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The Crusades: A History; Second Edition, by Jonathan Riley-Smith

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The Crusades: A History; Second Edition,

The Crusades: A History; Second Edition, by Jonathan Riley-Smith

The Crusades helped define the Middle Ages: its politics, its external relations, and its religion. A fundamental component of Crusader theology was that violence for the defense or establishment of a Christian state was a moral imperative — something which God desired and which Christians owed God because of their sin. How and why did this theology develop, and what, if anything, does it mean for us today?


Title: The Crusades: A History; Second Edition
Author: Jonathan Riley-Smith
Publisher: Yale University Press
ISBN: 0300101287

• Covers all of the Crusades, not just the first

• None

• Overview of the entire crusading era
• Explores not just what happened, but how historians have attempted to explain events
• 9 maps depicting Crusader routes and shifting political boundaries

Book Review

Perhaps the most important lessons which the Crusades may hold for us today is the fluid nature of the “boundary” between politics and religion. Were the Crusades a political or religious expedition? For many years scholars minimized the role of religious faith and sought to explain the Christian invasions of the Levant in terms of colonization, imperialism, economics, politics, and so forth.

All of these certainly add something to our understanding of what people were thinking, but in the end none of it actually explains the Crusades: why people with lives, homes, and families in Europe would risk losing it all to mount an invasion of a land thousands of miles away which they never visited before and knew little about. Religious faith, zeal, and devotion does the emotional heavy lifting necessary to make such actions explicable, not economics or imperialistic dreams.

Because the Crusades continue to loom large in the politics and religion of Christians, Jews, and Muslims today, a better understanding of them is important. Jonathan Riley-Smith provides a very nice, readable, and comprehensible overview of the entire Crusading era in the second edition of his book The Crusades: A History. Quite a lot has been rewritten — not so much where the basic history is concerned, but with the explanations as to why things happened and how the basic crusading mentality fit in with the overall religious perspective of medieval Christianity.

The idea that violence in pursuit of religious aims is not illicit and may in fact be required did not originate with the Crusades (and obviously did not end with them, either), but the Crusades represented perhaps the most dramatic and momentous expression of what many might regard as intrinsically self-contradictory: killing and butchery in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of God. They aren’t truly self-contradictory, though, and the Crusades demonstrate why.

The Crusades: A History; Second Edition,

The Crusades: A History; Second Edition, by Jonathan Riley-Smith

Riley-Smith doesn’t offer much in the way of pre-Crusades background, beginning with the call of Pope Urban II to retake Jerusalem alongside a bit of political context, but he does explore the lingering death of Crusading and the long-term aftermath in European politics. An all-too-brief afterword explores reactions to the Crusades and various attempts to explain them: the romantics, the romantic imperialists, Marxists, Islamists, and more. Fortunately he includes throughout the text more information on how historians have approached various events in the past and what the current academic consensus is today.

There are a lot of books on the Crusades, focusing on various aspects and times, but Jonathan Riley-Smith’s book is one of the best single-volume overviews of the entire era. It’s very readable and would work well not just in classes, but also for the average reader who simply wants to become familiar with Crusading history. Riley-Smith includes detailed information about the “other” Crusades as well — those against pagans in the north, heretics in southern France, and Muslims in Spain (though each would merit a book of the same length on their own). If you need a single intro to the Crusades, this will fit the bill.

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