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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Carol Sweetenham (trans.)

Robert the Monk's History of the First Crusade: Historia Iherosolimitana

Crusade Texts in Translation (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005). 243 pp.  $24.95. ISBN 0754658627.

Carol Sweetenham's translation of Robert the Monk's Historia Iherosolimitana is another offering from Ashgate's multi-volume series Crusade Texts in Translation.  The volumes in the series are nicely compact, affordable, and useful for undergraduate study, and most feature documents never before translated into English.  Historia Iherosolimitana dates to 1106-7 and was a popular read in its time and afterward, appearing in over 100 medieval manuscripts, with 37 of these dating from the twelfth century (7).  It was translated into German and Dutch by the end of the fifteenth century, and Frederick Barbarossa apparently possessed a copy (8-10).  However, Robert's full work has never been translated into English, so there is clear utility in this, the first attempt to do so.  There is little doubt that this present volume will be welcomed by those teaching and researching the Crusades.

Sweetenham's book is divided into two main sections entitled Introduction and Translation.  The former consists of five chapters that explore the life, work, and utility of Robert the Monk and his history.  Chapter one outlines the textual history of Historia Iherosolimitana and the transmission of extant manuscripts.  Chapters two investigates Robert's use of Gesta Francorum, a major eyewitness source for the First Crusade that several contemporary writers copied verbatim into their own chronicles.  Chapter three looks into Robert's use of other sources and his consequent value as a historian, and this is followed by an interesting examination of his relative abilities as historian as well as theologian and storyteller in chapter four.  Rounding out the Introduction is chapter five, which addresses translation issues encountered by the author. 

The second section of the volume contains the translation and supplemental materials.  The translation itself is separated into nine books, beginning with Robert's record of the Council of Clermont in 1095 and concluding with the Battle of Ascalon in 1099.  The text is fully in English and is not accompanied by the Latin original.  There is also an Appendix containing two letters found in one-third of the manuscripts containing Historia Iherosolimitana, one from Alexius Comnenus to Robert of Flanders and the second from Patriarch of Jerusalem to the West at large.  A bibliography and index complete the volume; a minor criticism is that some of the journal titles (CCM, H, MLJ) are not accounted for in the list of abbreviated periodicals.  Slightly more irritating is the physical format: the title, not number, of each book is listed at the top of odd pages, which often necessitates a return to the Contents in order to utilize Sweetenham's frequent cross-references.

Robert's writings have some value to historians of the crusades.  He was an eyewitness to the Council of Clermont and offers details about the First Crusade that do not appear in other sources.  These include several details about the fighting at Antioch, a slaughter of peasants before Ascalon, and the catapulting of severed heads at Nicaea (44).  Sweetenham follows the latter event with the footnote, "Robert, as will become apparent, has something of a fascination with severed heads"—this volume is at times as entertaining as it is informative (105 n. 9).  Robert often expounded in graphic detail when describing battles, and, although he did not himself crusade, his notes illustrate contemporary (and idyllic) renderings of medieval battle rather well.  There are references to the Holy Sepulchre and Jerusalem in Urban II's speech at Clermont (79-81); Sweetenham correctly points out that they bolster H.E.J. Cowdrey's foundational 1970 study on the key role of Jerusalem in crusade preaching.   Also interesting is Robert's character indictment of Peter the Hermit, who, though abstaining from bread and meat, was still "enjoying wine and all other kinds of food whilst seeking a reputation for abstinence in the midst of pleasures" (83)!

To this reviewer, however, the most appealing part of this volume is not the translation itself but the material preceding it.  Together, Sweetenham's first four chapters are a model of historiography and serve as an excellent student guide.  She admirably details the limitations and biases of her source.  Like others of his ilk, Robert borrowed heavily from the Gesta Francorum, using that record as a starting point and adding to it when it suited his purposes; his method in doing so is analyzed in detail in chapter two.  Robert despised the Byzantines (7, 21), probably wrote for propagandistic reasons (6), and, although his description of Clermont offers a new perspective, in reality it adds very little additional factual information (47).  The translator is clearly expert in her work, occasionally pointing out past mistranslations of the text (26), indicating where Robert made factual mistakes (44-45), and she even critiques his artistic style.

The principal drawback of this otherwise excellent volume is the missing Latin original.  There is no modern edition of Historia Iherosolimitana that resolves the differences between extant manuscripts, and Sweetenham states clearly that she has not attempted to accomplish this task herself (8, 69).  Instead, she bases her translation upon the version in volume three of Recueil des Historiens des Croisades [1].  Yet one wonders why, at the very least, the Recueil text could not have been inserted as a facing-page original.  Such an inclusion would instantly render this volume appropriate for graduate and professional use.  As it stands, Sweetenham's volume seems a very useful undergraduate text and translation, and her historiographical chapters should be read carefully by those researching the First Crusade.


[1] See Recueil des Historiens des Croisades (Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Paris, 1841-1906), 16 vols: Historiens occidentaux, III 717-882 (Recueil, RHC Occ.).

John D. Hosler

Morgan State University <>

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