A life of war

I’ve read a few books about the Crusades and the events of those times in Europe but it’s not a period that I’ve studied in any great depth. When I saw God’s Wolf by Jeffrey Lee though I decided to read it as I thought that it might make me more aware of what happened. It has certainly done that and I found it a good and absorbing account of the life of one individual.

The book is a history of Reynald de Chatillon. He was a minor and penniless French aristocrat who went as a young man to the Holy Land (Israel and its surrounding countries as it is now) as part of the second crusade and never returned home again. At the time, the area was split into a series of kingdoms based around the major cities such as Jerusalem and Antioch each of which was held by a king or prince from the West supposedly defending holy sites of Christendom from the armies of Islam. Reynald made his career as a fighter in the numerous wars of the time but made his fortune by advantageous marriages that gave him power and linked him to many of the important powers of the time.

At one point Reynald was kept prisoner by Saladin’s armies for many years and lost all his wealth and power as the kingdom he ruled was overrun and conquered. He then picked himself up, made another clever marriage, and regained his position. He spent his whole life in war and political manoeuvring, gaining a reputation for being a ferocious and ruthless opponent.

This book spends some time informing the general reader about the way in which the area is divided up and who is fighting whom and for what territory. This was very useful for me and I was glad to have some excellent maps to help my understanding. The author doesn’t make too many assumptions about what the reader already knows but nor does he overwhelm you with facts and information. Although we don’t know a huge amount about Reynald the book shows us why he behaved as he did and compared his with the actions of others – they were all brutal and many, like Reynald, came to a sad and abrupt end.

This book is well enough constructed that you don’t need to have any real knowledge of the times or of the events to understand it. By concentrating on the life of one man the author can show us a lot about the period and the people and he also links it to some events today (although that really needs another book to do it justice). I can’t say that I came to like Reynald or most of what he did but I did come to understand it and to learn a bit more about an interesting period in history.

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