Rodney Stark’s Contrarian Assessment of the Crusades

I find Rodney Stark’s positive take on Christianity’s historical effects refreshing. (Type in “Rodney Stark” into the search box on my sidebar to see other posts inspired by Rodney Stark’s books.) This has extended to rebuttals of claims of negative historical effects, as in his book God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. Here is a passage rom pages 8 and 9 summarizing the argument of the book:

To sum up the prevailing wisdom: during the Crusades, an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted, and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam.

Not so. As will be seen, 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. Although the Crusades were initiated by a plea from the pope, this had nothing to do with hopes of converting Islam. Nor were the Crusades organized and led by surplus sons, but by the heads of great families who were fully aware that the costs of crusading would far exceed the very modest material rewardcs that could be expected; most went at immense personal cost, some of them knowingly bankrupting themselves to go. Moreover, the crusader kingdoms that they established in the Holy Land, and that stood for nearly two centuries, were not colonies sustained by local exactions; rather thay required immense subsidies from Europe.   

In addition, it is utterly unreasonable to impose modern notions of proper military conduct on medieval warfare; both Christians and Muslims observed quite different rules of war. Unfortunately, even many of the most sympathetic and otherwise sensible historians of the Crusades are unable to accept that fact and are given to agonizing over the very idea that war can ever by “just,” revealing the pacifism that has become so widespread among academics. Finally, claims that Muslims have been harboring bitter resentments about the Crusades for a millenium are nonsense: Muslim antagonism about the Crusades did not appear until about 1900, in reaction against the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of actual European colonialism in the Middle East. And anti-crusader feelings did not become intense until after the founding of the state of Israel. These are principal themes of the chapters that follow. 

Two other notes are in order. To begin with, the Byzantine emperors really were quite treacherous. The First Crusade began on the presumption that once Jerusalem was taken by the crusaders that the Byzantine Empire would take care of keeping it. The crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem arose from the fact that the Byzantine emperors didn’t care much about keeping Jerusalem. And the later “sack” of Constantinople in a later crusade had a large element of putting valuables in sack to collect on a debt incurred by a Byzantine emperor who had promise to pay the crusaders for help in a civil war.

Also, the deaths when Jerusalem was taken by the crusaders in the First Crusade need to be kept in perspective. Rodney writes on pages 157-158:

First of all, it is not only absurd but often quite disingenuous to use this event to “prove” that the crusaders were bloodthirsty barbarians in contrast to the more civilized and tolerant Muslims.Dozens of Muslim massacres of whole cities have been reported in previous chapters, and the crusaders knew of such occurrences. Second, the commonly applied “rule of war” concerning siege warfare was that if a city did not surrender before forcing the attackers to take the city by storm (which inevitably caused a very high rate of casualties in the besieging force), the inhabitants could expect to be massacred as an example to others in the future. That is, had the Muslims surrender Jerusalem on June 13 when the towers were ready to be rolled against the walls, they would no doubt have been given terms that would have prevented a massacre.

Our own secular, liberal culture owes a lot historically to Christianity, so it is good not to overdo the criticism of our cultural forebears. It isn’t easy to struggle up toward the level of enlightenment we have now. They helped us get there. We should try to bring compassion and empathy to our understanding of history–even to the brutal elements of history. Where we should be intolerant is of evil in the present day, regardless of its source.