The Crusades Review: God Of War

THE CRUSADES – HOLY WAR: Wednesday 18th January, BBC2, 9.30pm

Before we start, I’d just like to say that I love ancient history. The Cold War and Victorian Britain are alright, but nothing turns my brain on like a Medieval documentary. If you look carefully, you can almost see the point where history and legend collide. Kingdoms were won and lost through bravery, betrayal and bad fortune and those who could, sought power with reckless abandon, usually citing some God or other in the process. For such a gigantic event in the timeline of Western civilization, the first crusade is also a mystery to many.

Nowadays religion gets a mixed press. Millions of nutters believe in life after death, but it’s fairly safe to say that in Western Europe, for many reasons, God isn’t the force he was a thousand years ago. Like David Beckham, he still draws a decent crowd, yet his best days are almost certainly behind him. However things weren’t always thus and back in the late 11th century, Our Lord was in his pomp and inspired thousands of people to march down to Jerusalem (an impressive feat on its own) in a bid to reclaim the Holy Land from the pesky Muslims. They thought they had a pretty decent God of their own, they just didn’t know what he looked like.

I say God, but of course it was actually man himself who did the hard work, or to be more precise Pope Urban II, who in 1095 gave the kind of anti-Islamic speech that would have made Nick Griffin blush, which went around Christendom like wild fire. Dr Thomas Asbridge explains that thousands of peasants and knights subsequently launched the First Crusade, somehow stumbling their way through various battles and sieges, arriving at the gates of Jerusalem three years later. They subsequently slaughtered the city’s inhabitants in such horrendous fashion that our presenter struggles to illustrate his point – something which may go to explain the fact that this one starts a good 30 minutes after the watershed. At least it could never happen today eh? (Sorry – but I promised myself one..)

This is interesting and blood-curdling in equal measure, but the real task set before Asbridge is to explain why so many people were prepared to put themselves through such utter carnage in the name of God. It’s more difficult than it looks. Sure we all know that people quite literally feared the almighty back then, but getting further inside the psyche of your average Christian circa 1100 is more challenging. They certainly weren’t in it for material gain argues our presenter, after pointing out that rich warlords spent all their cash in exchange for ‘eternal salvation’. As for the peasants? The whole trip sounds truly horrendous.

He eventually tries to make the theoretical ends meet by branding the Crusades as a “fusion of violence and faith”, but the very fact that he struggles to get inside the head of Johnny Q. Crusader, illustrates how different they were from us and the power that religion had over people a millenium ago.