The Second Crusade
never caught the attention and imagination of the modern Western
world in the way that the First [and] Third … Crusades
would do. (p.87)
interest in the history of the Crusades is undergirded by both spurious
topicality and inescapable familiarity. Indeed the idea that the
modern conflicts in the Near East are being conducted as neo-crusades
plays on a cheap historicism. Yet an understanding of the Crusades
remains an urgent contemporary task since they no longer just haunt
the memory but stalk the streets of 21st-century international politics,
in particular in the Near East.
is not to say we do not know enough already. We all know about the
First Crusade. No campaign rivals this in impact or memory. Notwithstanding
Pope Urban II and his call to Christians to fight for their faith
under an alien sun, scholars have forever been astonished by the
armed pilgrims from Western Europe that traveled to the Near East
to capture Jerusalem in far-off Palestine. Equally so, the Third
Crusade has not been buried in the sands of time either. Given that
Christendom held no monopoly on holy war. To be sure Saladin led
an Islamic jihad and eventually recaptured Jerusalem.
it is the period between the heavyweight characters of medieval crusading
that we need to concentrate on in this instance: the Second Crusade
and Mu’in al-Din Anur, for example — a
neglected character of the counter-crusades. Not unlike the First
and Third, the Second Crusade occurred at a time when the Christian
West and Muslim East was saturated with religion, pacifism was not
present and that well of hatred fed from many streams. And yet it
remains much less studied.
David Nicolle. The Second Crusade 1148: Disaster Outside Damascus fills
the gap between Osprey’s books on the First and Third Crusades,
both of which were written, ironically enough, by the same prolific
British author in 2003 and 2005 respectively.
is book number 204 in Osprey’s “Campaign” series,
which gives “accounts of history greatest conflicts, detailing
the command strategies, tactics and battle experiences of the opposing
forces throughout the crucial stages of each campaign.” The
books in the series are useful acquisitions for academic libraries,
as they take the pressure off over-used canonical texts, but, more
importantly, they also make the scholarship available to a readership
that may not have access to university libraries or such texts, and
so allows a wider public access.
Unsuccessful. Annihilation. Humiliation. Fiasco. Folly. Flawed. Debacle.
Failure. Embarrassing. These are just some of the words used to describe
the siege of Damascus. The damage done to a group of men imbued with
the heroic feats of the First Crusaders escorted a broad distrust
of Frankish settlers which, in turn, led to defeat in 1187. Conversely,
for Muslim men, the memories of the First Crusade were banished by
events in Asia Minor and Damascus in the mid-twelfth century which,
in turn, led to victory at the Battle of Hattin.
this mismatch between expectation and achievement which forms the
book’s compelling theme: the campaign as a harbinger of doom
for the Crusader States. “[I]t was not until after the Second
Crusade,” Nicolle writes in the conclusion,
“that jihad became a major aspect of Islamic civilization in
the Middle East.” (p.78)
provides a crisp overview of the sprawling cast of kings, nobles
and churchmen (so crisp, in fact, Pope Eugenius III and Bernard of
Clairvaux feature only fleetingly). Rest assured these characters
come thick and fast so it w0uld be recommended to have a pen and
paper at hand. That said a three-page chronology (pp.14-16) is perfectly
placed for future reference should it be needed. Notwithstanding
its non-scholarly appearance, each chapter demands concentration
it must be noted — at least a graduates knowledge of medieval
is much more than a history of the period 1146-9. Nicolle’s
scope goes beyond those years understood to define the Second Crusade.
This is no more apparent when reading biographies of the commanders
(pp.17-22), details concerning Christian and Muslim forces (pp.23-33),
and even their respective plans (pp.34-38). But this does not always
make for a positive reader experience.
shortcomings (call it academic ill discipline) surround the campaign
narrative: too much on the Crusaders’ march across Byzantine
territory (pp.39-54); too little on the Battle of Damascus (pp.63-75).
Needless to say, though, Nicolle’s retelling remains accurate
and readable throughout. Plus “Like the First Crusade, the
Second involved several expeditions from Western Europe, most of
which had to fight their way to the Middle East. Consequently, there
were several ‘battlefields’ in addition to the siege
of Damascus itself.”
the fact remains that the characterization of events constituting
at Damascus is fraught with inconsistency. It goes beyond the mere
fact that Crusader forces never succeeded in surrounding the city.
Nicolle admits as much: “It is also worth noting that neither Muslim
nor Christian accounts mention siege machines” (p.69). Equally
perplexing, for this reviewer, at least, is the term “disaster”,
considering Crusader forces did not suffer heavy losses and both monarchs
(the German King Konrad III and French King Louis VII) returned with
their heads intact. And yet the title is framed as such —no doubt since the publisher is eager
to reproduce the “excellent sales” of Nicolle’s earlier
works (Osprey press release).
of maps, there are five 2-D maps (pp.4, 36, 56, 68 & 82) and
two 3-D maps (pp.44-45, 48-49). The first two of the 2-D maps are
rather crowded, with only the last two offering details that relate
to the actual attack on Damascus. Likewise, the illustrations of
Christa Hook fail to excite: “King Louis VII takes refuge on
a rock during the Battle of Mount Cadmus,” 8 January 1148 (pp.60-61); “Anur
tries to persuade al-Findalawi not to go with the Ahdath militia
to fight the invading crusaders,” 25 July 1148 (pp.64-65);
and “A crusader supply unit is ambushed outside Damascus,”
27 July 1148 (pp.72-73).
the unique photographs from the author’s personal collection
only add to the authenticity of the paperback, granting the reader
an invaluable insight into the city of Damascus (pp.7, 21, 35, 52,
67 & 76). Clearly the Old City of Damascus is as striking to
modern tourists as it was to medieval travelers. And this despite
Damascus ranked behind Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem in the spiritual
hierarchy of Islam during medieval times as it does in the modern
questions remain unanswered (for instance, why and to what extent
the besiegers moved their position before suddenly retreating and
what happened to the majority of those who fought during the Second
Crusade?), though, if Nicolle — a gem of a medievalist — cannot
answer them, no one can. For that reason, The
Second Crusade 1148: Disaster Outside Damascus, like Jonathan
Phillips’s The Second Crusade: Extending the Frontiers of
Christendom (2007), is a most valuable addition to the current
Crusade now catches the attention and imagination of the modern Western
world in the way that the First and Third Crusades do.