Saladin in his Time 
by P.H. Newby.
Faber, 210 pp., £10.95, November 1983, 0 571 13044 5
Show More
Soldiers of the Faith: Crusaders and Moslems at War 
by Ronald Finucane.
Dent, 247 pp., £12.50, November 1983, 0 460 12040 9
Show More
Show More

Claude Lévi-Strauss and others have been in the habit of describing the expansion of European civilisation as an unmitigated catastrophe for the rest of mankind. It is arguable that not the least of its casualties has been the West’s sense of its own limitations. From the conquest of Mexico and Peru until 1941 (at the earliest), Europe’s onward march seemed unstoppable, fuelled as it was by a combination of immeasurably superior technology and an ineffable sense of cultural superiority. Even the Turk, who was obliterating a whole European army and hammering at the gates of Vienna just as Pizarro was butchering the Incas, was, by the 18th century, the Sick Man of Europe (the first of many), and could be rolled aside by the gallantry of Lawrence in the 20th. The events of the second half of the 20th century, especially those of the last decade, have been a salutary reminder that Western ascendancy was short as well as nasty and brutish. In particular, the West, with its own established religion in decay, has grossly underestimated Islam. From the death of Muhammad to the decline of the Ottomans, the most formidable military and economic power in the world was usually Islamic, and the Arabs did a much better job of preserving antique civilisation in the lands they conquered than did the German invaders of the Roman Empire: until the 19th century, it is likely that the incidence of literacy was far more widespread in Islamic than in Christian territory, and the standard of medical treatment far higher.

In the circumstances, the history of the Crusades makes enlightening reading for the Westerner. (For the Israelis, who have already produced several major Crusade scholars, it is of course of more pressing relevance.) It is, truly, an amazing story. At the end of the 11th century a European army, which may originally have numbered no more than thirty-five thousand, and which was much reduced by battle, disease and defection, nevertheless contrived to take Jerusalem. Of the various Crusader states that they founded in ‘Outremer’, some lasted nearly two hundred years, even though the Crusades were not a colonising movement in the true sense of the word because most Crusaders returned home. The resurgent Moslem threat from the mid-12th century onwards (Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187) inspired up to a dozen further Crusades from the West, as well as a whole series of lesser expeditions (though the canonical number of Crusades is seven); and it is now generally agreed that one may go on speaking of Crusades at least until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, when the last toeholds in the Holy Land had long been lost. (At school, in the 1950s, I was consoled for the ultimate failure of the Crusades by the consideration that General Allenby ‘finally’ retook Jerusalem in 1917!) Overall, from Pope Urban II’s great sermon at Clermont in 1095 until Pope Pius II’s pathetic comment on the lack of response to the fate of Constantinople (‘If we continue thus, it will be all over with us’), hundreds of thousands of Christians marched eastward in the determination to keep the Holy Land for their Faith; and at much the same time, lesser-known but more durable movements were driving Islam from Spain and creating the ill-omened German colonies along the Baltic. In the end, however, the Crusades as generally understood came to nothing. In the Middle Ages, Western gallantry – even Western Faith – was no match for Islam on its home ground.

It is also a story which can bring tears of anger and frustration as well as sorrow for the fate of so many brave men. From the outset, when the ‘People’s Crusade’ began by massacring the Jews of the Rhineland – an event described recently as ‘the most significant episode in the history of German Jewry before Auschwitz’ – the Crusaders committed the most bestial atrocities. Jerusalem when it fell was exultantly described as swimming in blood (local Christians and of course Jews were no better treated than Moslems). The noble Lion-Heart irredeemably stained his reputation, in the eyes of most modern commentators, by butchering the disarmed garrison of Acre, and the notoriously courteous and merciful Saladin was provoked to respond in kind. Greed jostled with fanaticism among Crusading motives. The best-known source for the First Crusade records the happy exhortation: ‘Let us unite in Christ’s Faith and the victory of the Holy Cross, for, God willing, today we shall all be made rich.’ (Some were, though one feels that most were not.) The Crusading generals quarrelled interminably and destructively among themselves, with results that nearly scuppered the First Crusade and did scupper all the rest. Visiting kings, like Richard and Philip II of France, bickered about precedence; the Christian nobility in Palestine fought each other for the increasingly enfeebled crown of Jerusalem; above all, Crusaders fresh from Europe, with all the bigoted ignorance of their modern successors and with even less justification, differed bitterly from those resident in the Holy Land, who knew what they were up against and had begun to come to terms with their Moslem neighbours – sometimes, it was noted with Western disgust, to the extent of learning Arabic. When the Emperor Frederick II reoccupied Jerusalem in 1229, he was furiously denounced by an apoplectic Pope for doing so by treaty. But the most infamous blot on the Crusaders’ record was the brutal sack of Christian Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, an event arising out of greed and religious bigotry which consigned Byzantine civilisation to a lingering death. One Crusader, named Simon de Montfort, withdrew in shame from these proceedings and found more salutary employment burning Albigensian heretics in southern France; it was his son and namesake’s experience of communal government at Acre which probably inspired his famous constitutional experiments under Henry III.

Sir Steven Runciman began his three-volume History of the Crusades, one of the truly great examples of English narrative historiography, with the implied question: do we regard the Crusades ‘as the most tremendous and romantic of Christian adventures or as the last of the barbarian invasions’? His solemn conclusion leaves no doubt which side he comes down on; and though, as a noted Byzantinist, he might be considered to have an axe to grind, his verdict stands:

The triumphs of the Crusades were the triumphs of Faith. But Faith without wisdom is a dangerous thing. By the inexorable laws of history, the whole world pays for the crimes and follies of each of its citizens. In the long sequence of interaction and fusion between Orient and Occident out of which our civilisation has grown, the Crusades were a tragic and destructive episode. The historian as he gazes back across the centuries at their gallant story must find his admiration overcast by sorrow at the witness it bears to the limitations of human nature. There was so much courage and so little honour, so much devotion and so little understanding. High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance by a blind and narrow self-righteousness; and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost.

As his rather odd title implies, P.H. Newby’s book is an attempt at the ‘Times’ as well as the ‘Life’ of Saladin, Richard I’s great adversary and the conqueror of Jerusalem. One of the differences between the Crusades and earlier ‘Holy’ Wars in which Christian Europe engaged is that we have sources for the Crusaders’ opponents. Saladin was the subject of two extended biographies by Moslems who knew him well, and some of his official correspondence also survives. He was, of course, a Moslem hero, but Newby points out that his lustre in Islam has never shone as brightly as that of the Mamluk Sultan Baybars. Baybars began the final conquest of Christian Palestine in the second half of the 13th century, and in 1261 he won a genuine ‘World’s Decisive Battle’ on the plain of Armageddon against the Mongols, who, providentially for his own authority, had already annihilated the legitimist government of Islam, the Caliphate of Baghdad. Saladin was an outsider, a Kurd (a people that rarely impose on the European consciousness between Xenophon’s Anabasis and modern times). He fought and intrigued his way to the top in the political jungle of the Fertile Crescent, and he operated as the self-proclaimed and not always enthusiastically acknowledged agent of the Caliph; he made many enemies, and for all his achievements, mainline Moslem historiography has always been uneasy about him. His unique success was in gaining the endorsement of Christian sources. From the outset, the Crusaders seem to have recognised that there was something special about Saladin; he was supposed to have been knighted by Richard I (his nephew actually was); it was assumed that, like a 19th-century Ottoman sultan, he had a French mother; and Dante placed him among the Noble Pagans in Limbo. His image was enshrined, like those of Robin Hood, Louis XI and Rob Roy, by Sir Walter Scott. In the 20th century, he has inspired that most typical of modern accolades, the debunking biography. Newby’s book – for the general reader, it appears – follows hard (though for the most part independently) on the remorselessly scholarly study by Malcolm Cameron Lyons and D.E.P. Jackson. It is a careful and sensible work, with no illusions about 12th-century Islamic politics, but its conclusion is that the high Western opinion of Saladin was substantially justified.

Newby is at his best on Islam, and the habitually ignorant Westerner could profit from that alone. He shows how the Islamic value-system actually worked, and how faithfully Saladin served it; he would, for example, impose only canonically-authorised taxes on his subjects, whatever the effect on his war effort, and he died with little personal wealth to speak of, which is more than can be said of the most distinguished of all Crusaders, the sainted King Louis IX of France. Newby is also clear and intelligible on the political context of Saladin’s life, which is no mean achievement, even if, to judge from Lyons and Jackson, he cuts a few corners. He is fair and balanced in his treatment of the Crusaders; in the circumstances, it is hard to quarrel with his suggestion that the main reason for the astonishing success of the First Crusade was that the various Islamic powers never realised what was actually happening; and John Gillingham, the Lion-Heart’s biographer, could scarcely complain of his discussion of the Acre massacre (on which Mr Finucane is more lurid). If Newby’s Saladin somehow fails to inspire, this is partly because of his low-key, if agreeable style, but also, perhaps, because the Moslem sources got Saladin right in the first place. His achievements were real but, so far as his own dynasty was concerned, ephemeral. He was a capable warrior, but lost engagements with Richard I that he should probably have won, and he triumphed as much because of the strategic impossibility of Richard’s position as through his own efforts. He was a man of sense and determination rather than a genius, sincerely pious but no saint. He inspired great love in those who knew him, but his personality lacked the sparkle to transmit itself to later generations. His full name, al-Malik al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, translates as ‘the king strong to save (the Faith), the honouring of religion, Joseph Jobson’, which seems to sum up his character and position. He was an oddly pragmatic hero for such epic times.

Mr Finucane’s audience, again envisaged as wider than professional academia, is in no danger of missing the drama of the times. His is an account of the blood, toil, tears and sex of the Crusading movement and its enemies. Part One is devoted to the literally sordid realities of Crusading life, from enlistment at one’s marriage-bed’s expense (curiously, though thankfully, chastity-belts make no appearance) to the welter of blood, insects and disease at the end of the Crusader’s rainbow. Part Two is about Christian and Moslem ideologies; again, sex and violence are at something of a premium, especially in the often nauseating discussion of ‘Minorities at Risk: Women [sic] and Jews’. Finucane has done his homework (not for the first time) both in the primary and secondary fields. His anthology of horrors should bring home to any lingering Crusade romantics that the God for whom the Crusaders fought was scarcely that of the Sermon on the Mount or the Last Supper; and his account of changing Christian attitudes to Islam, though heavily indebted to Sir Richard Southern and Professor Michael Wallace-Hadrill, gives the Crusades an ideological context which, in general histories of the movement, they largely lack. But the attempt to give a balanced treatment of Christian and Moslem experiences is not really followed through: we hear considerably more about the former. It is a pity, from his own point of view, that Finucane chose to ignore the Spanish and Baltic Crusades: they would have considerably enlarged his catalogue of atrocities, especially the latter, and their ideologies overlapped with, in the former case positively influenced, that of the Crusades ‘proper’. And, as one wades through all the gore and filth, the dark suspicion arises that the author is positively revelling in it; at any rate, the ‘Video-Nasty’ element becomes counter-productive, and one feels that more effective condemnation was achieved by Runciman’s stately prose than all Finucane’s high colours. The book is pleasantly illustrated with 18th and 19th-century engravings of the Holy Places in symbolic desolation and with Medieval miniatures of the Crusading life, maps included; unfortunately, the reproduction of these is not all that it might be.

Runciman may have written from the perspective of the Byzantinist, but one’s verdict on the Crusades might be even harsher from the Islamic viewpoint. The ‘Oriental Despotisms’ despised by enlightened modern Europeans were not by any means all pleasure-gardens and sherbet – they were prosperous, cultivated and efficiently organised states which, for the most part, tolerated their religious minorities in exchange for enlarged exchequer contributions. Saladin agreed that Christian pilgrims might visit the Holy Places (what price a Moslem’s access to Al-Aqsa mosque under Christian control?), though he refused to let the Crusaders have their Relic of the True Cross; arguably, there were quite enough True Crosses in Western Europe as it was. By these standards, the Christian kingdoms of Medieval Europe failed miserably, and their efforts to export their values to the birthplace of literate civilisation were not only destructive but also futile. Like the mosquito, they were an unpleasant and occasionally dangerous nuisance to Islam, and in the end they were brushed away or squashed; and whereas they nibbled at Islam’s extremities for two centuries, the awesome Mongols tore out its heart in as many decades. Ultimately, it is not only a tragic and sordid but also an embarrassing story; and, Simon de Montfort Jr apart, it is not clear that it contributed anything to the common benefit of mankind. Yet it retains its power, as adventure stories will. Nothing in Medieval Europe’s history consumed so much of its material and spiritual resources to a single end, and nothing attracted so much attention from its chroniclers. For all its failures, the Crusades highlighted the aggressive power of Europe’s precocious infancy, as well as foreshadowing the eventual abuse of that power. One could adapt for the Crusading movement Dr Johnson’s remark, made in a rather different context: it was not done well, but the wonder is that it was done at all.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences