This is the book on the crusades I've been looking for, for years. I thought Karen Armstrong's history was OK, although unbalanced. Jonathan Phillips wrote this one and it is truly balanced and vivid. It's a bit long and dense but it is targeted toward the general reader. Phillips can't help it if the history of the crusades is convoluted. Rather, he adds just enough detail to make it very, very interesting.
Of course, Phillips is writing as a historian and so offers little judgment on the surface. But I think reading history is about the reader making judgments, and as a modern Christian caught between Stanley Hauerwas and G.K. Chesterton, I'm trying to figure out what to make of them. Spoiler: I have no firm conclusions. But the crusades as alternately horrifying and hopeful are an amazing arena through which to think about how God interacts with His world.
Here's my Cliff's Notes of the crusades:
1.) A unified force of Catholics is turned from causing trouble in Europe to causing trouble in the Levant. Despite overwhelming odds against them, a fraction of them make it through because the Muslims were busy fighting each other and/or didn't really care about Jerusalem so much. Still, seems a "skin of their teeth" endeavor and it's amazing they made it at all. As a result, Christians control Jerusalem for a hundred years and have a kingdom in the Levant for two hundred years. The kingdom for a time has a strong and resourceful Queen. Yes, a Queen.
2.) The Kingdom of Jerusalem calls for help, and Chistendom answers. But they never really get there and are defeated soundly. (The even-numbered crusades don't seem to work as well ... ) Eventually Saladin takes Jerusalem, and Orlando Bloom does something that I can't remember even though I saw the movie.
3.) Richard Lionheart and Phillip of France take cities on the coast, march to Jerusalem, then turn around (twice). Despite this failure, Richard rightly earns a reputation for extreme bravery and it seems like even his bad decisions were more those of people around him than his. Saladin is successful at fending him off but not really as successful as, say, Armstrong implied.
4.) This crusade uses a bunch of Venetian boats but because it's so expensive they need money and therefore attack a Christian city in Hungary first and then Constantinople. Truly disgusting. Some of the details of the battle are absolutely amazing. This would make a fascinating movie if people could handle the "good guys" not winning in the end.
5.) A secular, excommunicated king of Germany who speaks Arabic actually tries TALKING to the Muslims and gains control of Jerusalem for 10 years. Who knew? But he doesn't really care that much about holding on to Jerusalem and the truce expires ... and the Christians are driven out again.
6.) I don't remember offhand but something tells me I probably don't want to. I'm sure it wasn't pretty.
After about #3 the idea of crusading spreads and dilutes. Crusades take on a life of their own and are used for secular ends. The tragic Children's crusade fails poignantly. At the same time the Church exploits the concepts for its own ends, calling crusades against the Cathars (heretics) and Hussians (not sure, but they sure sounded like OK proto-protestants ...) and the pagans in the east (funny, their forced conversions don't stick over time ... ). The question is, WHY? Why do people keep wanting to crusade? Why does it "work"? Obviously part of that is evil ... but is any of it good? Stan? Gilbert?
Whew. It's a lot to digest, and that's not even including the little tidbits like how Columbus was a Crusader at heart and then how crusading imagery was used in the 19th/20th centuries. I'm still thinking about it. If you're going to read a book on the crusades, this should be it.