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Review of God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades

By Lee Duigon
July 09, 2010

Authored by Rodney Stark (HarperOne, New York, NY:2009)

This book matters because it is a search for the truth about a controversial topic in history—the Crusades.

In recent years, leaders of the West have vied with one another to see who could offer the most abject apology for the Crusades.[i] How very grand and self-important, to “apologize” for something that happened a thousand years ago! But it is told, virtually without dissent, that the Crusades were an altogether wicked enterprise, a senseless aggression against innocent and inoffensive people, and that the whole Muslim world has been stewing over it ever since: and that this justified grievance of theirs excuses any Muslim violence against the West today. It is further suggested that the Crusades is the reason why Islam fell so very far behind the West culturally, technologically, politically, and economically (p. 4).

All of this, says Rodney Stark, is balderdash.

Stark’s argument is so clear and cogent that he can sum it up in one paragraph. And here it is:

“The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The Crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God’s battalions.” (p. 248)

Truth matters, in and of itself. History matters, too. No one in the West today seems angry that waves of Muslim invaders attacked and conquered Christian lands, subjecting the inhabitants to centuries of assorted persecutions, to this day. The first wave consumed the Middle East, Persia, Egypt and North Africa, and Spain. The second engulfed Anatolia and Constantinople, and the third crashed against the walls of Vienna in the very heart of Europe. It wasn’t for want of trying that Muslims failed to conquer all of Europe and the entire Mediterranean. That’s history, and the background against which the Crusades must be considered. (The whole story is given in Chapter One, “Muslim Invaders.”)

A public school teacher-in-training once said to me, “It’s okay to teach the kids things that aren’t true, as long as it makes them feel good about themselves.” In the case of the Crusades, Westerners are taught things that aren’t true to make them feel bad about themselves.

Christians must stand against faked-up history no matter how it makes people feel about themselves.

Some of the Facts

Far from being unprovoked, the Crusades only began after more than 300 years of non-stop Muslim aggression against the Christian world. Finally, in 1095, the Byzantine Emperor wrote to the Pope, asking for military aid.

A few years earlier, the Caliph of Egypt destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, along with many other Christian churches and sacred sites throughout the Holy Land. Muslims murdered and enslaved Christian pilgrims. Weighing the known historical evidence, Stark concludes, “In any event, mass murders of Christian monks and pilgrim were common … These events challenge the claims about Muslim religious tolerance” (pp. 84–85). The Pope and his preachers alluded to these numerous incidents, exhorting Christian knights to defend their fellow Christians.

Did the Crusaders go east to get rich? Hardly—going on a crusade was an expensive undertaking. “Nor were the Crusades organized and led by surplus sons,” writes Stark, “but by the heads of great families who 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” (p. 8).

Having conquered the Holy Land, the Crusaders established little kingdoms there. These could not survive without enormous subsidies from Europe—and so they must not be viewed as colonies in any meaningful sense. Colonies are expected to be profitable to the mother country, as India was to Britain. We all learned in school—didn’t we?—how King George and Parliament wrung profits out of their American colonies.

“In any event,” says Stark, “to identify the Crusader kingdoms as colonies in the usual sense is absurd … In terms of political control, the kingdoms were fully independent of any European state. In terms of economic exploitation, it would be more apt to identify Europe as a colony of the Holy Land, since the very substantial flow of wealth and resources was from the West to the East!” (p. 173).

The Myth of Muslim Civilization

Were the Europeans that barbaric, and the Muslims that advanced, as current revisionism has it? In a chapter entitled “Western ‘Ignorance’ Versus Eastern ‘Culture’”, Stark turns the conventional wisdom upside-down.

“To the extent that Arab elites acquired a sophisticated culture,” he declares, “they learned it from their subject peoples” (p. 56). Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Hindus, already civilized and cultured when Muslims conquered them, went on being civilized and cultured afterward, with their new Muslim overlords the beneficiaries of their efforts—be it scholarship, architecture, commerce, or shipbuilding. Much of the achievement of “Muslim civilization” was the work of non-Muslims (see p. 59 for some prominent examples) forced to adopt Arab names and publish their work in Arabic. For as long as there was a great pool of cultured non-Muslim subjects on which to draw, Arab civilization flourished. When, after centuries of persecution and forced conversion to Islam, that pool dried up, the Muslim world went into decline.

Europe, meanwhile, forged ahead of Islam in such areas as transport (pp. 67–68), agriculture (pp. 69–70), and military technology and doctrine (pp. 70–76). “Even if we grant the claims,” says Stark, “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, effective plows, crossbows, Greek fire, shipwrights, sailors, effective armor, and well-trained infantry. Little wonder that crusaders could march more than twenty-five hundred miles, defeat an enemy that vastly outnumbered them, and continue to do so as long as Europe was prepared to support them” (p. 76).

These look like simple arguments Dr. Stark is making, but they are not mere assertions. Everything he says is supported by known and easily accessible historical fact.

Three Black Marks

In popular thought, the three blackest marks against the Crusaders are violence against the European Jews, a wholesale massacre of innocents following the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, and their sacking of Constantinople, a Christian city, in 1204. Dr. Stark inquires into the truth concerning these outrages.

The First Crusade (1095–1099) consisted of three smaller “crusades” intended to meet at Constantinople and invade Muslim territory as a united force. Two of them accomplished this: the “Princes’ Crusade,” led by French and Norman nobles, and “the People’s Crusade” led by Peter the Hermit. The third group, the “German Crusade,” never arrived. It was this group, not the others, that attacked the Jews, mostly in the Rhine Valley.

This was done in spite of strenuous efforts by the German bishops to protect the Jews (pp.126–127) With the memory of these atrocities still fresh when the Second Crusade got under way in 1145, St. Bernard of Clairvaux successfully intervened to stop a second anti-Jewish pogrom on the Rhine.

So, yes, some of the Crusaders—but most of them, not—were guilty of murdering German Jews. Far from acquiescing to this, the Church did everything in its power to stop it.

What about the bloodbath in Jerusalem? Stark explains that by the conventions of medieval warfare, cities that resisted invading armies were customarily punished severely if taken by the enemy—a tradition going back to the Assyrians and the Romans in ancient times. “Granted,” he says, “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 those times” (p. 158).

Perhaps we ought to set against Jerusalem the Muslims’ recapture of Antioch in 1268, complete with “a massacre that even shocked Muslim chroniclers … an orgy of torture, killing, and desecration” (p. 231), but “barely reported in many recent Western history of the Crusades” (p. 232). Be that as it may, massacres in captured cities are hardly an unusual feature of the history of this fallen world, nor an invention of the Crusaders.

As for the sack of Constantinople, this only occurred after some 200 years of Byzantine treachery and double-dealing—including a secret imperial alliance with Saladin against the Third Crusade (p. 198) in 1189. In 1204 the straw that broke the camel’s back was the emperor’s launching of a surprise attack on the Fourth Crusade’s fleet, which had assembled at Constantinople—at the emperor’s invitation!—to resupply before attacking Muslim Egypt. With their fleet destroyed and in danger of starving on the shore, the Crusaders turned on the author of their misfortunes and took the city (pp. 213–217). Better men have done worse, with smaller provocation.

Hokey History

What is really troubling is that such a book as this had to be written in the first place. The facts about the Crusades were just lying around, as it were, waiting to be picked up and displayed. No extraordinary detective work was required. All Rodney Stark had to do was “synthesize the work of these specialists [historians, et al.] into a more comprehensive perspective, written in prose that is accessible to the general reader” (p. 9). In this he has succeeded admirably.

Is it irrelevant that long after the last Crusader was driven from the Holy Land, Muslim armies in 1453 took and sacked Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Christendom, renamed it Istanbul, converted its famous churches into mosques, and hold it to this day? Was it hard feelings over the Crusades that impelled Turkish armies in the sixteenth century to spread out through the Christian Balkans, advancing ruthlessly until stopped at last at Vienna and Lepanto? Was it those long-dead Crusaders who gradually over the next 400 years transformed the rampaging Ottoman Empire into the Sick Man of Europe?

Muslims didn’t rediscover their resentment of the Crusades until the Ottomans lost their power to conquer Christians and the Muslim world was forced to confront a Western world that had had a Reformation and an Industrial Revolution, and leaped into the modern age while the lamp of Islam guttered out. There had to be a reason for it. It had to be somebody’s fault—it couldn’t be the inherent backwardness of Islam. And so the Crusades became—along with the founding of the state of Israel—an all-purpose explanation for everything that’s gone wrong for Islam in the last four centuries. Somehow, if not for the Crusades, places like Afghanistan and Sudan and Saudi Arabia would be way ahead of the West today.

Westerners have bought into the myth of the evil, unprovoked Crusades that wrecked a brilliant Muslim civilization and now fuels Muslim jihads against the West. Perhaps Rodney Stark is right in attributing the hatching of this myth to Enlightenment historians who wished to abase and discredit the Church (p. 6), to the benefit of humanism.

Whatever the case, we cannot make rational or righteous judgments about the present if we are basing them on a lot of hokum about the past.

We applaud Dr. Stark for setting the record straight.


[i] Bill Clinton (p. 4), the New York Times (p. 5), German Protestants (p. 5), and Pope John Paul II (http://archives.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0003/12/sm.06.html ), among others.


Topics: World History

Lee Duigon

Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.

Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.

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