Byzantium and the Crusades, by Jonathan Harris

July 5, 2011 at 13:24 (Book Reviews, Byzantium, Historical, Mediocre Books) (, , , )


Perhaps this ought to have been called “Byzantium, but Mostly the Crusades”. It was a useful resource and a thorough chronicle of the first few crusades, but there was very little about the city of Constantinople itself, in either its history or its culture or the misanthropes who ruled it. Harris paid excellent attention to the various adventures of the crusaders in the Holy Lands, and to their unpleasant deeds en route, but it felt like there was comparatively little information on the actual character of the city: only political theory seeking to explain some of the more peculiar choices made by the Greeks, and even then only as related to the Crusaders. It might be expected that this sort of approach would be characteristic of an entirely Western perspective; it is clear throughout, however, that Harris has no favourites in his history, and while the Crusades are seen through largely western eyes, they are described with a fairly neutral pen.

Also in Harris’ favour, his style is easy to understand without being simplistic, and although his scope is rather narrow he knows what he wants to talk about and sticks firmly to his chosen course. This is certainly a good history, but it is certainly not in the same class as Norwich, and can best be summed up as some interesting and convincing ideas and political theory wrapped in a rather brief overview of a few hundred years of Byzantine history.


  1. Joachim Boaz said,

    As a medieval historian by trade I appreciate Jonathan Harris’ work — yes, it’s flawed (the utter simplicity of his overarching theory is downright frustrating) but there are VERY few works from the Byzantine perspective. It’s a groundbreaking work for a mainstream audience.

    • J. Holsworth Stevenson said,

      What do you think of John Julius Norwich’s work? As far as an outright Greek perspective, I found Judith Herrin to come from the right direction, but unfortunately have some terrifyingly shoddy historicity.

  2. Joachim Boaz said,

    Norwich’s three volume series is more in the traditionalist sort of vein — it’s definitely useful for a historical outline but in terms of new appraisals of Byzantine vs Crusader etc it’s somewhat lacking. Harris’ is one of the newest and presents some re-examinations of primary text which haven’t been rigorously examined in the last 20 years… Well, “terrifyingly shoddy historicity” completely discredits someone in my book đŸ˜‰

    Something like the essays in “East and West in the Medieval Eastern Mediterranean: Antioch from the Byzantine Reconquest Until the End of the Crusader Principality” sheds important (micro-history) light on the subject.

    Have you read Hillenbrand’s The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives? A VERY flawed work BUT the ONLY one which attempts to understand Muslim perspectives on the crusades. In short, the Crusades are a blip in the history of the region according to later chronicles — the crusades re-emerge as rhetoric much later. The Mongol invasions are considered much more important….

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