267 of 288 people found the following review helpful
Very few people have much good to say about the Crusades nowadays. Most think it was a terrible blight on Christian history, and cannot be condoned or justified in any way. Certainly during the past few centuries, Christianity has been attacked, and people have sought to discredit the faith, partly on the basis of the Crusades.
In such an atmosphere, this new book by Rodney Stark is as about as revolutionary as they come. He takes head on myth after myth surrounding the Crusades, and makes the case that the Crusades not only had a place, but were in fact in many ways justifiable. He clearly demonstrates that modern histories about the Crusades are among the great hatchet jobs of recent times.
Dispelling the many myths about the Crusades takes guts, and someone with the right intellectual and academic qualifications. Stark is certainly the man for the job: he has become one of our finest writers on the sociology and history of religion, and is unafraid to go against the tide.
In this important volume he debunks the historical revisionism (which is often coupled with anti-Christian bigotry) about the Crusades to offer us a more sober and clear picture of what in fact took place. He notes that it was especially during the time of the Enlightenment and onwards that critics claimed that the Crusaders were mainly Western imperialists, those who set out after land and loot.
Moreover, the contrast is often made between the bloodthirsty barbaric Christians, and the peace-loving Muslims. But as Stark persuasively documents, none of this is close to the truth. The real story is this: the Crusades were certainly provoked, and the Crusaders were mainly concerned to free the Holy Lands from Muslim oppression and to protect religious pilgrims who travelled there.
Indeed, to properly understand the Crusades, a lot of background information needs to be considered. That is why Stark spends the first hundred pages of his book looking at the 600-year period of Muslim conquests and dhimmitude.
The story of course begins in the seventh century when Muslim armies swept over the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Europe. One Christian land after another was attacked and conquered by advancing Muslim armies.
Stark reminds us that Muhammad told his followers, "I was ordered to fight all men until they say `There is no god but Allah.'" Therefore a century after his death vast swathes of territory hung under the bloody sword of Islam.
And what of the conquered Christians living under Islamic rule? They, along with Jews, were known as dhimmis. While revisionist historians and Muslim apologists speak of Muslim tolerance here, the "truth about life under Muslim rule is quite different".
Indeed, the subject peoples had few options: death, enslavement or conversion were the only avenues open to them. Dhimmitude was no picnic. Death was the fate of anyone who dared to convert out of Islam. No churches or synagogues could be built. There was to be no public praying or reading of Scripture. They were at best treated as second-class citizens, and at worst, punished and killed.
And massacres of Jews and Christians were quite common in the centuries leading up to the Crusades. In 1032-1033 in Morocco alone, there were over six thousand Jews murdered. Jerusalem fell to the Muslims in 638. The Dome of the Rock was built from 685 to 691, and churches and synagogues were levelled in the ensuing centuries.
The condition of Christians in Jerusalem was pretty appalling during this period, as was the plight of penitent pilgrims seeking to enter Jerusalem. They suffered much persecution, and risked their lives simply to travel to the holy city. The destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - along with thousands of other Christian churches - under the bloody reign of Tariqu al-Hakim at the end of the first millennia simply served as the climax to all this misery and outrage.
It is in this light of six centuries of Islamic conquest, bloodshed and tyranny that the Crusades must be viewed. They were not always pretty, but life in general back then was not pretty. If Crusader excesses took place, this was just par for the course, as excesses by Muslims and others were more than commonplace.
As Stark reminds us, "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."
He looks at the various Crusades, dealing with the host of mythologies that have grown up around them. One is the fanciful depiction of Saladin as some gallant, humane Muslim resisting those bloodthirsty Christians. For example, when he re-conquered Jerusalem in 1187, the city was spared a massacre.
But the rules of warfare back then stipulated that cities would be spared if they were not forced to be taken by storm. So while bloodshed was limited, "half the city's Latin Christian residents were marched away to the slave markets".
And as Stark reminds us, Jerusalem was the exception to Saladin's normal style. Savage butchery of his enemies was his usual habit. Indeed, he had been looking forward to massacring the inhabitant of Jerusalem, but a compromise was struck which prevented this. But he had plenty of other opportunities to let the blood flow freely, often at his own hand.
Then there is the myth that the Crusades have been a longstanding grievance amongst Muslims. Not so argues Stark: "Muslim antagonism about the Crusades did not appear until about 1900, in reaction against the decline of the Ottoman Empire".
Christians today can well argue whether the Crusades were in fact warranted. But any such discussion about the pros and cons of the matter must be made under a clear understanding of what exactly transpired and why. This book admirably serves that purpose, and must be the starting point for any future debates over the topic.
262 of 289 people found the following review helpful
Dr Rodney Stark, who has written some of the most intelligent and readable books on religion in the last 20 years, has done it again. "God's Battalions" is an explosive retelling of the Crusades. And it will no doubt overturn the smug assumptions of many people.
Stark points out that the Crusades were not Christian wars of aggression. Pope Urban called for a Crusade because the emperor of Byzantium had written to him, begging for help. The letter "detailed gruesome tortures of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and vile desecrations of churches, altars, and baptismal fonts" (p 2). Moreover, Islamic armies stood within one hundred miles of Constantinople.
Vast stretches of once Christian lands were now in Muslim hands. The entire of North Africa, once so solidly Christian it had produced a pope and boasted of 500 bishoprics, now lay under Islamic rule. Egypt was lost, save for some pockets of Coptic Christians. Much of the Middle East was lost. Now, Muslim armies seemed poised to attack a weak Byzantium, and after that, a fractious, divided Europe. The situation appeared dire.
This is the background that so many of the modern critics of the Crusades ignore.
But Stark doesn't merely overturn beliefs about the Crusades. He points out that "the many claims that the Arabs achieved far more sophisticated medicine than had previous cultures are as mistaken as those regarding 'Arabic' numerals" (p 60), which in fact were Hindu numerals. The medical knowledge came via Nestorian Christians. In fact, most of what was regarded as Arabic culture "originated with the conquered populations" (p 61). These conquered populations contained the libraries of thousands of monasteries, thousands of churches.
Stark also overturns the myth of the Dark Ages in Europe as well. About many modern historians on the topic of the Dark Ages, Stark says tartly, "Some of these claims are malicious, and all are astonishingly ignorant" (p 66).
As for all those who claim the knights went on Crusades for gold and glory, Stark argues instead that, instead, most of the men went as a way to do penance for sins, and, of course, to liberate the Holy Land.
Stark, a terrific writer, provides a thrilling, fast paced account of the Crusades. There have been other revisionist histories of the Crusades, but they were usually written by Catholics, and read primarily by Catholics. Stark, however, was described in a recent magazine article as an agnostic. This book should have broad appeal and change some deeply rooted prejudices.
87 of 96 people found the following review helpful
This is a superbly readable, concise, and well-documented history of Crusades that challenges popular assumptions with compelling evidence and explanation. As the author summarizes his theme, "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 cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God's battalions." The author also points out that the Crusades were not a part of Muslim cultural awareness for the last 700 years until appropriated by 20th propagandists as a tool of grievance and evidence of victimization in the wake of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This book would make a superb gift for anyone, but especially for any school teacher or college professor on your gift list. I have two suggestions for the second edition of this book: better editing (there was a recurring and annoying misuse of "Cypress" for "Cyprus," among other typographical errors) and some reorganizing of the ninth and tenth chapters to avoid the litany of dates, names, and places so deadly to the non-academic reader of military and/or political histories. That being noted, don't wait for the second edition - "God's Battalions" is well worth your time and effort, and it tells a story that badly needs retelling in this time of our history.
58 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2010
The popular understanding of crusades history is that ignorant, intolerant, and over-agressive Western Christians suddenly invaded the cultured, tolerant, and peaceful Muslim Near-East bent on killing everyone who wasn't a Christian. In this book, Rodney Stark sets out to refute every one of those assumptions. He argues that the crusades were not unprovoked, the Christian West was not a backwards culture, the Muslims were not more intellectually advanced or more tolerant, and the crusaders were no more brutal in their warfare than the Muslims that they were fighting. On most of these counts Stark makes a convincing case.
Stark begins his account where few crusades historians do: at the rise of Islam. I've read a great many books about the crusades (it's my field of study), and almost every single one begins either with the loss of Byzantine territory to Turkish Muslims in the second half 11th century or, even less helpfully, with the campaign of Pope Urban II just prior to the First Crusade. Stark notices this, and points out the very important fact that the Muslims attacked first, capturing the Holy Land, Egypt, North Africa, Sicily, and most of Spain from Christian control during the centuries prior to the First Crusade. The Crusaders were not simply trying to take territory from the Muslims, they were trying to take back territory the Muslims had taken from them by force during the great expansion of Islam in the early Middle Ages. It wasn't as if Christians suddenly decided to attack some innocent bystanders over in the Near East; the Near East had for centuries been Christian before bands of Islamic warriors took it by force from the Byzantine Empire. The West was further provoked by the recent (11th century) attacks on Christian pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem. They had been relative safe during the period when the Holy Land was controlled by Egypt, but when Turkish Muslims conquered it in the latter half of the 11th century they began killing Christians and disrupting the pilgrim route.
Stark then attacks the idea that Islamic culture in the Near East was significantly more advanced that Western Christian culture. He systematically goes through the major thinkers in Islamic culture who advanced learning, and nearly every one of them turns out to be either a Christian, Zoroastrian, Hindu, or Jew who happened to be living in territory ruled by Muslims. Even the most cherished Arabic discovery put forth to show the superiority of Islamic culture, Arabic numerals, was not Arabic at all, but Hindu, and was not even adopted among the Muslims except by its advanced mathematicians. The supposedly advanced Muslim medicine was actually the medicine of Nestorian Christians. The great feats of copying Greek philosophy and medicine were accomplished mostly by dhimmi, those living in the Islamic society who were not themselves Muslims. Almost everywhere in the Islamic empire, besides the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, the vast majority of the population was not Muslim, but was simply ruled by a very small class made up of Muslims. Most of the academic accomplishments were done by the cultures over which a few Muslims happened to rule, not by Muslims themselves. And in the field of technology, Islamic culture lagged far behind the Christian West. Islamic fleets could not begin to compete with either Western fleets or Byzantine fleets. The reason the crusader army of only 20-40000 soldiers was able to come in and conquer the Holy Land from vastly larger Muslim forces was its significant technological superiority. The crossbow, plate armor, effective saddles, etc. allowed small groups of Western knights to demolish ill-equipped Muslim hordes. There is a reason the Muslims thought Christian knights were invincible before the disastrous Second Crusade showed that they could be stopped.
Also disproven is the popular notion that crusaders went East to gain wealth. It is (or at least was) common to hear that many who joined the crusades were families' younger sons, who had no prospects in the West. Instead, they turned their attention to the East in hopes of gaining loot and perhaps prestigious positions. Stark shows that it cost a great deal more than one could hope to gain just to equip oneself and make it to the Holy Land. It cost four to five times his annual income for a knight to go on a crusade; many people sold all that they had (including land) to fund their journey and bankrupted themselves before they even set out. The idea that people went East to gain money is absurd when one considers the cost of crusading.
Finally, Stark discusses the brutality of the crusaders. The most common example given to show that the crusaders were bloodthirsty brutes is the massacre following the capture of Jerusalem. The crusaders had besieged Jerusalem, which refused to surrender. When the crusaders finally breeched the walls months later, after suffering heavy casualties due to starvation and attacks from the city walls, they slaughtered everyone inside. Stark points out, quite correctly, that this was, in fact, standard procedure in medieval warfare, both for Christians and Muslims. An invading army suffered serious casualties when it was forced to keep a lengthy siege and storm a city, and so the common practice was to massacre cities that held out against a siege as an example to keep other cities from doing the same. If a city surrendered, however, the population was spared (of course, there were some out of control soldiers at times on both sides which sometimes broke this rule). It is ridiculous to compare the massacre at Jerusalem when the crusaders conquered it with the release of the citizens when Saladin reconquered for the Muslims a hundred years later; when the crusaders captured it Jerusalem had held out and cost the crusaders a great number of lives, and when Saladin captured it the Christians surrendered. Muslims were just as prone to massacre Christians, with the exception of Saladin, who was, from time to time, generous toward the crusaders (though he brutally massacred them too, from time to time). If one wishes to judge the crusaders by the modern conventions of warfare, then at least be consistent and judge the Muslims to have just as bad.
Most of the points Stark makes are very convincing, but much of it is not really new. You can find a refutation of the crusading-for-money theory in Jonathan Riley-Smith's The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading. An account of why the crusades were, at least in part, a reaction to Muslim conquests and persecution of Christian pilgrims can be found in the writings of Thomas Madden or, again, Riley-Smith. Even the defense of the massacre at Jerusalem can be found in the work of crusades historian John France. Stark, however, is the first author I have seen to realize the significance of all the separate points and put them all together in one volume, and some of what he said I had not encountered elsewhere. In all the reading I have done on the crusades I had never once seen a historian note the significance of the crossbow (and other technological superiorities besides armor) to the success of the crusades (even R. C. Smail's standard work, Crusading Warfare, failed to discuss crossbows), and the fact that the Muslims ruled over a largely non-Muslim population had escaped my notice. Stark puts together a very good case, but he tends to go too far in many places. Instead of being content with demonstrating that the crusaders were not culturally or morally inferior to the Muslims, he tries to justify everything the crusaders did and present them as wholesome warriors of God. While the crusaders have been unduly vilified, largely as a result of anti-Catholic propaganda during the Enlightenment, they were certainly not all holy warriors seeking first the kingdom of God. Many of theme were ruthless, greedy, opportunistic exploiters. It is just as wrong to claim that they were all good as it is to claim that they were all evil. Stark has done much in this book to help us reach a more balanced appraisal of the crusades, but he has not quite achieved it himself.
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2010
Thank you Mr. Stark. It's only taken 1,000 years to get a true, unbiased account of the Crusades but better late than never! This is one of the most compelling and easy-to-read works of history I have ever read. As for those who gave the book poor reviews, there are always going to be a few politically-correct cranks who are going to bash a book like this. One guy who gave 2 stars didn't even read the book! Mr. Stark doesn't paint the Crusaders as perfect paragons of virtue - they were fallible human beings with all the faults and failings that go with that - but their motives were pure and their cause was just. Not only was "God's Battalions" fascinating and educational as history, it was also instructive in helping the reader to understand the roots of modern-day jihad. History is repeating itself. When are we going to wake up and launch a serious, unified defense against those who would destroy our faith, our freedom and our way of life?
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Anyone who reads God's Battalions by Rodney Stark is sure to have any preconceived notions about the crusades challenged. Traditional teachings of noble Islamic warriors conquering territory with love and compassion have been proven to be false, at least as far as Stark is concerned. Not only will books have to re-written, but Hollywood will have to rethink some of their recent movies.
Historically, Islam and Arab culture is believed to have been more advanced that European and Christian culture. What Stark manages to successfully do is to look at these claims one by one. What he reveals is that not only did Christian Europe out strip the Arab culture militarily and economically, they also tended to be more merciful than their Arab counter parts. Stark demonstrates throughout his book that this era was a brutal one on and off the battlefield. But Islamic armies have been generally been advertised as more enlightened and therefore more noble than those they faced in battle. In reality both Islamic and Crusader armies played by the rules of engagement of the day. Quarter was often refused unless ransom was a possibility to competing soldiers, and civilians and other noncombatants were routinely raped, murdered or sold into slavery. Stark does a good job at demonstrating and proving these arguments. Stark also manages to disprove the belief that the Crusader were in the business for booty. Many sold their heritage, titles, and estates to answer the Pope's call to protect Christian pilgrams.
God's Battalions is well documented and the notes are worth reviewing.
I would recommend that Hollywood producers and directors read God's Battalions. Perhaps movies such as Kingdom of Heaven could have a more balanced point of view. If there is a movie that better demonstrates the generally stilted and one sided point of view of the Crusader era I don't know what it is. This movie more than any other book proves Rodney Starks point that the truth of the Crusades has been lost or ignored.
I highly recommend God's Battalions.
Peace to all.
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on January 22, 2010
Having just finished reading, "GOD'S BATTALIANS: THE CASE FOR THE CRUSADES,"I would like to congratulate the author on the excellent work he has done.
The book is a well-researched and balanced study of the Crusades that is much needed in the West. I was very glad to see how Rodney Stark dealt with the calumnies and falsehoods that have been hurled at the Crusades and the Crusaders, by irresponsible authors, such as Karon Armstrong, a Western "dhimmi" apologist for Islam.
It was an excellent and a much-needed decision to begin the book with the rise of Islam, rather than with the sermon of Pope Urban II at Clermont, in 1095. In that way, Professor Stark rightly represented the Crusades as a "Reconquista" of the Holy Land, and not as the beginning of Western colonialism.
There are minor errors that crept into the book. Both on page 20 and 154, the Island of Cyprus is spelled, "Cypress." However, beginning with Chapter 10, the word is properly spelled, "Cyprus."
I am sure that in the next edition, these mistakes will be corrected.
Readers of this book will learn that massacres were perpetrated not only by the Crusaders, but equally by the Muslims. Of special importance is Stark's reference to the horrific massacres that took place in Antioch (pp. 231, 232).
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2010
Stark delves into another controversial chapter of Christian history. In this volume about the Crusades he exposes many myths about them which currently circulate in popular culture and even in academia.
The first is that the Crusades were mounted by Christians to amass land and wealth. Actually, they were a defensive action against Muslim aggression into Southern France and Constantinople, not a greedy colonial enterprise by European Christians.
Secondly, Stark demonstrates how many crusaders believed going on these expeditions would make atonement for their sins. Many of them went into considerable debt to finance their trips. They did not make money, but lost considerable fortunes. They also were motivated to keep the holy land open to Christian pilgrims who had undergone persecution at the hands of Muslim conquerors.
In addition, the Byzantine Emperors greatly complicated matters. They tried to play off the Crusaders, who they initially asked for help, with the Muslim Caliphs. This lead to bad blood between the Crusaders and the Byzantines which lead to the Crusaders siege.
Stark does not sugar coat the Christians sins, but he brings to the table the Muslim's as well. He shows that history is much more complex than the superficial popular treatments offer.
49 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2010
God's Battalions, which is well attested in the other reviews, gives the reader the "Christian" side as opposed
to the proto-Colonialism theories of the Left with regard to the Crusades. Islam quickly overruns the Middle East including Jerusalem and all the other holy sites of Judaism and Christianity. European Christians, mostly made up of nobility, the Church, and feudal elites mount several expeditions (Crusades) to the Middle East over a couple hundred years to recapture and defend the Holy Land from Muslim marauders who have invaded, conquered, and desecrated holy sites. Stark makes the case that the Crusades were not some cynical, greedy precursor of 19th century colonialism but a fervent, sincere movement with a solid religious grounding. He doesn't shrink from the episodes where those involved committed acts inconsistent with Christian justice. These are well documented in the book. The author, however, makes the case that the Holy Land and--Christian pilgrims were worth defending against Muslim persecution.
It was the treatment, in the book, of the role played by the Byzantine Greeks that I found in any way surprising.
The Byzantine emperor Alexius, who sent out the first distress call to the West regarding Muslim aggression, and his successors until the Crusaders were finally expelled are shown to be anything but what would be expected. The Byzantines saw the Crusaders not as allies or liberators, but as threats. The Byzantines, if the book is to be relied upon, did very little to help the Crusaders and did much to hinder and endanger them. Quite unflattering for the Byzantine Empire. Lastly, as a Catholic, I am sensitive to the portrayal of the Catholic Church in this narrative and was satisfied that Stark was, on the whole, quite fair. The only disappointment for me was Stark's failure to meld into his narrative the newly established schism of Eastern(Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) vis a vis the Church. There was but one passing reference to a usurper to the Byzantine throne who promised the Crusaders he would re-submit the Eastern Church to the authority of the Pope. The fact that the Schism came about at the same time as the First Crusade MUST have been somewhat of a factor when the Crusaders arrived and had to deal with the Greek Byzantines.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Rodney Stark claims right in the title of his book to be making a case for the Crusades. This is certainly a bold claim, and perhaps foolhardy. The Crusades have become a byword among intellectuals and the public alike for the ugliness of European culture, religion, imperialism, you name it. Having studied the Crusades myself, the subject has become a myth-busting hobbyhorse for me. Most people think they know something about the Crusades. They're almost always misinformed.
So while I looked forward to reading Stark's arguments, at first I was skeptical of this book. I had studied the Crusades for a long time and never heard of Rodney Stark. So the first thing I did when I got the book was leaf through the bibliography, and believe me--Stark has done his homework. Stark has consulted every major work on the Crusades, as well as many lesser-known, more academic works, in the research for this book, which blew me away.
Stark's book is incredibly well-researched, well-written, and well-argued. He places the Crusading movement in its proper historical context, treating medieval people as medieval people rather than pawns in modern intellectual exercises, and does them justice in explaining their beliefs, ideals, and the reality of their lives. His treatment of the actual Crusade campaigns is rather brief, but more than made up for by the care with which he sets up those beliefs and ideals I just mentioned. Stark gets at "the inside of history," as G.K. Chesterton called it, examining the things that mattered to people at the time.
A few other reviewers have pointed out mistakes in Stark's book, and certainly it's not perfect. But for those who have never studied the Crusades it's an excellent introduction to a controversial topic, and for those who have it's a useful corrective. If you're looking for a good companion piece to Stark's book, check out Thomas F. Madden's New Concise History of the Crusades, which covers much of the same ground but with different emphases.