+ Real Crusades History +

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Sunday, August 7, 2016

Book Review: Envoy of Jerusalem

Envoy of Jerusalem, third volume in Dr. Helena Schrader’s superlative Jerusalem trilogy, opens in the first week of October 1187, on a distinctly bleak note. Three months after the disastrous Battle of Hattin and ensuing onslaught of Salah ad-Din, displaced fighting men gathered in a shabby tavern behind the walls of Tyre, the last Crusader stronghold remaining in Christian hands, take a bitter potion with their ale: the fall of Jerusalem to the Sultan. In that city, holiest to Christendom, thirty thousand women and children, elderly, and poor spared on the strength of the heroic Balian d’Ibelin’s hard negotiations desperately scramble to meet the Sultan’s price of ransom from a fate worse than death, a lifetime as slaves forever lost in the far-flung Islamic world.

Little is to be gained by further summarizing the story. Suffice to say Balian d’Ibelin and his wife, the Dowager Queen Maria Zoe Comnena, continue their leading roles in this vast, immersive, and well-told tale of the tumultuous events in the Holy Land preceding, over the course of, and after the Third Crusade. For review purposes, most pertinent is Dr. Schrader’s continuing success in translating her encyclopedic knowledge of the Crusader States and her proven abilities as a purely creative writer into works of high literary and historical value.

As in the previous two volumes, a convincingly evocative sense of physical environment marks every setting. In Envoy, a kingdom ninety years in its building lying ravaged, fallow, and desolate in the wake of Salah ad-Din’s armies, remains hauntingly poignant in memory.

Action, be it a meeting among dissenting hot-tempered barons, cruel words between husband and wife, or an all-out blood-splattered battle on land or sea, is vividly shown with a sure hand for all aspects, verbal, emotive, and physical. In characterization, Balian d’Ibelin faces a formidable challenge to his leading role with the show-stealing Richard I Couer de Lion, capably portrayed  as a great king, leader, and warrior who yet shows human strengths and failings, whose deeds and persona match the historical record, and is worthy of his legendary status.

As known to serious students and scholars of the Middle Ages, women in High Medieval Europe and its transplanted culture in the Crusader States were most decidedly not a class of downtrodden beings, solely present to be used by men as sexual toys, heir factories, or currency. In her numerous and extensive characterizations of women of all social stations, Dr. Schrader strictly avoids the clich├ęs of modernist feminism, as well as the common ‘medieval’ stereotypes regularly seen in historical fiction. Consequently, her female characters stand in strong and authentic contrast to these too often seen typecasts. She doesn’t neglect to sharply illustrate the wide disparities between the status and treatment of women in the Christian and Islamic cultures of the time.

Envoy of Jerusalem continues at the same compelling, page-turning pace established in Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem, not relenting until the conclusion of the final scene. Also, like these preceding volumes, Dr. Schrader’s unfailing attention to the complexities of the historical and environmental frameworks make careful reading an agreeable necessity. The extensive supplementary materials:  genealogical charts, maps, introduction, historical afterward and notes, and the glossary and list of additional reading, are easily accessible, and contain answers to any questions that might arise. In themselves, these well written and organized resources provide ample evidence of the author’s scholarly qualifications and standards.

In conclusion, Envoy stands alone as captivating and entertaining, as well as scholarly and far-reaching in scope and intent. As a complete work, the Jerusalem trilogy represents an outstanding achievement; a literary oeuvre constructed in keeping with the highest academic principles for research and verifiable accuracy.

From Real Crusades History, a solid five stars and a hearty Deus Vult for Envoy of Jerusalem! ~ Scott Amis

Monday, August 1, 2016

Book Review: Seven Myths of the Crusades.

After languishing for long years in a post-Enlightenment intellectual backwater of fabrication, speculation, and distortion, the historical Crusades of the High Middle Ages began to attract serious scholarly attention in the nineteenth century. Continuing into the twentieth, these early efforts to gain a fresh understanding effectively culminated with Sir Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades, first published 1951-54, in three volumes. For four decades following, A History of the Crusades served as the standard Crusades reference for students, professors, and the reading public.

Beginning in the 1970s, a new generation of Crusades scholars and students had begun to supplant the previous, and, along with them, came a new effort to understand and interpret the Crusades strictly within their medieval context. Though questions raised concerning the thoroughness of Runciman’s research and of his personal biases have proven his conclusions, for the much larger part, inaccurate and outdated in the light of present knowledge and continuing research, A History of the Crusades yet commands a wide readership, and has continued to contribute to common myths prevalent today. 

Now, sixty-five years after the release of A History of the Crusades, and fifteen years after the devastating terrorist attack of September 9, 2001, the historical Crusades are indeed a hot topic, and myths about these long-ago wars abound. A casual session of ‘net-surfing’ will reveal a bewildering number of articles and web pages devoted to the Crusades. A scant few are scholarly, unbiased, and well-managed; the majority, at best sloppily mediocre; at worst, wildly biased and dedicated to political and religious agendas venturing into the fanatical.

Myths about the Crusades and the medieval era are topics often raised on these internet pages, and the answers provided range from the carefully-researched and cited to, much more frequently, a single author’s personal, uninformed opinions. Thankfully, Seven Myths of the Crusades has come at a time when most needed, as a long overdue collection of careful analyses and commentaries that address prevalent and destructive myths, written by the best of the mature new generation of Crusades scholars.  Unlike internet sources, even the best, usually brief, the authors represented in Seven Myths meticulously deconstruct common falsehoods, and, referencing primary and a wide variety of secondary sources, reconstruct the truths underlying the myths with challenging evidence and scholarly argumentation. The introduction provides a short yet ample history of Crusades scholarship; this, the theses following, and the conclusion are accompanied by numerous footnotes that precisely inform the text. The many volumes and sources included in the list of suggested reading are carefully chosen and conveniently divided into categories of general and special interest.   

Seven Myths can be confidently added to Crusades literature which is scholarly yet accessible and pleasurably readable, and not of daunting length. Read accompanying Thomas Madden’s A New Concise History of the Crusades and Jonathan Riley-Smith’s What Were the Crusades?, readers new to Crusades history will gain a solid foundation from which to further explore this vast subject. The more seasoned will find in Seven Myths a fresh, fascinating perspective and a comprehensive basis for refutation of the ignorance so pervasive in Crusades dialogue of the present.

From Real Crusades History, a solid five stars and a hearty Deus Vult! for Seven Myths of the Crusades! ~ Scott Amis