Friday, March 7, 2014

God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark

I want to review a bit more non-fiction here at Vintage Novels, and this one is a great book to start with. I highly recommend God's Battalions to anyone who wants a really Christian perspective on the Crusades. It's a brief but gripping overview of the history, necessarily ultra-condensed, but providing a framework to correct some common misconceptions about the Crusades.

I have long believed the Crusades to be, as Stark argues in this book, wars of defense on the part of the Christians, sorely provoked by centuries of Muslim oppression of Christian lands. Though I've held this perspective for a long time, much of what Stark says in his book was new to me. For instance, I had been happy to agree with scholarly consensus that the Fourth Crusade's sacking of Constantinople was an indefensible act of vandalism. I'm not ready to excuse the thing altogether, of course, but by the time Stark told the full story of that event, I wasn't amazed so much by the sacking of the city as by the Crusaders' forbearance in not sacking it a century or so earlier!

I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of God's Battalions--I realised while reading it that all the enthusiasm other people expend on supporting their favourite sports team is given by me to the millenia-long struggle between Christendom and Islam. This book was like getting a front seat at a big match. I cheered. I wept.

And, as I went, I wrote down five things that occurred to me to be good lessons we can learn from this period of history.

Lessons from the Crusades

1. Division within the church is a sin that leads to severe judgement.

I've now read a few different accounts of the rise of Islam as a global force, in the age of expansion immediately after the death of Muhammed during which Muslim forces conquered Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain. All these accounts (notably God's Battalions, Christopher Dawson's The Making of Europe, and Isaac Botkin and David Noor's Navigating The Worldviews of Egypt) emphasise the fact that in many of these places the Muslim armies were welcomed by local Coptic and Nestorian Christians who preferred the rule of these pagans to that of the Orthodox church of Constantinople.

During the ensuing occupation, the screws were gradually tightened on the local Christians, and today the descendants of those who welcomed the invaders have either apostasised to Islam or are ruthlessly persecuted by the Muslim overlords. Meanwhile, their eagerness to welcome the invaders exposed Christian Europe to threat. Whether the discord between the churches was the fault of the Orthodox, or of the Copts and Nestorians, both have suffered from it ever since.

2. Do not rely on others to defend you.

Stark argues that the Muslims were able to conquer so many Christian lands not because of superior bravery, and not even so much because of superior technology and tactics. Neither the provinces themselves, nor the Byzantine/Roman armies, were defended by disciplined citizen soldiers. Instead, the armies were mainly composed of mercenaries serving for pay. Stark says, "Many of the rank and file in the Byzantine and Persion forces were Arabs, large numbers of whom ended up deserting to the Muslim side...at critical moments." The professional Byzantine soldiery took only a defensive part in the war. It seems that the provinces themselves were not actively defended by their own people, in the way that Alfred's Wessex (for example) was. Instead they relied on the centralised power of Byzantium, which could not provide enough troops and therefore had to hire treacherous mercenaries to defend them.

Because they were unwilling to defend themselves, the provinces fell all the more readily into enemy hands. By contrast, when the Muslims invaded Spain and France, they found it much more difficult to retain their conquests. Charles Martel defeated them handily at Tours, and the Reconquista of Spain, not completed until 1492, was begun immediately after the loss of the peninsula. Stark says, "The Franks were not a sedentary people served by mercenary garrison troops....They, too, were empire builders." Because the defenders of Western Europe had an ethic of self-defence and a vision of victory, they were much harder to defeat than the Christians of the East. And these first two points lead to...

3. A people that can't work together will be uniquely vulnerable to militant, well-disciplined, aggressive Christian attack.

Historically, where Muslims have been opposed by disciplined, aggressive Christians, they have been easily beaten at least partly because of their own inability to work together. In Spain, the great Christian warrior El Cid was exiled from his homeland of Castile and, unable to aid the reconquista from the Christian side, was soon gainfully employed helping the Spanish emirs fight each other. In Sicily and southern Italy, reconquest of occupied territory was helped along by the same Muslim disunity. One major exception to this tendency was Saladin, sultan of Egypt, who managed to unify Islam under his leadership and successfully re-took Jerusalem. Otherwise, Muslims just don't generally get along with each other well enough to invade or occupy places successfully. Bojidar Marinov's article, Civilisation and Self-Control, might explain why.

Of course, the Crusaders also sometimes failed to work together or yield to just authority. It was this that caused the massacre of Peter the Hermit's People's Crusade. A lack of discipline and good leadership in Christian forces made them as vulnerable as the same shortcomings made the Muslims.

4. A people that steals and exploits technology will be uniquely vulnerable to anyone who pioneers and develops technology.

Historically, Muslims have been better at pirating (and occasionally banning) other people's technology, rather than developing their own. The navies occasionally built by Muslims are a good example. Muslims hired renegade Christians to build and crew their ships, and copied the designs of Christians. They were thus always technologically out of date, and (see point 2) reliant upon mercenaries.

Similarly, Western innovations in wheeled transport and mounted warfare (such as the swivelling axle and the stirrup) put Islam at an increasing disadvantage. Technological leaders and entrepreneurs were able to soundly out-think and defeat copy-cats and coattail-riders.

5. Families sharing a common vision can accomplish amazing things.

Stark discusses the research of Jonathan Riley-Smith, who investigated exactly who, of the best and brightest of European nobility, set out on the Crusades. He came to a number of intriguing conclusions, one of which was that "crusading was dominated by a few closely related families!" As Stark puts it, it was not individuals who responded to the call for a Crusade, but families. Count William Tete-Hardi of Burgundy had five sons and four daughters. Four of the sons went on the First Crusade and the fourth became Pope Calixtus II who sent a mini-Crusade to attack Damascus in 1122. Of the daughters, one sent a son and the other three all sent husbands to the First Crusade. The same family sent ten more members to the Second Crusade. Many other families followed suit.

This was at least partly because almost nobody could go crusading without strong family support. Crusading, contrary to popular opinion, was ruinously expensive and was done without hope, promise, or realisation of financial reward. Without family support, few of the participants could have scraped together the resources to go. Yet, because these families shared a common vision, this massive enterprise was sustained for nearly two hundred years. Right up to the fall of the last Crusader holdings in Palestine in the 1290s, the same group of families continued to bear the majority of the financial burden of the Crusades.

Rodney Stark's book, chronicling the desperate, heroic, but ultimately hopeless history of the Crusades and the kingdoms they built with so much blood and toil in the Holy Land, left me with one question. And, because they were wiser in their day than we our in ours, the Crusaders themselves had the same question. Why did God permit their defeat? Why did Outremer fall? Of course, crusaders were not particularly holy or obedient men--but the question of why and how they failed is one that I'll look forward to researching in more detail another time.

Get God's Battalions from Amazon or the Book Depository (affiliate links).

8 comments:

Nicola Mansfield said...

Great review! This has been on my tbr for a while.

Reviewers from The Book Cove said...

I noticed your RSS feed isn't working...at least for me? When I click on it to subscribe a jumbled page comes up.

Suzannah said...

Thanks for letting me know about that. I most likely won't have the opportunity to fix it for a couple of weeks, but have made a note and will check it out as soon as I can! I'm sorry for the inconvenience.

Faith said...

This looks very interesting. I have been listening to lectures on the middle ages put out by The Modern Scholar and The Teaching Co. This professors seem to me to give a very objective take on the Crusades. The Crusades were a way to fight back against Muslim expansion, regain the Holy Land and protect pilgrims, and also a way to unify Europe against a common enemy. Awful things did happen because armies marching through countrysides can get out of control. It was really complicated. I think the general attitude of "the Crusades were terrible" without examining it any further is just a modern, anti-Christian meme that gets hyped by a lot of people.

Suzannah said...

Hi! I've updated and tested the link and it seems to be working well for me. Let me know if the problem persists for you :)

Anonymous said...

The Crusades weren't about Christians VS Muslims. As in all the other conflicts in those periods, such as the English VS the French, etc., it was one empire opposing the expansion of the other. In the end, when they posed a threat to those same Christians' power, the Knights Templar were also hunted down and executed, for all your high-minded "five points".

In fact, from a truly Christian perspective, not a bit of Christian behaviour was displayed by the followers of the 'Prince of peace' during that period. Or during the Inquisition, the conquests of empire by the English, French, Dutch and Spanish, the slave masters in America, the Christians who committed genocide against the American Indian, the ones who dropped nuclear weapons on Japan, perpetuated the Holocaust (Hitler didn't work in a vacuum), and the current Christian Jihad against the hundreds of thousands of dead people that had nothing to do with 9/11.

The fact is, professed Christians are war mongering hypocrites across the board, and all the books that can be written can't cover up the truths of history.

Suzannah said...

> it was one empire opposing the expansion of the other

I completely agree with that, and disagree that it is hypocritical of Christians to make war. Christendom versus Islam is absolutely a war of two opposing empires. And it's a war I take interest in because it appears to be heating up again.

As for the rest, let GK Chesterton say it for me:

"I say here, and I know well what I speak of, there were never any necessary wars but the religious wars. There were never any just wars but the religious wars. There were never any humane wars but the religious wars. For these men were fighting for something that claimed, at least, to be the happiness of a man, the virtue of a man. A Crusader thought, at least, that Islam hurt the soul of every man, king or tinker, that it could really capture."

Kim Marsh said...

When I read your review initially I had grave reservations about your interpretation and conclusions. Briefly though there is a case crusading it is much more difficult to establish a meaningful defense of the crusades and the crusaders as historical events actually transpired. Also the history on which you base your five lessons can be interpreted in other ways. You are an intelligent woman so I do not need to go into this in detail. However the grossly biased and ahistorical attack on your review,Christianity and christians, and the west in general by the anonymous correspondent does nothing to further rational debate or advance historical understanding. You are to be commended for your measured response although I would query the wisdom of letting it be posted at all.
Kind regards Kim Marsh

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