God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades

The new book by Rodney Stark turns what we "know" about history on its head.

Few aspects of our history so plague the conscience of the West as the Crusades, which are routinely vilified as the archetypal overreaching of a power-mad medieval Church, as the first stirrings of European colonialism, or as the barbaric assault of begrimed hordes upon the enlightened reaches of a Muslim golden age. Undaunted, Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark has published God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, which attempts to overturn everything you think you know about this centuries’-long clash of cultures. He proposes that “the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations” and were launched to secure safe passage for Christian pilgrims and to stem the loss of Christian lands to often brutal Muslim rulers. They were, he argues, sustained by “heads of great houses,” most of whom, “went at immense personal cost,” and whose “superior culture and technology […] made it possible for [them] to march more than twenty-five hundred miles, to suffer great losses along the way, and then to rout far larger Muslim forces.” Indeed, Stark suggests that only an ultimate failure of will in Europe stemmed the financial backing needed to maintain the crusader states.

The history of the Crusades begins not in the eleventh century, Stark suggests, but in the seventh, “when Islamic armies swept over a large portion of what was then Christian territory,” to rule “large populations of non-Muslims, most of whom remained unconverted for centuries." Muslim rulers were not, he suggests "more brutal or less tolerant than were Christians or Jews, for it was a brutal and intolerant age.” However, “efforts to portray Muslims as enlightened supporters of multiculturalism are at best ignorant,” as “from very early times Muslim authorities often went to great lengths to humiliate and punish dhimmis—Jews and Christians who refused to convert to Islam," often forcing them to "wear certain marks of their religion on their costume when among Muslims." Pogroms and massacres were not uncommon in Islamic regions; "In 923 on Palm Sunday, a […] wave of atrocities broke out [in Palestine]; churches were destroyed, and many died." Early in the eleventh century, the sixth Fatimid caliph, a borderline madman named Hakim, initiated a sweeping persecution of Christians and Jews, culiminating in the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Finally, when the newly-converted Seljuk Turks swept out of Central Asia in 1071, raping and pillaging indiscriminately among heretics (e.g. Shiite Muslims) and infidels alike, the situation of Christian residents and pilgrims became still more precarious, and religiously-motivated atrocities grew in regularity.

Stark argues that while Islamic culture was principally a composite of Nestorian Christian, Byzantine Orthodox and Persian learning, it “was during the 'Dark Ages' that Europe began the great technological leap forward that put it far ahead of the rest of the world."  Though Byzantine and Nestorian translators did introduce Muslims to Aristotle and other Greek writers lost to Western Europe, "Islamic technology” nonetheless “lagged well behind that of Byzantium and Europe." "Dark Age" Europeans introduced such agricultural and technological innovations as the horseshoe, the iron plow-share, "the three-field system" of farming, the high-backed saddle with stirrups, and the deadly crossbow. These innovations allowed medieval Europeans to eat better and fight more effectively than any other culture on the planet, and partially explain why the armies of the First Crusaders could diminish from 130,000 to barely 15,000 men after 2500 miles marched and dozens of desperate battles fought, and still have the military wherewithal to conquer Jerusalem from far larger Muslim forces.

And, Stark insists, the Crusades were in no way the first stirrings of European colonialism. In 1096, Pope Urban II received a desperate letter from the Byzantine Emperor Alexius recounting horrifying tales of Seljuk atrocities against Christians in the Holy Land. He responded with a contextually understandable call for faithful Christian knights to march those many miles to defend their brothers in the faith. Those who did, Stark argues, were not principally shrewd opportunists or disenfranchised lesser nobility, but rather prominent heads of nobles houses, many of whom mortgaged their fortunes—in one case, the entire duchy of Normandy—to engage in a pursuit that never remotely turned a profit (the Crusader states were always dependent on Europe for supplies and funds).

Nevertheless, hangers-on were many, and often brutal, as the pogroms committed against Jews in the Rhineland by the mob-ruled “People’s Crusade” illustrates, and even the conduct of the main body of Crusaders was often horrifyingly brutal: nothing in Christian Scripture or tradition could justify the murderous sack of Jerusalem carried out by the victorious soldiers of the First Crusade.

Remarkably, the crusaders succeeded, and established four "crusader kingdoms": the Counties of Edessa and Tripoli, the Principality of Antioch, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Stark writes, "Most Muslims in the kingdom [of Jerusalem] were peasants who reportedly were quite content under Christian rule [...] The Christian rulers tolerated the Muslims' religion and made no effort to convert them." Nonetheless, the crusader states were never secure, as Saracen strongholds remained scattered throughout them, used as bases to mount periodic attacks against military and civilian targets. Ultimately, the financial strain of maintaining them was simply too great, and the determined advances of vast Muslim forces eventually won out over the Crusaders’ ability to defend their tiny islets.

Stark endeavors to restore to them some measure of historical intelligibility. In his capable hands, these grand quests prove neither divinely-mandated holy wars, nor execrable and unwarranted invasions, but rather the reasonable effort of honest piety to turn aside an impending threat, subject of course in the end to the failure of the best intentions to overcome human greed or malice. As with any war, there are no truly clean hands in this history; everywhere is shortsightedness and foolishness; everywhere evil seizes opportunities afforded by goodness. But the presence of cruelty does not negate the presence of courage, and neither horrible abuse true concern for suffering innocents. Though it is surely not the story we wish we had to tell, a commitment to truth means that the history of the Crusades will include both the dark and the light.

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