God’s War by Christopher Tyerman [A Review]

At almost 1,000 pages, Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War: A New History of the Crusades is epic, as it would have to be to contain not only the five major crusades, but also the Albigensian Crusade, the Reconquista, Baltic crusades as well as events between crusades and the smaller campaigns at the end of the crusading era. It covers a broad arch; from the large-scale but erratic early crusades, to a peak period of well-organised but fruitless crusades, through an expansion of holy war to other frontiers and other enemies, until a decline and end of the crusading period.

God's War

“The Lord is a man of war” – Exodus 15:3

This excellent book encompasses various themes. It is to some of these recurring themes, with poignant examples, that I want to devote most of this review to. Specifically, to the method of evidence-based analysis and consideration of opposing views; the impossibility of separating the temporal from the spiritual in the medieval world; the origin and evolution of the philosophy of Christian Holy War and the ‘arch’ of the crusading period with its birth, expansion and decline.

Reading some other amateur reviews of God’s War, it seems clear that readers were expecting a book focused on the military exploits and were therefore disappointed. It is best to start by eliminating that expectation in order to enjoy the book for what it is. The book is more than a military history of these holy wars. In fact, the story of the battles and sieges are only one part of the book and in the minority. Much of the book concerns the establishment and evolution of the institution of crusading itself. The book is also devoted to an appreciation of the complexity of the medieval Christian and Muslim worlds; the numerous ethnic groups, dynasties, powerful religious and secular figureheads. As it would need to, the book also considers the roles of new private and corporate institutions – military orders such as Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights; and the Italian city-states with their merchant fleets.

Tyerman uses carefully chosen words to define what the crusades were:

The crusades were wars justified by faith conducted against real or imagined enemies defined by religious and political elites as perceived threats to the Christian faithful. Crusading reflected a social mentality grounded in war as a central force of protection, arbitration, social discipline, political expression and material gain.

The first question that must be asked is why a new book on the crusades is needed at all? Historian Steven Runciman’s three-volume A History of the Crusades, published in the early 1950’s, stands as a monument, much like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. A new history is needed though, partly because of the appearance of new material, but mostly because the field of historical study itself has changed. Runciman’s work, according to Tyerman, is written with an air of authoritative certainty but modern historians are much more scientific in their work; starting from a position of doubt and scepticism, reaching conclusions tentatively on weight of evidence with admission of contradictory information and gaps in knowledge, to create an informed balanced whole.

Perhaps the best example of this method is when Tyerman examines the causes of the first crusade.

Even if you know very little about the crusades you are probably aware of the reasons frequently cited on every poorly researched TV documentary; that it was a response to a call for help from the Byzantine Emperor, that it was response to the desecration of Christian holy sites in the Holy Land, that it was a response to attacks on Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Tyerman does not completely dismiss these factors, but points out that they do not provide a satisfying cause for the organisation and timing of a large military expedition.

Requests for help from the Byzantine Empire, which had lost significant territory to Seljuk Turk invasions and were under threat of complete conquest, had been coming in for decades without significant response. It does not correlate well with the timing of the first crusade. Neither does the desecration of Christian holy sites; the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed in 1009, long before the first crusade. Westerners were well aware that pilgrimage to the Holy Land was an expensive and perilous journey but there is no evidence that they were under increased attack in the lead up to the first crusade, nor is there any evidence of a decline in pilgrimage.

Instead of a satisfyingly simple explanation, Tyerman argues that the causes of the first crusade were sophisticated, long-ingrained and accumulating. They are also contradictory, incomplete and ultimately unknowable. Tyerman points to the considerable papal reform underway in the 11th century leading to the Church v State conflict we know as the Investiture Contest. The ambitions of popes Gregory VII and Urban II, in youth both militant preachers in favour of Christian Holy War, was to reform the church and strengthen the office of the pope; claiming its independence and authority over all churches, states and laymen, with military campaigns to the Holy Land as their chosen method.

The crusade is impossible to understand outside of this context of more general church and papal reform.

Tyerman also examines the extraordinary efforts made to popularise Christian Holy War through preaching, propaganda, ritual, symbolism, oaths and promises of material and spiritual rewards, culminating in Pope Urban II’s preaching tour to the Franks. The Franks were the Church’s most loyal subjects and seemed to be embedded with a lust for battle and conquest (though frustrated by the lack of opportunity in their own lands) combined with a sincere piety and Christian guilt for their warmongering. They were the ideal audience for the pope’s offer of penitential Holy War in the Holy Land.

Other factors include long-standing desires for greater unification and resolution within Christendom. Unification of the Western Church under the rule of the Pope, even of unification with the Eastern Greek Church. There was also increasing anti-Muslim rhetoric and encroachment of the Church on secular society. Equally, there were the motivations of Alexius I, the military-usurper Byzantine Emperor, hoping to strengthen his own position with the help of Western armies to recover territory lost to the Seljuks.

You may have also heard the arguments that the crusades were not religiously motivated but were wars of conquest and greed. Or conversely, were not military expeditions at all but were simply mass pilgrimages. Both are equally ridiculous and indefensible in the face of the historical facts and Tyerman devotes a little time to discrediting these apologist theories. But that does not mean there were not both powerful material and religious motivations at work. Some of the most important leaders, particularly of the first and second crusade, were wealthy European nobles who were not in direct line to inherit their local lordship or throne. In other words, the potential to obtain a small kingdom of their own in the East would have been an enticing prospect. The church also offered the prospect of small holdings of land in conquered territory for crusaders of the lower classes. Yet it seems most of those who went on crusade sold considerable assets to finance the trip, planned to return to their homes and, as far as we can tell, most who survived did.

Material considerations alone cannot account for the motivations of the majority of those who went on crusade; spiritual considerations have to be considered alongside them. A controversial motivation offered was the decision to make crusading penitential.

The central innovation of the plenary indulgence, remission of sins, for fighting in the holy war… was controversial on two counts: holy war was now classed as penitential; and the pope was assuming the authority of Christ in seeming to remit sin not just penance. Whatever academic unease was aroused, neither innovation provoked much resistance, certainly not after the expedition’s success.

“Whoever for devotion alone, not to gain honour or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God can substitute this journey for all penance” – Urban II.

The inducement endured and, like much else of crusading, it became institutionalised. The innovation and evolution of remittance in return for supporting Christian Holy War is thread that runs through the entire crusading period and this book.

The concept of Christian Holy War and the contradiction between Christ’s message and waging war, itself requires explaining. Some early Church founders, such as Origen of Alexandria, insisted that Christians had no business fighting in war and that examples of the Old Testament were to be treated as allegories only. But there were others arguing ways around Christ’s message and the Sermon on the Mount. The turning point, as it so often is in Christian history, was Constantine and Roman conversion. Christian theologians now had to reconcile their religion with the Roman philosophy of ‘Just War’, which evolved through Aristotle, Livy and Cicero. St Augustine was heavily influential. Though not a warmonger, the principles for Christian Just War he came up with heavily influenced later thinking. I would love to go on; Tyerman provides a wealth of material on this subject that is both fascinating and disturbing and he returns to it frequently throughout the book to show its evolution over the crusading period; but I will have to leave it here.

Though both temporal and spiritual motivations played a large part in crusading, Tyerman argues that any separation of the two is inaccurate and impossible. To the medieval Christian, religion was an all-encompassing part of their life that had a role in almost every decision they made. The inability to separate the material and the religious in analysing the actions of crusaders is also recurring point in the book.

An early example of this in the book is that of Bohemund of Toranto. Perhaps the first crusade’s greatest military leader, Bohemund was given command of the siege of Antioch. The prolonged siege succeeds in an event that would become immortalised as what Tyerman describes as the 12th century’s Trojan War story. Shortly after taking the city a large relieving army arrives but despite the overwhelming odds against them, the crusaders, again under Bohemund’s leadership, defeat this army.

With Antioch now secure, the crusade’s leaders argue over who gets to keep it. It goes to Bohemund, who founds a Norman dynasty there that outlasts those of England and Sicily, but he takes no further part in the crusade. For that, history has branded Bohemund a materialist who was only interested in securing his own kingdom and not of fighting for Christ. Tyerman though, provides a thorough and reasoned argument with several examples of the impossibility of separating the material and spiritual goals of these medieval commanders.

The conflict between the temporal and the spiritual also infected the decision-making on campaign. The belief that God plays an active role in temporal affairs, including the outcome of battles and wars, was deeply indoctrinated in the medieval mindset. Frequently, when crusaders found the going tough, they turned to prayer, flagellation, purging of both sins and sinners, claims of visions and prophecy and the discovery of supposed relics, rather than a change in strategy.

One example of this occurred during the third crusade. Having secured the fortified coastal town of Acre, the crusaders were eager to press on inland towards the ultimate aim of capturing Jerusalem. England’s King Richard (the Lionheart), though, came to the conclusion that this was unwise. Richard argued that even if the crusaders succeeded in capturing Jerusalem, it would be impossible to defend. The crusaders should instead sweep southwards to capture and secure more of the surrounding territory. Particularly Ascalon, from where Egypt, Jerusalem and Saladin’s defences could be threatened.

Though he was the most senior leader on crusade at that point, Richard did not manage to convince the other crusaders of his strategy. Most crusaders had signed up specifically to capture Jerusalem for Christ and were not going to be dissuaded when the goal was so near (decisions made by popular assent rather than astute military thinking was another repeated failure during the crusades). But mostly, the conviction that their cause was righteous meant that it was not going to be easy to convince crusaders of the importance of organisation and strategy. Issues of terrain, lines of supply and communication, weaponry, numbers of men, fortifications and siege machines are hardly relevant if God is on your side. By the time the crusaders realised the soundness of Richard’s strategy, it was too late to implement it and the third Crusade foundered from there.

The failure to trust in righteousness probably forced not a few to wonder what, if anything, the Westerners were now doing in Palestine.

As mentioned, I feel God’s War portrays the crusading era as falling under a broad arch. The early crusades raised enormous armies that were poorly organised and led. In addition, they suffered from a lack of discipline and were decimated by enemy Turks and difficult conditions in Asia Minor. The success of the first crusade despite these incredible odds, and the failure of the West to support holding these acquisitions with the same enthusiasm with which they fought for them, only guaranteed the effort would be repeated, though with far less success.

From the third crusade, the campaigns were smaller in size but better organised, led by higher aristocrats, if not Kings and Emperors personally, and made better use of sea travel. But the concept of crusading also began to evolve to encompass wars in lands other than the Holy Land and against new enemies.

Tyerman’s chapter on the Albigensian Crusade was one of my favourites, but was it a crusade? It may not have been a war for the Holy Land or against non-Christians, but the institution of crusading, by now well-established, was clearly in evidence – the symbolism, the preaching, oath-taking, cross-taking, papal offer of penance, sale of indulgences, etc. Here, the combination and conflict of temporal and spiritual motivations plays a heightened role. Without the spiritual attraction of fighting for the Holy Land, it is clear that many who took up the cross did so for the prospect of wealth and land for the taking. The war also attracted a number of mercenaries and adventurers attracted by the prospects of guilt-free violence and riches.

The argument that the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula was a crusade is less certain. Tyerman argues it was driven by profit and not religion and that ‘Reconquista’ is a propagandist term. With many instances of Christians and Muslims fighting together, the war could instead be seen as a series of conflicts for individual territories, with men choosing sides based on their own interests rather than their faith. But as it coincided with the crusade period, it also inevitably came to include various aspects of the crusading institution. Of course, claiming to be fighting in the name of religion was an effective tool for gaining support and was unsurprisingly common. But as its crusade status is at best uncertain, Tyerman does not devote the same depth to the campaign as he does to the Albigensian and Baltic Crusades.

As the decades went by, crusading became entrenched in Western culture but the campaigns were no more successful. This gave rise to the phenomena of popular crusading uprisings – where ordinary people, indoctrinated in the virtues of fighting for Christ but frustrated by the repeated failures which they put down to the sins of their leaders, deciding to campaign themselves. Needless to say, lacking organisation and discipline, these campaigns were doomed to failure and often resulted in attacks on Jews and fellow Christians. In fact, it must be said, that from the first crusade, the crusading period was punctuated with horrific, large-scale attacks on Europe’s Jewish population. Tyerman does not hesitate to detail these occurrences in their full horror and obscene mentality.

Seemingly inevitably, crusading fell into decline. Like its original causes, the reasons for its decline are complex and numerous. Some factors were controversial from the start, such as the problems of justifying Christian Holy War, its penitential status and the selling of indulgences. Others gained weight as time went on, such as the controversy of fighting fellow Christians and questions of the moral authority of the papacy. Paradoxically, some new developments that carried the potential to make crusading more efficient and effective instead helped the decline. The participation of Kings and Emperors, for example, brought more assured but less committed leadership; often these leaders would have to leave the crusade to attend to matters at home. Richard the Lionheart’s kingdom was threatened by his brother John while he was on crusade. Captured on his return, Richard’s ransom practically bankrupted his kingdom; such were the risks of going on crusade. The development of centralised government, bureaucracy, record-keeping, public taxation, paid professional soldiers and accountancy could have aided crusading, but instead these developments revealed its true cost; a cost Western leaders were increasingly reluctant to bear.

Early in God’s War, Tyerman warns against seeing the crusades as events in a primitive or unrelated society or, equally false, of seeing them as close parallels to modern events. In fact, Tyerman makes only rare reference to influence on later history. One concerns our modern day romanticised view of the Cathar heresy, which Tyerman points out was not as progressive as many would like to believe.

Later criticism of the Albigensian wars has tended to the sentimental and unhistorical, as have assessments of the virtues and open-mindedness of the heretics. Faith, bigotry and atrocities were prerogatives of all sides. Heresy was not a yardstick of southern liberality and sophistication, even if certain aspects of heretic’s behaviour appeal to modern audiences, such as their acceptance of women in roles of authority or their vegetarianism.

Another concerns the Reconquista, which, as pointed out, was arguably not a crusade. Nevertheless, it was incorporated into Spanish culture with clear crusader motifs to be reproduced during the conquests of Central and South America, the African Slave Trade and Franco’s Nationalists.

Tyerman frames his conclusion in the form of a question – why do we not have crusades today? His answer is that Christian holy war is an awkward and controversial concept for modern Christians, that the institutions crusading relied on have become redundant, that faith has become increasingly internalised, that the state has won (for now) the Church v State battle; that Christianity lives on but ‘Christendom’ is dead. But he says that there are good grounds for arguing that crusading’s influence has lived on long past its active era; in the age of exploration; in European expansion, colonialism and imperialism; in corporate government and public taxation; in our society’s ideas of what constitutes acceptable war rhetoric and just causes for war.

“Our Lord wished to manifest a most evident miracle in this voyage to the Indies in order to console me and others in the matter of the Holy Sepulchre” – Christopher Columbus.

While I learned much from God’s War (it even caused me to update one of my previous posts), I can’t say too much surprised me. One thing that did was learning about Saladin, who seems a long way from the image we have of him in the West of a great military leader and conqueror. In God’s War he comes across as more of an astute politician and opportunist than a great tactician in battle. He seems to have had a preference for sieges and forcing negotiated surrenders than open battle and, in fact, his losses in battle when holding superiors numbers or positions does not do his reputation credit. He is also not as highly regarded in the Muslim world as he is in the West; he spent far more time fighting fellow Muslims than Christian invaders and occupiers and his attempts to secure the acknowledgement of his right to rule from secular and religious authorities are the actions of a man who knows his right is tenuous.

I did have some small issues with God’s War. It is not the most engrossing, page-turner of a history book you will come across. It is enjoyable, but requests the reader to have a real commitment to learn and not just be entertained. That being said, it has made me more interested in reading more on the Middle Ages. Tyerman does have a tendency for long, convoluted sentences that take diversions and required me to read a few times before I got everything they contained (I am probably guilty of that as well!). I think this got better as the book went on, or perhaps I just got better used to it. Overall, the maps were very good, but it perhaps could have used a few more for the later Egyptian campaigns. The book has substantial appendices, but the index was frustratingly lacking a number of key terms.

A larger issue were the instances where I sympathised with those readers who wished for a bit more action. The periods between crusades, where Tyerman recounts the dynastic and defensive problems of Christian Outremer were often the most laborious to read. Yet they were often of great import. One passage in particular detailed a long and complex succession dispute in Outremer, which tested my patience, only to find that the story culminated in an extraordinary betrayal by one Christian leader to their Muslim enemy.

God’s War may not be the most engrossing, page-turner of a history book; it is epic and demanding of the reader. But its wealth of research combined with its careful consideration, tentative conclusions and admission of the contrary and the unknowable, makes it the best kind of history book. One that sacrifices the falseness of the simple, easy explanation for the fortifications of informed uncertainty.

PS – as of late last year, Tyerman has a new book on the Crusades out now: How to Plan a Crusade.


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