Nobody debunks bad history better than Rodney Stark. In an impressive and readable series, this sociologist of religion has thoroughly exploded the treasured Enlightenment myth that the Middle Ages were a benighted period when freedom of thought, science and progress were suppressed in Europe, while flourishing in nearby Islam. Stark synthesizes recent scholarship to show Medieval Europe was a place of innovation, in science, production and health, was better off without the classics, and was already moving ahead of Islam and China thanks in large part to Christianity.
God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades focuses on “the prevailing wisdom” displayed by U.S. presidents such as George W. Bush, Reformation leaders such as Martin Luther, and atheists such as Richard Dawkins, that “during the Crusades, an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted, and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam.”
The Muslims started it
“Not so,” writes Stark. “The Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations: by centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places.”
Was Western Christendom after power and wealth? On the contrary, the effort impoverished individual knights and lords and bankrupted Western kingdoms throughout the Crusading era. Money only flowed eastward.
What about the Crusaders’ sack of Jerusalem when they took it from the Muslims, when the streets reportedly ran ankle-deep with the blood of innocent Jewish civilians? And what of the sack of Constantinople from the Byzantine Christians? Counters Stark: Sacking cities which did not surrender was a standard of medieval warfare, and he cites plenty of examples of Islamic brutality to make his case. As for Constantinople, The Fourth Crusaders captured it after helping a pretender to the throne, who thereupon reneged on payment, leaving the expedition starving and broke.
According to some accounts, the victorious crusaders tried to slaughter all Jews In Jerusalem, but Stark presents evidence that they were treated no more brutally than its Muslims. However, he does not deny that in Europe, Crusading zeal frequently turned into murderous anti-Semitism. But the Crusades were not a papal effort to convert Muslims by the sword. Once the Holy Land was under Crusader control, Muslims were allowed to practice their faith.
What of Islam’s alleged cultural superiority? Stark argues the conquering Arabs were primitive opportunists who invented neither algebra nor hospitals, as is so often claimed. All such advances were the work of conquered Jews, Coptic Christians, Zoroastrians and Hindus. In this book Stark focuses on the West’s military superiority due to far better armor and weapons, stirrups, bigger men and horses due to better nutrition. Islam’s ultimate victory is attributable to logistical considerations, in Stark’s view, such as the onerous costs of long-distance warfare.
Stark does not, however, attempt to prove the Crusades accomplished anything. They did not, after all, stem the Muslim tide, which went on to conquer Balkans. He does rescue their reputation. As soldiers, but not saints, they strove for Christ.