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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Norman Housely

Contesting the Crusades

Contesting the Past series (Malden, MA:  Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 198 + xiii. $29.95.    ISBN:  1-4051-1189-5.

Contesting the Crusades is the first volume of Blackwell Publishing’s new historiography series, Contesting the Past.  The purpose of the series is to examine controversial topics and their competing interpretations.  Ultimately, the intent of the series is to demonstrate that the divergence in agreement can be a good thing.   Although there are many excellent eras and events for this series, it is difficult to find one more contentious than the Crusades.

Housely’s discussion on the historiography of the Crusades is divided into seven chapters.  The first focuses on defining exactly what was a Crusade and does everything that falls under the rubric of a Crusade really qualify as one?  Housely examines the arguments of the traditionalists, who argue that a Crusade focused on the Holy Land, as well as those of pluralists who contend that any penitential war must be considered one.  The arguments on both sides should be very familiar to anyone dealing with the Crusades, but Housely articulates the most irreconcilable points quite well and draws upon other lesser known schools of thought as well as discusses variations of the major arguments to flesh out the chapter.  Housely concludes by observing that all of the schools have their merits and should not be completely dismissed, but ultimately, we should keep in mind that the Crusades might be best interpreted by how the participants viewed them. 

Chapter two is the only chapter devoted to a particular Crusade, the First.  Considering the abundance of sources for the First Crusade as well as its revolutionary nature and success, it is not surprising that it attracts the most attention compared to other Crusades.  Thus, Housely simply follows the trend.   In addition to examining the origin of the First Crusade as discussed in the historiography, he reviews the character of the event. 

Subsequent chapters focus on the development of the crusades and the intentions and motivations of the participants.  Rather than going through a tedious summary of each chapter, it is enough to state that Housely adroitly examines the historiography and scholarly discourse on the respective chapters.  He breaks down the development of the crusades into major expeditions and individual efforts, thus recognizing that inherently different factors influenced them.  In regards to the intentions and motivations, Housely does somewhat generalize through categories of kings, nobility, the poor, and merchants (specifically Italian).  However, it is difficult to find fault in his methodology as it does serve as a useful paradigm for the larger picture, but also recognizes the role of individual actors.

Although the first chapter follows the discourse of whether “Crusading” could occur outside of the Latin East, the last chapters are the product of a pluralistic view.  Indeed, Housely is very up front about this.  To be fair, even if one accepts a traditionalist view that the Crusades were only in the Latin East, it would be the height of folly to ignore events containing similar religious motivations and institutions such as the military orders.  Even if, by the traditionalist definition, they were not Crusades, they certainly had an impact on the Latin East.  Thus Housely examines events in Spain, the Baltic region, and Crusades against heretics and enemies of the papacy as well as the principal scholarly debates.  As most studies on the Crusades either omit or briefly discuss these events, excluding, of course, monographs specifically on those topics, this chapter is particularly useful in understanding the interpretation of events.

The chapter on Crusading after 1291, the fall of the last Latin stronghold in the East, is similar to one that precedes it.  Housely wisely eschews trying to discuss every “Crusading” event after 1291.  Instead he focuses on crusading by century and ends it in the seventeenth century.  Thus, he is better able to keep the context of events and the historiography in a more palatable order.

The final chapter discusses the consequences of the Crusades, focusing on its impact on Europe and interfaith relations.  Considering contemporary events involving religion and war, this chapter will be read with interest.  While Housely successfully avoids entanglements with modern polemics, one cannot help but notice startling similarities in the mindsets of individuals.  That is to say, basing one’s conception of the enemy more on the belief that the enemy is one’s opposite in every form of expression, rather than on reality.

Housely’s Contesting the Crusades is an excellent contribution to the study of the Crusades and certainly worthy of being the first in Blackwell’s intriguing new series.  The author’s carefully managed and balanced discourse of the historiography of the Crusades not only discusses the major arguments but clarifies the nuances of these debates.  Furthermore, he brings to the discussion many older works that are either out of print or out of fashion but still hold merit. It is sure to find its way on to the shelves of every historian of the Crusades and is a boon for any student of the topic, whether undergraduate, graduate, or curiosity seeker.

Timothy May

North Georgia College and State University<tmmay@ngcsu.edu>

Page Added: December 2006