Near the end of the eleventh century, Western Europe was in turmoil, beset by invasions from both north and south, by the breakdown of law and order, and by the laxity and ignorance of the clergy. Searching for a way out of the increasing anarchy, Pope Urban II launched an army of knights and peasants in 1095 to fight the Turks, who had seized the Holy Land.
Michael Foss tells the stories of these men and women of the First Crusade, often in their own words, bringing the time and events brilliantly to life. Through these eyewitness accounts the clichés of history vanish; the distinctions between hero and villain blur; the Saracen is as base or noble, as brave or cruel, as the crusader. In that sense, the fateful clash between Christianity and Islam teaches us a lesson for our own time. Foss reveals that the attitudes and prejudices expressed by both Christians and Muslims in the First Crusade became the basic currency for all later exchanges—down to our present day conflicts and misunderstandings—between the two great monotheistic faiths of Mohammed and Jesus Christ.
As a concise popular history, People of the First Crusade gives an engaging overview of the reasons for the first great Christian-Muslim "holy war," its gruesome progress and the confused aftermath. This is by no means a scholarly work (there is no bibliography and no footnotes), but Foss (The World of Camelot, Gods and Heroes) describes the historical background clearly enough for the general reader. To back up his belief that "the history of this crusade is as much a study in character as a story of warfare," Foss focuses on several major figures: Pope Urban, who had multiple motives for proposing the Crusade; the aristocratic leaders whose infighting weakened the Christian forces; and the wily Byzantine Emperor Alexius, who deftly played all sides. The most effective passages are the contemporary accounts--both Christian and Muslim--of those who survived the three-year ordeal. These include some very vivid images of suffering that illustrate how ideals were soon buried in the rush for loot and power: Contrary to the ideal of chivalrous knights, the nobility were responsible for some of the worst savagery. Foss ultimately interprets the Crusade as a successful popular uprising. Since commoners provided most of the army's strength and kept the focus on Jerusalem, the ultimate conquest of the city seemed to prove that "God had given a stamp of approval to the aspirations and achievements of the poor." 22 illustrations, 7 maps.