The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades was a disappointment. This surprises me because Jonathan Riley-Smith has an excellent reputation in Crusades scholarship. Erroneous information is not a problem; the few points that I would contest are the result of advances in computer technology that allow scholars to better process Crusades records, not the result of lazy scholarship. The problem with this book is that it is quite useless for its intended purpose—giving the uninitiated reader a solid overview of the Crusades.
Granted, a short overview of the Crusades is a gargantuan task, but others have done it quite well. While The Oxford Illustrated History does go in chronological order and covers the entire timespan of the Crusades, the individual essays are not well suited for the task. Some are too general, some are too specific, and all are divided by essays on extremely focused topics, such as songs or architecture. They fail to give a coherent overview of the main events of the Crusades and the main figures in their context, yet all make such references as if the reader is aware of the information already.
One major problem that I have with the content of this book is that it fails to address the Crusades as a response to a threat. Some essays deal with other origins while others begin their history after the start of the Crusades, but it is essential that readers understand that one major factor of the Crusades was violent threat to Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. I am surprised that this cause is left out of The Oxford Illustrated History when so many other scholars deal with it thoroughly.
Some of the individual essays are effectively written, particularly Riley-Smiths’. Denys Pringle’s chapter on architecture would be more inviting if discovered in an academic journal. The illustrations are useful, but not so helpful that they add great value to this book. For once, I would not recommend buying The Oxford Illustrated History. Get it from the library or borrow it from a friend. Before I would recommend this book, I would recommend The New Concise History of the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden or The Crusaders: The Struggle for the Holy Land by Régine Pernoud.
I’ll admit that I didn’t finish the final few chapters. Even if those were excellent pieces of scholarship, it doesn’t change that much of the book doesn’t get the job done well enough for me to continue from cover to cover.
Table of Contents
- The Crusading Movement and Historians, Jonathan Riley-Smith
- Origins, Marcus Bull
- The State of Mind of Crusaders to the East, 1095-1300, Jonathan Riley-Smith
- Songs, Michael Routledge
- The Latin East, 1098-1291
- Art in the Latin East, 1098-1571
- The Military Orders, 1120-1312, Alan Forey
- Islam and the Crusades, 1096-1699, Robert Irwin
- The Crusading Movement, 1274-1700, Norman Housley
- The Latin East, 1291-1669, Peter Edbury
- The Military Orders, 1312-1798, Anthony Luttrell
- Images of the Crusades in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Elizabeth Siberry
- Revival and Survival, Jonathan Riley-Smith
- Further Reading
- Illustration Sources