Defending the Crusades at any time is a challenging proposition. The idea is sharply at odds with the premises of a multicultural society in which religious differences are merely a matter of opinion and not worth fighting over.
And since Sept. 11, 2001, discussion of the Crusades has been seen as an analogue to the current “clash of civilizations” and appears to some to be a needless provocation or a defense of religious violence. Others have argued that the Crusades are some kind of root cause of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Yet the Crusades — traditionally understood as the series of conflicts between 1095 and 1291 — are a central feature of Western history. Understanding these wars for the Holy Land is crucial for Catholics and indeed anyone interested in comprehending not only the Middle Ages, but Western culture as a whole.
Given the hostile intellectual background, Rodney Stark’s spirited defense, God’s Battalions, may seem hopelessly quixotic. Yet it rewards a careful reading, and not only because the story itself is so gripping, with tales of courage and desperation, outsized characters, and fate of cultures hanging in the balance. Stark, the author of many previous books on Western history including The Rise of Christianity, combats several myths about the Crusades.
The first is perhaps the most basic: the contention that European Catholics — primarily the French, Italians and British — started the wars over which faith was to prevail in the territories holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. As Stark shows, focusing on the launch of the First Crusade in the 11th century by Pope Urban II is the wrong starting point. As he notes, the preceding several centuries had witnessed the explosion of Islam out of the Arabian deserts. By the time of that first crusade, Islam had already conquered vast parts of Christian Africa, which had been the stronghold of Christian devotional and intellectual life since the early Church. The Europeans felt besieged by this military might and were mindful of the fate of Spain — it too had fallen to Islam — and by 1095 the Seljuk Turks had taken Jerusalem and were close to defeating Constantinople.
Stark is masterful in these chapters. Along the way, he also explodes some misconceptions about Europe and its comparable achievements to the Islamic world. He puts to rest any lingering doubts about the Dark Ages: There was nothing dark about them. Indeed, according to basic measures such as food production and inventions like an advanced form of the plow, the Dark Ages were filled with growth. Stark also helpfully puts into perspective exaggerated claims of Islam’s culture compared to Europe’s.
Stark is also critical of aspects of Christian history. The venality and sinfulness of many Crusaders — lay and clerical — is hard to ignore. And he has some sharp commentary on the growth of the Christian state after Constantine.
Nevertheless, he vigorously argues for recognition of the achievements of Christian Europe in areas from agriculture to warfare.
Stark raises a second myth in order to destroy it: that the Crusades were somehow an outlet for unneeded younger sons or a means to siphon off excess aggression from Europe. For too long, secular historians have treated religious explanations for action as a cover for some deeper “real” reason. Relying on recent scholarship, Stark shows that the Crusaders were at least partially, and no doubt some fully, inspired by religious devotion. The cost of crusading was enormous, and many families went bankrupt in the effort. The desire to take back the land of Christ was very strong, which is why the crusading impulse existed for Jerusalem but not for conquered Spain, which was closer and less expensive to reach.
Stark then traces the intellectual history of the Crusades in the subsequent centuries. As it happens, the impact of the Crusades was much greater on the Christian imagination than the Muslim. This is not surprising, as the Muslim world was so much broader and had greater enemies — such as the great empires of central Asia — to deal with, as well as its own internecine struggles. The first critiques of the Crusades came from Protestants, who wished to denigrate the Catholic ethos of the medieval period. And the emergence of the Crusades as a narrative in which a strong Europe conquers an enervated Islam was a 19th-century phenomenon used to support European imperialism, carefully excising any Catholic content. This served its purpose but had an unexpected backlash. The idea of the Crusades as an anticipation of later colonialism against a “backward” Arabic culture was taken to heart by the Islamic world. Stark argues that it is this vision of the Crusades — and not the historical events — that terrorists invoke when vilifying the West.
This position is probably something of an an exaggeration. That the Arab world accepted the argument that the Crusades presaged colonialism story does not mean that they could not also have real grievances against the historical events themselves. With this argument, Stark accuses Protestant propagandists with historical distortion and radical Muslims with historical opportunism. This tries to do too much. The more important point is simpler: the history and the real animating ideals of the Crusades have been obscured with an overlay of ant-Catholic bigotry and secular prejudice. Stark, mostly, sets the record straight.
Gerald J. Russello is a fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University.
The Case for the Crusades
By Rodney Stark
271 pages, $24.99
To order: harpercollins.com