I’ve just finished reading a marvellous historical book: Thomas Asbridge’s “The Crusades – The War for the Holy Land”. There are many things to love about this work. It presents a very coherent narrative all the way through, explaining the key events and the important sequences clearly, without relying on military jargon. It brings many of the protagonists to life, giving you a sense of their inner workings, motivations and weaknesses. It also presents a picture of life through the eyes of the different combatants, providing explanations for sometimes inexplicable actions. Covering almost 200 years of history and a host of different characters, this is no easy thing. I would thoroughly recommend it.

In some ways, the book is not really about the Crusades at all. The book’s focus is the Crusader states of Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and Jerusalem; from their establishment to their demise in the late 1200’s. Some Crusades, such as the Second and Fourth Crusades, are barely mentioned and the machinations of popes and princes in Europe take secondary place to the key events in the Levant.  A large section of the book is taken up with the events from 1100 to 1192, when crusading was a relatively minor aspect of life in the “Outremer”.

The role of religion is explored in the book. Unquestionably, religious devotion inspired legions of Crusaders to travel to the Holy Land, provoking a reciprocal commitment to jihad within the Muslim population. It was secular pragmatism, however, that sustained the Crusader states over much of their lifespans. Christian princes formed treaties and alliances with their erstwhile enemies, while cross-cultural trade and commerce flourished in the Near East during this time. Political changes were often a function of practical concerns, brought about by shifting alliances and crises of leadership. Religious idealism, as a force for change, was markedly less effective. Attempts by the clergy to organise their own expeditions usually ended in abject failure, costing the lives of many Crusaders while meriting barely a footnote in the history of the region.

Most of the people in this story lived short, brutal lives. If battle didn’t kill them, illnesses such as cholera and dysentery did the job. Irrespective of whether you were Christian or Muslim, you would have been lucky indeed to reach the age of forty. Children grew up quickly, if they made it to their teens at all. From the many massacres detailed in the book, life was cheap in the extreme. The inhabitants of a besieged city, once fallen, could expect no mercy. Even the elite did not have it easy. Kings and sultans at the height of their powers often succumbed to illnesses or murderous intrigues at a comparatively young age, prompting vicious power struggles amongst remaining family members. Slavery was rife and punishments were exceedingly cruel. How these conditions motivated people to live their lives, sacrificing all for the dreams of salvation, we can only guess.

Although Asbridge was eager not to make connections between the Islamic / Christian culture wars of today, I feel that an altogether different, more enduring parallel can be made between then and now. I was struck by a sense of familiarity reading about characters such as Baldwin I, Saladin, Richard the Lionheart and Louis IX. Despite a gap of nearly one millennium, these individuals came across as surprisingly modern to me. It struck me that they were not unlike modern businessmen, with interests to protect, opportunities to exploit and competitors to fend off. The elites operated in a relatively lawless world, similar to the modern corporate landscape, differing only in the amount of blood spilled. Their levels of strategic insight would put many an MBA to shame. These leaders benefitted greatly from advances in technology such as trebuchets, crossbows, navies and Greek Fire, while setting up information systems using messengers, homing pigeons, spies and an elaborate network of express couriers, in the case of later Malmuk rulers. I can’t help but think, were you to transport Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch or Steve Jobs back to these times they would have readily donned a suit of armour, leading their armies into battle. When it comes to business, some things never change.