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VIA: New York Times

The villains of history seem relatively easy to understand; however awful their deeds, their motives remain recognizable. But the good guys, those their contemporaries saw as heroes or saints, often puzzle and appall. They did the cruelest things for the loftiest of motives; they sang hymns as they waded through blood. Nowhere, perhaps, is this contradiction more apparent than in the history of the Crusades.

When the victorious knights of the First Crusade finally stood in Jerusalem, on July 15, 1099, they were, in the words of the chronicler William of Tyre, “dripping with blood from head to foot.” They had massacred the populace. But in the same breath, William praised the “pious devotion . . . with which the pilgrims drew near to the holy places, the exultation of heart and happiness of spirit with which they kissed the memorials of the Lord’s sojourn on earth.”

It’s tempting to dismiss the crusaders’ piety as sheer hypocrisy. In fact, their faith was as pure as their savagery. As Jonathan Phillips observes in his excellent new history, “faith lies at the heart of holy war.” But the same fervor that led to horrific butchery, on both the Christian and the Muslim sides, also inspired extraordinary efforts of self-sacrifice, of genuine heroism and even, at rare moments, of simple human kindness. Phillips, professor of crusading history at the University of London, doesn’t try to reconcile these extremes; he presents them in all their baffling disparity. This approach gives a cool, almost documentary power to his narrative.

At the same time, “Holy Warriors” is what Phillips calls a “character driven” account. The book is alive with extravagantly varied figures, from popes both dithering and decisive to vociferous abbots and conniving kings; saints rub shoulders with “flea pickers.” If Richard the Lion-Hearted and Saladin dominate the account, perhaps unavoidably, there are also vivid cameos of such lesser-known personalities as the formidable Queen Melisende of Jerusalem and her rebellious sister Alice of Antioch. Heraclius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, is glimpsed in an embarrassing moment when a brazen messenger announces to the assembled high court where he sits in session that his mistress, Pasque, has just given birth to a daughter.

Phillips is especially good portraying 12th-century Muslim personalities — from Ali ibn Tahir al-Sulami, a preacher of jihad, whose fiery exhortations sound alarmingly familiar, to the refined Usama ibn Munqidh, poet and man of letters, and the grumpy but astute Ibn Jubayr, a sharp-eyed traveler through Crusader territories. “Holy Warriors” brings these otherwise exotic figures thumpingly back to life.

Phillips concentrates on the seven “official” crusades, from 1095 to the final disastrous campaigns of Louis IX (St. Louis) of France in 1248-54 and 1270, but he also describes the fiasco of the so-called Children’s Crusade as well as the horrifying Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars of southwest France. As he notes, “holy war” was as often as not waged against coreligionists: Catholics against Cathars, Sunnis against Shiites. In the rigid, polarized mentality of the holy warrior, any deviation can signify a dangerous otherness.

Read the full story here.