The First Crusade: The Call from the East by Peter Frankopan (The Bodley Head)
Reviewed by Review by Jonathan Riley-Smith
A feature of the last few years has been an avalanche of books about the Crusades – particularly the First – each claiming to be revolutionary. Very few justify the publicity. Many of the authors have one or two valid points to make, but they are fixated on writing something that will appeal to the general public and their arguments are submerged in narrative.
There is quite a strong case, of course, for coating a pill in sugar to make it more palatable, but, as any advocate would say, an argument is only as convincing as the way it is presented. This book is better than most in the genre, but the force of Peter Frankopan’s ideas is blunted further by his tendency to overwrite and to pad out the story with anecdotes, many of which have already been used by previous historians.
He believes that Alexius I, the Byzantine emperor at the time of the First Crusade, should be restored to what he perceives to be a central position in the story. Partly because of the failure of a very daring policy that Alexius had adopted in the early years of his reign, his empire was in a desperate situation by the mid 1090s.
It had lost nearly all its most productive provinces in Asia Minor and there were conspiracies and instability in Constantinople itself. The emperor responded by seeking help from the West, relying on a good relationship he had built up with Pope Urban II and the contacts he had been sedulously making with Western nobles.
The formal appeal for assistance made by his embassy at the Council of Piacenza in 1095 was a deliberate call to arms and was the climax of a propaganda campaign that had Jerusalem at its heart. In the end, Alexius got more than he had bargained for, but his subsequent behaviour is entirely explicable, although it was caricatured in hostile Western accounts of the Crusade.
In spite of the hype that heralded this book’s publication, Frankopan’s thesis is not particularly new. Historians have always stressed the catastrophic nature of the Turkish incursions into Asia Minor, the chaos that ensued and the problems Alexius was encountering in Constantinople.
They have treated his negotiations with the papacy in detail and they have provided explanations for his conduct once the town of Nicaea had fallen in the summer of 1097 and the Crusaders had embarked on their march to the East.
Frankopan makes two significant contributions...
Full review in The Tablet: http://www.thetablet.co.uk/issue/1000303/booksandart
Another review in The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9056911/The-First-Crusade-by-Peter-Frankopan-review.html
A little about the First Crusade: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Crusade
A little on Dr Peter Frankopan: http://www.history.ox.ac.uk/byzstud/senior_members/frankopan_peter.html
His web page: http://web.me.com/peterfrankopan/PeterFrankopan/Home.html
University of Oxford podcast: http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/twirling-kaleidoscope-byzantine-empire-audio
A little on the house of Frankopan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Frankopan