pay attention, you’ll know which Crusade involved Richard the Lion Hearted, which Crusade got lost and conquered Byzantium, and which Crusade failed when the Emperor fell off his horse. You’ll also have a sense of how the Crusaders benefited from control of the sea in the Eastern Mediterranean, and how the growth of the Ottoman Empire foreclosed the possibility of additional Crusades.

On a personal note, as noted I read this book shortly before leaving the Israel in 2008, and I found it enormously helpful in terms of interpreting the Christian impact on the Holy Land. However, there was another, not terribly welcome, effect; I felt a certain tribal kinship with the Crusaders. It is difficult to wander around Israel/Palestine without having a strong sense of tribal identification; such identification pretty much oozes from the terrain, and is a critical part of the manner in which people define themselves. In part because of this book, I had the strong sense that the Crusaders might have been bastards, but that they were MY bastards; I had something essential in common with them that I did not share with the other residents. Recognizing the absurdity of this feeling didn’t make it go away. I even got a bit defensive about the series of jokes Israelis would tell when acting as tour guides around Crusader sites. “Feel free to mock the Crusaders when Israel turns 193” I wanted to (but did not) say. The reasons for this were unclear; I’m not Christian, and while it’s certainly possible that I have an ancestor among the (relatively few) English Crusaders, I’m much more compelled by Anglo-Saxon identity than by some affiliation with Christendom.

In any case, this is a very long book, but it is exceptionally rewarding. Appreciating the impact of the Crusades on the West is worthwhile in an of itself, and having some understanding the Crusades in the context of a political climate that rewards constant invocation of historical half-truths is almost necessary. Worth your valuable time and cubits.

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