The Third Crusade and the Siege of Acre: An Interview with Dr. John D. Hosler

Next month my friend and fellow medieval historian Dr. John D. Hosler will be doing the unthinkable for many academics in that he is giving up his tenured position as a full professor at Morgan State University, where he has taught for the last twelve years, in exchange for a position with the U.S. Army. To be clear, he is not joining the Army, in the traditional sense, but is instead taking what will undoubtedly be a fascinating position as an Associate Professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. As someone who cares deeply about those who serve in our military, wishing to see them receive the very best possible support, I could not be happier to know John will be acting in this role.

I first came to know of Professor Hosler through his excellent work as a medieval historian. John has produced a number of major scholarly works on the twelfth-century that have been well received by scholars. They include his 2007 work Henry II: A Medieval Soldier at War, 1147-1189 (Leiden: Brill); his 2013 book John of Salisbury: Military Authority of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance (Leiden: Brill); and a co-edited volume (w/ M. Frassetto, and M. Gabriele) in 2014 titled Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Essays on Medieval Europe in Honor of Daniel F. Callahan (Leiden: Brill). This year his fourth book The Siege of Acre, 1189-1191: Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, and the Battle that Decided the Third Crusade is to be published with Yale University Press later this year.


I am not alone in my praise. Consider, for example, what scholars have written about John’s work in their various reviews of his book on John of Salisbury. Historian Michael Prestwich (University of Durham) refers to John’s book as both a “fascinating” and “excellent” study; historian Jessalyn Bird (St. Mary’s College) has argued that John’s “bold” work should “inspire” others historians to reconsider how medieval intellectuals’ treated military matters; historian David Bachrach (University of New Hampshire) “hopes” John’s book will be a “model for future studies” of other medieval writers; and Professor Cary J. Nederman (Texas A&M University) celebrates John’s work for “rectifying” the “sorry state of scholarship” on John of Salisbury’s commentary on military affairs.

In preparing this interview, I also asked some other medieval historians if they would comment on John’s career. Respected senior military medieval historian Kelly Devries, a long-time mentor and friend of John’s, noted the following:

It is perhaps more a result of age that I have had the opportunity of seeing the next generation of medieval military historians emerge.  We — myself, Cliff Rogers, Stephen Morillo, Richard Abels, etc. — stood on the shoulders of greats like Bernie Bachrach, John France, John Gillingham and, perhaps even further back, JF Verbruggen.  I have known John Hosler since he was an MA student at ISU with Ken Madison.  I was the external reader for his dissertation at Delaware.  I have written numerous letters of recommendation for him — first to be employed at Morgan State and then later.  I cannot think of a better mind, or a better individual, to instruct those who will direct our military in future efforts.  Political civilians control our generals, it is true — and I’m not certain I would have it otherwise — but when it comes to action, at whatever level, it is education that delivers results.  We are better with John as one of those educators.

I also reached out to our mutual friend, Prof. Daniel Franke, Assistant Professor of History at Richard Bland College. Dan responded:

There are few people whose advice and council I trust more than John Hosler’s, and he is extraordinarily generous in giving them. His scholarship is innovative, rigorous, and yet unfailingly practical–an unusual combination that has made him an inspiration and a role model for me and for many other younger scholars in the field.

Our first personal contact came through social media, as we somehow ended up as “friends” on Facebook. I often look for opportunities to connect with major scholars on social media, as it often gives valuable insights into the perspectives from which historians write. But this wasn’t the case with John, a devout Catholic, who keeps a very professional public persona, avoids overtly political commentary, and instead focuses his efforts on one of two things; serious medieval scholarship and family life. In that sense, John is very traditional in his approach to scholarship and his role as a historian. Following in the tradition of historians like Bernard Bachrach, his interest is not in adapting historical narratives for the promotion of current political trends and fads, but rather in the consideration and production of history based on traditional research methods. How others interpret that scholarship and its meaning for the present, if at all, is up to them. Undoubtedly, such professionalism factored into his selection by the Army’s Command and Staff College.


Above Image: John, his wife Holly, and their three beautiful children in 2016.


After considerable online correspondence, I had the opportunity to meet John when he came to Jacksonville recently (April 1) for the annual meeting of the Society for Military History. I picked him up at the conference hotel and we drove out to the beach for an early lunch before he gave a talk for the conference later that afternoon. It was then that I really became aware of what a wonderful conversationalist John is, with a range of thoughtful insights on all matters related to medieval and broader military history. It is no wonder he has been invited to give a number of talks at a variety of universities, colleges, and organizations over the last few years. Since then we have been in regular communication and I have learned much more about his career and historical insights.


Above Image: A picture I snapped of John during our lunch in Jax. Beach (April 1, 2016)


Consequently, and in light of John’s forthcoming book on the Third Crusade with Yale University Press, I asked John if he might answer some questions for this blog and he kindly agreed.

Question 1: Why did you become a medieval historian? What was it about the middle ages that interested you enough to pursue a doctorate on the topic? Is there anything in your background that made the subject particularly appealing? Also, why focus on medieval military history in particular?

Mine was a transition of incompetence! I began college at Iowa State University as an economics major, and a very poor one at that. After nearly flunking out of the program, I realized that the only A I had yet received in college was in English, so I registered for a course on medieval English literature taught by Professor Susan Yager. I had always been interested in fantasy novels based in quasi-medieval settings (especially the Forgotten Realms book series), so the topic appealed to me. But I had no idea what a  formative role that course would end up playing in my life. After I earned my second A, I switched my major to English literature and my passion for the middle ages blossomed. I took every course remotely connected to medieval things. Soon thereafter I began registering for pertinent history courses and eventually declared a double major. The idea of an academic career really appealed to me, and I ended up taking master’s degrees in both literature (with a thesis on the Old English Exeter Book riddles) and history (with a thesis on the reign of Henry II of England).

I knew I wanted a PhD and ultimately chose history over English. I actually had a dissertation topic–a full military biography of Henry II–before completing my master’s thesis. I attribute this to my graduate seminars at Iowa State: my history adviser, Professor Kenneth Madison, consistently and forcefully argued for the importance of military affairs in every aspect of the medieval world, and this opened the door for a whole range of interesting historical inquiries. While on the hunt for doctoral programs, I pitched my idea on Henry II to Professor Daniel Callahan at the University of Delaware who, despite not being a military historian himself, had an interest in Henry, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the so-called “Angevin Empire.” He graciously backed my application, and I ended up completing my doctorate at Delaware.

For me, there are several appealing aspects of medieval military history that go beyond pure interest in the stories of soldiers, battles, weaponry, and wars. It is a very misunderstood subject, even by medievalists but especially by modernists, so there is a lot of scope for teaching and publishing. Medieval warfare did not exist in a vacuum but conditioned, and was conditioned by, the political and religious context of the period. Given my other interests in church and institutional history, the subject was a natural fit. Moreover, I have a very strong interest in historiography. To that extent, medieval warfare is absolutely fascinating: its finer points must often be teased out of documents oriented towards other subjects, and I love puzzling over the authors transmitting military information, the genres of texts in which it appears, their proximity to events and relative expertise in military affairs, and their own sources. The array of possible topics is dazzling in its diversity: in my book on John of Salisbury, for example, I studied manuscript transmission, classical reception, rhetorical theory, and philosophy–and that’s before I got to the more obvious areas of strategy, tactics, logistics, military organization, and technology!


Above Image: John, in the back row holding a coffee mug, as a fourth year dorm resident at Iowa State.


Question 2: Why did you leave your tenured position at a university for your new position at the U.S. Command and General Staff College? What was the appeal? Also, could you explain why the U.S. military hires professional historians? How is such a position similar or different than a traditional university job?

Morgan State was a good and instructive first job out of graduate school. On a 4-4 load, I taught fifteen different undergraduate and graduate classes covering a large array of historical periods and subjects: historiography, English history, American military history, the ancient and medieval worlds, conspiracy theory in history, Christian and Islamic holy war, and both halves of the world history survey. Morgan ensures exceptional academic freedom in the classroom, so it is a nice place to teach. That said, I was the only pre-modern historian in the department and the only one interested in military history. Our graduate program was limited to fields on only American, African American, or African Diaspora history. I loved my students and had some very collegial and talented colleagues, but I felt like a fish out of water: I was the only historian, in fact, who did not study questions of race or gender in my courses or research.

I learned about the CGSC and the other staff colleges through my involvement with the Society for Military History. These institutions were highly intriguing to me. The notion of teaching alongside a cadre of military historians had great appeal, and I felt that my background on medieval warfare (particularly regarding the Crusades and religion) would be a significant asset in such places, given America’s current engagements around the world. Equally important, I felt a strong patriotic pull. Nearly every male in my extended family spent time in either a military or police uniform: I have a cousin who was a Green Beret and an uncle buried in Arlington, for example, and my father served in Korea during the Pueblo Incident. The military ethos is strong in my family, and I always felt a little regretful that I had never served. The CGSC, however, offers me a way to ply my trade and make a real difference for my country, even out of a uniform.

The Department of Defense understands the importance of history and historians, particularly military historians. As is commonly remarked, in civilized societies one cannot “practice” war–the best guide for understanding how to fight and win wars is thus the study of history. There is also a need to record the history of American armed forces for its own sake, so in addition to the staff colleges there are other institutions, such as the Center for Military History, devoted to research and writing about American military affairs. Regarding the CGSC and similar institutions, there are differences between them and more traditional institutions of higher learning. My students will be officers: they are older, in the middle of their careers, hold a diverse array of degrees and job experience, and most already know what they want to do with their lives on some level. On the other hand, they will not necessarily be historians or even much interested in history, which is a notion familiar to any history teacher anywhere! 

Question 3: Please briefly summarize the current state of research on the Third Crusade. One often hears complaints that it is a bit limited. If so, how?

Well, there are currently no single books covering the whole of the Third Crusade, although one is underway as I write this. The war is typically covered in larger surveys of the crusading period or in biographies of the famous leaders who participated in it, such as Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. That said, there are some very good books and articles on specific military events leading up to or during the crusade, such as John France’s recent book on the Battle of Hattin or the work of Benjamin Kedar and others on the Battle of Arsur.

I can only speculate on the reasons for this. For starters, it was a very complex operation that included four major Christian armies (the English, the French, the Imperial, and the remnants of the kingdom of Jerusalem) and then other assorted western elements such as soldiers and merchants from the Italian communes, all of whom began the crusade at different times and in different manners. So, one must study the historiography for the diverse sources for all of these. Given how medievalists often pigeonhole themselves as historians of England or France, etc., that can be a daunting enterprise. After that, one needs to learn the Arabic side of things. Those sources were created within an entirely different historiographical tradition, and the Muslim armies were organized in a unique manner, operated in different fashions, and were drawn from areas that few traditional “medievalists” or even crusade historians study on a regular basis, such as the Maghreb or the Jazira in Mesopotamia. So it’s a complicated task.

This is not to say that the study of the other Crusades is less difficult or complex–far from it. It may be that, in addition to the things I just mentioned, the Third Crusade, like the Second and the Fifth, lacks the multifaceted debate over crusading origins and ideals and spectacular success of the First or the notoriety of the Fourth. This could work to damper scholars’ enthusiasm for studying it. And at the end of the day, Richard the Lionheart never took Jerusalem, so the story ends with kind of a whimper. 

Question 4: What is the focus of your forthcoming book with Yale University Press? What do you argue? What aspects of your book will be the most surprising? What aspects will be the most controversial?

My book focuses on the first military engagement of the Third Crusade, the siege of Acre, which began in August 1189 and ended in July 1191. It has never been treated in a comprehensive fashion, and this will be the first book devoted to it. I examine all of the major military facets of the siege on both the Christian and Muslim side: the nature and array of the armies, military technology, generalship, strategy and tactics, battles and skirmishes, naval battles, logistics and supply, and the religious aspects of both Christian and Islamic holy war on display there. Overall, a major theme is the strategic incompetence of both sides: primary objectives were forgotten, engagements were poorly chosen, generals were indecisive, and an overall lack of urgency resulted in a siege that, at two years, lasted much longer than anyone expected. On the flipside, on the tactical level both sides were to be commended, and there were some brilliant operations on the field and during siege attacks. In addition, I argue that the siege of Acre is a perfect snapshot of late twelfth-century warfare in that it displayed all the major features of both eastern and western warfare of the period. To that end, it can be studied profitably by anyone seeking to understand how medieval armies went to war and the problems they encountered when doing so.

Perhaps the most surprising element to me–which I myself didn’t realize until I neared the end–was the poor quality of Saladin’s generalship. Given his reputation and, more recently, Hollywood stardom in the movie Kingdom of Heaven, this was not expected. But unlike during his great victory at Hattin and his unstoppable campaign through Outremer in 1187-1188, Acre revealed his leadership flaws. He was indecisive, alternatively relying either too much or too little on the counsel of his emirs, and he was not much of a field commander. On two occasions, his army was nearly defeated by Christian assaults in battle, and on a third he failed to destroy a crusading force that was almost fully surrounded. He allowed the Christians to fortify their camp in front of Acre, which Professor John Pryor has rightly dubbed the decisive development of the siege. Finally, Saladin had great difficulty keeping his grand army of disparate Muslim forces together. It is well known that he constantly struggled with this latter issue, but it was at Acre that he finally lost his grip: emirs abandoned the siege, soldiers deserted, and the Acre garrison declared that it would surrender the city without his permission…which it ultimately did.

As for controversy, my answer shouldn’t be a surprise: the section on Richard the Lionheart’s mass execution of his some-2700 Muslim prisoners in August 1191. After all, the king was critiqued for his crime by no less than Russell Crowe in the movie Robin Hood. I worked very hard to analyze the event on the basis of the full range of contemporary western and eastern sources only, not through a presentist moral lens. I honestly went into the process having no idea to what conclusion I might reach–it’s not actually a topic about which I had read very much in the past. In the end, I place the blame for the Muslims’ deaths on Saladin, not Richard. I also get into just a bit of quibbling with how other medievalists have characterized the event as “murder,” “a massacre,” or “evil”: instead, I label it as an execution on legal and historical grounds. There will no doubt be some who disagree!

Question 5: How will your expertise on medieval military history contribute to the mission of the U.S. Army in your new position? What can modern war fighters learn from the medieval past? Is there something useful that can be learned from East-West conflicts in the medieval Middle East that is applicable to conflicts involving the west in the modern Middle East?

I hope that my expertise in crusading warfare and religious conflict will be of benefit to the Army. So many of our modern conflicts have bases in the medieval world and, in regards to the Middle East and central Asia, the history of Islam in particular. The mere fact that the word “crusade” carries such powerful rhetorical weight in those regions is one example. In another, one of the legal justifications bandied about for the legitimate Islamic use of weapons of mass destruction is Muhammad’s apparent approval of the indiscriminate effects of artillery in the seventh century. Pre-modern historians tend to be very sensitive to the reality of extremely-long historical memories: although most of my teaching at the CGSC will be in modern warfare, I hope that my students will pick up on the importance of earlier origins of ideas and conflicts.

As for modern conflicts in the Middle East, I’ll just offer the well-known example of Mu’ayyad al-Din Ibn al-Alkami, the Shiite vizier of the last Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. During the siege of Baghdad in 1258, al-Alkami worked secretly to allow the Mongolian soldiers of Hulagu Khan into the city, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of Sunni deaths. This has not been forgotten: in the early 2000s, as American forces entered Iraq and subsequently worked to ensure the construction of a new government there, both George W. Bush and the Shiite Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, were accused of acting as had the vizier. The comparison highlighted the deep Shia-Sunni divide in the country, a split centuries old but, in some ways, no less raw, and one based on a long memory of treacherous events from the medieval past.

There is a tendency for people to seek parallels in history, and I do think that there are many ways in which the pre-modern world can inform modern militaries. On the other hand, said parallels are very often only realized after the fact and in hindsight. The more that modern soldiers study the history of warfare, of any period, the better the chance that its lessons–the practicing of war, if you will–will be recalled before the fact