Epic Conflict

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Review of 'God's War', Christopher Tyerman, Allen Lane £30

When Pope Urban II summoned Christians to invade the Middle East and seize Jerusalem in 1095, he would cast a long shadow over the history of the West and Islamic worlds.

The rhetoric of the crusades can still be heard in the speeches made by the neocons while the statue of the Muslim warrior Saladin in Damascus was draped in Hizbollah flags during Israel's recent war on Lebanon. The symbolism of the "encounter" still lives on, as do the myths and misconceptions.

In these circumstances it is tempting for any new study of the crusades to be viewed through the prism of the "clash of civilisations". Historian Christopher Tyerman refuses to draw the parallel, and for this reason his vast new history of the crusades is welcome and timely.

In God's War, Tyerman locates the crusades in ideological, economic and political struggles of medieval Europe. He gives a fascinating account of how the "wars of the cross" became the main arena where rival monarchs, popes and the feudal aristocrats competed for power and influence over Europe.

These rivalries gave birth to religious ideas and an ideology that would shape European history.

Tyerman's contention is that the crusades were more than just a land grab by ambitious European knights. Although many crusaders were driven by loot and plunder, there was little financial gain in their campaigns.

The epic conflict could only be understood as the rise of Christian orthodoxy and feudal control over Europe. In this context the wars of the cross were not just waged on the Muslim east, but on rival Christian sects, the Jews and pagans.

"The moral certainties fostered by crusading left physical or cultural monuments and scars from the Arctic Circle to the Nile, from the synagogues of the Rhineland to the mosques of Andalusia, from the vocabulary of value to the awkward hinterland of historic Christian pride, guilt and responsibility."

God's war became the ideology of a new order. Jerusalem was the spiritual centre of this battle, the capture, or loss, determining the wars for succession and rival claims over European kingdoms.

Tyerman argues that "the religious beliefs crucial to such warfare placed enormous significance on imagined awesome but reassuring supernatural forces of overwhelming power and proximity that were nevertheless expressed in hard concrete physical acts: prayer, penance, giving alms, attending church, pilgrimage, violence."

He paints with breathtaking detail the marauding armies hunting for "Saracens and heathen" to defeat in battle, the local uprisings that often greeted the appearance of tens of thousands of armed men, the intricate rivalries, intrigues and wars of succession.

God's War is a grand piece of history, but the Arab and Muslim worlds, Saladin and other Arab princes appear on the edges of the narrative.

The transformation of the Muslim world brought on by its encounter with the West is itself a fascinating and complex history. Tyerman admits that it falls outside the scope of his book. The absence leaves the work unbalanced. Yet, despite these drawbacks, Tyerman produces a fascinating and very readable history.