Christopher Tyerman, God's War; A New History of the Crusades (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 1024pp.
Magisterial in scope, meticulous in detail, cautious in its conclusions, breathtaking in its bibliographic command of the original sources, and sparkling with literary style, the Oxford historian Christopher Tyerman has written what many medievalists have hailed as the single best book on the Crusades, one that is sure to supplant if not surpass Steven Runciman's three volume A History of the Crusades (1951–1954) as the new gold standard on the subject. Along the way he debunks numerous "glorious misconceptions," both scholarly and popular (eg, that an intolerant and hostile Christendom that was ignorant of the Middle East corrupted a tolerant Islam), about these iconic events of history where like no others "the past is captured in abiding cultural myths of inheritance, self-image, and destiny."
Tyerman cautions against two common responses to our historical past. One is "condescending historical snobbery"—to caricature the past as "comfortingly different" from the present, and to dismiss our forbears as less sophisticated, more cruel, credulous, and hypocritical than we are today. Two hundred million deaths to war in the last century belie that error. Another mistake is to use the past as a "mirror to the present," as if the atrocities of the Crusades presaged today's massacres. Tyerman does not exonerate Christendom from its sanctification of slaughter, but he reminds us that Christians did no more than what many religions have done in demonizing its enemies, taxing its citizens to kill them, redrawing maps to conquer and dominate sacred space (cf. Israel in 1948, he suggests), and even allowing those whom they conquered to live in peaceful co-existence under their new rule.
Until the time of Constantine, many Christians rejected the notion of war. Tyerman traces the subsequent changing attitudes from reluctance, to accomodation, to a "gospel of indiscriminate hate," and finally to the "irreconcilable paradox" whereby followers of the prince of peace who taught the Sermon on the Mount unleashed a fury of carefully orchestrated butchery, barbarism, and bigotry. The scale, scope and complexities of the Crusades are almost unimaginable—the recruitment, military logistics, preaching tours, propaganda campaigns, technologies of warfare, financing, sea-faring, international trade, treaty-making, etc. For 500 years, from Urban II's preaching campaign in 1095–1096 to "the last crusader" Pope Pius II (1405–1464), from Greenland to Iberia and from England to Iraq, the church not only justified organzied violence but sacralized it and declared it meritorious. Nordic pagans, European Jews, Muslims in Spain and the Middle East, and fellow Christians in Constantinople or France (the heretical Cathars) were all exterminated at various times. When the slaughters ended, Tyerman shows how the crusader mentality had permeated public consciousness so broadly and deeply that it expressed itself in literature, liturgy, art, architecture, and even in wills that left inheritances to fund crusades.
"External manifestations" of the Crusades, writes Tyerman at the end of a thousand pages, "can be observed. Yet the internal, personal decision to follow the cross, to inflict harm on others at great personal risk, at the cost of enormous privations, at the service of a consuming cause, cannot be explained, excused or dismissed either as virtue or sin. Rather, its very contradictions spelt its humanity." For a shorter and more popular version of the same material see Tyerman's Fighting for Christendom; Holy War and the Crusades (Oxford, 2004, 264 pages), and his interview with NPR at http://www.npr.org/programs/wesun/transcripts/2005/feb/050227.tyerman.html.