The centuries of campaigning to reclaim the Holy Land retain their fascination, as demonstrated by this expert mixture of cutthroat politics, battlefield fireworks, and mass murder.
Bestselling British historian Jones (Templars: The Rise and Fall of God’s Holy Warriors, 2017) reminds readers that Christians had been warring against Islam since its warriors burst out of Arabia in the seventh century and advanced well into Europe. By the 11th century, when the author begins the narrative, Spain and Sicily were already battlegrounds. Matters were critical further east where the Byzantine Empire was fending off attackers on all sides, most significantly from the Turks, who had advanced perilously close to the capital at Constantinople. In 1095, its emperor requested military aid from Pope Urban II. For many reasons, not all admirable, Urban responded enthusiastically. Jones does his best to explain, but historians still scratch their heads over the fanatic response. Masses of the poor slaughtered local non-Christians (i.e., Jews) and then walked east in the thousands; most died. Soon after, armies under French and Norman leadership marched the entire distance, more than 2,000 miles, capturing much of Palestine, including Jerusalem, in 1099 after a bloody campaign. The result was a kingdom of Jerusalem and several other Christian principalities that spent the next two centuries fighting, ultimately unsuccessfully, for survival. At intervals, European leaders organized vast, expensive, poorly organized expeditions (crusades) that trundled toward the Holy Land, sometimes reached it, wreaked havoc, and suffered horribly. Readers may recall the Third Crusade’s epic clashes between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. Jones does not neglect officially sanctioned, bloody crusades against Muslims in Spain, pagans in northern Europe, and religious heretics at home. As usual, the author has done his homework, laboring mightily to recount century after century of gruesome warfare between profoundly religious cultures with apparently no inhibition against lying and profound cruelty. Two appendices list the kings and queens of Jerusalem and the popes.
Readers may not sort out the innumerable Baldwins, Rogers, Fredericks, or battles, but they will keep the pages turning.