December 13, 2006


A Ripe Moment To Revisit ‘God's War' (ADAM KIRSCH, December 13, 2006, NY Sun)

When the British historian Steven Runciman published his classic threevolume "History of the Crusades" in the early 1950s, the subject must have seemed as securely antique as the Pharaohs. After all, the nightmares of the Cold War world were ideological, not religious; its geopolitical fault line ran along the Elbe, not the Euphrates. For today's readers, of course, the Crusades are even more distant in time than they were for Runciman. It has been 911 years since Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade in an openair sermon at Clermont, urging the faithful to take up the cross and liberate Jerusalem. But in one of the Mobius twists that make nonsense of chronology, the world is certainly much closer to the Crusades in 2006 than it was in 1956. With a Western army occupying Baghdad and Osama bin Laden vowing to restore the caliphate, the Crusades — with their bizarre mixture of idealism and ambition, devotion and cruelty — seem terribly relevant once again.

That makes the moment ripe for a book such as "God's War: A New History of the Crusades" (Harvard University Press, 922 pages, $35), by the Oxford historian Christopher Tyerman; and it makes the book Mr. Tyerman has actually written something of a disappointment. Such a reaction is not really fair to Mr. Tyerman, who clearly did not set out to write imaginative, narrative history in the Runciman tradition. "The judgmental confidence of a Macaulay — or a Runciman — is warranted neither by modern fashion nor by the discipline of the subject," he warns in his preface. Instead, his book displays the virtues of the academic historian: massive erudition and patient synthesis. The juice of thousands of articles and monographs has been squeezed for "God's War," and it surely reflects the state of historical knowledge about the Crusades better than any other book.

Unfortunately, the result is still pretty dry. It is perhaps a compliment to say that Mr. Tyerman has no literary instinct — that he continually disrupts the momentum of his narrative, refuses to highlight dramatic episodes and characters, and writes a dogged prose whose only flamboyant quality is an odd fondness for the word "fissiparous."All this represents a kind of integrity, a refusal to dress up a complicated story for mass consumption. At the same time, it also undermines Mr. Tyerman's claim to be offering a decisively new account of the Crusades. The novelty, which is all but invisible to lay readers, resides not in bold concepts, but in a running Pyrrhic combat with received interpretations, which Mr. Tyerman disputes without replacing.

The result is that "God's War" offers a good deal less pleasure than information; but the information is still well worth having.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 13, 2006 10:14 AM

I would like to read something about the Crusades, but not a weighty boring history book, a roman a clef aka a trashy novel. Any suggestions?

I picked up Zoe Oldenbourg's "The Crusaders" at the library (it was shelved with the fiction which I thought was a neat editorial statement by the librarian), but I stopped reading by p. 25 for fear of apoplexy setting in.

Posted by: erp at December 13, 2006 3:55 PM

Evan Connell, Deus lo Volt

Posted by: oj at December 13, 2006 3:56 PM

erp: Deus Lo Volt is written as if it a chronicle of the times, but it's way over-the-top and has an obvious modern detached irony to it. I found it pretty much unreadable.

Posted by: b at December 13, 2006 4:18 PM

This is what I love about this blog. Anybody like to weigh and break the tie?

Posted by: erp at December 13, 2006 5:14 PM