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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

David Nicolle

Crusader Castles in the Holy Land 1097-1192

illustrated by Adam Hook, Fortress Series vol. 21
(Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2004), pp. 64. ISBN: 1 84176 715 8.

A fundamental aspect of the Crusades that is often mentioned yet at the same time neglected in most studies of the Crusades is the importance of the castle. The castles of the Near East formed not only the basic system of defense for the Latin Kingdoms in Outremere, but also contributed significantly to the architectural styles of Christendom. Typically, when the true importance of the castle is recognized it tends to be in works that focus on that topic, such as Peter Harrison’s Castles of God: Fortified Religious Buildings of the World or Hugh Kennedy’s Crusader Castles rather than in general studies of the Crusades.[1] David Nicolle, a frequent contributor to the many Osprey series, makes a worthy addition to the former list.

Nicolle, a specialist on medieval arms and armor is well suited to be the author of this book. Not only does he possess the necessary background in terms of expertise, but as he served as a professor at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan. As he notes in Crusader Castles in the Holy Land, 1097-1192, this gave him ample opportunity to visit many of the castles that occupy present day Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon.

The book, as are all of Osprey’s, is short (64 pages) and well illustrated with several maps, photos, as well as artwork by Adam Hook. The illustrations well serve Nicolle’s point that the castles of the Holy Land existed in a variety of forms and styles. He adds, however, that few of the castles remain with their 12th century architecture, the period when the Crusaders were militarily strong.[2] Most of the work that remains of these castles tends to be from the 13th century or the post-Crusading period. Nonetheless, they still provide one with a vivid image of what these fortifications were like.

Organizationally, the book is divided into seven chapters which are then subdivided into appropriate categories. The first chapter, Design and Development is particularly useful as it discusses not only how the castles were designed but also what cultures influenced the Crusaders. Nicolle makes it clear that castle designs and architectural influences were not uniform and depended more on the location of the principality more than any other factor. For example, the castles in the Principality of Antioch drew heavily on Armenian styles from Cilicia or Lesser Armenia whereas these features rarely existed in castles in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Furthermore, Nicolle provides great details on the methods of construction.

Additionally, Nicolle provides a brief historigraphical discussion of the influence of the castles in the Middle East on Europe. Somewhat startling is that it is only recently that scholars have concluded that the design of European castles came primarily from the Middle East and not, as was determined in the 19th and early 20th century, from Byzantine or indigenous European influences.

The chapter concerning the principals of defense is self-explanatory. Of course, the prime motivation to defense is to adjust to the changing means of offense. Thus as siege weaponry become more destructive, the walls and towers of the castles became thicker and larger. In addition, innovations such as the talus, or a sloping bottom portion of the wall came into being as well as embossed stones in the wall, which helped deflect the direct impact of catapult missiles. Nicolle also discusses the use of natural features, including the construction of cave castles.

This leads into the section titled A Tour of Five Crusader Castles. Rather than discussing some of the more well-known castles, such as Crac des Chevaliers, Nicolle has chosen to examine Ravendel, Saone, Gibelcar, Belvoir, and Le Vaux Moise; all very important sites that nonetheless seem to get less mention. This, in this reviewer’s opinion, is a welcome departure as it brings more attention to these interesting and varied structures.

In the section on Feudal, Religious, and Urban Defences demonstrates the variety of types of fortifications. Feudal castles tended to be smaller. In many cases they were simply towers or donjons in settled areas. The religious fortifications came in two forms. The first was fortified churches or monasteries while the second was the increasing dependence on the Military Orders to defend castles, particularly large castles on the frontier. Finally, the discussion of urban defenses includes not only that of cities, but includes a brief discussion of the defense of ports and harbors; a very vital topic considering the necessity of ports as the life-line of the Latin Kingdoms.

Finally Nicolle provides a brief discussion of the fate of castles after the fall of the Crusader States. He also includes some information on visiting castles today. For this, he provides a very nice chart showing the name of the castle in Latin or Old French as well as the equivalents in Arabic, Hebrew or Turkish, depending of course on the location of the castle.
Overall, Nicolle has produced another fine addition to the Osprey series on Fortresses. The maps are particularly useful as they not only show the location of the castles, but quite often the roads, rivers, and even the approximate borders of seigneuries of the kingdoms. Sidebars summarizing the crusades, chroniclers, and military are also provided, although only the first two crusades are included as indicated by the title of the book. A useful glossary is provided along with a list of books for further reading.

Having attended Yarmouk University as a student, seeing some of the castles in Jordan was a wonderful experience. One may quibble over which castles Nicolle included such as why not Karak or the one at Ma’an, but Nicolle has provided a balanced tour that includes the variety of the main architectural forms and locations. My main objection would be the lack of comparison with other castles in the area held by various Muslim dynasties; however, this could be easily remedied by a similar volume on the Muslim Castles in the Holy Land.

Notes

[1] Peter Harrison, Castles of God: Fortified Religious Buildings of the World (Boydell, 2004); Hugh Kennedy, Crusader Castles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
[2] Nicolle, p. 9.

Timothy May

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

Page Added: January 2005