This 767 page tome is another great gift to the lay reader from the world of academe. In the presence of such a major work of scholarship a reviewer can only stand in awe. Few, if any, outside of a university department of medieval history, could be qualified to check and evaluate this book which builds upon so much learning from past as well as specialist modern historians from both the Western/Christian tradition and important Moslem sources. The author does not claim to tell the full story, presenting alternative views where matters are in doubt and stating clearly where information is lacking and an issue cannot be resolved. It is clear that many questions remain that might never be answered, but the big question for the layman concerns what can be learned from this study to help the West come to terms with Islam in its modern guise.
At the time of the crusades, all those moving from Western Europe to fight for the Holy City and the True Cross were Christians and Catholics, sometimes calling on help from Eastern Orthodox Christians and sometimes warring against them. Not only were the crusaders Christian, but they were answering a call from the Pope who promised redemption of all their sins. Almost all could be classified as true believers and only a few kings, lords and merchants were inclined to put their own secular interests before those of their faith. Under these conditions, the crusader armies could be considered practically homogenous in terms of their professed faith.
Nothing like a Christian army could be assembled today. Not only are Christians in a minority in most western countries but those that remain display such a bewildering array of conflicting beliefs that a common objective would be impossible to define. On the Moslem side too, diversity of beliefs militates against unity. At the time of the crusades, Islam had already split into Sunni and Shia factions. It was the Sunni half that battled against the crusaders, occasionally helped by some Shias, but also taking advantage of lulls in the crusades to war against their fellow Moslems.
Thomas Asbridge warns against ‘crusade parallelism,’ linking the crusades with the Islamic terrorist problems of the modern world. He recalls how George W Bush once called the War on Terrorism a crusade, before being advised to drop this provocative language, but it was picked up by Usama bin Laden who called the US-led invasion of Iraq a ‘Zionist-Crusader campaign.’ The danger of crusade parallelism was apparent on both sides.
Asbridge warns that the crusades do show ‘the power of faith and ideology to inspire fervent mass movements and to elicit violent discord’ and ‘how readily suspicion and hatred of the “other” can be harnessed.’ But he says the crusades also ‘affirm the capacity of commercial interests to transcend the barriers of conflict.’ He describes how the mercantile cities of Italy, notably Venice and Pisa, sought throughout the two centuries of crusading to promote their trading activities, and how trade between all parties in the near east sometimes caused conflict to be deferred or abandoned and usually continued almost unabated even during hostilities.
In the modern world it is fair to say that faith and ideology in the West are now matters of personal belief and no longer likely to inspire mass movements, while commercial interests are dominant. It is on the Moslem side that faith and ideology still pose a problem. The world cannot wait for the centuries that it took Christianity to reform but it can be observed that it is the richest Moslem states that are most peaceful. Now, as during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it can be seen that commercial interests can ‘transcend the barriers of conflict.’
Source by John Powell
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