- Saladin in his Time by P.H. Newby
Faber, 210 pp, £10.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 571 13044 5
- Soldiers of the Faith: Crusaders and Moslems at War by Ronald Finucane
Dent, 247 pp, £12.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 460 12040 9
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.