By Thomas F. Madden
The popular view of the Crusades was carved into stone by Sir Walter Scott and his book, The Talisman, published 1825, and by Sir Steven Runciman's 3 volume work, History of the Crusades. These books paint the picture of greedy, European barbarians exploited by the imperialistic Roman Catholic Church which organized invasions of otherwise peaceful Muslim territories so as to financially plunder their sophisticated cultures and expand the Church in order to earn religious favor with God. The Crusades are considered Christian Europe's fault and hence the reason why there was an official apology made by the Pope and George Bush expunged the word "crusade" from his vocabulary when speaking about going to war with the Taliban.
Thomas F. Madden, the professor and chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University, has written a more accurate history of the Crusades than what I was exposed to during my secondary education. The New Concise History of the Crusades not only makes for some engaging and informative reading, it is also mercifully short, coming in at 256 pages including the bibliography, glossary, and index.
Madden begins by briefly describing the conquests of Islam across North Africa and into Spain. The Islamic advance into Southern Europe was defeated in 732 by the forces of Frankish leader Charles Martel. In Asia Minor, however, Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire and the Greek Orthodox Church, was facing the Islamic push up into Turkey. Turkish Muslims destroyed the Byzantine armies in 1071 at the Battle of Manzikert. The people of Constantinople, the eastern most edge of western society, could look out from the city walls and see the land of the encroaching Muslims. Thus, rather than being religiously sanctioned wars to capture the lands of peaceful, innocent, high-cultured Muslims, the Crusades began as a call to assist and defend the Christian brothers of Byzantium at the behest of its emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, from a brutal enemy bent upon the Empire's destruction and its citizens submission to Islam.
The book then moves into providing an historical summary of each Crusade, placing the events of each into proper context. The triumphal first Crusade in 1099 re-took Jerusalem from the Muslims, as well as key cities like Antioch. The second Crusade was a disaster with one of the largest crusading armies being nearly wiped out. Richard I, the Lionheart, spearheaded the more victorious third Crusade. The fourth Crusade saw the sacking of Constantinople by outraged crusaders who were lied to by a deposed successor to the throne of Byzantine. The fifth Crusade was a failed attempt to capture the Muslim stronghold of Egypt's Nile delta. And the Crusades of the truly pius, St. Louis, were also unsuccessful attempts to capture Egypt.
Madden also highlights the warts of the Crusaders. For instance, the Christians were not always wise in their attempts to battle Muslim forces. Although the desire to free the Holy Land and stem the tide of the encroaching Moorish hordes was well intentioned, many times the crusaders would be stymied by the feudal squabbles between scheming Lords and Kings. The fourth Crusade, for example, started way too late and was even redirected to Constantinople, because the money promised to the Republic of Venice for the use of their ships to transport the crusading knights to the Holy Land was never paid in full. The fifth Crusade was also a disaster because Frederick the II was basically a big lay-about who kept promising to personally lead his forces to help with the crusade, but found pitiful excuses for delaying until he was excommunicated by the Pope.
I am not sure if Madden is a Christian, but he writes about what I see as two examples of God's providence during the time of the Crusades.
The first is the rise of the Ottoman Turks in the 1300s. The authority of the Roman Catholic Church had waned significantly because of the immense political intrigue between various papal factions. Before anyone could do anything, the Ottoman Turks managed to push far into Eastern Europe. Christendom was severely threatened, until a young Mongolian leader named Timur lead battles into the eastern lands of the Ottoman Empire. Timur was as brilliant a military leader as he was brutal. The Ottomans had to abandon their European front and deal with Timur. His army destroyed the Turkish army and if it were not for this victory of his, Europe may had fallen to the Muslims.
The second, and much more profound act of providence, involved Pope Leo X and his battle with the Turks. It was while he had his Catholic armies engaged with the Turks that an Augustinian friar by the name of Martin Luther published his 95 theses. The printing press spread Luther's reformed ideas across all of Europe and he was the fire brand that started the Protestant Reformation. The Turkish threat distracted the pope long enough for Luther to nurture his movement and for Protestantism to gain root. Because of his wars with the Turks, Charles V was unable to remove the Protestants from his domains. If not for God's use of the Turkish Muslims in occupying the Roman Catholic Church, protestants might conceivably have gone the way of Albigensianism, which was destroyed by pope Innocent III's forces some 300 years before.
Over all, The New Concise History of the Crusades is a fast moving, informative read about a woefully mischaracterized period of world history. I would highly recommend it to be on the reading list of all Church historians, because it provides a valuable back ground to current events playing out in our world now.