The Crusader Armies


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Steve Tibble
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , August
     424 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Although the crusades were wars, scholarship in the last several decades has focused more on the cultural, intellectual, social, economic, and religious components of the crusading movement rather than military elements. Following the tradition of R. C. Smail’s Crusading Warfare, originally published in 1956, The Crusader Armies, 1099-1187 by Steve Tibble returns to a military focus, examining the people, tactics, and fortifications of the Kingdom of Jerusalem before 1187. Unlike Smail’s pioneering study, Tibble’s work is written for a general audience, carefully explaining concepts, dynamics, and events well known to specialists. The language throughout is casual, with legions of colloquialisms and trite figures of speech (e.g., “inconvenient truth,” “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” etc.) as well as the occasional off-color term.  But it is a book that welcomes everyone, regardless of the reader’s background in the subject.

Woven into Tibble’s easy prose are the conclusions of decades of scholarship on crusading warfare and the crusader states. Most evident is the work of Ronnie Ellenblum, John France, Malcolm Barber, and, of course, Jonathan Riley-Smith. Gone are the long discredited, yet still popular, descriptions of the medieval crusader kingdom as a colonial enterprise imposed by religious fanatics. The medieval Near East was populated by a rich diversity of ethnicities, cultures, and religions constantly in dialogue and dispute with each other. Although Catholic Christians from Europe were in positions of power, they had simply replaced other foreigners: the Turks. Outside the city of Jerusalem, religious toleration was the norm in the region simply because the alternative was chaos.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, Tibble describes the demographic background of the region before the First Crusade as well as the ways in which Europeans and Levantines had to modify and rethink their approach to warfare. The second section looks more closely at the people who lived in the crusader kingdom and the roles that some of them played in the armies: knights, squires, mounted sergeants, turcopoles, infantry, and mercenaries. Various techniques, including the famous heavy charge, are explained clearly. Likewise, Tibble guides his reader through crusader castles and sieges. The last section examines the makeup of Muslim armies in Egypt, Syria, and among the Turks. The pivotal Battle of Hattin (1187), which marks the end of this study, is compellingly described across twenty-three pages. No other battle gets such close attention. In Tibble’s view, the Christian loss at Hattin is largely the fault of King Guy of Lusignan, whose weak and vacillating leadership walked the Christian army directly into Saladin’s trap. Once things went badly, a sundering of the cooperation between infantry and cavalry only compounded the disaster.

Given that this book rests firmly on the fruits of modern scholarship, there are only a few innovative conclusions. The most important is found early in the work. Tibble argues that “it is entirely possible to write a broad military history of the crusades without mentioning religion,” which he then proceeds to do (8). This is at variance with scholarship from Riley-Smith onward that places religious piety and anxiety at the center of crusading motivations. For Tibble “climate change and massive migration crises were fundamentally far more important than religion in shaping warfare in the region during the period of the crusades” (8-9). The migration of the Turks into eastern Asia Minor and Syria disrupted the settled Arabs and Syrians, both Christian and Muslim, of the region. Crusader warfare, Tibble maintains, was not a struggle between religions, but between nomadic and sedentary populations. “The crusades were fundamentally a movement to defend the sedentary Christian population from nomadic incursions” (12). Although Tibble is certainly correct that the Turkish invasion led to the call for the First Crusade, this fails to explain why European Christians should care enough to impoverish themselves to turn it back.  Without religious motivations Europeans would have had no reason to concern themselves with conquests so far from home, making it difficult to see how the crusades and crusader armies would  have ever materialized.

Although there are a great many popular works on the history of the crusades, few are based on a foundation of modern scholarship.  In this well constructed book, Tibble performs an essential service, telling a fascinating story of the medieval crusader kingdom undergirded by the state of the field.  Crusade historians like to complain that the general public knows nothing about their scholarship.  It is books like this that will change that.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas F. Madden is Professor of History at Saint Louis University.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steve Tibble is Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of Monarchy and Lordships in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1099–1291. He lives in London.



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