If today wasn’t Sunday it would be the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary which was established after the win by the Holy League at the Battle of Lepanto against the huge Turkish fleet. I recently read The New Concise History of the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden and thought today would be an appropriate one for the review.
I had seen this book and others by Mr. Madden highly recommended and finally got around to ordering it. There are few times when you can describe a densely packed history book as a page turner, but this one certainly was. In recent years more attention has been paid to the Crusades, though much of it has not been very good – especially television series done on the subject. This is quite backwards since Crusades research over the last fifty years has done much to dispute the previous myths that cast the Crusades as primarily a land grab.
What is really excellent about this book it the thorough overview of the numbered Crusades to the Holy Lands, Crusades that occurred within Europe, and partially the Reconquista to free the Iberian peninsula – though the main focus is the numbered Crusades. Looking back on the Crusades with modern eyes is quite difficult since when we thing of countries and armies we think of them in the modern context. We would see the Crusades as being ordered by the Pope and then large armies from each country simply sent to retake the Holy Lands. Most of that concept couldn’t be farther from the truth. The Crusades really started as a sort of armed-pilgrimage with many taking on the cross as a pious endeavor. This beginning was also as haphazard as you could imagine. With both groups of individuals and rulers who had taken the cross along with their armies under a very loose leadership the amazing thing is that they achieved anything at all.
Looking back it seems that if a mistake could be made, the crusaders made it. Throughout the whole history of the Crusades there were very few leaders who could both effectively command the crusaders and whose motives actually matched the ideal of the Crusades proclaimed by the Pope. There were very few King Richard the Lion-Hearted’s or Saint Louis IX’s and the Crusaders frequently went off the rails into petty disputes and fights for power among the leaders. This period of history contained enough political intrigue to launch thousands of novels and the history of the Crusades is ripe with excommunications and interdicts concerning the crusaders when once again they sough closer target as a source for riches. Many were frustrated by these diversion and would either press ahead on their own to the Holy Lands or return home.
The Crusades were neither Christendom’s finest hour or something that deserves nothing but contempt. Though certainly some specific acts should be held in contempt such as the Sack of Constantinople and other acts almost as bad that occurred within the crusader states. In some cases these cities would have been better served by an attacking Muslim army than by the crusaders. Though while the intrigues of the crusaders is shown you also get an excellent view of the various Muslim groups where there were just as many intrigues and even less of a cohesive force. Modern portrayals such as the Kingdom of Heaven often try to show how the peaceful Muslims were put upon by those mean European crusaders, yet the never mention how it is that these peaceful Muslim ended up taking over the Holy Land in the first place.
What I liked most about this book is the warts and all treatment of the history. The heroism of crusaders and for the most part their piety is aptly displayed, but there isn’t a dismissive view of the evils that were done. You get an excellent understanding of the times and the context enables you to more fully understand this chapter of history. There are just so many really interesting details about what went on.
The book ends with a chapter on the legacy of the Crusades and a conclusion. Much has been made of the Crusades by Islamists and other and so it will surprise many that they were not something held historically by Muslims as a sore point, but were made very little of and some of their leaders such as Saladin is more known in the West then he it is among them. He points to Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman as the first book that really recast the Crusades into what moderns think of them.
I highly recommend this book to anybody who wants to learn about the Crusades and I think it is the fastest two hundred some pages that you will ever read about. Even though Thomas Madden is a scholarly expert on the Crusades, this book is written for everyone.