On Oldenbourg’s book, The Crusades

Dan Byrnes in review 3-9-2017 of Zoe Oldenbourg, The Crusades. (Trans from the French byAnne Carter) London, Phoenix Press, 2201, first pub in UK in 1966 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson from a French edition of 1965.

A book re the first three crusades and the “emotional climate” that produced them, and a history of Kingship of Jerusalem till the arrival of Saladin the Moslem general and enemy of the Crusaders. And I have to confess that this is one of the oddest books I’ve ever read and perhaps one of the worst, and I have to ask myself, why is this?

Firstly the book seems badly planned, with highly erratic discussions, which seems odd, since the author, Oldenbourg,was a distinct fan of Crusades literature. She gives useful potted histories of certain notables, such as Saladin (1137-1193) (a highly respected Moslem general, Kurdish in origins), or The Leper King of Jerusalem, and yet she doesn’t.

(The Leper King of Jerusalem, seen depicted poignantly in the splendid movie Kingdom of Heaven (2005), was Baldwin IV Anjou (1161-1185), son of King of Jerusalem Amalric I Anjou (1135-1173) and Agnes Courtney (earlier a Saxon name), daughter of Count2 of Edessa Joscelin I Courtney (d.1159) and Beatrice Hethoumia of Armenia. Which none of us will find out usefully from Oldenbourg’s book.)

Oldenbourg (she was a daughter of some Russian journalists who disliked the 1917 Russian Revolution and fled to France) reveals that many of Frances’ senior Crusaders were related (their Crusades were then a family show), but she doesn’t demonstrate it usefully. Continually, the reader finds that Oldenbourg “doesn’t” and so: why is this?

I don’t know why, it has to do with poor design of this book project, but part of the how seems to be her overlooking of women’s names in the genealogies she provides. Women’s names are mentioned in the text and are partly explained in the index, but are not mentioned in the genealogies appended. Nor does she usefully mention any indigenous woman from The Holy Land, Lebanon, Armenia (as with the woman surnamed Hethoumia above), that the Crusaders dealt with. So if anyone wants to pursue relevant genealogies, the index of this book is the best place to look, which is hardly good enough.

We have here a case then of a woman author much relying on contemporary documents, mostly written by men,who is writing a book on male warfare and often ignoring the women they dealt with and often had children by. Oldenbourg seems besotted with The Crusades, but is only a little critical of the fact these Crusades were called in Europe, and is quite unreliable about the Moslem defence against the Crusaders.

Yet she can be alarmingly frank about the depredations of the Crusaders, as when during the fourth crusade they went off the rails and attacked areas they should not have, such as Constantinople in 2014. Which is another problem with this book! What is a story from the fourth crusade doing in a book on the first three Crusades (1095-1192)?

In short, and quite unlike Oldenbourg, who is nevertheless, and paradoxically, quite readable, despite her evident problems of nomenclature and terminology, I feel the Crusades, as far as they affected existing Holy Land placenames and nearby areas, were the greatest nonsense of jumped-up, absurd, French and German feudalism ever foisted on the world. The Kingship of Jerusalem was a sick feudal/medieval joke, but whether it was as sick as the “Caliphate” declared in 2014 by IS (Islamic State), you will not find clearly out from this book, which is just one of the many things wrong with it. A book then to stay well away from … Although Oldenbourg (p. 465) will admit that the Kingship of Jerusalem became “a legal fiction”. I regard it as always and from inception, a fiction. Bah humbug, I recommend you read Runciman’s books on the Crusades.


Author: Dan Byrnes

Dan Byrnes is an Australian poet, writer, historian, a one-time journalist in Tamworth NSW Australia (or, Country Music Capital, Australia). Born in Sydney in 1948, meaning in late 2018 he is aged 70! He is deeply interested in modern Australian history (since 1788), literature, poetry and music. He had a normal high school education plus several stints at university, ending with a double major in History/Psychology, then with an Honours degree in History. Of late, and as he gets older - in 2019 he will be 71 - he spends time compiling and recompiling old work, adding to this blog, and wondering deeply with the history of Australia since 1788, a relatively new country, which received up to 162,000 convicts from Britain, why there is such apathy to maritime history in general and in particular, such apathy to the question: who owned/insured the convict ships?

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