A capable if undramatic overview of the four-century war between medieval Christianity and Islam.
Hindley, an English writer of popular histories, is working in a crowded field dominated largely by compatriots such as Steven Runciman, whose work on the Crusades is indispensable. This one is not, but Hindley does a generally competent job in outlining the historical currents that were flowing through Western Europe when the good knights of France decided that the liberation of the Holy Land from its Arab conquerors would be a worthy pursuit. Their cross-blazoned banners, whence crusade, occasioned a shift in meaning of the Arabic word jihad, which, Hindley writes, had formerly meant “the effort to advance Islam in one’s own life by striving for religious virtue,” but in the 11th century, as today, came to denote striving in warfare to free the world of infidels—and particularly the “Franks,” as the warriors of Islam called all Europeans, mostly because the crusading enterprise was dominated by French and Anglo-Norman lords such as Robert Giscard and Richard Lionheart. The foot soldiers of the Crusades, Hindley writes, made up of elements from many nations, were well aware of the differences among themselves: the French considered themselves to be superior, the Germans disliked the French, the Danes were happy to keep to themselves and drink themselves silly, and “everybody despised the wily, schismatic Greeks.” The attendant disunity, as much as disease and Saladin’s hard-fighting soldiers, caused many a disastrous defeat. Usefully, Hindley extends his discussion of the Crusades to embrace holy war against not just Muslims, but also the non-Christian peoples of the Baltic, who rightly terrified the crusaders: “Where Catholic Christendom burnt its heretics,” he cheerily observes, “the pagan Lithuanians burnt their prisoners of war on ritual pyres.”
Sketchy but readable: somewhat worthwhile in a time of renewed strife between the Western and Islamic spheres.