Friday, March 26, 2010


I plowed through Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping basically in one sitting. My review is here; the many adoring comments make me really excited to still have her Pulitzer-winner, Gilead, on my list. I actually went and got a copy out from the library to bump it up.

And onto Gaps housekeeping, I'm currently working my way through (three chapters a week) the devilish history of the Crusades called God's War. I put this on my list because many years ago I bought it for $35, so I need to read it so I don't feel stupid about having bought it. But it is 800 pages of very dense history. My big plan, when I finish, is to write here on this blog a summary of the WHOLE of the Crusades so that no one else will have to read the whole book. (Great plan, right...?)


M. said...

Thanks for bringing God's War to my attention -- I've been reading Steven Runciman's three volume history of the crusades off and on for a couple months now (I'm halfway through volume two), but seeing as how it was written fifty years ago I should probably follow it up with a more recent treatment.

How do you find Tyerman's writing so far? Is he biased in any particular way? (For example, Runciman has a habit of applying traits to people based solely on their ancestry, -- Frankish, Ortoquid, Sicilian, etc.) Is the book organized chronologically or through some other schema?

moonrat said...

Another Crusades nerd! How pleased I am to find you.

So I'm at page 400, halfway through in terms of page count and people are just leaving on the Third.

There are parts that have been interesting to me--for example, Tyre goes out of his way to tell how each Crusade was preached, which is REALLY fascinating. Motivations, methods, and geographic areas all varied.

But as a whole, I would say I'm disappointed with it. He is distant and "scholarly" (and what I mean is terribly, terribly dry). He's also emphatically against taking any kind of sympathetic sides--which I suppose is good in a scholar. But for me, the human drama portraits he resists pretty furiously would have been much more interesting.

And although there's the obligatory chapter for Outremer/Crusader states, I think it would have been a little more interesting if the perspective had been more... Pangaean. Arab perspective is ignored, as is that of the Greeks, etc. I just think if it's time for another Crusades book, some innovative attention to narrative might be good. After all, they didn't only effect Roman Catholics, and although we separate the Crusades into numbers and waves, that numbering system hops over most of the relevant history.

I've read A LOT of Crusades books, though, and none of them have ever made me 100% happy. Sigh.

M. said...

Ha ha, great! I'd be happy to talk Crusades as much as you like -- I think my wife is getting tired of me trying to talk her ear off about them.

Runciman gets bogged down in minutiae an awful lot, too (1 3/4 volumes in -- roughly 600-700 pages -- and I'm still between the 2nd and 3rd crusade and bogged down in political intrigue) but so far he's done a pretty decent job of not just focusing on the Franks and other Roman Catholics. He spends plenty of time focusing on the various Arab/Muslim factions, the Byzantines, the Christian Armenians, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, among others.

He also likes to pause every so often to do a quick character sketch of the major figures in the Crusades (or, in the case of Bohemond II, people who would've probably been major figures had they lived longer). Granted, without having read the source material he's working with it's hard to tell how much creative license he takes with those descriptions, but they help to bring parts of it to life.

I have The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf on my Fill in the Gaps list. It's short, so it may end up being a superficial and disappointing, but if nothing else I'm hoping it will identify a few Arab-centric Crusades histories that I can check out.

On another note, do you ever have trouble following who controls what and where everyone is at certain points in the Crusades? Sometimes there are so many different people involved in these events that I'm starting to think that I need to draw up my own maps to keep everything straight.

moonrat said...

yeah, people get lazy writing about the Crusader states. I think it's because the truth about that era was people were polyglot, multinational, racist, and religionist. They all lived together in harmony/discord, and there was a lot of movement from one place to another. Basically, the schemes of loyalties and interpersonal relationships aren't easily summed up for modern consumption with the kinds of clear-cut designators we're used to using to understand history. So people get lazy and assume it doesn't matter.

I think the estates probably matter a lot more than the actual movements of people going from west to east...

M. said...

Oh no, I wasn't talking about the movement of people from west to east so much as people moving within the bounds of the middle east. I suppose the map thing is my way of trying to organize all this historical information by visually representing the troop movements and political infighting that directly caused cities, strongholds, and territories to change hands.

And yes, it's depressing to see how often the Crusades get simplified into facile binaries like east vs. west and Muslim vs. Christian. Hmm, which reminds me of a passage I read in Runciman's book the other day:

The atmosphere of the time is best illustrated in the memoirs of the Munqidhite Prince Usama of Shaizar. The Munqidhites were a petty dynasty in constant fear of absorption by more powerful co-religionists. They were therefore ready to come to terms with the Franks; and Usama himself spent many years at the courts of Damascus and Cairo when both were in close diplomatic connection with Jerusalem. As an envoy, a tourist and a sportsman Usama often visited Frankish lands, and, though when writing he consigns them all piously to perdition, he had many Frankish friends whose conversation he enjoyed. He was shocked by the crudity of their medicine, though he learnt from them a sure cure for scrofula, and he was astounded by the latitude allowed to their women; and he was embarrassed when a Frankish acquaintance offered to send his son to be educated in Western Europe. He thought them a little barbarous, and would laugh about them with his native Christian friends. But they were people with whom he could reach an understanding. The one bar to friendship was provided by newcomers from the West. Once when he was staying with the Templars at Jerusalem and he was praying with their permission in the corner of the old Mosque al-Aqsa, a knight roughly insulted him; whereupon another Templar hurried up to explain that the rude man had only just arrived from Europe and did not as yet know any better.

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