The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades edited by Jonathan Riley-Smith, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995, $39.95.
The mere mention of the word “crusade” evokes a powerful image in the minds of people today. It is a word that is applied to nearly everything, from a crusade against illiteracy to describing Batman as a caped crusader. Yet the term, which is so commonly used today, originated in a military venture of complicated and often misguided intentions. The Crusades of medieval Europe were originally designed to deliver the Holy Land from the hands of the Muslims and place it under the protection of Christendom. Later the term was applied to any war against non-Christians and even against fellow Christians who had been pronounced heretics. The Crusading movement began in 1096–achieving success in 1099, followed by centuries of failure–and the last great Crusade ended around 1700. A recent publication, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, examines the entire scope of the crusades in 15 articles by various authors, all specialists in their respective areas.
As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and this is certainly true for this encyclopedic work. In addition to more than 100 black-and-white illustrations, the book contains 35 color plates, ranging from photographs of architecture to paintings from the Crusading era. This wide assortment of illustrations vividly portrays the Crusades not only as they were seen at the time but also as they were viewed throughout the ages.
Perhaps of greatest interest to military enthusiasts are the chapters on the military orders. The Hospitalers, Templars and Teutonic Knights, as well as a host of lesser-known orders, were the best-trained and disciplined forces within the Crusading armies and controlled a large portion of the garrisoned territories long after those whose religious zeal had waned returned to Europe.
The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades is an invaluable resource to those interested in the Crusades. Yet it is also of immense use to those interested in the Ottoman Empire, the Baltic Region, the Spanish Reconquista and papal history. The only weak point of the work is that it devotes only one article to the role of Islam in these ventures. Although Robert Irwin’s article is of excellent quality, it only whets one’s appetite for more on the subject.