The Siege of Acre, 1189-1191

Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, and the Battle That Decided the Crusades

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John D. Hosler
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , June
     2018.
     272 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780300215502.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Siege of Acre is a generic hybrid. Part of a Yale University Press series aimed at accessibility (and thus, presumably, at a more general, if educated, audience), it is light on footnotes but boasts an impressive, deep-bench bibliography; establishes its tone in casual, slangy expressions but traffics in specialized techno-speak; is constructed as an old-fashioned narrative (of the sort that depends on vivid characters and exciting skirmishes) but also offers monographic moments (of the sort that depend on calling out other specialists for getting things wrong). Patrons of Reading Religion may be disappointed, moreover, with the author’s opening admission. In a different book on this subject, he writes, “one would also need to explore in a fuller manner religious enthusiasm” (5). John D. Hosler does not intend to be that person. His aim is straight-up military history chronicling a “central action” of the Third Crusade (2). And at that he succeeds, taking advantage of relatively plentiful sources both Christian and Muslim; providing a large number of useful illustrations, plates, and appendices; and punctiliously recounting the day-to-day details of a prolonged tactical nightmare with a breathless relish that devotees of the first season of the video game Assassins Creed will surely understand.

Hosler’s subject has long been considered a pivotal episode in the strange complex of politics, religion, and warfare that made up the Third Crusade of 1189-1192. Yes, that Crusade: the so-called “King’s Crusade,” starring Richard Lionheart, Frederick Barbarossa, and Salah ad-Din Yusuf, aka “Saladin”; the Crusade wherein the European Christians failed to retake Jerusalem from its Muslim Abayyid possessors; the one wherein Barbarossa fell into a river and drowned before getting to fight, Philip of France got sick and had to go home, and Lionheart sloped off to Sicily before finally returning to take, not Jerusalem, but the Levantine coastline lost in the Second Crusade; the one wherein the central belligerents, Richard and Saladin, both ended a siege by summarily and publicly executing their prisoners of war, who had been promised safe passage. (Hosler, impatient with the hand-wringing rhetoric of most modern historiography, reminds his readers that “the past” is done no favors when we judge it by current standards; the executions on both sides made sense politically and militarily.)

But a narrative about—and only about—a single siege, even one as significant (to military historians) and (in)famous (to chroniclers of the Crusades) as that of Acre, can run the risk of taking on the actual characteristics of a siege. The Siege of Acre, like the Siege of Acre, is narratively/chronologically brief but somehow still seems to take a dangerously long time to conclude. The central chapters devoted to the hurry-up and wait characteristic of military engagements in general are, mercifully, leavened by the recounting of the manifold wickednesses, follies, and failures characteristic of that peculiar phenomenon called The Crusades: as always, famous leaders die in ignoble ways; disgruntled generals sulk in tents; astonishing and awe-inspiring battle engines, laboriously constructed and transported, are torched and destroyed within seconds by a single flaming arrow; fierce fighting is less decisive to ultimate outcome than backdoor deals and cash payoffs. The Muslims often seem to win, the Christians often claim to win, and the modern historian usually calls it a draw. Hosler looks instead to a different, less decisive outcome, arguing that the significance of the siege of Acre is mainly to be found in its revelation of the often-overlooked weaknesses of the great warrior Saladin, and advancement of a more positive assessment of Richard Lionheart, King of England (163-69).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lori Anne Ferrell is John D. and Lillian Maguire Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John D. Hosler is Associate Professor of Military History at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His previous books include Henry II: A Medieval Soldier at War, 1147–1189. He lives in Kansas City, KS.

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