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Review of The New Concise History of the Crusades
In an attempt to understand the crusades in their own context as well as see in what ways they have contributed to 21st century dilemmas, Thomas F. Madden, a professor at Saint Louis University, examines the long history of the crusades. From the circumstances that set the background around 1000 A.D. to Battle of Mohács in 1526 where the Ottoman advance into the Balkans ended, the author provides a general history of most events that are considered part of the crusades, paying particular attention to the Crusader States in Palestine.
Each of the five major crusades is given attention, explaining why European Christians were called to it, what was hoped to be accomplished—though the leaders and the pilgrims did not always agree on those goals—and what were the results for everyone involved. Some time and attention is also given to the so called “People’s Crusade” and the “Children’s Crusade” along with the Crusade of St. Louis and even the armed religious action in Europe that became crusades without any travel to the Levant. Likewise, most of the important historical personages as well as those sources who reported events at the time are explained to the reader.
A strength of the book is how seriously it gives examination to the evolving thought on Christian duty, the concept of pilgrimage, and chivalric ideals and the way these concepts influenced the crusades and in turn were influenced by them. It is important to realize the medieval world was not static and monolithic, but that European cultures developed in relation to its success and failures across the Mediterranean world and in the Middle East. On a similar note, it is interesting to see how the religious goals of the crusades often came into conflict with political and strategic ones. For instance, Richard the Lionheart, who by several accounts was an excellent military strategist, saw wisdom in fortifying positions in Egypt to have friendly ports for Crusader ships, to maintain infrastructure for expansion inland, and to divide the strength of Egypt from Syria. Because that strategy did not physically move the crusader army closer to the recapture of Jerusalem, however, it was overruled, only to be seen as a strategic keystone of later crusades.
Historical accounting aside, a point in the book’s favor is how it puts crusades in their own context as well as how historians and scholars have thought on them in ages since. The last few chapters are devoted to some of the interpretations scholars have made concerning the crusades in both Western and Eastern academia and popular thought. The context is important because it is too easy to look at the contemporary world and blame those troubles on the long history of the crusades, but this a false notion. When looking at the Middle East in the 21st Century, Madden says, “’How did the crusades lead to the present conflict?’ The simple answer is that they did not” (222). When wrapping up the examination of the legacy of the crusades, the author does his best to explain how there is not direct causation from those events to the present:
It is not the crusades, then, that led to the attacks of September 11, but the artificial memory of the crusades constructed by modern colonial powers and passed down by Arab nationalist and Islamists. They stripped the medieval expeditions of every aspect of their age and dressed them up instead in the tattered rags of nineteenth-century imperialism. As such, they have become an icon for modern agendas that medieval Christians and Muslims could scarcely have understood, let alone condoned. (222)
It is not, then, the crusades that have caused any current conflict but the ways in which both Western and Eastern contemporary powers interpret the crusades to use for their own ends that spurs additional conflict. Until recently the Islamic Middle East had largely moved well beyond the crusades because, “there was […] nothing to differentiate the crusades from other wars fought against infidels [….] In the grand sweep of Islamic history the crusades simply did not matter” (218).
The Penitent Will Pass
A reader needs to keep in mind the “concise” aspect of this history because some significant aspects must be minimized in order to cover as much ground as quickly as this book does. The Byzantine Empire gets a lot less emphasis than one might think. Though they were not crusaders, they did live in the neighborhood, so to speak, and played a major role in nearly every crusade. Similarly, there is little talk of Reconquista, though it is pointed it how it is one of the most effective aspects of the crusader worldview by retaking the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. That it takes a backseat to the Jerusalem-oriented crusades would not seem strange if nearly 14 pages weren’t spent on the Albigensian Crusade in France.
Not all the historical figures are fleshed out, leaving readers to wonder sometimes why some leaders were more important than others. The military orders founded during the crusades are discussed as important actors in the Middle East and in Europe, but not much examination is made of the tactics and technology used by the parties in conflict or how it adapted and developed. Additionally, more maps would help readers without as solid a regional geographic understanding.
Call to Pilgrimage
This book is most certainly a helpful entry point into the history of the crusades and a solid reference that can lead to additional in-depth study. It is accessible and straightforward as an exploration of what the crusades were and why they were important to the people of the medieval era.
Madden, Thomas. The New Concise History of the Crusades (Updated Edition). Lantham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.
© 2016 Seth Tomko