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To best understand Christopher Tyerman's impressive God's War: A New History of the Crusades (Belknap/Harvard), you must go back more than a half century, to when Sir Steven Runciman produced his three-volume History of the Crusades. A monumental work, it had flaws more visible today than when it was written. One of the misconceptions that Runciman was instrumental in popularizing (and that infuses Terry Jones's awful, 1995 made-for-TV program The Crusades) was the idea that the Crusades were an assault on the sophisticated and superior civilizations of Islam and Byzantium by a barbarian West.

Runciman eloquently summed up his disdain for Western crusaders in the closing lines of his great work: "There was so much courage and so little honour, so much devotion and so little understanding. High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed … and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost."

For all of its eccentricities, including such heavy-handed moralizing, Runciman's work is a beautifully written classic that has inspired several generations of historians to engage in Crusade studies. Today, more historians and archaeologists than ever before are working in the field. But they are questioning old orthodoxies and asking new questions as they scour archives, study Crusade art and architecture with new eyes, and dirty their hands uncovering crusader sites.

One of the leaders in this effort is Christopher Tyerman of Oxford University. Since the publication of his England and the Crusades, 1095-1588 (1988), he has helped to redefine the field. In 2004, he published Fighting for Christendom: Holy War and the Crusades. It is pocket-sized, offering ...

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July 2007

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