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Book Review: The New Concise History of the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden

The following is a book review of the following book: Thomas F. Madden, The New Conscise History of the Crusades (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), 280 pgs.

Madden’s Concerns and Emphases

Madden is driven by the concern that popular histories retell myths about the Crusades long dispelled by historians, an error which he hopes to correct with his own popular treatment that will be more reflective of the “fruits of half a century of modern scholarship” (x).  He also desires to emphasize that the “numbered crusades” approach (which only analyses the crusades’ “peaks”) oversimplifies the complexity of the historical situation, fails to account for the broader phenomenon of crusading that transcends pilgrimages to the Holy Land (in which case “there is no reason its history should abruptly end in 1291”), and tends to give the curious impression that Europe simply “periodically exploded with crusading zeal” (xi).  The author is concerned to show that the crusades were first and foremost a reaction to Islamic expansion—the Spanish reconquista was equal in sanctity to the eastern expeditions (xii).

One of the myths the author wants to dispel is the colonial/imperial theory based on a certain interpretation of demographic evidence.  Europe’s population may have soared during the tenth century (and this might have created a need for more land), but to think of the crusades as Europe’s first colonial wars (in Madden’s informed opinion) fails to take into account Jonathan Riley-Smith’s studies that show “solid evidence” to the contrary (11-12). Madden thinks Sir Steven Runiciman’s three-volume work History of the Crusades (1951-54) “single-handedly crafted the current popular concept of the crusades” which he hopes to correct (216).

Only miniscule percentage of noble knights even accompanied the crusade.  The vast majority of these knights were not “spare sons” looking for lands to rule because they were already “lords” of their own estates back home (11-12).  Furthermore, just to go on the crusades meant in many cases spending up to six years of annual income (i.e. to impoverish one’s family) and the pope made clear that “all lands captured were to belong to the ‘prince’ in command at the time” (12).  The vast majority of crusaders “returned to Europe with neither riches nor land” (12).  Therefore, it is unsound to suppose these crusaders were basically aristocrats (and their armies) inspired at the idea of acquiring land and wealth.  They may not have been saints (and war crimes no doubt occurred), yet “most noblemen who joined the crusade did so from a simple and sincere love of God” (13).

Madden tells of Godfrey of Bouillon, for example, to show how the crusade leaders were motivated more by religious hopes than material hopes, for Godfrey’s efforts to join the crusade inverted his hard earned gains to losses, yet he went anyway and “clearly planned to come home after the crusade” (20).  On the other hand, he depicts the Byzantine Emperor Alexius as a manipulative and “cunning” ruler (22).  Richard the Lionheart is perhaps another example, for while he sacrificed his time and talent to the enterprise on the Levant, his lands back home were being taken by Philip the August (94).  Richard had no plans to stay in Jerusalem for personal gains.

Locating Madden in Historiographies on Crusades

In the big picture, Madden sees his own historical approach to the crusades as “a middle course between the traditional and revisionist constructions” (xiii).  By this, he basically means that: 1) like the traditional constructions he spends the majority of his time focusing on the foreign expeditions (although he believes the phenomena of crusading transcends these “numbered” crusades) yet 2) as a revisionist he extends his treatment beyond the fall of Acre in 1291 “until the point that (it seems to [him]) that Europeans themselves lost interest in” crusading (xiii).  Rather than going by the traditional periodization of through the ninth crusade, he typically divides the crusades according to imperial investment (e.g. the crudes of Fredrick II, 143; the crusades of St. Louis, 167) or century (e.g. the crusades of the fourteenth century, 192; crusading the fifteenth century, 201).

Madden’s Discernable Assumptions

He thinks post-Enlightenment ideology wrongly tends to lead to the conviction that religious beliefs are largely irrelevant (1), which tips off the reader that the author himself must believe that religious beliefs are in fact relevant.  When Madden claims that the nature of war is basically constant, with only peripheral details fluxing (such as technology, tactics, etc.), this unfortunately gives the reader the impression that distinctions between just war and unjust war are superficial, since the nature of just and unjust wars alike are, to the author, only different in their use of weapons and tactics (1).

In other words, the author’s comments on page one seem to suggest that he disdain’s war—regardless of context.  Given this impression, when the author notes that Christianity was a peaceful religion from its inception and Islam was a war-making religion from its inception (1-3), the reader is left to guess that Madden probably favors Christianity over Islam—or at least that it has more potential.  His notice that it is human nature to fight for what is most dear to them (whether secular or religious) does not relieve this tension (223), for given his earlier statements, the implication is still this: whether just or unjust, religious or secular, war is all basically the same.

By commenting on the violence of the anti-Jewish crusade leaders, the author uses only one word to describe their nature—“infamous” (18).  Not surprisingly, by describing the events this way and failing to defend the “justness” of these raids, he implicitly concedes of their embarrassingly shameful character.

When Madden tells the reader that the medieval widespread belief of “right made might” (a crafty turn of phrase inverting ethical relativism’s maxim “might makes right”) would receive a blow during the crusading movement, he appears to hint at the naïveté of the maxim and its inability to explain reality (15).  This is further reinforced when the author, in spite of victory against all odds, summarizes the entire first crusade as a “naïve enterprise” (34).  The reader gets the impression that the crusaders won their victory against all odds not because God was with them, but out of sheer luck.

Complementing this, the author is not satisfied to let the “visions” seen by crusaders in desperate times be explained apart from anthropological considerations: “It is not surprising,” he says, “that in such desperate straits, the visions that were always a part of the crusade increased in frequency” (29).  This short comment may reveal that the author is skeptical about the claim that these visions really came from divine revelation since they are sufficiently explained in light of human desperation.  The author also appears skeptical about the interpretation of astronomical signs that gave hope to the crusaders (33).


Most of the detail in Madden’s book was new to me.  The summaries of the crusades in previous overviews of church history were only enough to give me a general impression of what the crusades were like.  Madden’s general retelling of the history did not contradict this initial impression but rather further confirmed it.

In spite of Madden’s warnings against seeing the crusades as a colonial/imperial enterprise, I could not help but notice how many times (from the beginning to the end) internal factions over who ruled what, booty distribution, and other purely secular concerns often took precedence over the initial/formal/religious reasons for the enterprise of the crusades.

For example, Behemond of Taranto appears to fit something like the colonial theory.  He was a son of the Normal leader Robert Guiscard and had lost his hopes for power, so was “ambitious for personal gain” (22). Immediately after taking Antioch, Bohemond and Raymond begin to squabble over who “deserved to have the city” (30).  As Baldwin IV rots of his leprosy, Count Raymond III of Tripoli, Archbishop William of Tyre, Agnes of Courtenay and Reynald of Chatillon, as well as Joscelin III of Courtenay and Guy of Lusignan all composed factions vying for control (71).  After Sibylla was crowned queen of Jerusalem and outmaneuvered the party to get Guy on the throne with her, Raymond, in his bitterness over his loss of power, made an alliance with Saladin (74).

These sorts of internal factions and betrayals over power are so commonplace in Madden’s recounting of the crusades and the history of the crusader states, one begins to see how easy it would be for the crusades to be fashioned by historians as something like a colonial enterprise.  While there is no doubt that Christians were reacting to Muslim aggression and that the Muslims were anything but peaceful (as Madden laments they are depicted in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Talisman, 214), at the same time, this reader laments the extent to which Christianity’s reputation has been so marred by the historical reality of the crusades–myths aside.



  1. Matt says:

    I think you’re entirely missing the point on the “colonialization” argument hat Madden makes.
    If you compare the Crusades to later European colinialization, they are nothing at all similar. The later were naked attempts to cede material and human resources from other lands. Any squabbling that arose because of power sharing ( that you claim he spends alot of time discussing, and therefore seem to indicate proves it was a colonilaztion attempt?) is the normal course of any war, and not the reason for the war.
    There were power struggles in WWII btw British and American Generals, and major struggles btw the US and USSR over who was to control what country, right down the city in many cases. These arguments between various enteties in WW2 could probably constitute large parts of a book that recounted the history of this war; but I doubt anyone would argue that the reason the US and USSR went to war against the Germans was self enrichment, or that the author of such a book was contradicting himself if he otherwise claimed that the war was fought in reaction to German agression . Rather, it was obviously a reaction to German agression, despite the fact some people were made rich because of the war… just as with the Crusades; but getting rich or taking lands wasn’t the cause.
    In short, you’re confusing the fact that certain events occurred during the Crusades with being the cause, or even an important side note to the Crusades.

  2. Matt,

    I appreciate your thoughts, and no doubt you make some good points of comparison with other wars, but I’m afraid we have a bit of a misunderstanding, but nothing that can’t be overcome.

    In general, it’s very rarely (if *ever*) safe to say that one thing is “nothing at all similar” to another thing—especially historical events. All I have to do is find just one thing each has in common to refute that. But I don’t think that’s really what you were trying to say; you probably were just exaggerating there, so I won’t address that part of your comment.

    I read back through my post carefully and couldn’t find where I had said that secular concerns were the cause of the Crusades. I also can’t imagine I would ever think to say something like that because the Crusades were enacted by so many different groups from such diverse pockets of cultures, each person within each group having their own public and private motivations, I wouldn’t want to overgeneralize by saying that only one type of motivation “caused” the crusade phenomenon. That would be a rookie historiographical mistake.

    The closest thing I could find to what you construe me of saying is that “secular concerns often took precedence over the initial/formal/religious reasons for the enterprise,” but this is different from saying that secular concerns were “the cause” of the Crusades. The word initial in that quotation actually implies (if anything) that religious concerns were (on the whole) the initial concerns behind the origins of the phenomenon. Indeed that is what I believe. Yet we can’t deny that the secular motivations of people like Raymond took precedence over any religious motivations. Raymond ended up siding with the Muslims against the Christians over the bitterness of having lost power. That’s different than a mere “squabble” (as you put it) between Christians, and constitutes a complete abandonment of whatever the initial religious motives may have been for Raymond. Perhaps you can tell me whether any parallels exist here between this and the WWII squabbles you are comparing it to?

    I also said things like: “Behemond of Taranto appears to fit something like the colonial theory,” but that is not the same as saying that the colonial theory is true just because one person seems to be a convenient “fit” for it. Nevertheless, I don’t find it at all surprising that historians are able to find an abundance of convenient facts about the crusades that could be (whether misleading or illuminating) compared to colonialism. But again—that’s not to say that Madden’s warning about this comparison has no merit. The religious motives are definitely more apparent in the Crusades than in Colonialism.

    In any case, I just don’t see where I said what you have accused me of saying—that secular concerns were “the cause of the Crusades.” Perhaps you have misunderstood what I said? Or else, could you point me to the right words where I said this? My comment “from beginning to end” is also not intended to mean what you have interpreted it to mean, but only that Madden’s book (from beginning to end) has examples of where secular motivations took precedence over the religious. With a historical phenomenon as broad as “the crusades” the fact that a historical treatment contains counter examples to what the author is trying to argue doesn’t necessarily mean the author’s point is invalid. There are always counter examples in any good historical thesis if the design of the thesis is to generalize.

    Your thoughts?

    T h e o • p h i l o g u e

  3. […] Cochran. Book Review: The New Concise History of the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden. Theo-Philogue, […]

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