Tidy-Mindedness

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • How to Plan a Crusade: Reason and Religious War in the High Middle Ages by Christopher Tyerman
    Allen Lane, 400 pp, £25.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 84614 477 6

Here is a description of terrorism: ‘Observers were stunned by the insurgents’ violence. By the time they reached the city, they had already acquired a fearsome reputation, but never anything like this massacre … wars had always been conducted within mutually agreed limits; in horror it was reported that they did not spare the elderly, the women, or the sick.’ I have removed the proper names from this quotation, which could be describing the atrocities committed by Islamic State against Shia, moderate Sunni, Christians and Yazidis. In fact the terrorism is Christian, in Jerusalem in 1099, when Western Latin Crusaders travelled the length of the Mediterranean Sea and celebrated their triumphant capture of the Holy City by massacring its Muslims and Jews. There is a depressing repetitiveness to the history of ideologically inspired violence: the names and causes change, the atrocities don’t.

Christopher Tyerman exercises self-discipline in leaving to the last page of his text any explicit comparison between the Middle East in 1099 and in 2015. But on his very first page he introduces us to the Crusades as having their own, medieval Christian rationale: he wants us to avoid making the mistake of writing off these events as irrational, or dismissing their religious proclamations as a mere device for justifying or glamorising efforts at land grabs and plunder. His deeply researched study is dedicated to exploring the relationship between human reason and religious war in all its aspects – justification, propaganda, recruitment, finance, logistics – to show us how ‘reason made religious war possible.’ He guides us, for instance, through the evidence in documents that demonstrate the meticulous administration which lay behind the glamorous crusading enterprises of King Richard Coeur de Lion in the 1190s, leaving him at least king of Cyprus, if not of Jerusalem. The Pipe Rolls of the English Exchequer, in the National Archives at Kew, are great clumps of feet-long parchment, which I remember from my research student days as best read sitting on a high stool, pencil in hand, after they had been reverently slung over a tall specialist stand (do National Archives staff still permit researchers to do anything so alarmingly physical to these monster medieval documents?). In Richard I’s Pipe Roll accounts, we find lists of 140 Essex and Hertfordshire cheeses at 4s 6d each (the price suggests a daunting size); nails, horseshoes and military gubbins from the ironworks of the Forest of Dean; and dried beans from Cambridgeshire. As Tyerman remarks, ‘the quartermaster stood behind events, one of the great missing presences in Crusade narratives.’

Before feeding, clothing and equipping an army, the would-be Crusader commander needed to recruit it to a cause worth fighting for, and encourage it to go on fighting if (as often happened) wages ran out and every last local sheep had been plundered. This was the first age in which theologians started to come up with increasingly sophisticated ways of saying that God approved of just warfare; but the message from the study-cubicle also had to be turned into strong simple slogans for armies and the taxpayers funding them. Propaganda in the Crusades used the communications technology of the day. Public sermons, hymns, stained glass and identifying tattoos could excite and motivate, and the potentially crusading public was groomed as surely as impressionable modern teenagers absorbed in radical websites. We will be less bewildered by Islamic State and its success so far if we understand the Crusades.

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