Like vampire books for the tween set or Templar conspiracy mysteries for Dan Brown fans, one-volume, English-language histories of the crusades are suddenly the rage and have recently annexed a considerable amount of shelf space at local and big box bookstores everywhere. Thomas Madden's Concise History of the Crusades (1999)—revised and reprinted in 2005 as The New Concise History of the Crusades—can lay some claim to having started the trend. Christopher Tyerman's massive God's War: A New History of the Crusades, appeared in 2006, followed by the near simultaneous publication of Jonathan Phillips's Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades (2009) and Thomas Asbridge's The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land (2010). The books are of varying length, but all cover roughly the same material, distinguished mainly by the increasingly bold claims of their subtitles: Concise, New, Modern, Authoritative.
Why are so many versions of this story appearing now? In some respects, the answer is obvious. Until September 11, 2001, the crusades had occupied little space in the popular consciousness, especially in America. Indeed, each of the books mentioned above, except for Tyerman's, concludes with a consideration of the rhetoric of jihad promulgated by al-Qaeda, as well as the rather ham-fisted attempt of President George W. Bush to incorporate the term "crusade" into the vocabulary justifying the "War on Terror." (Tyerman examines the question in some detail in a separate, short, entertaining volume entitled Fighting for Christendom: Holy War and the Crusades.)
But it is not just a question of public demand. There are technical and academic justifications for this publishing efflorescence as well. For the last fifty years, anyone wishing to learn about the crusades would turn to one obvious place: the magisterial three-volume history written by Sir Steven Runciman and published between 1951 and 1954. Runciman was more a gentleman-scholar than a professional historian. A world traveler with remarkable gifts for language and anecdote, his sympathies lay clearly with the Eastern Mediterranean, especially with the Greeks. He spent approximately half of World War II in Istanbul, the experience no doubt intensifying the simmering yet dignified rage that underlies much of his prose. He took his story to 1291 and the fall of the last crusader capital at Acre, with a brief coda detailing religious warfare through the 15th century and Pope Pius II's preaching a crusade against the Ottomans. The true climax of the story, however, came in 1204, with the Franks and Venetians' notorious sack of Constantinople. It was, Runciman could argue—even in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and all the horrors of World War II—the greatest crime ever committed against humanity.
Put into this frame, Runciman's narrative was one driven by genuine anger and delicate irony. Western Christians had hoped to strike a blow against the Muslim world, but they succeeded in unifying their enemies and making them far more formidable. In 1095, when Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade, he intended to turn the Muslims back from the Bosphorus. By the time of Pope Pius, the Turks were crossing the Danube. Urban II hoped to use religious warfare as a poultice to heal the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western faiths. Instead, crusaders sacked Constantinople, driving a permanent wedge between Latin- and Greek-speaking Christians. Crusaders more broadly dreamed of erecting a great defense against Muslim aggression, but instead they systematically destroyed the most important bulwark in Christendom's defense—which was, again, the Byzantine Empire. The whole affair proved, in Runciman's final analysis, a grand fiasco, high ideals brought low because of greed and narrow self-righteousness.
This essentially ironic interpretation is one suited to modern sensibilities. The Middle Ages were a...