HERE IS AN AMAZON REVIEW OF THE BOOK and then the Q&A session with Stark.
Michael P. McHugh: I strongly recommend God’s Battalions to anyone interested in current affairs or history. In this timely and important book Rodney Stark cogently and persuasively makes “The Case for the Crusades” as his subtitle states. He begins with some galling indications of the current popular and apologetic misunderstanding of the Crusades today. Then he proceeds to tell the whole story from the perspective of the Crusaders.
Stark reminds the reader of the basic fact that Christians were in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria long before the Muslims. The Arabs, united under banner of Islam entered with great violence and they imposed oppressive rule. They did not stop their invasion into Christian territory until they conquered North Africa, Spain, and were finally beaten in southern France. This is all familiar history, but somehow ignored by critics of the Crusaders.
Stark reminds the reader of some less familiar history as well. For example, the Arabs attacked Sicily and the Italian mainland. The story of who stopped them there makes fascinating history. The Arabs also attacked Constantinople twice without success. This is often forgotten since their expansionist Muslim successors, the Turks ultimately captured that great Roman and Christian city.
After demonstrating that aggressive Islamic expansion into Christian territories triggered Islamic-Christian warfare, the author shatters many of the myths of the Crusades one by one with historical fact. These myths are exploded, for example:
-The Christians were more brutal than the Muslims.
-Islamic culture brought technological advancement to the Middle East.
-The Crusades were primarily motivated by economic expansion.
-Famed Muslim Saladin demonstrated a more enlightened leadership than his European counterparts.
Stark lays out the historical facts that the cynical critics selectively ignore.
Stark’s explanation of the ultimate failure of the Crusades will intrigue readers as will his many other insightful observations. For example, he cites the popular and oddly inconsistent notion that while Muslims could understandably be religiously motivated, Westerners would have to have ulterior motives. This book explains with excellent examples the evidence of religious motivations among Crusaders as I have seen nowhere else. Stark traces criticism of the Crusades to Western enemies of the Catholic Church as far back as the 18th Century.
General criticisms of this book fall flat. As for accusations of Western bias, Stark simply argues that the Crusades have been mischaracterized and the Crusaders maligned. He does not attribute to Crusaders complete moral superiority. He does not deny their brutality. It is true that he paints an ugly picture of the Byzantine role in the Crusades, but I saw nothing that has not been accepted as the general history of that Empire. Ironically, Byzantine self-absorption during this period matches Western Roman behavior during the decline of that entity. He does lump Arab Muslims and Turks into a monolith at times, but as I read I realized that to the Crusaders, the strategic threat each posed was not worthy of distinction.
I was disappointed that my edition of this book had no index. I was also disappointed that on one page Stark casts allusion to knights being hoisted to their saddles with small cranes. I have read that there is no evidence that this hoisting was ever needed or used.
Overall, Stark more than makes his case with a clarity and directness that most popular historians seem to avoid these days lest they offend someone with the truth. He introduces very little that is new or controversial by itself. He simply lays out the facts to make a case that no one else dare make for so long. He explains that the logic of security stoked by religious inspiration drove the Crusades more than other factors.
It remains a mystery to me why Westerners often make themselves and their ancestors out to be the bad guy even when it’s plainly not appropriate. Perhaps that is a matter for social psychologists to investigate. It seems lost on many Westerners that while we bathe in self-critique as a matter of course, our Muslim friends have never shared any such cultural compulsion. But it is this very psychology that makes this book timely and important.
SOURCE: Q&A with Rodney Stark, author of God’s Battalions: A Case for the Crusades
A: I focused on this portion of history (the conflicts between Christendom and Islam for control of the Holy Land, between 1095 and 1291) because the story has been particularly distorted over the past decade. Popular authors such as Karen Armstrong and world leaders such as Bill Clinton have helped popularize the idea that the Christian Crusades were an unprovoked attack on Muslims for the purpose of religious conversion or material gain. As a result, many Americans believe Muslims have been stewing in bitterness against Christians and the West for centuries. Many believe we owe Muslims an apology and that modern-day terrorism is payback for the Crusades. This is simply not the case.
Q: So what sparked the Christian Crusades in the Holy Land?
A: This time in history was a brutal and intolerant age on both sides–Muslim and Christian. Western knights were very violent, very sinful and very religious. Mohammed’s followers could be described in the same way. The Christian Holy Land had been conquered by Muslims in the seventh century, and Christians had been oppressed for several centuries, but the West did not intercede. Eventually Western pilgrims to the Holy Land found themselves targeted for violence, even massacred, and news reached Europe of the Muslim desecration of Christian sites in Jerusalem. The call went out for knights who would stop the desecration and re-open the pilgrimage routes for Christians. Quite simply, the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations: by centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places.
Q: How were Roman Catholic popes and clergy involved in Crusades? Were they seeking the religious conversions of Muslims?
A: Religious conversion was never a motivator for the Crusades. When Pope Urban II called upon the knights of Europe to join God’s battalions, he justified it on the ground that after many centuries of toleration, Muslims were desecrating the sacred Christian sties in the Holy Land and were inflicting savage mistreatment on Christian pilgrims. Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of priests and bishops, friars and monks, began to preach the Crusades, calling on knights to commit their lives and fortunes to the liberation of the Holy Land.
Q: How did the concept of “penitential warfare” become a tool for enlisting knights into the Crusades?
A: From early childhood a knight was raised to regard fighting as his chief function. Since the pope could not get the knights of Europe to observe a peace of God, as least he could enlist them to serve in God’s battalions and to direct their fierce bravery toward a sacred cause. Pope Urban II proposed something entirely new—that participation in the Crusade was the moral equivalent of serving in a monastic order, in that special holiness and certainty of salvation would be gained by those who took part. He is quoted as saying, “Whoever goes on the journey to free the church of God in Jerusalem out of devotion alone, and not for the gaining of glory or money, can substitute the journey for all penance for sin.” For the very violent, very sinful and very religious knights of Europe, this was an enticing offer. The knights of Europe sewed crosses on their breasts and marched east for two primary reasons. The generic reason was their perceived need for penance. The specific reason was to liberate the Holy Land.
Q: The first Crusade freed Jerusalem from Muslim rule, so why did the Crusades continue?
A: God’s battalions had been victorious, and the unbelievers had been driven from Jerusalem. Almost immediately, large numbers of crusaders began to head for home; after all, they had been gone much longer than anyone had expected. Within several months the crusader forces remaining in the Holy Land had fallen to perhaps no more than three hundred knights and an unknown, but not very large, number of foot soldiers. This was a very dangerous development, for surely Muslim forces would come again; the Holy Land remained encircled by a large Muslim world. Unfortunately, no plans had been made at the outset for maintaining a liberated Jerusalem, because it was thought that the Byzantines would take the lead, though it was now clear they could expect no help from the Byzantines. Thus the question that had been bothering many leading crusaders for several years was, ‘how can our miraculous achievement be sustained?’ It eventually became clear that the Holy Land Kingdoms could only be sustained via expensive ongoing support from Europe, which eventually undermined their existence.
Q: Were Christian crusaders more brutal and violent than their Muslim enemies?
A: It is not only absurd but often quite disingenuous to try to “prove” that the crusaders were bloodthirsty barbarians in contrast to the more civilized and tolerant Muslims. Dozens of Muslim massacres of whole cities have been reported [in previous chapters of God’s Battalions], and the crusaders knew of such occurrences. Granted, it was a cruel and bloody age, but nothing is to be gained either in terms of moral insights or historical comprehension by anachronistically imposing the Geneva Convention on these times. Both sides laid siege to cities, killed inhabitants who refused to surrender, and looted the conquered cities, carrying booty and slaves from the ruins.
Q: Some historians claim that crusaders destroyed a more enlightened Muslim culture during the Crusades. Is this accurate?
A: Even if we grant the claims that educated Arabs possessed superior knowledge of classical authors and produced some outstanding mathematicians and astronomers, the fact remains that they lagged far behind in terms of such vital technology as saddles, stirrups, horseshoes, wagons and carts, draft horses and harnesses, effective plows, crossbows, Greek fire, shipwrights, sailors, productive agriculture, effective armor, and well-trained infantry. Little wonder that crusaders could march more than 2,500 miles, defeat an enemy that vastly outnumbered them, and continue to do so as long as Europe was prepared to support them.
Q: Is it true that the slaves and younger sons of nobility were the ones sent to fight the Crusades?
A: Only recently have historians recognized the immense amount of data available on the crusaders themselves—on who went and how they financed their participation. Jonathan Riley-Smith has compiled much of this data into a computer base to shed light on why some decided to become crusaders and some did not. His most important insight was that crusading was dominated by a few closely related families. And the crusades were not manned by “surplus” sons, but by the heads of great families.
Q: Were these great European families seeking to expand their personal empires via the Crusades?
A: The heads of crusader families were fully aware that the costs of crusading would far exceed the very modest material rewards that could be expected; most went at immense personal cost, some of them knowingly bankrupting themselves to go. Moreover, the crusader kingdoms that they established in the Holy Land, and that stood for nearly two centuries, were not colonies sustained by local exactions; rather, they required immense subsidies from Europe.
Q: After almost two centuries of Christian Crusades, why did they finally come to an end?
A: Quite simply, crusading was too expensive. So long as the costs of the Crusades were born by the crusaders and their families, there were few who objected to the repeated efforts to free and preserve the Holy Land. But when kings began to lead, the expense of crusading soon was being imposed on everyone, including the clergy and the religious orders, in the form of crusader taxes. Grumbling began at once. Grumbling began at once and as it continued to mount, a medieval version of an antiwar movement eventually prevailed. After two centuries of support, the kingdoms in the Holy Land were abandoned.
Q: Is it true that the Crusades are one of the direct causes of the conflict in the Middle East today?
A: That may be so, but not because the Muslim world has been harboring bitterness over the Crusades for the past many centuries. As Jonathan Riley-Smith has explained, “One often reads that Muslims have inherited from their medieval ancestors bitter memories of the violence of the crusaders. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before the end of the nineteenth century Muslims had not shown much interest in the crusades . . . [looking] back on [them] with indifference and complacency.”
Thus, current Muslim memories and anger about the Crusades are a 20th century creation, prompted in part by “post World War I British and French imperialism and the post-World War II creation of the state of Israel.” The first Muslim history of the Crusades was not published until 1899, as a call for Muslim nationalism was growing. Eventually, the image of the brutal, colonizing crusader proved o have such polemical power that it eventually drowned out nearly everything else in the ideological lexicon of Muslim antagonism