[Marxism] James Reston Jr. on the Crusades

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu May 5 10:02:27 MDT 2005

(James Reston Jr. is the son of long-time NY Times editor and 
liberal-scoundrel James Reston.)

James Reston, Jr. Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the 
Third Crusade. New York: Doubleday, 2001. xx + 346 pp. Table, maps, 
illustrations, bibliographical references, index. $27.50 (cloth), ISBN 
0-385-49562-5; ISBN 0-385-49561-7; $15.00 (paper), ISBN .

Reviewed by: Michael Pedrotty , Department of History, University of 
Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Published by: H-Albion (January, 2003)
A Popular History of the Third Crusade

Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade by 
James Reston Jr. might be read as both a popular history of the Third 
Crusade and as a dual biography of Saladin and Richard the Lionheart. 
Donning his "historian's hat," Reston sets the stage for his drama by 
providing brief backgrounds on the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and Saladin's 
unification of Egypt and Syria.[1] He also describes the Sultan's conquest 
of the Christian holdings from 1187 to 1189, and next follows the 
preaching, mobilization, and course of the Third Crusade in roughly 
chronological fashion from 1189 to 1192. As biographer, Reston also devotes 
a good deal of text to a presentation of his title characters' early lives 
and careers, theorizes how their personalities and experiences impacted the 
course of the crusade, and briefly touches on their fates after the 
campaign. The author is perhaps at his best when wearing an essayist's hat, 
as he derives valuable insights on the modern legacy of the crusade 
movement from his travels in the Middle East and interviews with Muslim 

Reston apparently desired to avoid a Western bias in his account, and in 
this he has certainly succeeded. If anything, he seems to prefer his Muslim 
subjects, and his treatment of the Christians as a whole is generally 
pejorative in tone. The Christians are the aggressors in his drama, they 
are less civilized, less religious, more greedy, and more savage. Reston 
characterizes Islam as the "native faith" of the Holy Land and states that, 
"In the first instance [the Third Crusade] was a Christian Holy War that 
was met in response and in reaction by the Muslim concept of jihad" (pp. 
xvi, xviii). Both of these assertions are debatable, and rely, to a large 
extent, on the defining chronological scope, as do their modern parallels 
today. They typify the author's style not only in that they privilege the 
Muslim perspective, but also in that they ignore the subtleties of the 
issue at hand, by presenting one side of a complex concept or thorny debate 
as simple fact. Reston's simplistic, dualist constructions prevent him from 
addressing some of the most interesting and enlightening aspects of his 

This is particularly evident in the author's portraits of Richard and 
Saladin, with the former doing little right and the latter incapable of 
doing wrong. In general, Reston's characterizations are rather thin and 
one-dimensional, with no hint of competing interpretations or any other 
complexities that might muddy the waters of his tale. Richard is painted as 
reckless, brutish, unprincipled, and vacillating, with his only commendable 
trait being that he was a great warrior (pp. 115, 181, 192, 226, 341). 
Saladin, on the other hand, is noble, devout, wise, and imperturbable (pp. 
23, 25, 172, 201, 203, 218, 283, 292-293). Richard is roundly condemned for 
the massacre of Muslim prisoners at Acre, after negotiations for their 
release broke down following repeated delays by Saladin. Yet no censure 
accompanies the Sultan's less-numerous executions of Christian prisoners, 
both before and after Richard's, including the beheading of women 
passengers seized by Muslim corsairs and brought before him for 
interrogation. Richard is a savage, but Saladin is supposed to have been 
motivated by piety in his executions. Reston blandly states that the Koran 
sanctioned such "retaliation," quoting an "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" 
passage that (excepting some anatomical detail) is precisely what might be 
found in the Old Testament (p. 277).

The author does employ an engaging style, painting vivid scenes with 
imaginative and descriptive prose. Unfortunately, he appears to be more 
concerned with telling a good story than with presenting an accurate or 
responsible history, and he too often ventures into the hyperbolic and 
fantastic. Thus he has Richard wading ashore to the Battle of Jaffa "with a 
crossbow in one hand and sword in the other" like some Hollywood action 
movie hero, when the chronicles simply note his use of both weapons at 
different times during a day-long battle (p. 288).[2] He also uses such 
anachronistic terms as "seals" and "commandos" to describe medieval 
combatants, presumably because he thinks they convey the essence of the 
matter, if not the reality, as well as enhancing readability (pp. 120, 159, 
160, 175). But certainly the best example of Reston's taste for the 
titillating version of a story is his insistence that Richard was 
homosexual, that he and Philip Augustus were lovers, and that their 
dissolved relationship then impacted not only the course of the crusade but 
future European politics as well. Reston is certainly not the first to 
assert Richard's supposed homosexuality, despite the fact that the evidence 
for it is extremely thin. But the manner in which he presents the case is 
notable in its bald confidence, with no hint that a contrary viewpoint 
might exist: "In any event, in their adolescence and early adulthood, 
Philip Augustus and Richard the Lionheart had been lovers" (p. 61). 
Moreover, Reston goes beyond merely discussing Richard's sexuality to place 
it at the very center of his drama. The Third Crusade supposedly dissolved 
because Philip could not bear to labor on in his ex-lover's shadow (pp. 
164, 170-176). The Plantagenet-Capetian wars of the late Twelfth Century 
were not part of a bitterly complex and long-standing dynastic rivalry, but 
were merely another lovers' quarrel: "But behind it all the matter was 
personal. They [Richard and Philip Augutus] fought and made peace and 
fought again, just as lovers fight and make up and fight again" (p. 339). 
It may be a juicy story, but it is not good history.

Reston employs a wide range of primary and secondary sources--most of the 
important chronicles are represented in the bibliography--but he too often 
makes poor use of them. He draws heavily on the medieval sources, but does 
so neither critically nor faithfully, and he appears to regard all types of 
information from them as equal in evidentiary value. The author grants a 
factual voice to legendary or fantastic material. We are told, for example, 
that King Henry II could trace his lineage back to Noah (p. 28) and that 
Guy of Lusignan could trace his back to a "serpent woman" (p. 14). 
Moreover, prophecies regarding Richard's birth were delivered "by no less a 
figure than Merlin the Magician" (p. 29). Reston's conception of his 
subject also appears to have been shaped as much by modern literary and 
theatrical sources, as he describes for us the intrigues of the Plantagenet 
and Capetian courts as seen "from the modern play The Lion in Winter" (p. 
61). A very fine play and a memorable film, but hardly a reliable 
historical source. Finally, Reston exhibits a disturbing willingness to 
manipulate his sources in order to advance his story line, as when he 
claims that Richard, a few weeks before the arrival of his bride-to-be in 
Sicily, gathered together some bishops, stripped himself naked, and 
"confessed the filthiness of his homosexuality." Roger of Hoveden simply 
states that he "confessed the filthiness of his life" and that "the thorns 
of lustfulness had departed from his head" (p. 135).[3]

It is possible that Reston simply underestimates the limitations of his 
medieval sources, as he demonstrates what appears to be an imperfect 
understanding of the period as a whole. Examples are legion, but among the 
most striking are the author's criticisms of Richard's military judgement 
at every turn, in particular his eventual refusal to besiege Jerusalem 
itself in the summer of 1192. Reston states that no historian has 
"adequately" explained why Richard pulled back to Jaffa at that point, and 
he offers up that "[s]uddenly, inexplicably, disgracefully, the Lionheart 
became fainthearted" (p. 277).[4] So his apparently adequate explanation is 
that Richard simply turned coward. In fact, Richard himself explained why 
he dared not press the attack, and his decision was in full accord with the 
vast majority of the most experienced military minds of the host--men of 
the time who lived or died by their skill at judging these affairs. They 
and Richard determined that a successful siege was unlikely so far removed 
from their maritime supply lines and that even if they could capture the 
Holy City, they could not maintain possession of it since the majority of 
the crusaders would leave for home.[5] It would be better to march on Egypt 
and split Damascus from Cairo once again, in other words to recreate the 
environment in which the first crusaders had succeeded and the only one in 
which they could hope to succeed again. Reston dismisses this project as a 
flight of fancy, despite the fact that every major crusade to the East 
thereafter aimed at Cairo, and not Jerusalem. These indictments, and many 
others, reveal more about the author's lack of understanding regarding 
medieval military affairs than they do Richard's strategic acumen.

Reston has identified a topic of great potential for a popular history on a 
strikingly dramatic event that does indeed have important lessons for the 
contemporary world, and for this he should be applauded. He should not be 
faulted for not producing a rigorous history of his subject, for he is not 
a historian. But he can rightly be faulted where his work is simplistic, 
unbalanced, sensationalized, or inaccurate. Popular history makes its 
greatest contribution when it engages the broader reading public with 
well-written, well-researched accounts of humanity's collective past. 
Although it need not be exhaustive, fully documented, or methodologically 
innovative, surely we must still demand that it be balanced, responsibly 
researched, and accurately told. Unfortunately, few academics will find use 
for Warriors of God except as an example for students of the charms and 
perils of popular history.


[1]. WAMU Radio, "James Reston, Jr: Warriors of God: Richard The Lionheart 
and Saladin in the Third Crusade," at 11:50 of 51:21 recording. This is an 
author's interview with Kojo Nnamdi of NPR, in which Reston reveals a great 
deal on how he approached his topic. He aptly describes himself as a "story 
teller" and states that he "donned his historian's cap" for this project.

[2]. Ambroise, The Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart, translated by Jerome 
Hubert with notes and documentation by John L. La Monte (New York: Columbia 
University Press, 1941), ll. 11,127-11,202; and, Itinerarium Peregrinorum 
et Gesta Regis Ricardi (London: H. G. Bohn, 1848), pp. 317-319.

[3]. Roger of Hoveden, The Annals, vol. II, translated by H. T. Riley 
(London: H. G. Bohn, 1853), p. 176.

[4]. Other examples of the author indicting Richard's military judgment 
include pp. 149, 273, 339.

[5]. Itinerarium, pp. 300-303.



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