God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades

Gods battalionsIf you want to read just one book about the crusades, make it God’s Battalions. It’s the wisdom of scholars condensed into something accessible, and the unapologetic truth for a change. Namely that the crusades emerged as a long overdue response to Islam, a hijacking of the peaceful Christian religion, to be sure, but tailored for medieval knights whose profession didn’t allow for peace, and who could now at least channel their aggression into a needed cause.

Islam’s “Golden Age”

The book starts as it should: with Muhammad, not Urban II. Much has been written about early Islam and its “golden age” of tolerance, but in fact Muslim rule had always been militant, supremacist, and expansionist. Its cultural sophistication originated with the conquered dhimmi populations who lived in humiliating servitude. Medicine came from the Nestorian Christians; mathematics from the Hindus; philosophy from the Persians; etc. When in the 14th century Muslims east of Spain and Africa stamped out nearly all religious nonconformity, Muslim backwardness suddenly came to the fore — but that backwardness was always there.

The Crusades: Offensive or Defensive?

That the crusades were an overdue response to jihadist conquests implies that they were reactive wars of defense. This would seem to contradict the arguments of experts who emphasize the crusades’ proactive and offensive nature. Who’s right? Rodney Stark or Christopher Tyerman? Thomas Madden or Thomas Asbridge?

Obviously both are. In the general sense, and in the pope’s own words, the crusades were defensive responses to (a) help the Byzantines against invading Muslims and (b) take back the the holy lands where Christian pilgrims were frequently attacked and their shrines desecrated. Muslims had been the aggressors for four and a half centuries. That, however, doesn’t answer the real question, “Why the crusades?” Latin Christendom could have responded to the Byzantines with standard military aid. Why the radical step — so radical it contradicted everything fundamental about Jesus’ teachings and Christian theology — of making warfare sacred, like Islam’s jihad, and not simply to fend off invasion but take back Palestine?

The crusades only make sense in the context of the 11th-century papal reforms. The 10th century had been the worst in French history. Church corruption abounded, nobles warred on each other, sometimes right next door. In the 1020s the reformers tried enforcing the Peace of God (or Truce of God), which prohibited knights from fighting certain days of the week. That was like telling a monk not to pray — an epic fail. A knight’s lifestyle during this era was nothing less than a celebration of bloodshed and sin, as Stark says, and priests imposed stiff atonement penalties which often required pilgrimages to the holy land.

“War was chronic among the medieval nobility and any knight who survived for very long was apt to have killed someone. Even when victims were evil men without any redeeming worth, their deaths were held to constitute sins, and in most instances the killer enjoyed no obvious moral superiority over the victim — sometimes quite the reverse. In addition to violence, the lifestyle of medieval knights celebrated the Seven Deadly Sins and was in chronic violation of the commandments against adultery, theft, and coveting wives. Consequently, knights were always in need of penance, and their confessors imposed all manner of acts of atonement, sometimes even demanding a journey all the way to the holy land.”

What the crusades did was extend this principle of atonement in a radical way: warfare itself could now be penitential under the right conditions, and a pilgrimage itself. Liberating the holy lands from Muslim control was not only justifiable warfare, it was sacred. Going on crusade effected the remission of a knight’s sins and enabled him to bypass purgatory. If the pope could not get these knights to observe a peace of God, he could at least enlist them into a worthy cause.

In sum: a responsible sifting of the evidence requires us to acknowledge the proactive nature of the crusades that were pressed into a primarily defensive purpose.

Lingering Myths

That crusaders were motivated by the need for penance has become non-controversial in academia — about as standard as the idea in New Testament studies that the apostle Paul wasn’t criticizing Judaism for being legalistic. (Jonathan Riley-Smith being the E.P. Sanders of crusades scholarship.) But myths linger, and Stark reminds us out of necessity: Crusaders weren’t driven by greed; they were impoverished by crusading expenses. Nor by conquest; Palestine was no “land of milk and honey”, and the resulting crusader kingdoms had to be supported with subsidies from Europe. Nor even by desire to convert Muslims; unlike in Islamic countries, where resident Christians were forced to live in a humiliating state of dhimmitude unless they converted. Crusaders were motivated exactly by what all the evidence shouts: religious zeal.

The mountain of evidence puts this beyond dispute. Had crusaders been motivated by land and loot, the European knights would have responded earlier (in 1063), when Pope Alexander I tried to get a proto-crusade off the ground by driving the Muslims out of Spain. Unlike Palestine, Moorish Spain was wealthy, had an abundance of fertile lands, and was close at hand. But hardly anyone responded to the pope’s summons. Yet three decades later, tens of thousands of crusaders set out for the dry, impoverished wastes of faraway Palestine, with dim prospects about their future. Why so? Because the holy lands weren’t Spain. The riches to be won were spiritual: individual redemption, and the take-back of Christian shrines and relics. The lands where Christ walked and was killed.

The Irony

And here we come to it. The one (and only) commonality between the crusades and jihad: religious zeal. It’s this one similarity, ironically, that completely undermines what modern liberals tell us about Islam, and what scholars used to tell us about the crusades: that religion itself isn’t responsible for violent behavior. This isn’t true at all. Religious killers are often motivated by sincere piety. Crusaders were driven by religious fervor, not greed or conquest; jihadists were — and still are today — propelled by that same fervor, not poverty or the political grievances that inflame it.

This shouldn’t be a controversial point in view of the evidence. But the liberal/academic mind has incredible difficulty here. That people base their violent or suicidal behaviors on worries about suffering in purgatory, or on desires for virgins in paradise, suggests alarming things about the human psyche. And so we project a rationality onto religious killers, and misuse social and economic frameworks to make sense of them. We’re uncomfortable with “craziness” that can’t be tangibly accounted for, and so deny the clear link between religious beliefs and behavior. It’s intellectually irresponsible to do this. We need to face hard questions about the power of abstract beliefs.

Different in every other way

The crusades and jihad were different in every other way, and the differences derive from the nature and origins of the two faiths. Jesus had built a following by suffering for others; Muhammad had done so by the sword. Christianity had conquered the Roman Empire by conversion under persecution; Islam later conquered it by the sword. Islam continued by the sword, and when crusaders in the 11th-century finally took up the sword themselves, that was a hijacking of a peaceful religion, but tailored for a warrior class whose profession was at clear odds with Christ’s pacifism. In a similar way, the principles of Zen Buddhism have been bent to meet the needs of bushido. Christianity and Buddhism are for the most part peaceful religions, but crusaders and kamikaze pilots stand as proof that religions of peace can be hijacked under exceptional circumstances.

Jihadist warfare has never been a hijacking, or distortion, or perversion, of Islam. It has been an essential ingredient from the start, and remains so today in all schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The crusades were voluntary; jihad was and still is mandatory. The crusades were a burp and foreordained to pass; jihad is built into Islam’s DNA.

“The Best and Brightest”?

The following assessment from Stark comes as a breath of fresh air:

“It was not until the upper-class sons of Europe were slaughtered in the trenches during World War I that Europe suffered the loss of a generation of leaders equal to that which took place during the First Crusade. Those who marched east were among the best and the brightest of their time. When they died, the responsibilities for managing many major estates and dealing with many important concerns fell upon widows and minor sons, and on those who failed to serve, just as it did in England, France, and Germany in the 1920s.”

Which is not to say that Stark soft-peddles crusader atrocities. Only that it’s absurd to judge the crusades by Geneva-Convention standards. The point isn’t that Christians couldn’t be brutal and intolerant — this was a brutal and intolerant age. But to suggest that Muslims were the lesser villains, or enlightened supporters of multiculturalism, is revisionist fantasy. They were the aggressors, and usually the side more deserving of censure. “The best and brightest” may be rhetorical flourish, but Stark is right than when judged by the time period, the crusaders don’t deserve to be demonized. He makes a good case for their cause.

It’s a book that President Obama would do well to read, given his recent remarks about the crusades. When objectors scold him by saying, “The medieval Christian threat is under control, Mr. President, please deal with the Islamic threat today,” the real problem isn’t even being addressed. Of course the crusades are long gone, but they were never the “threat” that Islam was and is.

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4 thoughts on “God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades

  1. Yes, I read O’Neill’s review. It’s too overactive to the defensive-war thesis. The fact that defensive-war ideas play into the hands of right-wing post-9/11 thinkers doesn’t mean it’s not true. Same with the idea that Islam is “an inherently violent, intolerant and expansionist faith”, as O’Neill scorns; this also is true, regardless of our politicians and demagogues who abuse it out of bigotry.

    The crusades were both proactive and reactive (as I explained above), and there’s no substantive contradiction between, say, Stark and Madden, vs. Asbridge and Tyerman. Each is answering a different question. Islamic offensives had been going on for centuries (per Stark and Madden). But that doesn’t explain why Christian holy was designed as the specific response, which was rooted in papal reform and harnessing Frankish violence (per Asbridge, Tyerman, Riley-Smith).

    Stark’s book is much better, and certainly grounded in better research, than O’Neill suggests. He’s obviously concerned how a thesis like this can be abused and pressed into the service of western war-mongering. That’s a valid worry, but it clouds his own judgment and assessment of evidence.

  2. I liked your review and being somewhat impulsive, I almost bought the book already. Still, O’Neill’s review is not bad either, and while I (not being a historian and not having read the book) can’t say for sure his case is stronger, O’Neill’s criticisms seem worth considering (which is why I put up the link, as a service for other interested readers, not because I necessarily endorse it).

    O’Neill only grants Stark that the (early?) Crusades were motivated by religious piety, and that the Crusaders weren’t landless second or third sons in search for land and wealth, but actually landowning people who spent fortunes to perform this religious calling. The other points Stark makes are in O’Neill’s view dubious or wrong, and on most of them he gives quite a bit of background information as to why that would be the case. However, personally I wasn’t impressed much by the defensive-or-not question either way. The reconquest of Spain took a long time to get under-way and took hundreds of years, and didn’t the Crusaders plunder Constantinople in 1204? With regard to the question whether Islam is “inherently violent, intolerant and expansionist”, that’s a question O’Neill doesn’t deal with in detail, he simply says that in this book it’s a “revisionist thesis”. Does Stark’s book deal with that question in any depth?

    I have to confess, I was amazed by Stark’s assertion about armour that “These (plate) suits came later and only some knights of the heavy cavalry ever wore them, as they were dangerously impractical. Knights in plate-armor suits had to be lifted onto their saddles by booms; if they fell off they could not rise to their feet to fight on.” (pp. 71-72), which even Wikipedia states as a myth: “It is a common misconception that the plate armour of European soldiers adversely affected mobility in a significant manner; in fact, plate armour was lighter and featured more even weight distribution than a full complement of a modern firefighter’s gear.” O’Neill seems to think the myth was spread a novel by Mark Twain (funny if true).

  3. Of course, the sack of Constantinople was a perversion of crusading (like the earlier anti-Jewish pogroms in the Rhineland) since the church never approved eastern Christians or their lands (or Jews) as targets. There were certainly base motives involved here — pretty much as bad as it gets — but atrocities like the these were exceptional and opposed by the church, and not characteristic of the crusade mission. Stark could have improved the Islam section by showing how the Qur’an and hadiths justify how Islam’s history played out, but for the purpose of his book I suppose he did enough.

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