A Concise History of the Crusades

Article excerpt

A Concise History of the Crusades. By Thomas E Madden. [Critical Issues in History.] (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield. 1999. Pp. xii, 249. $22.95 cloth; $12.95 paper.)

In November, 1095, Pope Urban II preached a sermon in which he summoned the Franks to arms for a holy war to liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Seljuk Turks. The expedition that resulted is known now as the First Crusade, and in July, 1099, after a harrowing campaign across Europe, Anatolia, and down the Palestinian coast, those who were still alive and able to fight, besieged Jerusalem, capturing it in Christ's name. True to the formulation given this war by the pope, the crusaders, proceeding as pilgrims and fighting under the banner of Christ's cross, were perceived by medieval commentators to have fought a divinely sanctioned war in defense of the faith.

Concise histories of lengthy, complex historical movements can make dispiriting reading. The narratives are either too closely detailed and laden with scholarly footnotes, or they are irritatingly uninformed and uninformative. Readers will be pleased that Thomas Madden has hit just the right note in his sweeping but concise account of the crusades. While he follows the development of crusading down to the period of the Protestant Reformation, and offers, in an afterword, speculations about the modern impact of the medieval crusade, he never fails to interest and inform. His prose is lucid, and the broad sweep of his historical canvass is colored by the rare combination of enthusiasm and judicious criticism.

Madden works within a clear, solidly constructed chronological framework. Although he takes note of the Spanish reconquista, the crusades against the Church's European political enemies, and against heretics and pagans, he is concerned principally with crusading to the Holy Land. After a useful opening chapter on the social and religious background of Pope Urban's sermon, he narrates the course of that first great expedition, the political and religious consequences of the conquest for the European consciousness, the crusaders' foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the urgent problems of consolidation and defense which beset the kingdom until its demise in 1291.

Throughout Madden's narrative, the reader is reminded that crusading was stoked by the tenets and devotional energies of medieval Catholicism. At the same time, however, each crusade was a military response to the turbulent conditions of eastern Realpolitik. Islamic dynastic struggles, centered principally in Egypt and Syria, coupled with the emergence in the twelfth century of a singularly compelling ideology of jihad which focused upon the restoration of Jerusalem to Islam, became paramount in shaping western strategic initiatives. …