The First Crusade: The Call From the East

Peter Frankopan

Vintage 2013
A book review by Danny Yee © 2016
The First Crusade is focused not just on the Eastern Empire and Byzantine concerns but above all on the role of emperor Alexios Komnenos. To cut straight to Frankopan's concluding paragraph:
"It is one man, above all others, who stands out. Alexios I Komnenos put in motion the chain of events that introduced the Crusades to the world. The call from the east was to reshape the medieval world, massively expanding the geographic, economic, social, political and cultural horizons of Europe. After more than 900 years in the gloom, Alexios should once again take centre stage in the history of the First Crusade."

So Frankopan begins in central France — "On 27 November 1095 Pope Urban II stood up to deliver one of the most electrifying speeches in history" — but then spends the first half of The First Crusade describing the eastern background to that speech, including what is almost a history of Byzantium in the final decades of the 11th century. His account of the crusade itself, though it provides a broad description of the sieges of Nicaea and Antioch and Jerusalem and attendant battles and struggles, centres on the relationships of the crusade leaders with each other and with the emperor. And a final chapter on the consequences of the crusade highlights Alexios' later encounter with Bohemond and explains why he was so vilified in western accounts.

The focus in this is on the politics and the personalities, but there's also some fascinating material on the logistic challenges faced in provisioning the crusaders, the ideological background to their motivations, highlighted in debates over the oaths they swore to the emperor, and other topics that connect to the central themes. Some areas are not really treated at all. There is nothing on military technology or tactics, for example, with Frankopan passing over the details and offering a vague suggestion that the crusaders simply got lucky in their victories. And he spotlights the role of Muslim leaders such as Abu'l-Kasim and Çaka in bringing Byzantium to its knees, but otherwise the Islamic world remains largely in the background.

The Call From the East is readable and broadly accessible. The scholarly apparatus is consigned to thirty pages of dense endnotes, but Frankopan makes it clear whenever he is venturing into contested ground (most obviously in his argument, against a superficial reading of the Alexiad, that the position of the empire in Anatolia was relatively good in the late 1080s but collapsed in the 1090s). Though it could be read by complete newcomers, it is probably best pitched for those who already have some background on the crusades, on which it will provide a novel perspective.

May 2016

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%T The First Crusade
%S The Call From the East
%A Frankopan, Peter
%I Vintage
%D 2013
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9780099555032
%P 288pp