Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Truth About the Crusades: A Review of "God's Battalions" by Rodney Stark

Over the past half century, the left wing influence on the academy has led to the development of a new "orthodoxy" regarding Western civilization. In the revisionist, ideologically-inspired view, Western civilization is one long litany of evil exploitation, colonialism, racism etc. One would think that Europeans had a monopoly on these universal human sins. Take slavery for example. Ritual flogging of European participation in the slave trade for a few centuries is intense, widespread and unending. But Muslim participation in the slave trade in black Africa is seldom mentioned in politically correct venues despite that fact that Europe and America abolished slavery 150 years ago while Muslim slave trading continues to this very day!

Rodney Stark's latest book, God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (HarperOne, 2009), is a helpful corrective to the widespread prejudice against all things Western. It is an objective and balanced treatment of the Crusades which attempts to understand what happened and why from the perspective of the Crusaders themselves. It is not an original work of scholarship, but rather a synthesis and summary of a great deal of recent historical scholarship that provides a more balanced understanding both of the Crusades as an historical event and the importance of the Crusades for contemporary politics.

Stark's thesis is that everything you think you know about the Crusades is likely wrong. He rejects materialist theories of historical explanations for the Crusades and locates the ultimate reasons for why Europeans engaged in crusading in primarily spiritual motivations.

Stark sums up the conventional wisdom of the contemporary world as follows: "during the Crusades, an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted, and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam." (p. 8) Every word of this commonly-accepted, politically correct statement is spectacularly wrong. Stark summarizes:
"the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations: by centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places. Although the Crusades were initiated by a plea from the pope, this had nothing to do with hopes of converting Islam. Nor were the Crusades organized and led by surplus sons, but by the heads of great families who were fully aware that the costs of crusading would far exceed the very modest material rewards that could be expected; most went at immense personal cost, some of them knowingly bankrupting themselves to go. Moreover, the crusader kingdoms that they established in the Holy Land, and that stood for nearly two centuries, were not colonies sustained by local extractions; rather, they required immense subsidies from Europe." (p. 8)
Stark also shows that claims that Muslims have been harbouring hatred of the West for centuries over the Crusades for centuries are bogus and that Muslim antagonism concerning the Crusades only appeared around 1900 in response to the decline of the Ottoman Empire and European colonialism in the Middle East. Muslim anti-Crusader feeling has only become intense in response to the founding of the State of Israel.

The point is not that Westerners have been sinless and Stark openly admits the moral failures and shortcomings of the Crusaders where they show up. The point is, rather, to cut through the ideologically-motivated hatred of all things Western to evaluate the Crusades for what they were - an attempt to protect Christian holy places and pilgrims from attack and a response to Muslim aggression. This may not be popular to say today, but Rodney Stark deserves credit for saying it anyway.


Josh said...

"Stark sums up the conventional wisdom of the contemporary world as follows: 'During the Crusades, an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted, and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam.'"

I have never heard the crusades summed up in this way. I've always heard (and read) that they were examples of "holy" wars in which both sides were in the wrong. In any case, the most disturbing part of this history for me is the pope's involvement. It seems to me that here is one reason to be thankful for the separation of church and state.

Charlie said...


I'm with Josh—I'm unfamiliar with this "conventional" wisdom. I'm also troubled by your unqualified support for this particular revisionist thesis at this particular time. After all, the "sitz im Leben" of Stark's thesis is a violent conflict involving radical forms of Islam and Western militarism. Indeed, in the present conflict, Islam has arguably radicalized because of—or been precipitated by—the imperialistic brutality of Western expansionism (of both the communist and capitalist varieties). The stationing of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops during the Persian Gulf War in and around Saudia Arabia, and thus near Islam's holiest sites, is one of the reasons given for 9/11.

So Stark's version of "reaching back" here would seem perilously close to the politics of the war on terror, and thus very, very far away from the politics of the cross—a politics, as you know, in which the evil enemy was conquered by the scandalous power of weakness.

Moreover, why are those in the West who engage in self-critique caricatured as hating all things Western? I imagine that those who are most critical of the Crusades in the West are so because they think of and prize a "West" free from imperialism and expansionism and brutality. This thought may well be delusional, but it's a far cry from hating all things Western. It strikes me as deeply Western, in fact—this sort of forgetfulness about the history that has brought us to where we are.

Peter Dunn said...

Like Josh and Charlie, Dan at City of God pretty much falls in line with what is described as the conventional wisdom, while responding to this post: "Well, it was nice of the religious and political hierarchy of Christian Europe to look up from their burning of witches, putting of Jews in ghettos, and holding of inquisitions for the Cathars just long enough to remove the mote of religious persecution from their neighbour’s eye." His assessment of the West is about as fair as NPR's view of capitalism (Dr. Carter's second post following this one). Yet the faults of the Muslim aggression are completely overlooked. I respond by saying, among other things: "There is no revisionism in saying quite historically that the Crusades were a counterattack against a very real threat that continues into our own time. Let me see, was the Battle at Tours before or after the First Crusade?"

Craig, thanks for pointing out this book.

Tim O'Neill said...

Stark's book might seem to make a plausible case to the non-specialist, but critical analysis shows it is riddled with errors, full of convenient use of selective evidence and undermined by flawed arguments. He manages to debunk a few myths about the Crusades, but his apologetic argument simply does not work.

For detailed critical analysis see: