John France, Hattin (Donnachie)

John France


(Oxford University Press, 2015) 218pp.  £18.99

John France Hattin

On the 4th July 1187 one of the most important and well known battles of the middle ages took place. At Hattin, a short distance from the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the army of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, was resoundingly defeated by the forces of Islam under the command of the sultan Saladin. Saladin’s victory over the Latins was overwhelming. The king of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan, along with many other barons from the kingdom, was captured and only a fraction of the Jerusalemite army was able to escape. In the months that followed, Saladin’s armies all but destroyed the kingdom of Jerusalem, recovering the holy city and uprooting almost a century of Latin Christian settlement in the region. Hattin redefined the geography of the ‘crusader states’ for the next century, spectacularly reignited the crusading movement, and shaped the politics of the medieval Mediterranean for decades. The Third Crusade (1189-1192) launched in response to the disaster is an episode of medieval history that still dominates popular perceptions of the age, where its leading protagonists have been regularly romanticised in film and fiction. In these well-known narratives Hattin is a starting point, a prologue for a much grander series of events. As such the battle that started it all is often overshadowed by later actions. John France in this readily accessible history of the battle of Hattin puts the conflict back at the centre of discussion, exploring the causes that gave rise to it and the consequences that followed, as well as examining its legacy to the modern day.

One might consider it odd that a battle of such prominence as Hattin, so well-known to scholars of the crusades and medieval warfare, has not been the topic of a more dedicated monographs. Much ink had been spilt on the subject of Saladin, the kingdom of Jerusalem in later twelfth century and the Third Crusade, but Hattin has rarely been the focus of these investigations whose attentions have always been directed elsewhere. France keeps Hattin at the centre of this work, carefully layering up the wider context for the battle in the first two chapters. These chapters cover a considerable amount of ground exploring the eleventh century world of Latin Christendom that gave rise to the crusading movement, as well as the how Islam responded across the twelfth century leading to the rise of Saladin, and the growing struggle with the kingdom of Jerusalem. These chapters are thorough, introducing and explaining succinctly numerous topics that are necessary to comprehend the wider importance and meaning of Hattin, but are concise enough so as not lose focus of the aim of the book. These chapters are titled, ‘Salvation through Slaughter’ and ‘Crusade and Jihad’, as their naming suggests the theme of ideological warfare in both Christianity and Islam as well as their respective developments are aspects central to the chapters’ discussion. France highlights the importance of ideology to the nature of political relations as well as conflicts undertaken in these centuries, but points out that while a comprehension of religious warfare should underpin our examination of Hattin we should not oversimplify the situation as just being that of the Christians of the west against the Muslims of the east. Warfare and the politics behind it were as France demonstrates much more complex and consistently evolving. This required Christian and Muslim leaders alike to find a balance between popular ideology and political realities. This foreshadows his discussion in the final chapter of the modern legacy of Hattin and its political uses where such critical interpretations are often ignored by those who invoke the battle to aid their own causes.

The book’s core is provided in chapters three and four with an account of the events leading directly to Hattin, an analysis of the battle itself and the immediate consequences of the battle from both Christian and Muslim perspectives. While these chapters are detailed, examining the developments in the months leading to the fateful encounter, France moves beyond a limited discussion of military events, logistics and army compositions that might otherwise dominate such a work, to examine the wider issues affecting the causes and outcome of the conflict. It is here that the work’s strength lies. Saladin’s need to maintain his jihadist credentials to silence Muslim critics encouraged aggressive action while the political rivalries and animosities that divided the kingdom of Jerusalem in turn bred the circumstances of its defeat. Their influences upon the battle are rightly stressed as much as the specific actions and decisions of the individuals that fought it. France does not challenge prevailing view of placing the failure of the Christian forces on the shoulders of Guy de Lusignan. Guy’s lack of political willpower and command ability were highly detrimental to the Latin’s cause. As a general he failed on all levels and was outclassed by Saladin but we are reminded of the adversary circumstances in which Guy operated, and that despite his failures he did display a measure of personal bravery. France goes on to analyse the significance of the battle and its aftermath. Hattin is often seen as a decisive battle but France argues that while this would appear to be the case initially, Saladin’s failure to take control of the Palestinian coast and overcome the Third Crusade wasted the victory he had gained. Saladin had won a great battle of huge importance but not the wider conflict. This notion of wasted opportunities would continue to influence views of the battle until Saladin’s own historical legend ultimately eclipsed the very event that brought him to prominence.

France has crafted an excellent account of a crucial medieval battle, providing considerable detail of the situation that gave rise to it and the ideologies behind it, but without becoming bogged down in any unnecessary narratives and superfluous detail. The final chapter demonstrates the importance of Hattin to our own contemporary debates of ideology and clashes of civilisations but argues the importance of studying Hattin as an event itself and placing in its correct historical context. The book is ideal for those already familiar with the crusades and the Latin East as well as those approaching the subject for the first time that want to understand one of its key events.

Stephen Donnachie
Swansea University

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