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Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade.

The military history of the first crusade is hardly untrodden ground. It does not, however, loom large in most general histories of the crusades. Earlier military historians tended to deal with the movement as a whole, which not only precluded the inclusion of detail but also the analysis of the one successful war of aggression in the Holy Land in isolation from the long drawn-out defensive wars which followed. John France's concentration on the military aspects of the first crusade brings us a useful and interesting new perspective. He argues rightly that, compared with sieges and deliberate devastation, pitched battles, on which most military historians have concentrated, were a relatively minor part of medieval warfare. He is careful to fit them into the sequence of skirmishes, marches, and sieges undertaken by the crusaders from their arrival in Constantinople to the capture of Jerusalem, showing the strategies which lay behind the crusaders' actions while reconstructing, as far as possible, (which is often remarkably fully) the various military engagements. He achieves this by a close analysis of the various contemporary accounts, reconciling them where possible, otherwise selecting the most probable, and relating their narratives closely to the topography of the areas concerned. He concludes that the military skills of the crusaders were an extremely important factor in their success. The disunity of the Turks, and later the lack of preparation of the Fatimids when they had to defend Jerusalem, certainly contributed to that success, but crusading historiography has tended to minimize unfairly the part played by the crusaders in their own victory. That victory was achieved by a combination of determination - France is clear that since there was no effective means of restricting desertions, religious faith was crucial in holding the army together - intelligent strategy and skill in fighting.

The book is more, however, than a record of fighting. France begins with useful summaries on the genesis of the crusade and the state of military expertise in western Europe on the eve of the crusades, illustrating the latter by accounts of selected campaigns. A dominant theme of the book is the importance of supplies or the lack of them. This is not a new theme, but France's insistence on the degree to which it dictated the strategy of the crusading leadership is enlightening.

The first crusade suffered, from the outset, a serious disadvantage in that the high command was vested in a committee. Relations between the leaders were always strained; the divisions ultimately imperilled the whole expedition and drove the rank and file to impose their demands on the leaders and force them to proceed to Jerusalem. The shortcomings in the leadership of the crusade have been emphasized by all its historians; France, however, while admitting these, points out just what an achievement it was that the various armies in fact co-operated long enough to take Antioch against heavy odds, and subsequently, Jerusalem. Moreover France demonstrates that most of the leaders were able: Bohemond was outstanding but not, as has been argued, unique in good generalship. The army as a whole grew in coherence as well as experience, the military ability of its leaders outweighed their mutual jealousies, and thus the crusade achieved its military success despite clashes between its leaders.

One of France's incidental achievements is to clarify the strategic reasons for the route of the crusaders between Dorylaeum and Antioch by way of Armenia, which has hitherto been rather unsatisfactorily explained by an allusion to the difficulties, military and physical, in crossing the terrain along the direct route. France gives a convincing explanation of the strategic importance of Armenia in the crusaders' general plan.

No two accounts of the first crusade agree on the role of the Greeks. France's argument that the turning point in the breakdown of relations between them and the crusaders dates from Alexius's refusal to continue from Philomelium (Akshehir) to Antioch after his campaign against the Turks, seems convincing (though, as France makes clear, hostility to the Greeks was always encouraged by Bohemond). France also stresses, however, the importance of the naval help given by Alexius at the siege of Antioch.

This is not a book for neophytes. It assumes some prior knowledge. For instance, Peter the Hermit is mentioned on page 21 without even his identifier ("the army of Peter and the others") and is explained only some sixty pages later. It is sometimes exasperatingly allusive and it can also be extremely dense. More paragraphs would help - a paragraph of over three pages describing the victory against Kerbogah at Antioch conveys something of the rush of events but makes an already difficult narrative unnecessarily harder. "Run-on" sentences again make the narrative difficult to follow, and some repetitions could have been cut out. That said, however, this should be mandatory reading for serious students of the crusade. We needed something which would restore the fighting - which was, after all, the day to day experience of most of the crusaders - to a more central role in the narrative of the first crusade. France has not only done this; he has given a fresh and convincing interpretation of the episode.

Carola M. Small University of Alberta
COPYRIGHT 1995 Canadian Journal of History
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Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Small, Carola M.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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