Dan Jones plunges into the clash of religions in ‘Crusaders’

The popular historian examines the violence and fanaticism, as well as the devotion and conviction, at the heart of the holy wars. 

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands” by Dan Jones, Viking, 425 pp.

Meet Margaret of Beverley. She was likely born during the 12th century in the Middle East to Frankish parents and raised in northern England. As an adult, she returned to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage, setting in motion events that would turn her into a historical figure remembered by Christians for her courage during the siege of the city.

While she was in Jerusalem, noted Muslim warrior Saladin led a seige against the city. Margaret is said to have joined the defense by donning armor and using a cooking pot for a helmet. She reportedly helped fire projectiles from large slingshots at the enemy, was hit by shrapnel, and, after Saladin eventually took Jerusalem, paid for her freedom – only to be recaptured soon after by a different group of soldiers.

For the 15 months of her subsequent captivity, Margaret faced the misery of hard labor along with frequent beatings. Her memories of being held prisoner were vivid: “My chains rusted with my tears,” she wrote. Her experiences live on because of the publication of her diaries (or, perhaps, diaries credited to Margaret but ghostwritten by her brother).

Dan Jones, a best-selling author known for his witty, engaging, and carefully researched popular histories, relates the tale of Margaret, along with many other fascinating stories, in “Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands.” Jones covers the years leading up to the First Crusade, when Christian soldiers successfully stormed Jerusalem in 1099, and ends with Italian explorer Christopher Columbus stumbling into the Bahamas in 1492.

And, as Jones explains in his introduction, the title conveys his approach to telling the story of the violent, bloody centuries when Christian and Muslim fighters clashed on a near-constant basis. Using diaries, histories, and other sources, Jones concentrates on the experiences of those who participated in and those who witnessed the horrors of the period.

As Jones puts it, “In choosing these crusaders I have deliberately cast my net wide. I have selected women and men, Christians of the Eastern and Western churches, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Arabs, Jews, Turks, Kurds, Syrians, Egyptians, Berbers and Mongols. There are people here from England, Wales, France, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, Sicily, Spain, Portugal, the Balkans, North Africa. There is even a band of Vikings.”

There are also, among his characters, both those who wielded great power and those who endured what the powerful brought upon everyone else.

Those not steeped in the period – many people in Jones’ vast general-interest audience likely fit that description, including this reader – may find themselves occasionally at sea with the dozens of characters, clashes, sects, and settings related here. But for those of us who might confuse Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin of Boulogne, or Al-Adid with Al-Adil I, relief is always in sight.

For a start, Jones includes an overview of his cast of characters that wisely includes years of birth and death and notable characteristics for each. Even better, they are listed in order of appearance in the book. Chapters are well paced, and Jones’ prose is, throughout, felicitous. Helpful maps at the front of the book and scattered throughout make it easy to understand the geography. 

“Crusaders” also includes a contemporary coda showing how the holy wars of long ago continue to be referenced and misappropriated by extremists and terrorists – Christians and Muslims alike – in an effort to stir up true believers in their midst. Examples abound, including Osama bin Laden’s call for jihad on the West as he led al-Qaeda and planned the 9/11 attacks, and the manifesto of the Christchurch, New Zealand, gunman, which referenced the Crusades and the medieval Catholic military order known as the Knights Templar.

History crackles in Jones’ assured hands. He finds bawdy humor to leaven some of the grim violence. As much as anything, he even-handedly shows how endless propaganda, greed, and naked political ambition drove the battles and alliances of the Holy Land wars as much as religious fervor did.

Massacres and other atrocities fill these pages, but so too do a wide range of people who, while deeply flawed, exemplify the worst and best of humanity. Poets, popes, and princesses amble through these pages searching for love, courage, and absolution. They remind us how much – and how little – things have changed.

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