Magazine article The Spectator

Behaving Badly Abroad

Magazine article The Spectator

Behaving Badly Abroad

Article excerpt

Behaving badly abroad THE FIRST CRUSADE: A NEW HISTORY by Thomas Asbridge Simon & Schuster, £20, pp. 408, ISBN0743220838

The First Crusade is one of the great historical adventures. Whatever one may think of the consequences or the moral issues, the migration of perhaps 100,000 people across Europe and Asia Minor, and the conquest of a large part of the Middle East by the 20,000 or 30,000 survivors, all over the space of three years from 1096 to 1099, was an astonishing feat of endurance and martial skill. In their own time, the armies of the First Crusade created an ideology of holy warfare which retained its hold on European minds until the end of the 14th century, and arguably for 200 years beyond that. It also set standards of achievement for later generations which would never be attained again. The rest of crusading history is an almost continuous tale of retreat and withdrawal.

Thomas Asbridge's account calls itself 'A New History', but real originality is probably unattainable in this crowded field, at least for a narrative historian. The main sources for the First Crusade are chronicles, in Latin, Greek and Arabic, which have been known for many years. The French, who discovered and published most of them during the 19th century, have endlessly analysed and re-analysed them. For English readers, the classic account remains that of Sir Steven Runciman, based on a profound knowledge of the languages and societies of the Balkans and the Middle East, and written in a style of superb Gibbonian hauteur.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with retelling a great story, even if one has little to add to the facts. But those who attempt the task must expect to be judged against high standards, which Asbridge fails to meet. His account of the spiritual origins of the crusading ideal is brief and superficial, although this is one of the few areas where our knowledge has made significant advances over the last half-century. His narrative style is, to my taste at least, too full of clichés and redundant emphasis. We have to grapple with 'seething' diplomatic disputes, the 'horrific' glory of Rome, 'wildly' energetic campaigns, and cities 'steeped in a labyrinthine history'. This can become exhausting after a while.

But it is the author's rather intrusive commentary which irritates the most. It is hard to leave one's prejudices behind when writing of events that provoke so many unbidden thoughts, and few historians have tried very hard. The classic French narratives are informed by a powerful belief in the French mission civilisatrice, which was partly derived from their sources. …

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