Napoleon Buonaparte was, shall we say. succinct: "Hazlitt's speculative episodes are capital; I skip the battles."
The world has always been divided into those who find military history scintillating, and those of us who are inveterate battle-skippers. Anyone in the latter camp will be delighted with Norman Housley's splendid new book about the Crusades. Few topics have been written about more often and yet, as Housley rightly comments, precious few "attempts have been made to describe what the practice of crusading meant for the men and women who engaged in it".
Hardly a year goes by without some new history of the events between 1095 and 1291 (from Urban II's calling of the First Crusade to the fall of Acre). but they often cover identical ground. The familiar stories of the epic journeys and the military campaigns, of the building of crusader castles and the West's fluctuating fortunes are dutifully trotted out, but only very rarely is there a sustained attempt to enter the mental worlds of the people involved. This is the gap that Housley's book attempts to fill. It succeeds brilliantly.
Those unversed in the basic sequence of crusading events need not panic, however. In a brief opening chapter Horsley efficiently traces the causes and consequences of the seven great crusades: enough to allow anyone to orient themselves, but not too much to bore the more informed reader. After this he begins to spread his wings and, on almost every issue, he has insightful things to say.
He explores how the call to crusade was announced: the strategies employed by preachers and the responses they were trying to evince in their audiences. There are detailed studies of how individuals set about raising the funds that crusading required, the steps they took to protect their lands and families from acquisitive neighbours during their absence, and (just in case the military history buff is starting to despair) informative discussions of everything from siege warfare to the logistics of feeding and transporting crusader armies.
The book comes most alive, however, when Housley approaches the most important, and contested, question of all: what motivated crusaders to go on crusade in the first place? Histories of the period often talk about the yearning.to fulfil chivalric dreams, the lure of landgrabbing and plunder, and the noxious power of an anti-Islamic vendetta.
Housley does not dismiss such concepts, nor should he, but he wants to return religious passion to the centre of any analysis of the Crusades. The primary objective the recapture of Jerusalem was self-evidently religious in nature. but Housley digs much deeper. With no little boldness he announces that "crusading was first and foremost an act of devotion". It was armed pilgrimage; the ultimate in penitential exercise. The crusader was offered huge benefits for his pains a guarantee of eternal bliss, no less but this only struck such a chord because of "an aching sense of sinfulness coupled with near-despair about the believer's chances of achieving salvation".
All Housley wants us to do is to take such motivations seriously, rather than cynically dismissing them. The Crusades, as Housley's book confirms, contained more than their share of unedifying moments: events that continue to haunt relations between Christianity and Islam.
Moreover, those who went on crusade often did so for decidedly worldly reasons: vassals followed their lords because they had little choice. criminals went to avoid prison, debtors went to escape their creditors. But others were energised by religious devotion: however selfserving, and however misguided such kinds of devotion might seem to us at 900 years' distance.
Does Housley trumpet this notion a little too loudly, at the expense of other interpretations? I suppose-, from time to time, he does. but he also draws on a Staggering range of written and visual sources to bolster his arguments and, most importantly, he gives a real sense of the thoughts that must have been percolating in the minds of crusaders as they headed eastwards.
This book represents a very important historical corrective: it puts the religion back into the Crusades.