Few events in history are as misunderstood and misrepresented as the Crusades. From the Enlightenment onward, scholars and historians have criticized these wars as senseless aggression from primitive Christians against sophisticated Muslims.
Rodney Stark thoroughly refutes these myths that have accrued over the ages in his book God’s Battalions. With over 500 footnotes, he places the Crusades in the proper context and effectively proves the opposite of popular belief, proving that (1) the Crusaders were completely justified in their reasons for fighting, (2) did so at heavy expense to themselves, (3) conducted their forces far more charitably than Muslim leaders, and (4) had a superior culture to the Muslims and Byzantines.
Stark begins his book by recounting recent comments on this particular time in history. He exposes the rampant bias against Western Christian culture among scholars who ignore historical evidence, mischaracterize the sides involved, and fabricate a false narrative. As a result, Christians (mainly Catholics) feel compelled to apologize for these supposed crimes from nine centuries ago.
Taking on this claim, point for point, Stark begins his case by describing the Muslim invasion that overran so much of the civilized world. In doing so, he points out the real factors that allowed them to be so successful: not their superior technology, organization, or values, but their lack of moral inhibitions and the dysfunction of the Byzantines. Overtaxed and poorly managed, nearly every holding of the Byzantine Empire besides Constantinople quickly succumbed to Arab invaders, along with the equally corrupt Visigoth kingdoms in Spain. The Muslim expansion finally ended when it encountered actual trained soldiers of the Franks rather than the usual slave-and-mercenary armies of the Byzantines.
Simply surveying the data, Starks obliterates the myth of Muslim sophistication: nearly every intellectual accomplishment came from the people they conquered (like the Hindus or Greeks) or non-Muslim scholars in occupied territories. As time continued, this output diminished as Muslim rulers regularly persecuted non-Muslims and shut down scholarly inquiry in an effort to promote political/religious conformity.
Only after centuries of massacres, widespread oppression, and disrupted pilgrimages did Christendom finally respond with the Crusades, which Stark covers in great detail. Unlike other historians who often speculate without warrant, over-qualify their evidence, delve into pointless minutia, or purposely ignore important figures, Stark gives due attention to available evidence while giving a coherent and vivid account of this complex subject.
Overall, he makes it clear that the Crusaders acted courageously and nobly, considering the challenges they faced. By contrast, the Byzantines distinguished themselves in their corruption. Their moral decadence, their snobbery, their politicized clergy, their reliance on mercenaries and slaves, and their propensity to backstab all betray an dying culture with few redeemable attributes. Readers can take note of the parallels between the Byzantine response to Muslim aggression and the Western response today.
Readers today may also see a resemblance in the tactics of Islamic jihad in the Middle Ages and in Islamic jihad today. Unlike the Crusaders, the Muslim armies saw nothing wrong with hit-and-run campaigns, regularly massacring noncombatants or selling them into slavery, reneging on peace agreements, or systematically destroying cities and desecrating churches. Stark notes the scandalous double-standard employed by historians who exalt the butchery of Saladin and excuse the genocide of Baibars while unfairly and inaccurately excoriating Crusaders for their invasion of Jerusalem and Constantinople.
Although listed as “A Case For The Crusades,” implying a one-sided rant about a dark time in history, one could better see God’s Battalions as history with a point. Stark certainly provides comfort for the beleaguered Catholic having doubts about the history of his church, but more importantly, he paints a picture of heroic men, men who risked everything for their faith and largely prevailed against all odds.