[Marxism] James Reston Jr. on the Crusades
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
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. 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). 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).
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). 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. 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.
. 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.
. 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.
. Roger of Hoveden, The Annals, vol. II, translated by H. T. Riley
(London: H. G. Bohn, 1853), p. 176.
. Other examples of the author indicting Richard's military judgment
include pp. 149, 273, 339.
. Itinerarium, pp. 300-303.
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