Some short thoughts on two Crusades histories

Not the edition I read.

Not the edition I read.

I couldn't find a picture of his book in the few minutes I spent searching, so I figure a picture of Riley-Smith should do.

I couldn’t find a picture of his book in the few minutes I spent searching, so I figure a picture of Riley-Smith should do.

So, I wake up in the morning and my e-mail says the university libraries have sent me a message. I click and find out that the books I took out are due. No problem, I think, I haven’t renewed any of these. But the libraries won’t let me renew, so I’m taking them back. This is a shame because I was having a really great time working through two histories of the Crusades, a subject I’ve been very interested but which I have just started to broach. The first was Thomas Madden’s Concise History of the Crusades, and the second was Jonathan Riley-Smith’s The Crusades: A History. What I read of them was really excellent, so I’m not happy I didn’t get to finish them. Oh well, though. Here’s some incomplete thoughts on these books, rather than the dual review I had hoped to do.

Before I do that, it should be said that it seems both scholars are pluralists, which essentially means that they have a slightly expanded definition of the crusades, but not so expanded as the generalists who don’t find crusading to be so distinct from other forms of medieval religious warfare. Madden writes what seems to be closer to traditionalist than he thinks is really proper, but is upfront about his pluralism in the preface, and he seems to find that crusades studies owes a very large debt to Riley-Smith.

Madden’s book is ideal for a total beginner to the crusades, which I do effectively qualify as. I have read about the crusades a little bit in general histories and have heard some commentary from other students and historians, but that’s it. The book is mostly a narrative history, favoring simple and clear explanations that are easily digestible and which make very good sense. At the same time, he did not seem to be overly reductive in his narrative, which is always a danger for narrative histories.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, on the other hand, had much more to interest someone with a longing for intellectual history (me), approaching the subject with as much sophistication and source-based analysis as can be forced into every page. I wasn’t able to read much of it, but what I did read was largely his coverage the birth of the crusading movement. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was the best part of the entire book, because aside from touching on  “almost every aspect of crusading within a single volume,”[1] he also wrote a book on the beginnings of the crusading movement. Aside from some details it will no doubt take future readings (and writings) to really ingrain in my head, Riley-Smith made a few very memorable arguments. Two of these arguments:

a.) Crusading was not profitable, and crusaders did not go on crusade for profit. That idea is a product of popular history, which—along with opposing historiographical camps—Riley-Smith attacks with incredible energy and precise distinction. The cost of going on crusade was simply too high and the chances of reaping any real gain from it too low for that to be the case, and there is no evidence that most crusaders returned rich.[2] Two particular components of this argument interested me. First, he explains the extensive looting/foraging of the First Crusade in terms of food supply, which “alone would have accounted for an obsession with plunder.”[3] Furthermore, he states that property often had to be pledged or sold to account for the costs of going on crusade.[4]

b.) Riley-Smith sets the first crusade in the context of an ongoing reform effort being led by Urban II, and argues that the concept of the crusade as a vendetta on behalf of Christ may have contributed to the violence of the Crusades. Interestingly, the violence of the crusades, which had been preached “as an expression of love for God and brothers,”[5] drives home the point that the crusades were motivated primarily by idealism rather than profit.

But I read and learned some pretty important shit in Madden’s history too. Here’s a brief bulletpoint list:

  • “[In] a post-Enlightenment world, the concept of religious warfare is odious… . Instead, modern wars are fought for political and ideological causes… . In both cases, the soldiers felt similarly about their causes. They were willing to sacrifice their lives to defend what they held most sacred.”[6]
  • The Fourth Crusade got in a pickle right off the bat, which eventually determined the course of the crusade. In other words, Constantinople was ultimately sacked basically because they couldn’t pay the Venetians the huge lump of money they promised, and got dragged into the realm of Christian-on-Christian warfare for it.
  • Saladin was an excellent military strategist, but the only time he met Richard the Lionheart in battle his army was decimated. Further, by any realistic measure (i.e., not how many Jerusalems were taken in the course of the crusade), Richard’s crusade was actually highly successful.
  • The guy who ended up handling the Albigensian Crusade hilariously left the Fourth Crusade because he didn’t like the way it was going, and his crusade ended in shambles while the Fourth Crusade was viewed as a success in Europe.
  • The big problem with the crusades was usually that they were mismanaged. Richard was successful because he didn’t just drop his giant balls out of his trouser and swing them at the gates of Jerusalem, even though he wanted to bad. He used the most sensible strategy, not the most impassioned.


My next, similar posts should be all about how Critisticuffs’ companion to David Harvey’s companion to Marx’s Capital is a stupid companion, and why that study about language being universally positive is the dumbest thing anyone ever thought, and hardly scientific. Try as hard as you may, I’ve never seen anyone make anything better than a graphical chart with “data science.”


1. Madden, 222

2. Riley-Smith, 22

3. Riley-Smith, 19

4. Riley-Smith, 21

5. Riley-Smith, 25

6. Madden, 1


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