Summer Reading Reviews, Part 4:
Arab Historians of the Crusades
Francesco Gabrieli. Arab Historians of the Crusades. Tr. E. J. Costello. New York: Dorset Press, 1989. Pp xxxvi, 362. $7.95.
It's a short review this time around, for time reasons, and also because the book is pretty straightforward. Gabrieli presents us with selections from the major Islamic historians of the Crusades, translated and given explanatory footnotes as needed. Overall it does what it says on the box: Gabrieli constructs a continuous narrative of the Muslim world's reaction to the rather sudden and unprovoked invasion of Syria in the 11th century CE, and its continuing invention of ways to drive the Franks out. It's worth noting that, in contrast to the hyperbole of such works as Chanson de Roland, most of the historians here are rational and level-headed, with outbursts limited to lines like "the Franks—God damn them—invaded Syria" and similar quick condescensions . Some sources do attribute disgusting practices to the Franks—such as ibn Al-Athir's account of Roger of Sicily's rhetorical farting techniques—and some, like 'Imad Ad-Din, are impressive as works of art but disappointingly unwilling to compromise.
The world from which they write is remarkably, though perhaps not surprisingly, strong: it is a world of those who are rational as well as faithful, able to see that the recapturing of Jerusalem is as much a matter of military planning as God's will. Many of the historians see right through the Christians' propaganda—miracle discoveries of lances and cross pieces are shown for the carefully planned tricks they no doubt were. The Franks come off most of the time as quite human: one can praise Raymond of Tripoli, but fully and rightly despise the treachery of Reynald de Chatillon. The overall impression of the work is one of openness, tolerance, and a society in which even barbarians may be given the benefit of the doubt. Whether this arises from the selection, arrangement, and translation of certain pieces, or of the pieces themselves, I cannot say for certain, but the present work is quite useful toward repairing the popular memory of the crusades.