Rodney Stark has written another thoroughly enjoyable study in the history of the Christian Church. His subject this time is the crusades, first launched at the end of the 11th century to free the Holy Land from Muslim control.
As with his previous books, Stark engages his reader with crisp writing and interesting research that makes his book hard to put down, especially if you are some one who loves reading history that is iconoclastic in nature, smashing down the p.c. idols of sneering, Christian-hating academics. Plus, his book is mercifully short, coming in right at 248 pages.
The primary focus with “God’s Battalions” is two-fold. First, Stark interacts with modern, liberal revisionists of the crusades, like Karen Armstrong, who write of this period being horrible acts of violence perpetrated by cruel, imperialistic Westerners upon peaceful Muslims all in the name of Jesus. Then second, as Stark moves along debunking these myths, he provides the real story of the events framing the facts in an honest evaluation of what happened during those two centuries of crusading.
He begins his study centuries before the crusades even started; in the middle of the seventh century when after the death of Mohammed, Muslim armies expanded the Islamic empire beyond the Arabian peninsula. Arab Muslims pushed into areas like Persia, Egypt, and the Holy Land. Within 60 years they had made their way across North Africa and into Spain.
Stark describes what he calls “a great deal of nonsense” with what has been written about so-called Muslim tolerance of conquered people who are said to have been “treated with respect” under Muslim rule. The truth is quite different, and rather than being these jovial dictators wearing pointy shoes, Muslims often humiliated and punished Christians and Jews. Both were forbidden to build churches and synagogues and they had to wear distinguishing marks on their clothing lest a Muslim defile himself by accidently touching them. Moreover, they were prohibited from praying out loud so the Muslims could be protected from hearing them, and they were excessively taxed for being “non-Muslim.”
He then recounts how Christendom struck back against Islamic aggressors. It began with the crushing Muslim defeat at Constantinople in 672, during which the legendary weapon “Greek fire” was employed to destroy the galleys of Muslim navies. The Battle of Tours is also highlighted, a game changing victory against the Muslims that is often downplayed by modern, p.c. historians as an insignificant event that has been exaggerated by the propaganda of the Franks and papacy. Far from being insignificant, the Battle of Tours was the one major battle that prevented Muslims from pushing into Western Europe and establishing a stronghold there.
Stark spends one chapter debunking the myth that the middle ages for Christendom were really a time of cultural backwardness that regressed into the “dark ages. “This is a malicious claim,” says Stark “advanced by historians who write with an anti-Christian bias.” (I am remind of a scene from Kevin Costner’s version of Robin Hood in which Morgan Freeman’s Muslim character constructs a crude telescope at the astonishment of the English.) One merely needs to contrast Western technological know-how with Islamic during this time in the areas of transportation, agriculture, and the military.
One little known reason why Western Christians were willing to risk so much crusading was to offer safe haven for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Just like evangelicals today tour the land of Israel, so too did post-apostolic Christians through Europe and North Africa, but for the religious opportunity to perform penance. Islam controlled the Holy Land and Christian pilgrims coming from the West were often set upon by Muslim raiders where they were often robbed of their possessions, or worse, kidnapped for slavery or even killed.
Stark discusses each of the major crusades and the events leading up to them, key figures who participated in them, and the aftermath of each one. Stark’s account of the fourth crusade, that ended with the sacking of Constantinople, was of particular interest. It is the one crusade used as proof that crusaders were nothing more than greedy profiteers, filled with blood lust.
Stark cites Cambridge historian, Steven Runciman, who wrote six years after WW2 when the world had learned of the Nazi death camps and the extent of the Holocaust (and I would add the “raping” of Nanking by Japan) that, “There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusades.” Can we say hyperbole?
Though modern, self-loathing Western p.c.academics point to the fourth crusade as a wicked Catholic atrocity against Orthodox believers, they ignore similar atrocities waged by Byzantines themselves against Westerners, especially the Orthodox brutalities against Latin Christians before the crusades even began, as well as the Byzantine treachery that occurred during each of the previous three crusades.
In the case of the fourth crusade, The deposed prince, Alexius, agreed to fund the crusade into Egypt if the crusaders first helped him reclaim his throne at Constantinople. They did, and after they secured it, he paid a few installments on his debt, but then ceased making payments. He then strengthened his defenses against the Western, crusading armies encamped around the walls of the city.
The crusaders, incensed by his treachery, launched an attack and quickly seized the city. Where as most p.c. accounts emphasize rape and murder of innocent civilians, such is an extreme exaggeration; the death toll was low. Emphasis should be placed upon the “sacking” of Constantinople. In other words, the crusaders looted the city of valuables, and knowing the history of cruel dishonesty the Byzantines showed the crusaders in the years prior to this “sacking,” especially the first crusade, in a way, they had it coming.
Stark’s book is a fascinating read, and if you are like me, and enjoy polemical writing meant to debunk leftist, historical revisionism, you’ll enjoy it, too. The book has a decent bibliography, listing sources for further research. It lacks, however, an index, which I see as regrettable. It would have have been a positive inclusion in an otherwise outstanding book.