Figured I would make the first review one of the more interesting works I’ve read in the last year. It is Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade, by John France. As the title says, this is an analysis of the First Crusade as a military campaign. And in this way, it is a unique work on that problematic event.
France’s aim is to describe how the Crusader army (a mish-mash of knights and military men, with sundry barons, counts, and other nobles) managed to achieve what would become its military goal, the taking of Jerusalem. Given the time period, the technology, the internal dynamics, and the opponents, explaining victory becomes a complex affair.
What France specifically does not want to do, and manages to avoid for the most part throughout the work, is discuss the elements of the First Crusade that tend to be focused upon now: the socio-economic conditions leading up to the campaign, the morality/immorality of the campaign, the development of the “holy war” notion in Western Christendom, and the like. Rather, he simply wants to look at the campaign through the lens of military history, getting a better picture of logistical concerns, attrition rates (from battle, exposure, etc.), strategy and tactics.
Of course, even with this much more narrow focus, France goes into some of the political/ecclesiastical conflicts within the Crusade. So, for instance, he considers to what extent Pope Urban II was influenced in his call for battle by his desire to see the Western and Eastern Churches unified again. Or, also, he focuses on the difficulties the European leaders faced when consulting with the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Commenus (the fellow they were theoretically attempting to protect against invasion). But perhaps most interesting is France’s piecing together of the conflicts among the Crusaders themselves: although traveling far, and attempting something quite major, the leadership of the Crusader military (quite like the comparative confusion in terms of political fealty) was never clear. When considering strategy and the like, there was not a straightforward line of command, leading to sundry problems, and making the victory all the more stunning thanks to the problems encountered.
Admittedly, this book can be comparatively dry. Its primary audience will be military history buffs (or those wearing clothes), or (like me) medieval history junkies. But, for a military history, especially one from a time period where records can be sketchy, numbers often inflated, and texts in contradiction, France keeps the work alive and energetic. Anyone who can take the modern reader to the end of the eleventh century, and make him/her care about the fate of, say, Raymond of Toulouse, is a worthwhile writer indeed. Highly recommended.