In God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (HarperOne, 2010), Rodney Stark offers an interesting, and different, take on the Crusades. According to Stark, we should not see the Crusades as expressions of European aggression, colonialism, or religious intolerance. This picture of the Crusades is largely, if not exclusively, the result of Enlightenment thinking and its strident criticisms of institutional Christianity. Instead, he contends that the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic wars of aggression, persecution of those on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and the Turkish threat to Constantinople. In effect, he is pushing back against the idea that the Crusades were a time when brutal, ignorant Christians ravaged the peaceful, cultured Muslim lands.
There were several features of the book that I found most interesting. First, was Stark’s claim that the Crusades were not a prominent feature of Muslim rhetoric until the modern era:
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. (9)
I also appreciated Stark’s argument that we often overemphasize the cultural superiority of Muslim societies over those of the European “Dark Ages.” He specifically identified technological developments in transportation, agriculture, and warfare as evidence of significant cultural creativity and advancement by European societies.
And, Stark did a very nice job discussing the motivations of the Crusaders, arguing (convincingly, I think) that they were motivated more by their perceived need for penance and a desire to liberate the Holy Land than by a lust for power or wealth. (I didn’t realize that as few as 10-15% of Frankish knights ever went on Crusade, reinforcing the idea that the Crusades were not seen as a quick avenue to power and prestige.)
I did think that Stark’s argument stretched a little thin in places and that he could have done more to recognize the dark side of the Crusades. Nonetheless, his basic conclusion was compelling and interesting:
The thrust of the preceding chapters can be summarized very briefly. 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.