Monday, April 26, 2010

God's Battalions, The Case for The Crusades, by Rodney Stark

Book 17 of My Old Man's Challenge

I took a lot of history classes in college, so I like a historical, or at least pseudo-historical book. I would probably have to technically call this non-fiction but the author has an obvious bias and doesn't hesitate to let you know what it is. Keep the salt shaker handy, as you'll need a grain or two.

Stark has a beef against certain historians who claim that the Crusades were nothing more than European colonialism forced on Muslim Middle East victims who hadn't done anything to provoke massacres and conquest. Stark denies that the Crusaders were after "land and loot" first and foremost, that greed was the basis for thousands of knights to travel to Palestine risking life and fortunes in the process.

Stark does make a logical case to support his claims. Crusaders had to raise large sums of money to pay the pages, attendants, squires, and infantrymen that they commanded. They had to buy supplies to support themselves, some had to hire ships or pay to have them built, some mortgaged their properties to the limit in order to go. I could certainly understand that if they were out for "land and loot" that some of the nobility would risk much for the chance of making a profit. But after the first Crusade, where no one really made much profit at all, there would be no reason to expect a crusade to be worth the financial outlay if only profit was the motive. There were five crusades, roughly, so I have to agree with Stark that "loot" couldn't have been the major motivation.

Stark recounts the history of Islam, showing how conquest was often Muslim caliphs' most effective conversion tool outside Arabia. Those who were allowed to remain Christian/Jewish had to pay a tax and converting to Christianity/Judaism was illegal. Hardly religious freedom, but then the Catholics had their own Inquisition didn't they? Stark also details the Christian pilgrimage movement that brought Christians into contact with Muslims who controlled the Holy Land. Some Muslim rulers taxed the pilgrims and had done with it, others allowed bandits to attack pilgim groups, taking any treasure available and otherwise harassing them. Some Muslim rulers had Christian churches and/or holy sites razed to the ground.

Stark says it was only when the Muslims threatened the Byzantine empire, home of the Greek Orthodox church, and the Byzantine emporer called for help from the Pope in Rome that the Pope decided to recruit knights to go to Jerusalem. He says that the claim that the Muslims were just minding their own business is rubbish.

Stark takes the reader through a brief history of the five crusades and how the effort never really accomplished what the Crusaders hoped: a Holy Land under Christian control and safe passage for pilgrims there. It seems the Byzantine empire only wanted the Crusaders when it would benefit them to have fresh fighting men there, but as soon as it was politically expedient the Byzantines preferred the Crusaders far away from them and good riddance.

Stark seems to think that any claim that extremist Muslim terrorist groups might make that the Crusades are the reason for the animosity they have against the West today, is totally unfounded. Possibly. I think any group whose aim is terrror doesn't need any particular excuse, just as long as there is one. As to the Crusaders themselves, I agree that the potential for profit wasn't the main reason they went. It would be foolish in the extreme to keep fighting a battle for a stretch of land that could only sustain subsistence farming and goats and sheep. A religious motive goes a long way in supporting a lost cause, however, and however one may view such motives, they can be very powerful.

It's hard to say if Stark is really as acrimonious towards Muslims in general. I came away with the feeling that he would feel the present war that the U.S. is fighting with Muslim terror groups in Iraq and Afghanistan is justified. I'm still on the fence about it myself, but that's another topic for another time.

There are descriptions of beheadings, massacres, sieges, and battles that are a bit violent and gory. Older teens could probably handle the grittiness of the combat scenes but parents might want to discuss religion, war, and their own feelings about the purposes of the Crusades. Not easy topics, but perhaps timely and thought provoking.

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