By Michael Foss

Arcade Publishing


256pp/$24.95/September 1997

The People of the First Crusade

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Michael Foss offers a brief and popular account of the first Crusade launched by Western Europe to capture Jerusalem form Islamic forces in the eleventh century in The People of the First Crusade. As the title indicates, although Foss outlines the events leading up to the call for Crusade by Pope Urban II, the journey of various European princes to the Middle East, and the results of the Crusade, he does so with a focus on the individuals who made the Crusades happen.

Foss begins by providing the background for the events in Western Europe, portraying the Crusade as a way of getting rid of troublemakers and bored sons by sending them to fight their battles in a distant land rather than in Europe. He then focuses on Pope Urban II and his role in setting the Crusades in motion. From Urban, he turns his attention to the leaders of the first wave, undisciplined and untrained pilgrims led by charismatic leaders to their slaughter, which would help galvanize the feeling that Jerusalem need to be saved from the Saracens. Eventually, Foss turns his attention to Alexios Comnenus, the Byzantine emperor and the various leaders of the Western forces.

Most of Foss's attention is spent on the Western Crusaders. A few Muslims get attention, such as Kilij Arslan on Roum, but for the most part the Islamic forces are overlooked, only discussed in terms of the resistance put up against the Crusaders. At the same time, Foss makes it clear that their forces were better coordinated and more disciplined than the invaders. This oversight means that while the Islamic response to the invasion isn't belittled, Foss is careful to show it was extremely effective, it appears to coalesce out of a vacuum.

One of the things that Foss brings out is the brutality of the Crusaders, describing the beheadings, torture, and desecration of bodies committed by the Crusading knights when they defeated Muslims in their conquest. Despite rules, or more properly suggestions, of knightly behavior written by Bishop Bonizo of Sutri in the years before the call for Crusade was heard, the Crusaders allowed their most base, animalistic tendencies take hold when they were facing anyone who they felt was less deserving of God's grace than they were, although Foss does attempt to push the blame for many of the atrocities on the lower classes of Crusaders rather than the knights and princes who were driving the overall venture. This deflection fails, however, when the reader considers Byzantine emperor Alexios' response to the princes' behavior with regard to his empire before they even reached the Holy Land.

Foss does a good job of presenting the Western view of the Crusades, highlighting the individuals who helped drive the invasion, although he doesn't always handle his large cast of characters in a way that makes it easy for the reader to keep individuals or their alliances and relationships straight,e specially as many of those chance over the course of the Crusades. While he is weaker at presenting the non-Western individuals, he does provide the context that demonstrates that the Westerners were behaving in a much more barbarous manner than the Muslims (and Christians) whose lands they were moving through and attempting to conquer.

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