Ellenblum, associate professor of geography at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, presents an archaeologically-based view of Crusader life in the East largely free of earlier preconceptions. Indeed, his learned, densely argued book shows how, for centuries, historians have assessed the Crusades according to contingent values and interests.
Historical writing about certain matters tends to be a mirror of writers and their times as much as a depiction of things as they were. The Crusades may have pride of place in this hall of mirrors. Protestant historians of the seventeenth century attacked papal arrogance while Catholics defended the pope but assailed the inept execution and immorality of the crusaders. Others criticized the immorality of the Crusades but rather inconsistently lauded the pure motives of the crusaders. Still others saw the Crusades as a turning point when barbarian Europeans were exposed to civilization on their journeys to the East. The romanticism of the early nineteenth century solidified a more positive view that was embraced in the 1830s and after by nationalists anxious to highlight the French, German, English, and even Belgian contributions to the Crusades.
Nationalist discourse permeated archaeological investigations of monuments (such as castles) that commenced in the 1860s. This was quickly joined by colonialist perspectives which understood the material remains of the Crusades as manifestations of nations whose missions included the defense of and sometimes partnership with local Christians. Israeli scholars regarded the lessons of the Crusades not as colonial triumphs to be emulated but pitfalls to be avoided.
Ellenblum's innovative archaeological analysis, which features his own research, flows somewhat uneasily from this historiography. In contrast to previous scholars, he questions the utility of terms such as borders and cities with their Eurocentric implications. Great quantities of new data, combined with a new approach, now see fortified sites as the centers of settlements rather than simply military outposts.
In Ellenblum's terms, a dialogue took place between Franks, local populations, and Muslim powers that led to two-way economic, social, and technological developments. This approach, more attuned to the subtleties of long-term interaction in colonial and imperial situations, is increasingly familiar, for example, in studies of Roman Britain. In military terms, however, Muslims learned about siege engines from the Franks, who in turn learned about light infantry from the Muslims. The building of ever-larger fortresses in response to Muslim tactics culminated in the famous concentric castles. Ironically, as if to illustrate the dialogue and the historiographic morass, the largest concentric castles, which became visual icons for the Franks, were in fact constructed by Muslims.
While his archaeological arguments could stand alone, Ellenblum's presentation of them together with the historiography was a risk worth taking. His academic prose is difficult, but readers will be rewarded, and in the process, simplistic views of the Crusades will be banished.