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The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, a Review

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The author is a student of ancient and modern European history.

The First Crusade

The First Crusade and Idea of Crusading is a somewhat short history of the crusade aimed at a more scholarly audience. The author, Johnathan Riley-Smith, spends a good portion of the book focusing on the intent and goals of the Crusaders. There are a lot of footnotes, and coming into this book with prior knowledge will be helpful to the reader in understanding the arguments that Riley-Smith is making.

The First Crusade did not begin the religious conflict in the Middle East, but it did change the dynamic of the struggle between Christianity and Islam in the region. Jerusalem, Egypt and Syria were the heartland of the Christian Church until Christianity spread to Italy and was accepted through the Western Roman Empire. The conflict between Islam and Christianity was largely, up until the start of the Crusades, a political dispute of states.

The First Crusade and Idea of Crusading delves into the changes that Europe seen in the way it practiced faith. Riley-Smith argues that among 11th century reformers the "chief aim had been to infuse secular life with monastic values." The Crusades were not just a military venture in the eyes of the author. Riley-Smith argues that the Crusades took the idea of pilgrimage that had taken root in the early Church and evolved it to meet the needs of a growing stable population.


The Pilgrims Trail

At the Council fo Clermont Pope Urban II called the warrior-princes of Europe to come to the aid of the Holy Land, and spurred the launch of what would become the First Crusade. There are many reasons that have been put forth for the launching of the First Crusade, from the Presentist argument of gold and land to the simple concept of reclamation of the birth place of Christ. Jonathan Riley-Smith goes in to depth on the various causes of the Crusade and puts forth a number of ideas that look at the actual social and political situation of Europe in the time of the Crusades.

The author argues that "the Crusaders on the march regarded themselves as pilgrims." He shows examples of various texts from the time, looks at the ideals of the crusading people, and the costs associated with crusading, and concludes that the Crusaders by and large did not benefit materially from the Crusade. For many it was in fact a loss, with great debts being taken out to go on the pilgrimage. For that is how the medieval person saw the Crusade, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, albeit one in which they were armed.

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Time and time again the author argues that the Crusaders sought to reach the Holy Land as a form of penance. It was to the people of the time an act of faith and duty to God to reach the Holy Land. The military objectives of the Crusade were secondary to this fact, and when looking at the path taken by the Crusaders it is clear that military planning took a back seat to travelling the Holy Road. Often the Crusaders plan their battles on signs and traditions rather than what might be militarily sound.


In Review

The First Crusade and The Idea of Crusading is a book aimed at the scholarly reader, but it remains accessible to the studied layperson. The author argues for his thesis throughout the book, reinforcing his view of the Crusades with evidence from archeology, and analysis of medieval texts. He does at times rationalize non-Christian behavior as a necessity of being more than just an army, but a city on the move.

Several maps are present throughout the book in relevant chapters, but more than a quarter of the book is citations and bibliographic material. The author occasionally justifies or dismisses unchristian acts, but he does bring them up. Throughout the book the author reinforces the Crusaders as being pious and Christlike, but does acknowledge their unchristian acts.

The thesis of The First Crusade and The Idea of Crusading takes aim at the cynical Presentist view of the Crusades that has taken hold in modern history. Throughout his work the author shows that even if the Crusaders took actions which were unchristian, these actions were in a minority. Contemporaries condemned excesses, and the design of the Crusades was not one of greed, but the culmination of developments in the Faith. The First Crusade was an act of penance for the Crusaders, a holy pilgrimage of the faithful. This book is a great source for scholars studying the Crusades, or layman willing to do some legwork to fill in the gaps in the timeline.

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