Sacred Violence: The European Crusades to the Middle East, 1095-1396. By Jill N. Claster. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2009. Pp- xix, 356. $29.95 paperback. ISBN 978-1-442-60060-7.)
On the eve of September 1 1 , 2001 , there were in print only three singlevolume histories of the crusades written by scholars. Today there are dozens, with more published each year. When a new volume is produced, therefore, it is natural to wonder how it could differ from all of those that have come before. However, in scope, content, and execution Jill N. Claster's book really does offer something new. Although most authors provide an introductory chapter, Claster devotes two full chapters to setting the historical background of the medieval Near East and West. One might quibble whether it is necessary to stretch back to the second millennium BC to understand the crusades, yet there is no denying that Claster provides a solid foundation on which her reader can build. Throughout, she writes with energy and emotion, drawing the reader along step by step. At times this results in some awkward colloquialisms, such as "the Byzantine Empire by 1300 was totally down on its luck" (p. 301); yet in most cases it works well.
Unlike other modern histories, Sacred Violence provides no working definition of a crusade to inform its narrative. Claster does state that " [t]he underlying theme of this book is the quest for Jerusalem and the belief that Jerusalem was, and remained, central to the ideology of crusading. . ." (p. xix). At first glance this suggests a traditionalist approach; yet the book itself includes descriptions of crusades in the Baltics, in Spain, against heretics, and against the enemies of the pope at home. It also extends its coverage beyond the traditional date of 1291 to the Crusade of Nicopolis in 1396. Claster contends that this was a turning point, since Europeans were thereafter on the defensive against the Ottomans and neglectful of Jerusalem. Yet the Turks had invaded Europe almost four decades earlier, and no serious attempt to recapture the Holy City had been launched from Europe in well over a century. Nevertheless, an epilogue briefly continues the story until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
One great strength of this book is the evenhandedness and empathy with which it approaches its subjects. There are no cardboard cutout villains or heroes here. Pope Urban ?, who is often depicted in modern histories as cunning, deceitful, and avaricious, is here a pious, careful, and complicated man of his times. …