Book review: The First Crusade: The Call from the East by Peter Frankopan

Author: Peter Frankopan
Publisher: Bodley Head
Reviewed by: Norman Housley
Price (RRP): £20

Norman Housley has mixed feelings about the latest attempt to write a narrative of the First Crusade

It seems that publishers of popular history books currently regard the crusades as a highly bankable subject, perhaps not in the same league as the Tudors or the Second World War but not far off it. General histories of the crusades to the Holy Land have poured off the press, and the First Crusade in particular is a hot tip.

It is a matter of months since Jay Rubenstein’s Armies of Heaven was published and that book has now been joined by Frankopan’s contribution.

It is not hard to see why the First Crusade is receiving the lion’s share of the attention. It was an event of massive significance, it bequeathed sources that are unrivalled by most of the later expeditions, and it presents a cluster of thorny problems of explanation. Above all it was such a protracted, sprawling and many-sided episode.

A few years ago the French historian Jean Flori asked whether there was in fact one First Crusade or several. The radically different interpretations offered by authors like Rubenstein and Frankopan appear to answer the question for him.

Frankopan’s vantage point is the palaces of Constantinople. He thinks the recent trend to relocate the origins of the crusade in the west has gone too far, marginalising the impact of the appeal that the embattled Byzantine emperor Alexios I made for assistance in 1095.

He is at his best in his description of the crisis that Alexios was facing at that point, when domestic and external threats made his hold on power look precarious. He becomes less convincing when he tries to depict Alexios shaping the crusade itself, in particular contributing towards the emphasis that was placed on recovering Jerusalem.

Pope Urban II is not exactly pushed off stage but he does slip into a supporting role. This is implausible, and it rests on some questionable arguments, such as the hypothesis that Jerusalem-oriented relics used in crusade preaching were sent to Urban from Constantinople.

Pope Urban II calls for crusade

That said, there is genuinely new material in the book’s early chapters and some intriguing suggestions are made.

I was particularly taken by the idea that Alexios was behind Raymond of Toulouse’s march through Croatia and Dalmatia, an exceptionally challenging route across the Balkans. Frankopan relates this to Alexios’s ongoing conflict with Serbian ruler Constantine Bodin. Again, it is hypothetical, but it makes sense of an otherwise baffling decision.

Once the armies reach Constantinople this book becomes less original. Even when events are retold from a Byzantine perspective, they are familiar.

Recent scholarship has largely rescued Alexios’s reputation from the distortions created by his western enemies and there is not much that Frankopan can add to what we now know (or can reasonably surmise) about the emperor’s contribution towards the crusade’s success.

Frankopan is hindered by his choice of a narrative approach. There are other problems that arise from his decision to direct his book as fully as he can at a general readership. One is that so much of his colourful description and anecdote derive from Anna Komnena, an author whose devious artfulness Frankopan is well aware of.

So there is tension between scholarly exactitude and the need to create narrative and descriptive excitement.

And irritating generalisations creep in, the worst example being the opening paragraph of chapter one. This consists of six assertions about the First Crusade, every one of which is questionable.

It would be churlish to end on a negative note. Frankopan’s qualities as a historian and writer are of a high order. It is 60 years since Sir Steven Runciman gave us the view of the First Crusade from the Bosphorus and it is pleasing to see it updated with scholarship and flair.

This is a good introduction to the crusade for readers who are happy to see it portrayed as an instrument of Byzantine foreign policy.

Norman Housley is the author of Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land (Yale University Press, 2008)