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Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History: Language and Sources


In many ways this is narrative history of the old style, with much use, appropriately enough, of military language: ‘the crusaders at first concentrated most of their strength against the western wall’ and their various leaders take up their positions and posts. The description becomes florid towards the end of the passage, when, after the first few knights have passed through the breach ‘the trickle became a torrent’ with Crusaders pouring over the wall. However, perhaps the biggest surprise comes right at the end of this passage when the violence that Runciman described in such detail is encapsulated in the phrase ‘Jerusalem was given over to the sack’. This is a euphemism much used by historians as a way of indicating what happened without having to go into details; it should be remembered that Riley-Smith is trying to cover the whole history of the Crusades in a single book, whereas Runciman had three volumes at his disposal. Even so, it is worth considering the effectiveness of such phrases on conveying the reality of events in the past.


In a work of this kind references to sources are generally few. Riley-Smith does not refer here in any direct sense to any of his sources. However, this is an example of historical writing where the very detail of the narrative is itself evidence of the research that has gone into it. This comes through the detailed description of the different angles of attack and from the day-by-day account in the last period before the city is taken. Two details point more directly to detailed research: the reference to ‘the desertion of Tancred and probably of others of his following’ suggests that, although the precise evidence is lacking, it is a fair inference the evidence we have that others had gone with him; the positioning of the final breakthrough ‘slightly to the east of the present-day Herod’s Gate’ suggests first-hand familiarity with the site, in other words fieldwork

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