Book Review: A Brief History of the Crusades by Geoffrey Hindley

I realise this year I have read woefully few books that fell into the category of “other non fiction” which keen observers of the blog will note as one of the key categories of book reviews. Even some of those I have classed as such might have fitted into another category. Part of this was the fact that it took an awfully long time to get through Herodotus’ Histories. Taking a break from ancient Greek history, I decided to take my battle against ignorance to one of the most shameful periods in history: the Crusades. The wrongs perpetrated by those on either side of this series of conflicts have echoed down the years and continue to resonate in the so-called “War on Terror” that has played such a prominent part in international politics over the past 11 years.

Hindley’s style as an historian is that of a story teller rather than an analyst. This makes the narrative fairly easy to follow, though the profusion of names were too much for this reader, so I only picked up a handful of details, though some may have been absorbed subconsciously. It will probably take a pub quiz to find that out, though.

Hindley notes that certain conflicts carry an ordinal number to them, even though they do not reflect the actual number of skirmishes and battles. However, he chooses to stick with the conventional numbering, with more descriptive titles for those that are not afforded a number.

What follows is an account of conquest, bloodshed and ideology. As informative as it is with regards to the personalities and the large scale military aims of each side, I could not help but think that there was a lack of critique about the motivations behind the Crusades. There are a few references dotted about, mostly towards the end of the book, but these are few and far between. For example, he states:

“The ideal which had first inspired men to go on armed pilgrimage to reclaim the Holy Land for Christendom had always been a matter of mixed motives,”

“…the wars fought in the name of religion became increasingly embroiled in politics and the rhetoric of crusade became part of the vocabulary of international diplomacy.”

Early in the book, Hindley notes that the Crusades were not endorsed by all catholics, with Thomas Aquinas opposing such ventures. This is, I think, quite significant as he was probably the most influential thinker in christianity & catholicism in the millennium between Augustine and Martin Luther. This demonstrates that then to regard this as “christian v muslim” is to oversimplify affairs. That is not to defend the Crusades in any way, but the particular expression of what passed for christianity at that time is unrecognisable in today’s world.

However, it is clear, though Hindley seems not to want to emphasise the point too much, that the “theological” ideas behind the Crusades were those of the concept of the ‘holy place’ – namely, Jerusalem and that of the sale of indulgences. Those familiar with the history of christianity will, of course, recognise that it was the latter of these two which triggered Martin Luther into posting his 95 theses and kickstarting the Reformation. I just wonder how many lives might have been spared had the Reformation come about some 500 years earlier.

As an introduction to the Crusades, this is a very good book and I would recommend it. By the end, I was just trying to finish it, rather than finding it fascinating as the history seemed to be repeating itself, but that is no fault of the author’s. But the lack of critical analysis was a slight disappointment, with almost all of it being reserved for the last few pages.

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2 responses to “Book Review: A Brief History of the Crusades by Geoffrey Hindley

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