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What made the crusaders crusade? God willed it, they said


“How To Plan A Crusade: Religious War In The High Middle Ages”

By Christopher Tyerman

Pegasus Books

432 pages    $28.95

Christopher Tyerman, professor of history of the Crusades at Oxford, explores the role of reason in medieval wars in this must-read book for history buffs.

Today some think of the word “medieval” as a sign of barbarism and bigotry.  But Tyerman’s study makes it clear that the word "medieval" should instead refer to the power of reason’s sophisticated step-children of that time (and now), propaganda and meticulous preparation.

How so? Tyerman shows with clarity how the crusades to the Christian Holy Places of Palestine and elsewhere worked as well as they did from 1096, when Pope Urban II made the first request to free Jerusalem, 2500 miles away, to the 1330s, with the aborted crusade of Philip VI of France.  “How To Plan…” is a catchy title for a serious study that rejects the general picture of the crusades as “inept failures of conception and implementation” making the case that that view “… is in almost all respects false.”

The brilliance of the Crusades’ planning and execution -- if misguided at times -- is here in this magnificent study. Studies such as this begin with definitions. We know what “High Middle Ages” includes. It means the period from 1000 – 1300 A.D. It’s important to keep this marker in mind as one traverses disputed ‘thought’ territory.

What motivated those crusaders who went? It was a simple proposition in a Christian world. God willed it, they told. Beyond this, the Pope had the power to free them of the sins they had confessed.  This eased their way to eternal bliss, an ambition fondly desired. For the participant it meant “paradise and honour / merit, reputation and the love of one’s beloved.” For the more clever schemers of western civilization, it was a stiff-arm to the invaders in the east who might be thinking of coming to Europe.

The book includes a chronology and a list of illustrations and maps.  Chapter headings make it clear that Tyerman has covered all the bases.  They tell it all:  “Justification,” “Propaganda,” “Recruitment,” “Finance” and “Logistics.”

Try one of the working premises of this book on for size: Tyerman makes the profound, if contrary-to-modern-belief, the assertion that “reason made religious war possible.” Why contrary?  It’s clear that "faith" has been downgraded from the Enlightenment Period (1685 – 1815) to the present. Reason and faith have had a long, litigious connection.

Alternately, some philosophers and theologians, however, think that reason and faith can be joined to each other, at least to a point. They argue that faith is not illogical, but is inclusive of reason to a point.  Beyond this juncture, theologians argue that faith becomes "supra-logical," i.e., goes beyond reason and natural evidence as a supernatural entity – but is not prima facie illogical. Contrarily, the materialist perspective rejects this view.

Whatever your perspective, the various Popes used reason alternately as a scalpel and as a truncheon, depending upon circumstances.  Their calls to arms for various crusades transfixed millions in a masticatory maw of logic and planning, based upon faith. Their numerous appeals focused on what Tyerman alleges is  “something often overlooked: the massive, all-encompassing, and hugely costly business of actually preparing for a crusade…” saying that “This study illuminates the “diplomacy, communications, propaganda, use of mass media, medical care, equipment, voyages, money, weapons, wills, ransoms, animals, and the power of prayer during this dynamic era.”

Of course much crusading ended badly. The Levant couldn’t be kept. Think of the United States involvement in Afghanistan today. It’s an apt comparison.

Michael D. Langan reviews books for the Buffalo News.


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