Book Review

The Concise History of the Crusades: Third Student Edition

by Thomas F. Madden
Rowman & Littlefield
The Concise History of the Crusades: Third Student Edition

In the preface to the third student edition of his book, Thomas F. Madden describes its purpose: to tell the story of the crusades in a concise, understandable, and engaging manner. I think he accomplished this splendidly. The book is not too short, nor does it cover nearly every detail. My goal before reading this book was to learn more than I previously did about the crusades, which was next to nothing. The structure of the book and Madden’s writing are well-suited to the stated purpose. I recommend this book for anyone without a history degree or any level of scholarship in the subject of the crusades, but who wants to have a thorough and practical understanding of these religious wars.

To be honest, history books don’t tend to put me on the edge of my seat or excite my fascination. But I truly appreciate the journey that Madden took me on as I learned about the various crusades, the politics behind them, the heroes and villains of these holy wars, and plenty of other details in the book that don’t dive too deep for a casual reader like myself.

Devotion to the Crusades

A few things struck me as I read. First, there was no shortage of religious zeal among Europeans. Add to that a generally poor understanding of biblical principles for the Christian life, and the common people were quite eager to die fighting against whoever the popes and their armies of preachers identified as the enemies of Christ. Crusaders fought Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike. In fact, the fourth crusade (1204) involved a brief battle between the Christian crusaders and the Christian city of Constantinople. The crusading army couldn’t repay a debt to Venice for its supply of ships, so they attacked and pillaged Byzantine villages to secure finances. When the crusade army attacked Constantinople, however, they were met with fortified walls, large armies of defenders, and a strong gust of wind that sent their ships back out to sea.

Despite the assurances of their clergy, it seemed clear that it was not God’s will for a crusade army to wage war on the greatest Christian city in the world.

Thomas F. Madden, The Concise History of the Crusades, Third Student Edition

Medieval Europeans valued religious observances so highly that they were willing to fight and die for the popes and for Christ. Modern wars over politics and democracy would have been viewed my medieval people as wholly unnecessary and a waste of human life.

Crusade Leadership

There were also a variety of crusade leaders. Some, like the kings Richard I (a.k.a. the Lionheart) of England and Louis IX (a.k.a. Saint Louis) of France, were loved by the men they led. According to Madden, “Both were gifted leaders of men, inspiring their troops to endure great hardships for the good of the crusade.” The Muslim sultan of Egypt and founder of the Ayyūbid dynasty, Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb (a.k.a. Saladin) considered Richard a worthy opponent and wrote that if his kingdom were to be conquered, he would have it taken by Richard the Lionheart.

Frederick II

Not all leaders inspired admiration among the crusaders. Frederick II, the German emperor, was more than a decade late in arriving to lead the crusade, after taking the vow of the cross in 1215 and offering excuses for each failed attempt to crusade. He was crowned Holy Roman emperor in 1220 and again offered an empty promise to crusade. After the death of his wife, Constance, Frederick insisted on marrying the heir of the kingdom of Jerusalem, Isabella. Despite promising Isabella’s father that he wouldn’t usurp the throne from her, Frederick did just that immediately after their nuptials. The German emperor and Holy Roman emperor declared himself king of Jerusalem in November 1225, though Jerusalem was still in the hands of al-Malik al-Kamil Naser ad-Din Abu al-Ma’ali Muhammad (a.k.a. al-Kamil). Frederick started negotiations with al-Kamil for the surrender of his new kingdom, which eventually culminated in a treaty that incensed the Christian crusaders and religious leaders. Jerusalem would be defenseless, Muslims were allowed to remain in the city with their own government, and Frederick would be neutral during conflicts between Muslims and Christians.

Frederick II was eventually excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX on September 29, 1227. His wife died in childbirth in 1228, leaving their son, Conrad, as the rightful heir to the kingdom of Jerusalem. Frederick ignored this technicality and departed for the Holy Land, ignoring the prohibition of the Church.

After securing the secret treaty with al-Kamil, Frederick entered Jerusalem on March 17, 1229 with a group of armed men and initiated a joyless ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Muslims and Christians alike felt betrayed by the treaty. Despite nobles’ objections to Frederick’s right to his son’s crown, he crowned himself. Frederick left the Holy City the next day after a letter arrived from Patriarch Gerald of Jerusalem threatening excommunication for anyone who followed the illegitimate king. Making his way to Acre, Frederick seized control of the city and expelled those who opposed his kingship, but Pope Gregory IX spent considerable effort attacking Frederick’s lands in Italy. Frederick knew he couldn’t remain in the East any longer. In the early morning hours of May 1, 1229, Frederick and his men were pelted with garbage as they tried to sneak out of Acre after destroying the weapons and supplies of the crusaders to prevent them from attacking him.

Frederick II was despised by the Church and its crusaders, first for breaking his vows and dooming the fifth crusade to failure, then for seizing the kingdom of Jerusalem and crippling its defenses, then capturing the Christian city of Acre and expelling and flogging those who opposed him, and finally for destroying the weapons and siege machinery of the crusading army.

In purely secular terms, the crusade of Frederick II was a success. With no bloodshed, the emperor succeeded in winning back the most treasured objectives of the crusades, including Jerusalem itself. A crusade, however, was not a secular event. In its purest form, it was an act of selfless piety for the salvation of one’s soul. It was not that Frederick struck a bargain to acquire Jerusalem that so angered his contemporaries… What Christians and Muslims alike considered reprehensible was the state of Jerusalem itself. With the stroke of a pen, the Holy City was transformed from a citadel of faith into a defenseless bauble. Despite the assurances of al-Kamil and Frederick, Jerusalem could not meaningfully be said to be under Christian or Muslim control. Instead, it became a place where religion mattered so little that it no longer formed the basis of government. The holiest of cities had become a secular state. In the modern world this is applauded as religious tolerance; in the medieval world it was treason.

Thomas F. Madden, The Concise History of the Crusades, Third Student Edition


As I’ve mentioned, this book was exactly what I was looking for: concise and descriptive, with enough story to make the history interesting to someone like me. I may never read another book about the crusades, but I’m certainly glad I read this one. I wholeheartedly recommend reading The Concise History of the Crusades if you want an abridged journey through the most prolific Christian conflicts of the past two thousand years.