God’s Battalions: Those Other Caped Crusaders

Remember the days just after 9/11 when many claimed the West was finally paying for its crimes against Muslims during the Crusades?  They were wrong – and they weren’t the first to misunderstand what happened during the years of fighting between Christian Crusaders and Muslim soldiers.

Rodney Stark’s newest book, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, helps explain and dispel several of the most common myths about the crusades – and he has quite a few myths to choose from.  Rather than making new claims about the period, Stark instead summarizes much of the historical work already done on the crusades, providing an easy to read and relatively brief synthesis of events which have always been easy to misunderstand.   The book is a well-written and balanced introduction to the subject and to several of the most prominent interpretations of the source materials.

The crusades ended in the 13th century, but even so the image of the chain-mail garbed man with his emblematic red cross still permeates our popular culture.  Our children play with Lego crusaders.  Some enjoy crusader video games.  Crusader costumes are available for all ages, and the iconic image of the crusader may be found in both cartoons and popular movies – but what do most of us actually know about these men and about their fight?

Not much – at least not much that is accurate, argues Stark. And this is nothing new.  For one thing, it has often been assumed that the crusaders were motivated by greed rather than piety.  Why else would tens of thousands of men travel so far and leave their homes for so long?  Surely they expected to gain from their exploits, right?

Wrong.  Actually, points out Stark, crusading was prohibitively expensive – so expensive that it was virtually impossible to make a profit as a crusader:

“The best estimate is that a typical crusader needed to raise at least four or five times his annual income before he could set forth.  This reveals the absurdity of all claims that the crusaders were mostly landless younger sons, since it would have been cheaper for families to have kept such sons at home and provided them with an adequate inheritance.” (p. 113)

Far from being the hot-headed, blood-thirsty imperialists historians have often envisioned, most crusaders were motivated primarily by their faith:

“Had the crusaders been motivated not by religion but by land and loot, the knights of Europe would have responded earlier, in 1063, when Pope Alexander II proposed a Crusade to drive the infidel Muslims out of Spain.  Unlike the Holy Land, Moorish Spain was extremely wealthy, possessed an abundance of fertile lands, and was close at hand.  But hardly anyone responded to the pope’s summons.  Yet only thirty-three years later, tens of thousands of crusaders set out for the dry, impoverished wastes of faraway Palestine.  What was different?  Spain was not the Holy Land!  Christ had not walked the streets of Toledo, nor had he been crucified in Seville.” (p. 118)

Stark also points out that, while the conflicts that led to the Crusades go back to at least the 7th century, Muslim antagonism about the Crusades is a fairly new development:

“…claims that Muslims have been harboring bitter resentments about the Crusades for a millennium are nonsense: Muslim antagonism about the Crusades did not appear until about 1900, in reaction against the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of actual European colonialism in the Middle East.  And anti-crusader feelings did not become intense until after the founding of the state of Israel.” (p. 8-9)

So much for the 9/11 theory.

Stark also tackles the claim that the Crusades were imperialistic attacks on a peaceful, tolerant, intellectually superior Muslim culture.  For one thing, the settlements that crusaders did manage to found in the Holy Land were outrageously expensive to maintain; far from providing a source of income, they instead added to the already prohibitive expenses the crusaders had taken on in order to join the fight.  Imperialism would have been impractical at best:

“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)

Though Arab societies did have better access to great works of Greek philosophy and literature than Europe did, they made poor use of them; in fact, Greek authors like Plato and Aristotle were actually bad for Arab scholarship.  Stark writes,

“…rather than treat these works as attempts by Greek scholars to answer various questions, Muslims intellectuals quickly read them in the same way as the read the Qur’an—as settled truths to be understood without question or contradiction—and thus to the degree that Muslim thinkers analyzed these works, it was to reconcile apparent internal disagreements.”  (p. 62)

Contrary to popular belief, the West was technologically as well as intellectually superior to the Arabs at this time.  While sources from this period are often unreliable, we do know that following the Muslim conquest of North Africa and Spain the wheel fell out of use for centuries—not because people forgot about it, but because their refusal to build on the knowledge they did have led them to believe they had no use for such a device.  In contrast, Westerners used these centuries to develop not only wheeled vehicles but also horses and harnesses, plows, crossbows, productive agriculture, and a host of many other things.  It’s no wonder the crusaders were able to successfully fight the Muslims despite the great expense and distance from their homeland.

In addition to addressing these myths, Stark also narrates each of the crusades chronologically, giving the causes and methods of each campaign while also illuminating internal political conflicts of the time.  God’s Battalions treats both Muslim and Christian sources fairly, allowing the reader to glimpse a little of the lives and culture of those on each side of the conflict.  Stark’s introductory work will be valuable to both seasoned scholars and curious laymen for some time to come, and offers much-needed context for those who seek to understand today’s conflicts between the West and the Arab world. ‘