Wednesday, March 4, 2009
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
On November 27 in the year 1095, at the Council of Claremont, Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade, calling for an armed pilgrimage to the Holy Land that would turn back the Muslim tide that threatened Constantinople – the largest Christian city in the world – and restore the holy places of the Faith to the protection of the Church. Thus began a series of struggles that would extend over half a millennium, with results that were decidedly mixed, but which produced some of the most heroic (as well as some of the most horrible) episodes of the middle ages.
Professor Thomas F. Madden has described the “numbered” crusades, as well as other crusading efforts in Spain and the Baltic, and later wars with the Ottoman Turks, in an imminently readable and instructive book entitled A Concise History of the Crusades. At 247 pages, it is concise, indeed, but Madden does a superb job at synthesizing and summarizing the enormous body of available information and laying out the political, religious and military context of the crusades.
One aspect of the book that I found particularly appealing is the author’s eschewal of political correctness – the tendency (in this context) of some scholars to apply modern sensibilities to an understanding of the crusading phenomenon. Madden attempts – successfully, in my view – to demonstrate that the crusades represented, not an early example of “western colonialism”, but a defensive effort against a triumphalist Islam that had, in the space of few centuries, conquered more than two-thirds of Christendom. While it is undoubtedly true that many who took up arms did so with their eyes on material gain, this was not the primary motivating factor. “[T]he post-Enlightenment and positivist view of religiosity,” Madden writes, “too often presumed that medieval men and women could not possibly take seriously the pious words they uttered and wrote. For scholars of these schools, religion was not an impetus but a diversion, a ruse for those who spoke of the next world while profiting in this one. Unfortunately, this mistaken view is still dominant in popular works and even in many otherwise fine textbooks.” Modern information technology has had the ironic effect of undermining some of the modern prejudices that cloud our understanding of the crusades. “[W]e now have solid evidence concerning those who took up the church’s call and the factors that motivated them…Only a small minority of that total were knights; nevertheless, it was the knights and barons who brought with them the armies, so their acceptance of the crusading vow was crucial to the success of the crusade. What is clearest in the documentary record is that the vast majority of these knightly crusaders were not spare sons but instead the lords of their estates. It was not those with the least to lose who took up the cross, but rather those with the most.”
In this short history you will encounter practically all of the major participants in the crusades: Count Bohemond, Godfrey of Bouillon, Richard Lionheart, Saladin, and the ferocious Mamluk Sultan, Baybars (just to name the merest few). Madden also discusses the rise of the military orders, the “warrior monks” who formed the leadership and ranks of the Templars, the Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights.
Were the crusades successful? There are those who point to the destruction of the crusader states in the late 13th century as proof positive that the long struggle was, in the end, futile. Madden, however, sees it differently. “There can be little doubt that the crusades slowed the advance of Islam, although how much is an open question. The presence of the crusader states in the Near East for almost two centuries certainly destabilized Muslim power and therefore hindered unification into a single Islamic state. Even the crusades that failed or did not materialize forced Muslim powers to divert resources from conquest to their own defense. At the very least, then, the crusades bought western Europe time. Judging by the number of occasions on which it narrowly escaped Turkish invasion in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europe had need of that time.”
This is a fine introduction to a momentous period of history, and I highly recommend it.