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?