Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Concise History of the Crusades”

The Concise History of the CrusadesThe Concise History of the Crusades. By Thomas F. Madden. Lanham, MD: Roman and Littlefield, 2014, third edition.

I have been enthralled by the story of the Crusades since my high school days. I have read several books on the subject. This one is a very fine overview of the subject, and it serves well as an introduction, but it is not a work offering much of anything new to the serious student. No matter, there is a need for good syntheses and this is one of the best available. I recommend it on that basis.

Thomas F. Madden is a professor of history and director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at St. Louis University. His broad knowledge shows through in this significant analysis of this subject. Most date the origins of the Crusades to the official declaration of Pope Urban II in 1096 for the departure of Christians from Europe to “free” Jerusalem and Palestine from Muslim rule. To call anything a crusade, Madden notes, requires several fundamentals: (1) it is a pilgrimage, (2) it achieves absolution, (3) it offers individual plenary indulgences, and (4) it requires a lofty objective serving God’s purpose. Many interpreters, including Madden, also have noted that participation satisfied a range of feudal obligations and many a knight responded as much for economic and political gain as for religious virtue.

There had been earlier calls for action against Islamists, as well as not fully in the Roman Catholic fold. But this one was different. It had strong support from various kingdoms and rulers who saw an opportunity to burnish reputations and eternal glory as well divert internal tensions to an outside enemy. It had a capable “sales force” that journeyed around Europe drumming up support. It also had support from Byzantium, whose emperor realized that this help would be needed to maintain his empire’s hegemony in Eastern Europe. Thousands of crusaders, only some of whom were effective from a military perspective, answered the call and traveled to the Middle East.

The First Crusade (1096–1099) achieved the most measurable results of all of the separate invasions, as well as unleashed a fair measure of overreach, a torrent of violence and extremism, and a level of barbarism not often seen in Western Civilization. It also resulted in the creation of several Crusader states in the Middle East, including the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Additional Crusades continued in the 12th through the 15th centuries. All of these efforts transformed both the Middle East and Western Europe. Madden makes this clear in his conclusion. The broad historical perception that this was one of the most negative eruptions of bigotry and violence ever perpetuated on other inhabitants of Eurasia is overblown, according to Madden. Certainly there were excesses and negatives, but most of the people engaged in the Crusades did so for piety, charity, and devotion. Most did not engage in atrocities. That is not to minimize the evil committed in the name of Christendom, but it does cast this in a somewhat broader context than previously.

Madden also emphasizes that the establishment of Crusader states in the Middle East served directly to transform many aspects of Medieval life. First, Christians ruled in the region for some two centuries and that beachhead brought closer together than ever before the cultures of two dynamically alternative lifestyles. This interchange proved critical to the development of both cultures and religions. Second, the Crusades also assured the integrity of Byzantium, thereby buttressing Christendom in Eastern Europe until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Finally, Europe emerged from the Crusading experience energized for further expansion; in that case to the Americas and Asia. At a fundamental level the Conquistadores from Spain that overran the Aztecs and the Incas were Crusaders every bit as much as those who captured Jerusalem in 1099.

One could question if all of these are positive developments. The path from Crusades to the Middle East, the creation of bulwark against Islamic expansionism, and the establishment of European imperial entities in other parts of the world is not direct, but is certainly present. Rightly or wrongly they are related. This is an excellent book recounting that path.



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2 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Concise History of the Crusades”

  1. James Oberg says:

    Sounds like a worthy book, thanks. What did you mean by “It also had support from Byzantium, whose emperor realized that this help would be needed to maintain his empire’s hegemony in Eastern Europe. ” == Uh, why ‘hegemony’? Or how about, ‘physical survival’ against Islamic assaults [and one Crusader assault, to be fair]. Without crusades, would Constantinople have fallen by 1200 and all Europe have been Islamicized in a century or two more? Or would Islamic civilization, secure and unthreatened, have mellowed into a Austro-Hungarian Empire model? I offer the first as an existential fear, the second as a joke. And did Crusaders do one-hundredth the damage to Islamic states that the Mongols did? What are other pathways? Is it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the modern world that the aegis of the Church from time to time united squabbling European states into occasional last-ditch stands against cultural annihilation, from Malta to Lepanto? Issues well worth revisiting in the modern era.


    • launiusr says:

      Your questions are excellent, and I would invite any to weigh in concerning them. Also, it’s fine with me that we use a word other than “hegemony” to describe Byzantium. I’m not, however, sure the Byzantine Empire was in danger of complete collapse in 1096. It took more than 300 more years for that collapse to take place after the Crusades. How much sooner would that have happened had their been no Crusades? It’s a game of “what if,” which can never really be resolved. But really fascinating to consider. Thanks.


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