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The Crusader States

Norman Housley praises a meticulous exploration of Syria and Palestine in the 11th and 12th centuries

Published: December 13, 2012 at 7:19 am
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Reviewed by: Norman Housley
Author: Malcolm Barber
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £25


In this account of the states that were established in Palestine and Syria in the wake of the First Crusade, Malcolm Barber intriguingly bucks a trend in recent crusading studies. Some historians of crusading and the states that it brought into being have painted on huge canvases, ranging over hundreds of years from the Baltic to Morocco. In comparison with them, Barber is a miniaturist. His focus is on the states that were created in the Levant, above all the kingdom of Jerusalem, and he ends his book in 1192, with the departure of Richard the Lionheart after the Third Crusade.

This carefully circumscribed agenda enables him to reconstruct what happened between 1099 and 1192 in detail that surpasses anything that has been attempted of late. Barber even has space to give a description of the abbey that Queen Melisende founded at Bethany, and of the governmental structure put in place at Frankish Edessa, the short-lived state in present-day eastern Turkey to which historians usually give a few lines in its entirety.

Barber adopts a narrative approach. This does not mean that he neglects explanation, because he weaves an interpretation of what happened into his narrative, and throughout his text he embeds passages in which major developments are succinctly described. But his book’s overall trajectory derives from the epic process by which the Holy Land was conquered, the states created, defended and expanded, then brought close to destruction by Saladin. This enables him to capture the drama of events, above all when he recounts the rise of Saladin against the background of the factional disputes that afflicted the kingdom of Jerusalem in the 1180s.

The book’s scholarship cannot be faulted. Since 1945 the crusader states have been the subject of much revisionist research, and Barber has read and reflected on all of it. He has long been a master of intelligent synthesis. Of equal importance, he faithfully and meticulously cites the considerable volume of sources underpinning the picture that has now emerged. This includes the Arabic texts for the period, which receive their fair share of attention in Barber’s book. This is welcome, as is his inclusion of no fewer than 21 maps. They cover everything from the standard political geography to more esoteric subjects such as Saladin’s campaigns in 1188. Fifteen black and white plates provide a helpful visual accompaniment to the text.

There is much to admire in this book. The information is clearly presented, the text accessibly written, the author’s judgments sensitive and convincing. Barber’s unsurpassed knowledge of the Knights Templar means that he is especially insightful in his description of the campaigning that made up so much of the period’s history. The story itself is a perennially fascinating one. Barber writes about enormous challenges, much imaginative response on the part of Christians and Muslims alike, and above all a clash of faiths that possesses great relevance for the world in which we live.


Professor Norman Housley, University of Leicester


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