Book Review: God’s Battalions – Chapter 3: Western ‘Ignorance’ Versus Eastern ‘Culture’

March 9, 2011

It took years to develop the skill and strength to fire a longbow but it only took weeks to be proficient at the crossbow. More archers with greater range and accuracy were key to Christian success in the crusades.

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.

When I was in high school, I was taught that the cultures of Islamic nations in the Middle Ages were some of the most advanced. Science, mathematics, and philosophy were greatly advanced under this golden age of Islam. In the same time period, it is commonly understood, Christendom was mired in the Dark Ages. Monty Python gives us a good image of the popular understanding of this era.

Christendom was dark, ignorant, plague-ridden and backward.

But Stark asks the question: If this view of the Middle Ages is true, how did the ‘backward’ Christians travel many hundreds of miles burdened with heavy supplies and, despite being badly outnumbered, conquer and liberate the Holy Land and other regions along the way in the First Crusade? His answer is shocking. There were no “Dark Ages.”  And Islam had no “Golden Age” of cultural superiority.

Stark maintains that much of what we think of as Islamic culture was actually the result of the Christian majority that the Muslim ruling class had conquered. Stark details evidence to suggest that the naval technology was almost entirely Christian built (since most of the Muslims were Arabs who were skilled in desert warfare not naval). Stark also discusses the famed “Muslim” architecture and provides evidence that this too was mostly Christian in its achievements. Stark writes,

“When Caliph Abd el-Malik had the great Dome of the Rock built in Jerusalem, and which vecame one of the great masterpieces attributed to Islamic art, he employed Byzantine architects and craftsmen., which is why it so closely resembled the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Stark also makes the case the Christendom enjoyed superior technology in transportation (wagons were developed in Europe allowing quicker and more efficient transport of goods), agriculture (superior harnessing technology coupled with the discovery of the ‘three field’ system of rotating crops), and, most importantly for our discussion on the Crusades, military might. Christendom had superior armor, war wagons, saddles, and crossbows (allowing them to out-gun the Muslim forces with less experienced archers).

Stark concludes this chapter with this comment,

“Even if we grant the claims that educated Arabs possessed superior knowledge of classical authors and produced some outstanding mathematicians and astronomers, the fact remains that they lagged far behind in terms of such vital technology as saddles, stirrups, horseshoes, wagons and carts, draft horses and harnesses, effective plows, crossbows, Greek fire, shipwrights, sailors, productive agriculture, effective armor, and well trained infantry. Little wonder that crusaders could march more than twenty five hundred miles, defeat an enemy that vastly outnumbered them, and continue to do so as long as Europe was prepared to support them.


2 Responses to “Book Review: God’s Battalions – Chapter 3: Western ‘Ignorance’ Versus Eastern ‘Culture’”

  1. Robert Says:

    Is there anything in this book to address the Muslim privations of Chrinese Christendom or was that simply to far away tobe relevant

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