Book Review: God’s Battalions – Chapter 7: Bloody Victories

March 17, 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.

When the crusaders left Constantinople they did so realizing that the Byzantine army was not going to take the lead. They traveled to Nicea and established a siege. When the Sultan of Arslan (who was out of the city fighting a rival sultan) discovered that crusaders had surrounded the city he hurried back. When he got there he was shocked that, man for man, the crusaders were able to rout his men. The crusaders crushed his forces. Just as they prepared a great assault on the city, Emperor Alexius (who was already viewed in low esteem by the crusaders for not leading the campaign to the Holy Land) surprised the crusaders by secretly negotiating a surrender with the Muslim forces. This move prevented the crusaders from setting up camp in the city (which they were only now allowed to enter in groups of six at a time) and caused even more distrust between the crusaders and the Byzantine forces.

The crusaders pushed on and won the battle at Drylaeum. They then moved on to Antioch and after more treachery on the part of Alexius, several desertions (including a temporary flight on the part of Peter the Hermit), and heavy losses, they took the city.

Jerusalem was the final step in their planned route. They arrived there in tatters. They had lost many men in battle, typhoid had killed many of the men, and fleeing Muslims had successfully destroyed provisions between Antioch and Jerusalem. In addition, many of their horses were dead and knights were forced to walk (and abandon heavy supplies).  After a failed assault, many were prepared to abandon the cause.

But then, as Stark states, Religion provided a solution. A priest had a vision that promised victory if the crusaders stopped bickering, fasted and walked barefoot around the city. Having followed these instructions, the crusaders attacked. And they won. The use of crossbows was a major contributor allowing them to use a siege tower to take control.

The taking of Jerusalem is commonly pointed to as proof that the crusaders were bloodthirsty killers. The accounts from the time note that the Muslims were slaughtered in such great numbers that their bodies clogged the streets. But Stark notes that these accounts were likely exaggerations and further more that it was the rules of war during the time that little mercy would be shown to a city if they did not surrender (as an example to future cities). The looting that is reported was also common rules of war at the time to help compensate the forces who had to expend major personal expenses and time to participate.

There is an account of a massacre of Jews (that they were rounded up in a synagogue and burned). Stark argues that this is not evidence of more antisemitic murders. He argues that there is evidence that this account is not true (other accounts suggest that the Jews were forced to clean up the Muslim bodies – impossible if they were massacred). He also argued that to the extent that the Jews were killed it was likely not antisemitism but simply equal treatment to all those who remained in the city.

The crusaders had accomplished their goal. Jerusalem had been taken. Mission accomplished.

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