Pros: Familiar characters, Knights, Fighting, Religious conflict on both sides
Cons: No solution has been found yet
The Kingdom of Acre, by Steven Runciman (1954)
This is the third and final volume in the 3 volumes about the medieval Crusades by British historian Steven Runciman. I have slowly worked through the approximately 1,500 pages of this trio covering everything from the First Crusade in the 1080s, not long after the conquest of England by the Normans, to the Ninth Crusade, considered the final crusade.
The initial volume covered the First Crusade and the various participants including Robert of Normandy, William the Conqueror's son, and several other French knights and nobles. The second volume covered the Kingdom of Jerusalem which was a European kingdom established in the 1100s that lasted about a century and covered the time of the Second Crusade and a little space on either side. The current volume covers the Third Crusade (1182) through the end of the crusades, around AD 1272 - 1300.
In The Kingdom of Acre the Frankish invaders capture of Jerusalem drew the attention of Saladin, a Kurdish warrior of humble origin who led Islam by force of his personality. Saladin - the anglicized version of Salah-ad-Din - became Sultan of Egypt and later captured Jerusalem in 1187 and kept it until his death in 1193. His successors were not cut from the same cloth, however, and the Holy City again fell to the Westerners as Islam pulled back, fought among themselves, and regrouped.
The story of the Third Crusade is the most familiar to most of us. That was the one that featured the most famous participants, including Saladin, of course, and the European kings Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, King Philip of France, and King Richard the Lionhearted of England. The current Byzantine Emperor was also frequently featured as Constantinople was the beginning of the West in those days. Oddly enough, of all the kings mentioned, Saladin has come down to us as the very model of chivalry, always willing to go the extra mile when most of the others would not even go the first. The Third Crusade was a high water mark of success from the Western point of view; unfortunately for the Christians, it never got as good again.
The Fourth Crusade, was in response to a call from Pope Innocent III. The Crusaders, lacking funds contracted with the Venetians for sea transport and were required to assist the Venetians in their warfare for payment. The crusaders pillaged a Christian city and then Constantinople, also a Christian city and capital of the Eastern Empire. The new Eastern Emperor was an appointee of the Venetians who reported to the Doge of Venice. If there wasn't a rift between Eastern and Western Christians before this insult, there was afterward.
The Children's Crusade (5th) followed this and the kids who followed the pied piper's call of their charismatic young leaders were offered transport, again by unscrupulous Italian sea captains who took them to sea and sold them for slaves, mainly in Africa and the East. Most of the children never saw their homelands again. The Sixth Crusade and following crusades mostly saw the Crusaders with a tenuous hold on the Holy Land until they were finally stamped out by the Mamelukes from Egypt.
Runciman was a very apt scholar with language skills that made him able to read many languages including Russian, Bulgarian, and Arabic so his books had a broader research base than most which relied on the usual Latin and Greek accounts. While we often fail to acknowledge it today, Constantinople is the final frontier of the West. Everything across the strait from there is properly East.
The story is quite convoluted and there were many players and armed camps in Palestine and the surrounding margins during the 13th century. Probably the continuing thread that unites the century-long history related in the Kingdom of Acre is greed and perfidy. Human nature seems to have been at its worst at that time, at least the way Runciman so eloquently tells it. Notable exceptions to the rule, like Saladin, are unfortunately few.
In addition to the older military orders founded the previous century the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaler, the German Emperor Frederick II founded a German order called the Teutonic Knights for good measure. These fraternities were founded to absorb some of the younger sons who would not inherit the titles and lands of their fathers, and in the German case to keep up with the French, it seems.
By reading such literature as The Kingdom of Jerusalem one becomes aware of the continuity of history and cannot help but become more knowledgeable about the world situation. The story reveals the roots of the modern conflict between Christians and Muslims which seems very similar and continuous to that of almost a thousand years ago. It is a pity this sort of history is not taught in schools today.
History buffs will be the best audience for The Kingdom of Acre. I found the history meaningful but sometimes difficult reading due to the level of detail and multiplicity of participants. There was crusade after crusade with much fighting and men were born, grew up, and died in the century that Europe fought all comers - and even each other - for control of the Holy Land. More people should read this as it is very enlightening.
The other volumes in this set are:
The First Crusade; and
The Kingdom of Jerusalem