Book Review: The Crusader Armies, by Steve Tibble

The Crusader Armies
By Steve Tibble
New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2018
402 pp.

Reviewed by Andrew Latham and Cooper Jensen

Considering all that has been written on the topic of the crusades over the past few centuries, one might be forgiven for doubting that there was anything more to be said about these iconic medieval wars. But Steve Tibble, in his recently released book The Crusader Armies, has decisively relieved that doubt. Tibble has a background on the subject of the crusades, as he completed his PhD on the internal politics of the crusader states. The Crusader Armies reflects his extensive knowledge of the subject. The book fundamentally reevaluates the crusades by convincingly arguing against many prevailing assumptions about them. He highlights modern oversimplifications used when discussing the crusades and elaborates on them with new insight. With these well researched new arguments, Tibble has stimulated fresh thinking into a subject which has been lacking in that for quite some time.

In one sense, Tibble’s book fits a fairly standard pattern. He asks all the expected questions, such as “what were the crusades,” “who fought them,” and “who were they fought against?”. It is in answering these perennial questions, however, that Tibble departs from the well-worn path of his predecessors.

The first question Tibble asks is “what were the crusades?”. The prevailing contemporary account is that the crusades were battles fought between Christians and Muslims, fueled primarily by religious motivation on both sides. Tibble states that these wars should not be viewed with religion as the primary motivator, but instead the main cause was the age-old conflict between nomadic and sedentary societies. He puts forth evidence suggesting that the root cause of the crusades can be found in environmental factors such as droughts that pushed nomadic societies, in this case the Seljuk Turks, away from their initial spot on the Eurasian Steppes. They inevitably moved onto Byzantine land, triggering the beginning of the first crusade. For the next 90 years, the conflict was simply between nomadic tribes attracted to the wealth that sedentary societies such as the crusader states produced, while religion, he argues, took a secondary role.

The second question that Tibble analyzes is “who fought for the crusading armies?”.
The existing narrative is that the crusading armies consisted primarily of western Catholic knights brought from Europe. These knights, according to the popular narrative, were elitist and intolerant towards local Christians and Muslims, whom they regarded as heretics. Tibble argues that this is not the case. In fact, since the crusader states had very little manpower, they needed all the help they could get. As a result, their armies were composed of all types of people, including local Christians such as Armenians, Arabs, Syrians, Greeks, and Maronites. Even Turkic horse-archers, referred to as “Turcopoles” were recruited to fight, and were a large part of the crusader’s fighting force.

The final question that Tibble answers is that of “against whom were the crusades fought”. He argues that in the same way that modern perceptions of the crusading armies are incorrect, so too are those of the Muslim armies. The Egyptian Fatimid army, for example, was a Muslim army composed of very few Muslims. Although ostensibly a Shi’ite Muslim army, the soldiers were often Christian Armenians and Christian Africans. Additionally, he highlights how the Turkish and Syrian armies they faced had far more political, religious, and ethnic differences than are often recognized. He explains how Islam was new for many of the early Turks and most became Muslim because it was “convenient”, not because they all had a shared deep conviction.

Beyond these three questions, Tibble uses this book as an opportunity to analyze the Frankish and Muslim armies’ evolution of fighting styles and debunk the stereotype that medieval warfare lacked strategy and nuance. He discusses how the Frankish army had to incorporate Turcopoles in response to the Muslims’ more mobile fighting strategy. Similarly, the Muslims had to incorporate more infantry and structure into their armies to combat the Franks more effectively. He delves into the “arms race” they were caught up in during the second half of the 12th century, citing examples such as the continuous upgrading of weaponry and castle-building. In doing so, he makes the argument that the all the armies in the region were more sophisticated and versatile than many historians acknowledge.

This is an ambitious book, and, as such, has much to recommend it. Tibble reinforces his arguments with well-researched sources and examples. In so doing, he accomplishes a fundamental re-evaluation of what the crusades were and who fought in them. He is able to explain terms and concepts in a clear and concise way that makes the crusades relevant to specialists and accessible to non-specialists.

However, every ambitious claim is prone to some pushback. Although his argument of geopolitical forces being the primary motivation for the participants in the crusader wars is compelling, Tibble under appreciates the religious motivations at play on all sides. For instance, when describing the living conditions of the first crusaders after they conquered the Holy Land, he paints an incredibly bleak picture of a lack of manpower and poor economic circumstances. It is difficult to deny that, against such the background of such material deprivation, that religious motives were sometimes paramount. Additionally, Tibble himself states in the early chapters that Nur al-Din and Saladin were able to unite the Turks and Syrians in the latter half of the 12th century for two reasons: the economic prosperity achieved from conquering sedentary societies such as the Fatimids, and Islam. In an effort to advance his argument for the geopolitical factors of the crusades, Tibble fails to elaborate on Islam’s role in uniting the Muslim armies against the crusaders. While the under-appreciation of the role of religion is understandable when considering the magnitude of the argument he is attempting to make, it is problematic nevertheless.

This shortcoming aside, Tibble’s book is, overall, well researched and innovative in its arguments. Regardless of a reader’s familiarity, everyone has preconceptions of the crusades, and Tibble’s book will debunk many of their false assumptions and provide new insights into this already heavily-researched subject. He is also successful in providing unique insight into the adaptability and sophistication of the armies involved. The Crusader Armies is groundbreaking in the way it evaluates the three central questions, and we highly recommend it to students, professors, or the average reader looking to gain further knowledge of the subject of the crusades.

The Crusader Armies is available through Yale University Press

 

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