Tag Archives: Crusades

Book Review: Holy Wars: 3000 Years of Battles in the Holy Land by Gary Rashba

HOLY WARS: 3000 Years of Battles in the Holy Land is one of the better primers about conflict in the Holy Land to appear within the last few years.  It consists of 17 chapters covering the initial Israelite conquest of Canaan in 1400 B.C. to the Israeli offensive against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 1982.  The more recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict is covered in the epilogue.  The work is 288 pages and includes extensive notes at the end of each chapter as well as a well sourced bibliography and index.  The Kindle edition, which is what I have, was mostly free of editing errors and the only complaint I have is the maps did not render well.  That is a common problem with the B&W Kindle though and does not reflect on the book, the maps showed up excellently when viewed on my PC.

This book is not aimed at the academic historian but is rather intended for the more general audience who just wants to know more about the military history of this violent part of the world.  In that, Mr. Rashba does an outstanding job of clearly narrating significant events from throughout the history of the Holy Land while fitting those events into the flow of time.  He does so in a surprisingly balanced and objective manner despite the author himself claiming he was not sure if he maintained that balance due to personal connections to the events he describes.  I can happily claim he succeeded admirably in suppressing any personal bias.

His selection of battles and campaigns is good and comprehensive.  Mr. Rashba acknowledges where his sources are scarce and makes use of modern research, particularly archaeological research where it is germane to his account.  He covers some events, such as Napoleon’s Palestine campaign, that are mere footnotes in western historiography.  I was impressed with his treatment of the Mamluks and their battle against the Mongols in 1260 which is practically ignored in most English language histories, even histories of the Holy Land.  He covers the Roman response to the first century Jewish revolt  but only mentions Masada in passing.  In a way that is fitting as the capture of Masada was actually a side note to the campaign but as he mentions, the battle and Jewish Response to the siege has become iconic to the modern Israeli Defense Forces.

In all Holy Wars is one of the best surveys of the Holy Land I have ever run across and I am certainly glad I did.  This book should be on the shelf of anyone who seeks to understand the history behind the hatreds evidenced in modern Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.

Book Review: The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle by Michael Stephenson

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher for purposes of reviewing it. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Michael Stephenson’s work The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle follows somewhat in the tradition of classics such a Keegan’s The Face of Battle and Victor David Hanson’s The Western Way of War. Where it differs from these two works as that while Keegan and Hanson focus on specific battles or time periods this book aims to be a more general description of the experience of combat throughout recorded history.  In that, the book is amazingly successful.  The author has produced a volume that does the job of bringing home te reality of warfare to those who have never experienced it.  What I finds even more refreshing is that he does without weighing the book down with moral judgements on the rightness or wrongness of war itself, instead he accepts the objective reality that war happens and goes about the business of explaining what it is like.

It is written in an easy free-flowing style that is almost a pleasure to read and the text is organized in such a way that it is also compelling to read.  I found myself making excuses to my wife to keep reading to the end of the chapter before I did something else.  The descriptions of combat and death, ultimately this book is about violent death, ring true.  I was struck in particular by the realism of the combat descriptions in the section on the Iraq war.  On page 361 he talks about the US Marines “Pine Box Rule” in which if someone has to go home in a pine box, it is not going to be Marines. In my own experience in Iraq in 2004 my unit had a similar rule except we called it doing the “Death Blossom” when we came under enemy fire.  If his descriptions of combat and death hold as true to reality throughout the rest of the book as they do for modern war, and I have no reason, to think they don’t, then Mr. Stephenson has produced what should be an instant classic.  It should also make its way to the official reading lists of all the services, especially the US Army and Marines.

At 406 pages of text the book is not too long for the interested layman and includes an index, extensive notes, and a truly impressive bibliography that together amount to 54 pages alone.  The book is organized into eight thematic, chronological chapters that cover warfare from the Ancient World to the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with an appendix discussing the state of military medicine through time.  The only very minor criticism I could have for this book is that it is Western Centric in focus, that is true of much western scholarship though  and this book makes no claim to universal history.

As a combat veteran myself, I have said for years in private conversation and on some public forums that no one who has not been in combat can possibly grasp what it is like, this work goes a long way to roving me wrong.  Michael Stephenson comes as close to describing the reality of combat as I have ever read from a non-combat vet.  This objective and fair description of death in battle should be on the shelf of every military historian, whether they are a veteran or not.  Anyone who wants to know what combat is like without putting their own skin on the line should read this book.  If nothing else, they will gain a better understanding of the sacrifices made by those who don the uniform of their country and go forth to do battle.  This is a good description of what George Orwell’s “rough men” go through to allow their countrymen to sleep safe at home.An outstanding book that is sure to remain the standard in its niche for years to come.


The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade

The Cathars were a radical religious sect that had taken root in southern France and by the early thirteenth century a good part of the population of the area were Cathars.  The Cathars held radically different beliefs from Christianity and are properly considered a different religion entirely, rather than a perversion of Christianity itself.[1] They believed that there were two worlds the spiritual and the material, only the spiritual was clean of sin while the material world was inherently sinful.  In order to escape the inherent sinfulness of their human existence the Cathars underwent a ritual known as the consolamentum.  This ritual was a kind of combination Baptism, Penance, and Holy Orders all in one; most did not receive it until they were close to death.  It was a ritual purification in which the participant was cleansed of all sin and vowed to follow the moral laws of the Cathars, namely they refrained from sex, had no possessions, did not eat meat, and traveled to preach their religion.[2]

The papacy had been trying to stamp out the heresy since the eleventh century through the use of preachers and by encouraging the secular nobility to eliminate the heresy.  This was stepped up in the early 13th century with the recognition of the Dominican order by Pope Innocent III (p.1198-1216) in 1205.  The order was founded by St. Dominic (1170-1221) as an order of itinerant friars attempting to bring the Cathars back to orthodoxy through their example and preaching.[3] Preaching had limited success because the heretics had the support of many of the nobility who were heretics themselves, or at least sympathetic to them.  The most powerful protector of the Cathars were the counts of Toulouse whom the Popes continually urged to combat the spread of the heresy.  In 1208 Pope Innocent III, exasperated with the unwillingness of Count Raymond VI of Toulouse (1156-1222) to suppress the Cathars, excommunicated him and placed the county of Toulouse under interdict.  Simultaneously with his excommunication of Raymond, the Pope sent letters throughout France preaching Crusade against the Cathars and their supporters.

The call to Crusade was answered enthusiastically by the people of northern France and in 1209; a Crusading army led by Simon de Montfort (1160-1218) attacked and took the towns of Beziers and Carcassonne.  At Beziers, the Crusaders massacred the population of the town; reportedly, when the papal legate Arnaud-Amaury was asked how to tell the Cathars from Christians his response was “Kill them all.  God will know his own”.[4] The Crusaders had only taken a forty-day vow so as soon as their vow was up they went home which left Simon to hold onto his conquests with only his personal retainers.  Over the winter, the Cathars managed to regain most of their lost territory but Simon went back on the offensive in the spring and regained most of the territory lost over the winter.

By 1211, Raymond had turned intransigent, repudiated his penance, and sought help from King Peter II of Aragon (1174-1213).  Peter II fresh from his participation at the Spanish Battle of Los Navas de Tolosa sought to use the prestige he had gained in support of Raymond who he took under his protection in 1212.[5] The Pope agreed to hear the arguments of Peter at the Council of Lavaur, which had previously been scheduled, but the agenda was now changed to accommodate the Pope.  The Council summarily rejected all Peter’s arguments and claimed that the lands in question were still infected by heresy.

In 1213, Pope Innocent III removed most Crusader indulgences for southern France in anticipation of the Fifth Crusade and Raymond and Peter marched on Simon to drive him from the south.  The two armies met at The Battle of Muret on 12 September 1213, where Simon, with a much smaller army was victorious killing King Peter in the process.  After Muret, Simon quickly consolidated his conquests and in 1215, his control of Languedoc was confirmed by the council of Trent.

After the removal of the Crusading indulgence Simon was forced to rely on mercenaries to defend his gains against a resurgent Raymond VI and his son Raymond VII.  Simon was killed on June 25 1218 at the siege of Toulouse by a stone fired from a mangonel.  Simon de Montfort’s son Amalric (1192-1242); attempted to maintain his claim but by 1220 was reduced to the land immediately surrounding Carcassonne.[6]

The cause was taken up by the king of France Louis VII in 1223, who sponsored a council at Bourges in 1225 to settle the matter.  The council declared Raymond a heretic, his lands forfeit, and excommunicated him.  Louis VII invaded in 1226 and Avignon surrendered on September 9 but the king died in November and the Crusade stalled.

The Albigensian Crusade formally ended on April 29 1229 with the Peace of Paris.  The Crusade was a failure in that it did not end the heresy of Catharism, which would continue for another hundred years until finally stamped out by the inquisition.  The only real winner in the Crusades was the French monarchy, which gained much more power because the newly conquered lands of southern France were enfiefed to him thus raising the king’s prestige even further above the rest of the French nobility.


Madden, Thomas, F. ed. The Crusades: An Illustrated History. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. 2004

Madden, Thomas F.  The New Concise History of the Crusades. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2005

Riley-Smith, Jonathan, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.  1995


[1] New Advent. The Catholic Encyclopedia. “Albigenses”. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01267e.htm

[2] Madden, Thomas F.  The New Concise History of the Crusades. p. 122

[3] New Advent, The Catholic Encyclopedia. “Order of Preachers”. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12354c.htm

[4] Crusades encyclopedia. “Arnaud Amaury”. http://www.crusades-encyclopedia.com/arnaudamaury.html

[5] Madden, p. 129

[6] Ibid., p. 135

The Preparedness of the First Crusade

The First Crusade was arguably the most successful of the various numbered crusades; however, they were not particularly well equipped for a campaign in Asia Minor.  It is no surprise that they were not, as the climate in Anatolia is completely different from Europe.  What is amazing is the way in which the crusaders persevered in spite of the hardships they had to endure throughout the march across Asia Minor.The Capture of Jerusalem in 1099

The main crusader army seems to have had an appreciation for the difficulties involved in a march across Anatolia; no doubt; the counsel of the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus (1081–1118) was helpful in their choice of march route.  Prior to leaving the region of Nicaea to continue the crusade, the leaders held a council at Pelekanum where the Frankish leaders and the Alexius discussed further plans for the crusade.[1] It was decided that the Crusader army would move as a series rather than together so that there would be more flexibility in deployment, and to simplify logistics.

This movement order was proven to be a wise decision just four short das after the continuation of the march when the Turkish Sultan Kilij Arslan (1092-1107) attacked the vanguard at Dorylaeum on 29 June.  The vanguard remained on the defensive until 30 June when the following echelon arrived and set the Turks to flight.[2]

The following months were to prove that the initial assumptions by the crusaders as to the difficulty of their movement were false.  The crusading army had planned to subsist by foraging while crossing Asia Minor, but this plan was soon shown to be flawed.  After the Battle of Dorylaeum, Kilij Arslan adopted a scorched earth policy in Asia Minor.  The Turks laid waste to the countryside along the crusaders line of march.[3] The crusaders suffered horribly during the next four months, many people died form starvation and lack of water, though this was somewhat ameliorated when the army reached Armenian Christian territory in August.

During the move many of the knights’ horses died, forcing some of the knights to become foot soldiers.  It was not only mounts that died but also pack animal and the crusaders were forced to use different animals as beasts of burden.  The chroniclers make much of the crusaders use of goats, sheep, and even dogs as pack animals and of knights using oxen as mounts.[4]

Once the crusaders arrived at Antioch, there problems were compounded by the fact that they were stationary.  The siege of Antioch while ultimately successful was another example of the poor planning of the crusade.  The crusaders succeeded almost in spite of themselves.

The training and equipment of the crusader army was up to the task of defeating the Turks and Egyptians.  The main reason for this is that the Muslims were not only unfamiliar with the methods of warfare as practiced by the Franks, but the western knights and soldiers wore heavier armor than they did.  The Turks and to a lesser extent other Muslims fought as mounted horse archers and were not equipped for the type of shock combat employed by the crusaders.  The crusaders were trained and equipped for the shock of combat between heavy horsemen and at first could not adequately respond to the harrying tactics of the Turks.

The Turks, whose army was composed almost exclusively of mounted archers, typically attacked in waves.  The first wave would approach and unleash a hail of arrows and retreat while succeeding waves waited behind to come up and do the same.[5] The Franks, on the other hand, relied upon heavy, who would deliver a devastating charge at opportune moments.[6]

Christian knights proved themselves fearless in battle, and when they maintained discipline, they nearly always prevailed.  The danger for the crusaders lay in a breakdown of discipline because of the quarrels among the leadership.  This was to prove almost disastrous at the siege of Antioch.  Time and again, the crusade seemed doomed to failure but the crusaders managed to find a compromise every time.

While the crusaders fooled themselves into thinking they were prepared for crossing Anatolia, they were not.  The crusaders suffered horrifically while enroute to the holy land and it was only religious zeal and their singleness of purpose that kept them moving forward when times were hard.  The story of the First Crusade is one of un-preparedness and success despite the odds.


Asbridge, Thomas. The First Crusade: A New History, The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity and Islam. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.  2004

Maalouf, Amin.  The Crusades through Arab Eyes. New York, NY: Schocken Books. 1984

Madden, Thomas F.  The New Concise History of the Crusades. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2005

Riley-Smith, Jonathan, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.  1995


[1] Asbridge, Thomas. The First Crusade. p, 132

[2] Madden, Thomas F.  The New Concise History of the Crusades. p. 25

[3] Asbridge. pp. 137-138

[4] Madden. p. 25

[5] Maalouf, Amin.  The Crusades through Arab Eyes. p. 16

[6] Riley-Smith, Jonathan, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades. pp. 20-21

Europe and the Crusading Impulse

Europe in the tenth and eleventh centuries was a continent in transition.  The states of Europe were still in flux and the kings of Europe had limited authority outside their own personal demesne.  Although individual French kings did wield considerable power, they waged a constant struggle to have their authority recognized by the great magnates in France, especially after the fall of the Carolingian dynasty in the ninth century[1].  The rest of Europe was no exception, in England the king was engaged in a great struggle with his leading barons and the Pope that would not be settled until the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215[2].

The deciding factor in the politics of the time was the feudal obligation between lord and vassal, and between king and church.  The feudal relationship was in theory well defined, but in practice the greater magnates tended to act in their own interests before that of their lord.  The barons of Europe were attempting to limit the authority of the king.

At the end of the eleventh century a disagreement between church and state began, in which the church asserted its primacy in matters of appointments to ecclesiastical offices.  This struggle was an attempt by some clergy to reform the church from within; they contended that in order to stop clerical abuses , the church needed the sole ability to invest new clergy. This argument was best demonstrated by the struggle between Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV of Germany for control of clerical investitures, which began with a papal decree in 1075[3].

The Church was also trying to limit violence between Christian kings and lords.  Several methods were tried including the Truce of God, which was established in 1017 as a weekend truce and later expanded on[4].  The Crusade was seen by several Popes, notably Gregory VII, and Urban II as a way to channel the natural aggression of the nobility in a positive way.

One of the most striking differences between modern and medieval man is the respective views of religion.  It is hard for a modern westerner to fathom the degree and depth of belief of the medieval European.  The people of Christendom did not just believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus they felt it to the core of their being.  The relics of saints and the places they lived were thought to hold some residue of their holiness.  No place was more holy than Jerusalem, the place where Jesus died and was resurrected to forgive the sins of man[5].

Society in the medieval period was very violent; the feudal existed as a sort of protection racket where the peasantry agreed to provide sustenance for the nobility in return for military protection.  Similarly, the lesser gentry agreed to serve the higher nobility in return for guarantees of protection in law and support in time of war.  The entirety of medieval society had evolved for the sole purpose of supporting the mounted man-at-arms, who reigned supreme on the field of battle.

Medieval society was separated between those who pray, those who fight, those who provide.  The Crusade was conceived specifically for the military, noble class of society, it was seen as an outlet for the natural militancy of the nobility, and a method whereby their military skills could be put to good use in a worthy cause.  In his call to Crusade, Pope Urban II specifically called for the exclusion of the clergy and non-military classes of society from Crusade[6].  He absolved those who could not fight from their vows, enjoining them to support the Crusade through money donations.

Lastly, Christendom was seen as being under threat from the Muslim menace, especially the brand of Islam practiced by the Seljuk Turks who had destroyed the army of Byzantium at Manzikert in 1071[7].  There was also the matter of expelling the Muslims from the Iberian peninsula a process which began in the ninth century but was quickly seen as just as worthwhile as the Crusades in the east.  In 1181, Alexius I Comnenus ascended the throne of Byzantium and appealed to the west for help against the Turkish threat.  This was one reason for crusading but Urban went beyond that and called for Christian re-conquest of the Holy Land, a call with wide appeal in the west.

Europe at the end of the eleventh century was ripe for the call to Crusade, and the nobility and people of Europe saw in Crusade something bigger than themselves to which they could dedicate their life.  Given the situation of the church and society, Europeans had almost no choice but to support a Crusade, the infallible Pope had called for it and it also satisfied deep longings in the hearts of the men and women of Christendom.


[1] Riley-Smith, Jonathan, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, pp. 18-19

[2] Bishop, Morris, The Middle Ages, pp. 64-65

[3] Madden, Thomas F.  The New Concise History of the Crusades, p. 7

[4] Bishop, p. 73

[5] Riley-Smith, p. 27

[6] Madden, pp. 10-11

[7] Ibid., p. 5