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Reviewed by:
  • Crusader Castles and Modern Histories
  • Jonathan Phillips
Crusader Castles and Modern Histories. By Ronnie Ellenblum . New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-521-86083-3. Maps. Tables. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Indexes. Pp. xi, 362. $99.00.

This is a highly important study of both the historiography of castle building in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem and of the evolution of the castles themselves. The work begins with a fascinating survey of how nationalist and colonialist discourses appropriated the legacy of crusading, architecture and archaeology and used it to reflect their contemporary agendas; the French invasion of Algeria in 1830 as a "new" crusade being the most obvious example. These agendas have, in turn, shaped historians' analyses of, amongst other things, the development of crusader castles. Ellenblum then moves to more recent writing, most notably the work of Prawer and Smail, studies that date from the late 1950s onwards. These pillars of historical respectability had argued that the Franks, fearful of local Muslims and outside invaders, shut themselves off in cities and fortresses. Ellenblum's previous book Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Cambridge, 1998) tackled one aspect of this subject by producing extensive evidence of Frankish presence in the countryside and showed how, in some areas, they lived closely alongside indigenous Christians. In this present work Ellenblum confronts another aspect of the Smail-Prawer argument, namely to dismiss the idea that there was a perpetual climate of fear in the kingdom of Jerusalem. He then relates this to the development of crusader castles and along the way he unpicks the Zionist agenda of Prawer and neatly deflates Smail's anticolonialist position as well. He also challenges many of the ideas that have underlain the study of crusader castles, such as the notion of clearly identifiable borders and security zones, and also questions how we should define a castle, as opposed to a city, a fortified tower or a walled residence.

In the second half of the book the author explains how the castles developed and breaks the twelfth century down into three periods: first, an age of Frankish conquest and intensive warfare (1099–1115); then a largely peaceful era (1115–67); and finally a time of increasing pressure from the Muslims (1167–87). Enhanced by numerous maps and plans, it is this framework that [End Page 1218] underpins his analysis of the evolution of castles. As the author points out, maps of crusader castles in the Levant are inevitably flawed because they almost all mark every known fortress, regardless of its date of construction. A series of maps showing the castles constructed in each of the different phases outlined above, gives, therefore, a clearer indication of the spatial development of these buildings and can indicate the form of castles at a particular time. In turn this can reveal where and when the more advanced fortresses emerged. Ellenblum also demonstrates how the Franks and the Muslims each favoured particular techniques of siege warfare and demonstrates why, in the face of the latter's rising expertise in heavy artillery, the Franks were forced to construct stronger and bigger castles; the emergence of the concentric castle being the most famous manifestation of this. The author's trademark combination of archaeological and textual evidence brings this vividly to life and his interpretation forms a major contribution to both the history of the kingdom of Jerusalem and medieval military history. My principal criticism would be of part of the closing argument; namely that it was the "cowardice" (p. 278) of the Frankish knights in failing to fight Saladin in 1183 and their over-reliance on their new, sophisticated fortresses that gave the Muslims the confidence to overwhelm them four years later. Such a subjective judgement seems out of tune with the tightly sustained points above; more seriously it is an assessment that is not properly contextualised because it fails to take into account the Franks' lack of help from both the West and Byzantium, as well as the substantial increase in Muslim military power during the 1180s. That said, I earnestly recommend this book for its splendid survey of the historiography, its provocative questioning of accepted "truths" about...


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pp. 1218-1219
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Archived 2010
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