"The Crusades" by Thomas Asbridge (2010)
"The long months of stalemate were not solely the domain of grim-eyed exchanges and frenetic preparation. The winter afforded the first opportunities for fraternisation and the blossoming of a familiarity that would remain an undercurrent of the campaign. One of the last Latin ships to arrive in 1189 had carried a different breed of reinforcement: '300 lovely Frankish women, full of youth and beauty, assembled from beyond the sea [to offer] themselves for sin.' Saladin's secretary, Imad al-Din, took a certain scandalised pleasure in describing how these prostitutes, having set up shop outside Acre, 'brought their silver anklets up to touch their golden earrings [and] made themselves targets for men's darts', but noted with evident disgust that some Muslims also 'slipped away' to partake of their charms."
Despite the fact that I was once just 5 credits short of a degree in Medieval History, this is the first book I've read on the Crusades. I can recall reading several firsthand accounts of the Crusades, and also several accounts of battles between Muslim armies and Byzantium, but this is the first book I've read that focuses on the Crusades to the exclusion of larger events in western or eastern Europe.
The subtitle of this book is "The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land," and I would not dispute the veracity of this appellation. There may well be better books on the Crusades, but I haven't read them. The author seems to advance from a rather pragmatic point of view, and I lack the scholarship to refute any of the arguments in this book. I have a stronger background in Medieval theology and attitudes toward heresy, and the author's ventures into that territory all make sense to me.
Aside from any cautions expressed above, "The Crusades" is a relatively straightforward affair, uncomplicated by academic asides and speculation. Asbridge begins with the First Crusade and ends with the Ninth (or Eighth, by some approximations), and there is a short chapter at the end discussing the Crusades in the context of modern political, economic, and cultural developments.
I liked this book, but you'd have to be a fan of Medieval History to wade though its 600+ pages. I wouldn't say that it's written for a general audience, and this book isn't going to convert the uninitiated into the study of this time period. Taken from another angle, this is one of the book's strengths. The author, instead of condescending to notions of accessibility, sets out to describe the Crusades in the clearest terms possible.
By the way, while searching for images of this book I came across this amusing, semicoherent review of its contents. If you are the kind of person who enjoys conspiracy theories and theorists, it's worth a look. Let us not, after all, forget that the Templars were born during this convoluted interaction between East and West. And we all know about the Templars, the Illuminati, and the extraterrestrials... don't we?