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God's Battalions

The Case for the Crusades

by Rodney Stark
Publisher: HarperOne
Reprint, ©2010, ISBN: 9780061582608
Trade Paperback, 288 pages
Price: $14.99

One of the most interesting things about studying history is learning the popular version of the story, and then learning that things are not so simple as they seem. In God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, author Rodney Stark debunks many of the popular myths surrounding the Crusades and gives a justification for one of the most poorly reputed military actions in history. This book provides a good balance to the typical view of the Crusades—"Bigoted and land-hungry European Christians brutally attack Muslims minding their own business." Rodney Stark's provocative statements fly in the face of much of the popular rhetoric concerning the Crusades, and while I don't necessarily agree with every stance Stark takes, each chapter of the book provides interesting fodder for thought.

One of Stark's most important claims is that the Crusades were not unprovoked. He describes the Muslim aggression during the 7th-11th centuries, showing how the forces of Islam conquered Christian territory from Jerusalem, to Spain, to Italy, all the way up to the walls of Constantinople. For Stark, the Crusades were a response to this Muslim expansionism. 

He also makes a point of showing that the Christians in the conquered areas (the majority of whom failed to convert to Islam) were treated very poorly by their Islamic overlords. 

"A great deal of nonsense has been written about Muslim tolerance--that, in contrast to Christian brutality against Jews and heretics, Islam showed remarkable tolerance for conquered people, treated them with respect, and allowed them to pursue their faiths without interference. This claim probably began with Voltaire, Gibbon, and other eighteenth-century writers who used it to cast the Catholic Church in the worst possible light. The truth about life under Muslim rule is quite different...." --Chapter One: Muslim Invaders 

Related to this idea of tolerance, Stark also addresses the issue of Muslim enlightenment and intellectual sophistication. He looks at the technology and scientific advances of the period and concludes that:

"The belief that once upon a time Muslim culture was superior to that of Europe is at best an illusion. To the extent that Arab elites acquired a sophisticated culture, they learned it from their subject peoples...." --Chapter Three: Western "Ignorance" versus Eastern "Culture"

These subject peoples included Nestorian Christians, Zoroastrians, and Indian Hindus. Stark argues that "Muslim" advances in medicine, literature, mathematics, etc. are entirely due to the ingenuity of the conquered races/religions. 

After holding a microscope up against common myths regarding the Muslims, Stark moves to dispel some common vilifications of the Crusaders. Historians have a tendency to ignore Muslim intolerance and to harp upon the Crusaders' behavior toward people of other faiths (particularly the Jews). Stark points out, however, that the Church did not intend for the Crusaders to harm the innocent: 

"It is worth noting that the pope [Alexander II] was very concerned that the knights setting out to fight the Muslims not attack Jews along the way. Having directed that the Jews be protected, he subsequently wrote that he was glad to learn "that you protect the Jews who live among you, so that they may not be killed by those setting out for Spain against the Saracens...for the situation of the Jews is greatly different from that of the Saracens. One may justly fight against those [Saracens because they] persecute Christians."--Chapter Two: Christendom Strikes Back 

My own reading of primary sources definitely corroborates this section of Stark's book. In the early stages of the First Crusade, when mobs of "Crusaders" in the Rhineland tried to exterminate the Jews, it was the bishops of the Church who hid the Jews and protected them. The Church which called the Crusade did not condone all actions that were done in the name of the Crusade.

Another issue Stark addresses is the incompatibility of modern expectations of piety with medieval expectations. In my book Road from the West, some have seen it as odd (or hypocritical) that Tancred--after feeling guilty for killing Christians--sets out to make amends by slaughtering Saracens. To modern sensibilities, true piety means a commitment to non-violence. Is it possible that Crusaders who continue to cleave skulls in two can be truly religious? Stark writes: 

"Many skeptics have noted that the pilgrimages often failed to improve the subsequent behavior of pilgrims.... The issue seems to be the expectation that an authentic pilgrimage ought to have fundamentally transformed a pilgrim's character and personality--or at least to have changed an individual into a far more peaceful and forgiving sort of person. But that was not a typical outcome. Instead, most of the fighting men who went on a pilgrimage returned as fierce and ready to do battle as before.... That even very pious knights found pacifism incomprehensible may puzzle some having modern sensibilities, but that assumption was fundamental to Pope Urban's call for a Crusade."--Chapter Five: Enlisting Crusaders

Although some may quibble with aspects of Stark's research, I found this book incredibly refreshing. Instead of merely accepting the dogma of 18th century historians, Stark places the Crusades in their historical context and finds a different way of looking at them. As one of the quotes on the back cover says, Stark's "greatest achievement is to make us see the crusaders on their own terms."

Review by Roseanne Lortz, author of Road from the West

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