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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

David Nicolle

The Second Crusade 1148: Disaster Outside Damascus,

Campaign 204 (Oxford: Osprey, 2009). 96 pp. £14.99 ($ 19.95). ISBN 1846033543.

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)

Modern 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.

That 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.

However 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.

Enter 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.

This 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.

Damaging. 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.

It is 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)

The introduction 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 and —surprisingly, it must be noted — at least a graduates knowledge of medieval affairs.

This 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.

Similar 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.” (p.88)

Yet the fact remains that the characterization of events constituting a “siege” 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).

In terms 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).

Whereas 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 period.

Admittedly, 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 literature.

The Second Crusade now catches the attention and imagination of the modern Western world in the way that the First and Third Crusades do.

Lee P. Ruddin

Roundup Editor, History News Network <leepruddin@yahoo.co.uk>

Page Added: June 2009