Rodney Stark argues the Crusades were defensive wars
by Terry Scambray
The New Oxford Review
A review of God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark (Harper One, 2009, 260 pp.).
Speaking in Egypt last June, President Obama apologized for an imagined American imperialism on territory that itself was gained by Islamic conquest. The New York Times in 1999 compared the Crusades to Hitler’s atrocities. Even Pope John Paul II joined in by apologizing for the sacking of Constantinople by crusaders in 1204.
Rodney Stark, Distinguished Professor of Social Science at Baylor, shows that such statements are serious bunk. For, as he writes, the Crusades were defensive wars to repel the Islamic conquest of Byzantium as well as to prevent the destruction of the Holy Land.
So when in 1095 the Greek Byzantine emperor in Constantinople requested help, Pope Urban II called for a crusade.
However, the table was already set for a response to Islamic colonialism. For Mohammedanism had been ascendant since the 7th century when Mohammed led his Bedouin tribesmen out of Arabia into Syria, Persia and Egypt, robbing in service of religious conversion. As Mohammed said on his deathbed, “I was ordered to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no God but Allah.’”
Next the Moors, as they were then called, swallowed up North Africa, Spain, and Sicily. They later sacked Rome in 843 and 846, forcing the pope to pay tribute.
Yes, Stark, in his short book, does omit the fact that when the interests of Christians and Muslims coincided, they banded together to fight their co-religionists. This happened, for example, when the Muslims were assisted by the city states of Naples and Amalfi in attacking their rivals, Rome and Messina. But this episode was concluded when the pope cobbled together a united front to eliminate the Muslims from the Italian peninsula, though attacks did continue for another century.
Nonetheless, by the 1100s, Islam was menacing the Orthodox Greeks.
Yet Christianity had correspondingly gained a second wind: the Greeks had defeated Islam at Constantinople in 672 and Charles Martel’s Franks defeated the Moors at Tours in 732.
However, the immediate incentive for crusaders to venture to the Holy Land was the promise of salvation. For the medieval knight was a paladin in need of absolution for his sins of violence and debauchery. And Urban II knew that crusading would “take an army of belligerent knights who were motivated but not transformed by the promise of salvation: thus the invention of penitential warfare.”
Indeed if the desire for riches drove the crusaders, as materialist historians argue, the crusaders could have more conveniently invaded Moorish Spain when Pope Alexander proposed a crusade as early as 1063. For Spain offered both proximity and fertile lands to be won.
Yet, as Stark writes, “Spain was not the Holy Land. Christ had not walked the streets of Toledo nor had he been crucified in Seville.”
For sure, the early victories of the Mohammedans were due to their disciplined forces and elite military leaders, as well as the mobility of their camels in desert warfare.
But what worked in the desert did not succeed elsewhere. And in explaining the success of Western forces, Stark destroys the myth that medieval Christendom was ‘medieval’, a canard that he more thoroughly dismantles in his book, For the Glory of God.
As Stark writes, such claims are “malicious and astonishingly ignorant.” For after the fall of Rome, the vacuum was filled by the Catholic Church which ushered in one of the greatest innovative ages in history, an epoch which produced immense gains in transportation, agriculture and military strength.
For example, Charles Martel’s men had high backed saddles with stirrups, neither of which the Moors had.
The Byzantines, for their part, had an innovative concoction called, “Greek fire,” a highly flammable liquid, something like napalm that burst into flame on contact and was not extinguishable by water.
The Europeans by the sixth century also developed heavier, adjustable plows that could dig deeper into the soil than inefficient scratch plows. Westerners also began rotating their crops. These advances offered Europeans a diet which made them bigger, healthier and more energetic.
Additionally, Europe by the 9th century had invented horse collars, harnesses and horse shoes. The Europeans also invented brakes for their wagons as well as front axels that swiveled which were a great improvement in efficiency. Think, for example, of having to get out of your wagon and pushing it in a different direction each time you wanted to turn!
In contrast, though the Moors had fine stock, they never developed it for agriculture and transportation. And, most amazing, they lagged in wagon technology and roads, thus permitting the wheel to disappear from use for centuries!
Furthermore Stark argues that what is largely called Islamic/Arabic cultural advances were actually “contributions” of conquered populations, the dhimmi. As Stark writes, “To the extent that Arab elites acquired a sophisticated culture they learned it from their subject peoples.”
For example, Avicenna, the most influential of all Arab philosophers, was a Persian. Even Arabic numerals were entirely of Hindu origin.
What may have misled historians was that contributors to “Arabic science” were given Arabic names and were published in Arabic – the official language.
Stark reminds us that this denigration of the West is traceable to “the ‘Enlightenment’ that misnamed era during which European intellectuals invented the ‘Dark Ages’ to glorify themselves and vilify the Catholic Church.” This Jacobin history promoted by individuals like David Hume and Voltaire portrayed the Middle Ages as degenerate and the Crusades as cruel and irrational.
Such nonsensical hyperbole was echoed by a German Lutheran historian, Johann von Mosheim, who thought the Crusades were a foreshadowing of Western imperialism. And currently, Bill Clinton and PBS historian, Karen Armstrong, argue that 9/11 was payback from Islam because of the imperialistic Crusades.
But as Efraim Karsh shows in his book, Islamic Imperialism, 9/11 had nothing to do with the Crusades nor, for that matter, with current U.S. policy. America was attacked because it is seen as an impediment to the realization of Islam’s “dream of regaining the lost glory of the caliphate.”
Unfortunately the poster episode for the myth of the imperialistic Crusades is the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by crusaders during the abortive Fourth Crusade. Indeed in 1951, even in the shadow of the Holocaust, the famous Cambridge historian, Steven Runciman, could write: “There never was a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”
But the 2,000 deaths during the sacking within a population of 150,000 hardly deserve such a despicable superlative.
And Runciman also ignores the fact that the Greeks themselves sacked Constantinople periodically during the course of their routine ‘Byzantine’ coups.
Additionally, the crusaders had cause to be upset with the Byzantine emperor whose throne they had secured for him. For when he got back in power the emperor not only refused to pay the crusaders for their services, he also mounted an attack to get rid of them. Only then did the crusaders, besieged and starving on the outskirts of Constantinople, counter-attack.
Such routine betrayals from the Byzantines often prevented the Crusaders from achieving their goal of regaining the Holy Land.
But the most significant reason that the Crusades failed was that maintaining the Crusader Kingdoms in the Middle East was extremely difficult for the distant Europeans. Thus the Europeans, including the clergy, eventually lost interest in a distant and costly war which came to be seen as a “quagmire.”
Stark’s clear, factual narrative offers larger than life characters like Richard the Lionhearted, Bernard of Clairvaux as well as, Dandolo, the doge of Venice who despite being blind led his men as they scaled the walls of Constantinople!
Historians have been saying for some time much of what Stark distills here. And for that matter, he admits that he is parasitic on the work of specialists whose findings often take a generation to reach a larger public.
And Stark, though basing his work on the very best sources, may appear to be a Catholic apologist. Yet he was raised Lutheran and considers himself an agnostic though with a desire to become a religious believer.
Professor Stark’s works are an encouraging corrective to the anti Western constructs, sometimes called “history,” which are taught in our schools. But restoring the West’s loss of confidence and eradicating its culture of masochism will take more than his prodigious output, as deeply impressive as it is.
Terry Scambray lives and writes in Fresno, CA.