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God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades

Rodney Stark
Published by HarperOne in 2009

Rodney Stark sums up the argument of God’s Battalions tersely:

The thrust of the preceding chapters can be summarized very briefly. The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God’s battalions (248).

His readers will recognize the tone and the message. God’s Battalions is Stark’s latest synthesis aimed at rehabilitating and reasserting the role of the West in the face of politically correct interpretations.

Like The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005), God’s Battalions addresses a popular readership (9). The book challenges the likes of Karen Armstrong—those writers, both Western and Arab, prone to judge the crusades negatively because they ignore well-known evidence, depending instead on weak analogies to European imperialism. Stark’s bibliography suggests his approach: a dozen small-print pages listing mainly secondary sources in English, with pre-1980 titles and recent revisionist works especially noticeable. By drawing on earlier generations of scholars, Stark emphasizes his rejection of recent popular views.

He also reasserts the value of narrative. The middle third of the book is essentially are telling of the well-known story of the First Crusade and the consolidation of its victories. Narrative dominates in the other thirds as well, the first chapters giving background and the last outlining a denouement. This division also reveals much about Stark’s approach. His goal is not to delineate the evolution of ideas about crusading since the high Middle Ages. In fact, his narrative stops abruptly with the fall of Acre in 1291. The contextualization of his “case” depends instead on an extended discussion of the early Middle Ages, from the initial Muslim conquests in the seventh century to the rise of popular Christian pilgrimage in the eleventh. Here he sets his premises: that Christians “‘believed war against the Muslims to be justified partly because the latter had usurped by force lands which once belonged to Christians and partly because they abused the Christians over whom they ruled’” (33, quoting Derek Lomax); that, because of successful pre-Crusade encounters, the crusaders “knew they could beat [their Muslim opponents]” (54); that Muslims “lagged far behind in terms of such vital technology as saddles, stirrups, horseshoes, wagons and carts, draft horses and harnesses, effective plows, crossbows, Greek fire, shipwrights, sailors, productive agriculture ,effective armor, and well-trained infantry” (76); and that “the Crusades were not unprovoked” because Muslims—most recently the Seljuk Turks—had increasingly threatened Christian pilgrims and sacred sites (98).

Of course, these assertions suggest that Stark may be just as selective in his use of evidence as the writers he seeks to counter. Or it may suggest that this genre of short, contrarian synthesis does not provide adequate opportunity for nuance and analysis, as, for example, when Stark argues (not very convincingly), without considering other explanations of Islamic decline, that the much-vaunted “Islamic learning” of the early Middle Ages was merely a product of dhimmi cultures that survived apart from any creative Islamic synthesis and finally collapsed under Islamic religious conformity (56-61). Another example is Stark’s quick dismissal of “crusader colonies” (172-173). He uses a narrow definition of colonialism to reject an association of the crusades with imperialism:

In terms of political control, the kingdoms were fully independent of any European state. In terms of economic exploitation, it would be more apt to identify Europe as a colony of the Holy Land, since the very substantial flow of wealth and resources was from the West to the East! (173).

But he ignores the ways in which the crusades represented a mustering of resources and a “stepping out” that provided the models for later, overt forms of Christian empire-building, as would be the case with the last phases of the Spanish Reconquista.

The book’s strength is rather its central narrative. Stark’s style is clear and direct. He sets the pace of narrative masterfully, an especially difficult effort given the many primary and secondary accounts that have explored the First Crusade in great detail. He depends upon old standards such as Steven Runciman and more recent elaborations such as Jonathan Riley-Smith. The result is a good read—a coherent account that fulfills Stark’s goal: “What I have done is synthesize the work of these specialists into a more comprehensive perspective, written in prose that is accessible to the general reader” (9).

But given Stark’s reputation as a sociologist, his dependence on the questionable broad strokes of the early chapters and the narrative of the middle ones signals a surprising omission: the relative lack of insights drawn from sociology. Two stand out, largely because there are few others. Stark emphasizes Western or Byzantine technologies as sociological “facts” that explain crusader advantages in the face of Muslim backwardness (67-76). He also accepts Riley-Smith’s findings that family and kinship ties among crusaders largely explain the character of enlistment and settlement (109-111). These insights contribute significantly to Stark’s synthesis, but other potentially valuable avenues get closed off in the narrative. For example, a detailed treatment of the networks of Cistercian connections between abbeys and noble houses would say much about support behind the second and third crusades, but Stark gives only a few pages to Bernard of Clairvaux and his followers (174-175, 185-187).

Such are arguably the sacrifices necessary for a popular single-volume account. But two important questions about Stark’s book remain, especially for CSR readers: Is his argument still worth making, and, worth making or not, what should Christian believers do with it? An early Karen Armstrong is Stark’s most obvious nemesis (7). Although her Holy War: TheCrusades and Their Impact on Today’s World (Random House) appeared in a second edition in 2001, this reprint only came in November after the attack on the World Trade Center. The book had appeared originally in 1991, in the heyday of the “culture wars” and concerns about “political correctness.” While the cumulative effect of his synthesis points to new ways of thinking about the crusades, Stark’s revision seems too late for maximum benefit. The level of nuance in popular cultural understanding seems to have improved in the West since 2001, and while ultimately Stark’s book may help “retake the crusades,” the question remains whether it is so necessary to do so. Another audience that would benefit from the revision—Middle Easterners— likely would not prove receptive, even if the book appeared in Arabic translation.

Even if the passage of time may have taken some of the edge off of Stark’s argument, the question remains how exactly Christian believers should treat it. Readers of CSR for whom the “culture wars” have meaning could view the book as providing ammunition, given its weighing of established scholarship against politically influenced interpretations. But ultimately this approach does not do much for either Christian faith or an understanding of the crusades. It could potentially reinforce less than charitable attitudes toward Muslims and foster an extreme position opposite the view that Stark challenges. And as is often the case with historical revisions, the temptation is to view the new interpretation as more than it is—just the regular product of a standard academic dialectic. This temptation may not be of much concern when the audience is primarily professors and their students, but a popular work with such an attractive narrative might close off inquiry rather than open it.

Christian readers should welcome Stark’s affirmation of the best in scholarship, bot hold and new, and his willingness to argue a controversial position. They should not stop with his “case for the crusades,” however, because a narrative redressing of imbalances for a popular audience cannot describe adequately so complex and rich a phenomenon as the crusades. For Christian readers to include the crusades in an understanding of their faith adequately, they require rich sociological contextualizations and explorations of long-term significance, among other things. And, given the limitations of its genre, God’s Battalions is only a starting place.

Cite this article
Glenn E. Sanders, “God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:3 , 338-340

Glenn E. Sanders

Oklahoma Baptist University
Glenn E. Sanders, Anthropology, History, and Political Science, Oklahoma Baptist University.