In Distant Lands: A Brief History Of The Crusades, by Lars Brownworth
What this book offers is mainly a short narrative history of the Crusades. Given that depending on one’s count there are either eight or nine crusades, to cover them all and the periods in between (and after) them in under 250 pages means that the coverage is very short. To be sure, there are longer and more complete histories of this period, but this particular book offers the reader an understanding of the narrative thread of the Crusades and this is worthwhile, especially since the course of the Crusades is rather confusing to many people and many of the Crusades, especially the later ones, are not well understood. And the quality of this book, despite its flaws (including the hostility of the writer for certain figures within the Crusades history), is that it helps to give the reader an understanding of what is not well understand and that is well worth appreciating. Any time a book is able in a short space to provide a worthwhile summary of an interesting period in history, that is the sort of book that I can at least cautiously recommend to readers who need a basic summary of the Crusades.
This book is between 200 and 250 pages with more than twenty short chapters. After a cast of characters and list of maps, the book begins with a prologue that discusses the Muslim invasion of the Holy Land in the 7th century. After that the author discusses the context of the Crusades in the pen and the sword (1). Then there is a look at the people’s crusade and the prince’s crusade as part of the first crusade (2, 3), as well as the long march through Anatolia (4), the siege of Antioch (5), the capture of Jerusalem (6), and the establishment of the Crusader Kingdoms (7). The Field of Blood takes a chapter (8), as well as the gathering storm (9) that led to the call for the Second Crusade (10) and the response of Europe to this (11). Then the division between Crusader States (12) and the rise of Saladin (13) is followed by a look at the Third Crusade (14), the heroism of Richard Lionheart (15), as well as the horrors of the Fourth Crusade (16), and the disasters of the Children’s Crusade (17). The rest of the book discusses the sixth crusade (18), seventh crusade (19), Mongols (20), and the eighth and ninth crusades (21), after which the book ends with the discussion of the fall of the Crusader States, as well as a bibliography.
There are at least a couple of insights that this book can provide to the reader that are worth the time it takes to read this book. For one, the author spends a great deal of time in a very small book talking about the different struggles over power and leadership. The struggle over power and leadership both hindered and prolonged the Crusades, especially because the struggle for power affected all of the parties involved in the Crusades, including the Crusaders, the Byzantines, European nations hindered from supporting Crusading efforts because of their infighting, as well as the Muslims themselves. Similarly, when talking with the leaders of the Crusades, the author judges them based on how their advice and participation helped out the Crusader states or not, pointing out that very few Crusades ended up being effective. The other aspect that the book does a very good job at pointing out is how complicated the Crusades and their goals were. The first and third and ninth (?) crusades were relatively successful largely because they were pointed at the area of interest and did a good job at strengthening the Crusader states as well as possible. Quite a few of the other crusades were sent in other directions and it ended up weakening the effort to hold onto the Outremer, whether the distraction was in Lisbon (2nd Crusade), Zara and Constantinople (4th Crusade), Egypt (5th and 7th Crusades), and Tunis (8th Crusade).