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Crusaders and Settlers in the Latin East (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 73, Number 4, October 2009
pp. 1310-1311 | 10.1353/jmh.0.0414

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The Variorum Collected Studies Series bring together in one volume the seminal essays of eminent historians. It is of real value that the key crusading essays of Jonathan Riley-Smith have been published in this series, for when it comes to scholarly writing about the crusades there is no single figure more prominent in the field. Here are gathered a selection of his articles from 1972 onwards, with a definite preponderance of works written after 2000.

What Jonathan Riley-Smith is best known for is for leading a paradigmatic shift in the conception of the crusades, at least for a generation of Anglo-American historians. Formerly, the dominant view of crusading activity was a negative one, shaped by Enlightenment historians such as Gibbon, who saw the crusaders as disguising rapacious desire with their religious justifications. The idea that crusaders were essentially cynics in search of wealth was given a new impetus in the early twentieth century, when they were seen as colonialists in search of wealth and land.

The pendulum has now swung over to a much more positive view of crusaders in the sense that Jonathan Riley-Smith and his former research students have pointed to the lack of evidence to support the ‘materialist’ perspective of the crusades. Instead, they have scoured the charter evidence to demonstrate that a genuine piety and desire to serve Christ drove men and women to risk their lives and fortunes on crusading enterprises. The most famous article in this collection is that which defined the paradigm: “Crusading as an act of love” (1980).

Supporters of Jonathan Riley-Smith, particularly his former research students, believe that the explanatory power provided by a focus on devotional motivation for the crusades is so great that it has decisively replaced the materialist perspective and further, that it is unlikely that their new approach will be overturned.1 Jonathan Riley-Smith himself does not go so far as claim this, perhaps because as the opening essay here shows, he is all too aware that historiography evolves through shifts in approach from one generation to the next and whilst each shift enriches the subject, it would be rash indeed to think that any one paradigm represents the final word on the correct methodology for approaching any historical subject. And indeed, already there are signs, especially from continental historians, that the most fervent period of writings from the devotional motivation perspective has run its course.2

In any case, it is clear from the full range of subjects on which he has published that Jonathan Riley-Smith’s contribution to the subject matter of the crusades is far wider in method and scope than the argument for which he is most famous. Several of the essays collected here – the majority even – could be broadly considered to be materialist (in the philosophical sense) in that they are close investigations of social or political structures rather than the intellectual mindset of the crusader. So, for example, four papers, written over a span of thirty years, examine the government and politics of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

For the military historian, the essay that will probably be of most interest is the chapter “Casualties and the Number of Knights on the First Crusade,” with its detailed prosopographical appendix. Historians of the First Crusade have speculated rather widely on the numbers of participants, with room for such speculation being created by the inconsistency of the sources. Jonathan Riley-Smith avoids a ‘pick and choose’ approach to the sources by assembling as thorough a list of known crusaders as possible and extrapolating some figures from them, leading to his conclusion that around 5,000 knights took part in the First Crusade.

The other essay most likely to interest military historians is that entitled “Were the Templars guilty?”. Published in 2004, this is a rather iconoclastic essay as Jonathan Riley-Smith argues against the modern consensus that evidence against the Templars was fabricated in order to dispossess the order of their wealth. Instead, as he puts it ‘I have come to believe that the evidence cannot all be dismissed out of hand or interpreted solely as the construct of an ambitious government.’

All in all this...

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