Book Review: God’s Battalions – Introduction: Greedy Barbarians in Armor?
March 3, 2011
This is part of a multi-part review of God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark. The summary is here. You can use the table of contents found there.
In the Introduction of God’s Battalions, Stark provides an helpful overview of Christian tendency to fall over ourselves apologizing for the Crusades. The typical date for the start of the first crusade is the November 27, 1095 when Pope Urban II mounted a platform and delivered a stirring speech about the rising threat of the Muslims against the Eastern Kingdom. He provided bloody detail of killings, rapes, and savagery and then promised a heavenly “reward” to those who would rise to the defense of the east and a heavenly “condemnation” those who would not rise to help.
But despite this being the stated reason for the beginning of the crusades, most historians in the west have attributed much less noble motives to those calling for the crusades. Stark details various Western critiques. For example, Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington suggested, “The Crusades created a historical memory which is with us today – the memory which is with us today – the memory of a long European onslaught.” Former President Bill Clinton said this, “those of us who come from various European lineages are not blameless [vis a vis the Crusades as a crime against Islam]” – he then detailed a medieval account about all the blood that was shed when Godfrey of Bouillon and his forces conquered Jerusalem in 1099.
In 1999, on the 900th anniversary of the start of the Crusades, hundreds of Christians took part in a ‘reconciliation walk’ that began in Germany and ended in the Holy Land. Along the way the walkers wore shirts that said, “I apologize”. That same year the New York Times had an editorial that compared the Crusades to Hitler’s exploits.
Karen Armstrong, former nun and author, condemned the crusades as “unchristian”. Former priest, James Carroll, agreed saying that the Crusades left “a trail of violence that scars the earth and human memory even to this day.”
These modern examples of critique are not new. Critiques of the crusades can be traced back to the polemics of the Protestant Reformation when, unfortunately, it seemed like for many Protestants any stick was good enough to beat Rome with (in fairness the same is true the other way around but that is besides the point). 17th century historian, Thomas Fuller, stated that the crusades were the pope’s doing and that it would become “a sewer of Christendom”. This anti-Crusade sentiment was picked up and run with by secularists and anti-Christians. Voltaire, Hume, Diderot and many others echoed these sentiments and added to them.
Stark summarizes the general opinion of the crusades for the past 300 years. “During the Crusades, an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam.”
But Stark says, “Not so.” To this consensus. He sets the stage for the rest of the book by outlining his planned critiques.
1) The Crusades were reactions to Islamic provocations. There were centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the west by Islam. Pilgrims to the holy land were being slaughtered. The typical dating of the Crusades is part of the problem with our perception of them. Rewind the clock a few hundred years and it becomes clear that this war was not about Christians attacking Muslims….it was about Christians reacting to Muslim attacks that were continuing as Pope Urban spoke in 1095.
2) The Crusades were not an attempt to convert the Muslims or to gain money or divert the energy of “excess sons” of the west with war. The questionable motives ascribed to those advancing the Crusades do not hold historical water.
3) Modern notions of the proper use of warfare are unreasonable to impose on the history of the world. In reality, the notion that the Crusades have “left scars” upon the relations between the middle east and the western world is a myth. Stark claims that Muslim antagonism to the Crusades is not seen in history until the 20th century – in reaction to actual colonization.
Chapter 1, rewinds the clock and starts the story of the crusades with a review of the rise of Islam by bloody war against the Christian nations of the Middle East and Northern Africa.