A while back, I had the pleasure of reading Thomas F. Madden’s The New Concise History of the Crusades. This introductory yet detailed work covers all the major Crusades to the Levant, certain minor ones–including the Children’s Crusade, and the important Crusades within Europe: the Reconquista, the Albigensian Crusade, and the Northern or Baltic Crusades. (The last might be especially interesting to fans of the Spice and Wolf light novels, since Hasekura’s fantasy world is reminiscent of Northern Europe during that time.) The most important thing to note about many popular recent histories of the Crusades is that they often come from an unfriendly perspective: Marxist, of the Enlightenment, or pro-Islam. (Runciman’s famous history, for example, falls into the pro-Islam category.) This is to say that many historians of modern times have used the historical data with the purpose of discrediting the notion of a just holy war, tarnishing Christendom, or imputing false motives to the Crusaders and the Church. Madden’s history diverges from those sorts by taking the Crusaders’ and the Church’s words and deeds for what they are rather than as a cover for greed.
However, Madden does highlight the greed and lust for power of certain participants, especially the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. (Frederick II may be credited for many good things, but he both delayed egregiously the fulfillment of his oath to crusade and then used his time in the Levant for personal enrichment.) Madden also notes how the Fifth Crusade might have become the greatest success since the first one had it not been for the papal legate’s greed: the Caliph of Egypt, due to internal strife and initial setbacks against the Crusaders, had offered Jerusalem and its environs on a silver platter. Yet, the papal legate, a cardinal, wanted more. It is true that others also argued against the initial treaty and subsequent offers because they did not fully secure the Kingdom of Jerusalem against invasion; yet, as the position of the army became more untenable prior to the final catastrophe, this cardinal’s desire for more territory was primarily responsible for the Fifth Crusade’s failure.
The Crusade of Frederick II, the Fifth Crusade, and the Sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade count as the blackest marks in this epoch. Otherwise, the author rightly notes that the Crusades were a legitimate defensive enterprise. Islam, since its inception in the seventh century, rapidly conquered traditionally Christian areas. The armies of Islam swept across North Africa and Spain until stopped by Charles Martel at Tours, France in 732. Though bogged down on the western front, Muslim nations in the Middle East succeeded in taking much of the Empire of Constantinople’s territory. This drove the Emperor of Constantinople to seek aid from the pope in defending his country. This and the fact that Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land frequently met death, torture, and enslavement prompted Pope Urban II to launch the First Crusade. Because of the many indulgences the pope attached to the Crusade, people of all stripes, noble and common, undertook the campaign for the glory of God and the salvation of their souls. The tale of the First Crusade makes for one of the greatest epics in history and in itself is worth the price of the book.
Thomas Madden writes in an engaging form and constantly challenges modern assumptions about the Crusades. His chapter on the legacy of the Crusades is one of the most illuminating and important, especially his discussion of how Muslims regained consciousness of the Crusades in the 19th century. I highly recommend this 225 page history for anyone who wishes to learn about the Crusades for the first time or wishes to read a history contrary to more popular versions of the Crusades.