Saturday, May 14, 2011

God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades

By Rodney Stark, 276 pages, Harper One.

"The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God's battalions," concludes Stark after vigorously defending the ideals and actions of the fighting men and their ideal.

God's Battalions takes on centuries of Crusades-bashing, starting with Protestants, then Enlightenment thinkers and their followers, and secularists and feminists, who went one step further and began to highly esteem the Muslim opponents, above all Saladin.

Stark shows how this negativity is a profound, even willful misreading of the Crusades.

First, the Crusades were not the first step in European colonialism. Stark notes that a colonial relationship is one of economic inequality, where the colony is exploited by the mother country. The crusader states set up after the First Crusade were an enormous financial burden on all of Europe, as people, especially the noble houses directly involved, mortgaged or sold land, and were subjected to heavy taxes to support the new states.

Europe at the time was enjoying economic prosperity and growth and therefore had the means to pay for this, but Europeans never gained financially from the Crusader states.

Second, Stark shows that the Crusaders, contrary to their current image, were not more vicious and intolerant than the Muslims they were fighting. Each side adhered to common fighting practices of the day.

Thus the Crusaders killed many in Jerusalem in 1099 because the city had fought off the Crusaders' siege rather than entreating for peace. Likewise, Saladin did not kill the inhabitants of Jerusalem when he took it over not because he was nobler than the Crusaders. Rather, the people of Jerusalem eventually sued for peace, which meant, by the custom of the day, that they could live.

Third, by far the most important argument, Stark notes time and again that Muslims were continuously provoking Christians into the Crusades. He traces how they had taken over lands that had been Christian for centuries. The Muslims in the seventh and eighth centuries went across north Africa and up into Spain by force, yet those today who attack the Crusades avoid judging this violent seizure.

In other words, critics of the Crusades do not hold Muslims to the same harsh standards of judgment.

Hardly mentioned by these critics, in the decades leading up to the Crusades, Muslims provoked the Crusades by continuously massacring the constant flow of Christian pilgrims going to Jerusalem. Survivors back in Europe would tell tales of woe, and countless families suffered deep losses when their members were killed on pilgrimage. European Christians were outraged.

Stark does show how the Crusades also developed out of the problems facing Christian Europe at the time. Pilgrimage played a central role in the life of Europe at the time. Some sins, especially of the knightly nobility, could only be expunged, according to the confessors, through pilgrimage.

The knights of the day were violent men who loved to kill, so they always had blood on their hands and a soul to cleanse. The Crusades thus became part of the penitential ideal.

God's Battalions is a much needed answer to the never-ending wave of Catholic-bashing.

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