Book Review: God’s Battalions – Chapter 9: The Struggle to Defend the Kingdoms

March 22, 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.

Richard the Lionhearted: "As a soldier he was a little short of mad, incredibly reckless and foolhardy, but as a commander he was intelligent, cautious, and calculating."

Edessa fell back into the hands of Muslim forces in 1144. When the west heard of this it was the first news that there was still a struggle in the East. Once again the Pope (this time Eugene III) called for a crusade. His powers of persuasion were not a match for those of his predecessor and little happened in response to his call. Bernard of Clairvaux was called upon to help make the call. He was a popular preacher and one of Europe’s most revered men. When he made a passionate plea the response was overwhelming.

In the second crusade, as in the first, there were some very unfortunate outbreaks of antisemitism. As in the first, these were not widespread organized attacks on the Jews but simply individual actions. Once again the leaders of the church responded to defend the Jews. When a monk named Radulph started stirring up attacks on the Jews in Germany, Bernard himself rode to their defense. One Jewish chronicler of the date wrote about these events,


“Then the Lord heard our sigh…he sent after the evil priest [Radulph] a decent priest, a great man…His name was Abbot Bernard, from the city of Clairvaux.”

Unlike the first crusade, the second was met by failure. The German and French armies set out for the Holy Land only to be greeted by the Byzantines with even less enthusiasm than had been offered for the first crusade. The French even briefly considered an attack on Constantinople. Both armies suffered greatly from lack of rations and supplies. Many died due to the elements. They lost many horses. They limped to Antioch and then Jerusalem and there planned an attack on Damascus. This was ill advised and after an abortive attempt at a siege (with heavy losses), the Christian forces gave up the attempt. The Second Crusade was over.

In the wake of this failure, the Christian rule over the east began to falter even more. The Knights Templar attempted an attack on Damascus but in a show of bravery (or foolishness) refused reinforcements and attempted to enter with only 40 knights. When their small numbers were seen, the Muslim forces rallied and dangled the bodies of the Knights Templar over the walls. Christian forces did eventually take the city but this marked the waning of Christian success in the area.

Salidin the Kurd rose to power and started to win victories against Muslim and Christian enemies. As his success mounted, the Byzantine emperor initiated negotiations with Saladin, and after several years of talks, they signed a treaty to join forces against Western Christians in the Holy Land and any new Crusades. Saladin won victories in the surrounding cities and then attacked Jerusalem. Jerusalem was filled with refugees from surrounding cities and eventually surrendered to the Muslim forces. The Greek Christians are thought to have been “ready to betray the city” knowing of the Byzantine treaty and this contributed to the surrender.

Stark takes time to note that Saladin is often glorified in modern history. He is portrayed as chivalrous and fair. Stark dispels this myth by recounting some of Saladin’s butchery and cruelty. Saladin loved to kill Christians and only allowed some Christians safe passage as a strategic rule of war (if you let those who surrender go, future sieges tend to end earlier).

But not all was lost for the crusader kingdoms. The refugees of the fallen cities flocked to the last Christian cities: Antioch, Tyre, and Tripoli.  These cities were port cities that could be supplied by sea (a Christian military strength) and be fortified with much bigger fighting forces thanks to the new arrivals. Saladin attempted to take Tyre but was repelled.

The Third Crusade was initiated to retake the Holy Land. The German ‘Holy Roman Emperor’ was Frederick Barbarossa led his army into Hungary and through Serbia toward Constantinople. This time, the Byzantine Emperor Isaac was actively opposed to the Christian forces (having signed a treaty with Saladin). He sent irregular forces out to harass the Germans. The German army were not bothered much and inflicted heavy losses on the Greeks. Frederick moved toward Constantinople.

Frederick prepared a siege on Constantinople. Isaac surrendered ceding Frederick free passage and supplies. The Greek Orthodox bishops, out of hatred for the Latin Christians, kept Saladin abreast of the situation. Frederick moved toward Jerusalem. Then tragedy struck. Frederick fell off his horse and was drowned in a river. This ended the German campaign. The German forces adored Frederick and although his son attempted to continue most of the troops abandoned the cause and headed home.

Meanwhile, Richard the Lionhearted and Phillip Augustus of France gathered forces and raised finances. As they did, other Christians from northern Europe headed for the Holy Land by sea. They quickly came to Jerusalem in large numbers and put the city under siege. Saladin headed back to Jerusalem and put the siege under siege by surrounding their ranks. But he could not persuade his forces to attack. Saladin attempted to stop additional supplies by sending naval fleets from around the Mediterranean to block the Acre harbor that the Christian forces were using. This backfired by allowing the superior Christian fleets to trap huge numbers of the Islamic fleet in the harbor.

Richard arrived and with a careful and well organized attack approached Saladin. Saladin was defeated in a series battles and his forces fled. Richard won every battle that he attempted. Interestingly, he did not attempt to retake the Holy City and Saladin held it by default. Richard recognized that although the city was of symbolic importance, it would be very costly to take and defend. Instead, Richard forced Saladin to sign a treaty allowing unarmed pilgrims safe passage.

Richard may have been wise in this decision but few back in Europe understood it. A Fourth Crusade was called.

The Fourth Crusade is often held up as ‘proof’ that the Crusades were unjust and ‘all about money’. The sack of Constantinople is held up as the case in point. Historians have pointed to the sack as one of the most despicable moments in history. Pope John Paul II, in 2001, even apologized to the Greek Orthodox Church for the sack.  But Stark notes that the Crusader sacking of the city was hardly notable in terms of numbers of those massacred or even in terms of violence within Constantinople. Most cities that were sacked were completely massacred (as a deterrent for future enemies); but Constantinople was nowhere near as bloody (most of the city was spared). Further, Constantinople had been sacked by rebelling leaders from its own ranks several times. For example, in 1081 Alexius Comnenus allowed foreign mercenaries to plunder the capital for three days. Further, this attack by the West on Constantinople was not unique in that the Byzantines had led brutal attacks on Western Christians as well. For example, in 1182 the emperor incited mobs to attack all Western residents of Constantinople during which thousands, including women, children, and the elderly were massacred.

Given the treachery that Constantinople had already inflicted on the West (by failing to live up to commitments, aligning with Saladin, by attacking Frederick’s troops in the third crusade, and also in the fourth), the city was justly considered an enemy. We may want to judge this action by our own modern standards of warfare but given the warfare of the day, there was little remarkable about the attack.

Despite these justifiable reasons for taking Constantinople, the sacking was received badly in the West; the pope was especially angry. Not only was the attack against a Christian city, it did not achieve the primary goal of the Fourth Crusade: taking Jerusalem.

A Fifth Crusade was needed.

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One Response to “Book Review: God’s Battalions – Chapter 9: The Struggle to Defend the Kingdoms”


  1. […] Book Review: God’s Battalions – Chapter 9: The Struggle to Defend …Mar 22, 2011 … Stark dispels this myth by recounting some of Saladin’s butchery and cruelty. Saladin loved to kill Christians and only allowed some … […]


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