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.

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1453, by Robert Crowley

August 6, 2010 at 16:14 (Book Reviews, Byzantium, Highly Rated Books, Historical) (, , , , )


A very beautifully told history, Crowley’s weakness is in occasionally forgetting that he is writing a religious and military account of a battle, and not an historical novel. One might readily salute his ability to bring the principal figures to startlingly lifelike dimensions, and  his runaway narratives are immensely enjoyavle, though not always appropriate to a serious history. Admittedly, they are inspired to some degree by the equally excitable accounts of Kritovoulos and other contemporary historians. It is a weakness, but a tolerable weakness, and Crowley is a skilled enough writer to carry it off admirably.

His sources are at first glance a right royal mess, and he does not really footnote at all, but it seems like he has been quite meticulous at arranging his material and plotting a middle-of-the-road course that nonetheless reflects rather badly on the Turks. His ample explanations of the modern attitudes of the western democracies and even the Muslim powers are deeply interesting if a little journalistic, and he is enough of an historian to give plenty of background to the fall of Constantinople (though the title is no misnomer, and he spends most of his time purely on the siege). Altogether a brief but brave and well-written account of an historical tragedy, and one of the most significant events of the last millennium.

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