Reviewed by: Jonathan Phillips
Author: Conor Kostick
Price (RRP): £20
Reviewers should not, of course, prejudge books they are sent, but reading yet another account of the First Crusade was not, in all honesty, something that I approached with the most open of minds. What could this offer that has not been done countless times before? I was genuinely delighted, therefore, to be drawn into this vigorous and engaging history of the siege of Jerusalem.
The background of the author, a fiction writer as well as a serious student of the First Crusade, gives signposts as to the approach taken here: a narrative-dominated format, unhindered in the main text (there is an appendix discussing source materials) by full contextualisation and the weighing of evidence found in most academic works. Given Kostick’s credentials, however, we can expect a high degree of judgement to underpin his choices.
Without historians’ customary consideration of the development of holy war and detailed dissections of Pope Urban’s speeches at the Council of Clermont, the story plunges full-bore into the events of the First Crusade from Constantinople onwards. Clearly the issues noted above are of immense importance (and students certainly would ignore them at their peril), but the implication here is that either a proper analysis is best left to (for example) the works of Riley-Smith and Bull, or the intended audience is less concerned with academic debate. Once or twice I felt this technique was a touch too light – some background to relations between Byzantium and western Europe would have given events at Constantinople a far clearer grounding – but generally, if you are prepared to buy into this approach it worked very well indeed.
This is not to say there is an absence of thoughtful and well-informed analysis to underpin the narrative, in fact such matters emerge gradually to form their own part of the story. In following the crusade through Asia Minor, the siege of Antioch and the capture of Jerusalem, Kostick neatly weaves in questions of, for example, motivation.
Military history is prominent and the account of the capture of Jerusalem itself is excellent; similarly, tensions between the various crusading contingents, not just among the regional cohorts but also between the secular and clerical ranks, is a clear theme. The shared purpose of these groups was vital in the genesis of the crusade and proved essential in bringing it to victory; Kostick has convincingly brought out the fragility of this relationship – more so than in several overtly academic books. The desperate struggle for water, and the construction and use of siege machinery are further compelling strands of the story. In short, this is a successful blend of a narrative underpinned by academic research and is a genuinely engaging read.
Jonathan Phillips is professor of crusading history at Royal Holloway, University of London. His Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades is published this month by The Bodley Head