Friday, May 14, 2010

God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark

Rodney Stark, God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, (HarperOne, 2009) 276 pages. Verdict?: 2/5  A few good correctives to modern myths, but badly marred by blatant bias, tendentious polemic and weak apologetics.

It is a bit of a cliché that we should study the past to understand the present.  This is something high school history teachers tell children to explain why it is important to study something which seems, to a bored fourteen year old, totally irrelevant to them.  Like many things said by high school history teachers, this one is only partly convincing and really only true to a limited extent.  In deft hands, of course, some careful lessons about the present can be drawn from the past.  Adrian Goldsworthy does this well in his epilogue to The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower and Harvard's Niall Ferguson has made a popular career as an author and TV presenter who can explain the present by examining the past. So long as we do not stretch analogies too far or indulge in simplistic historical determinism, our high school history teachers were correct up to a point.

But it is far more problematic when people start trying to examine the past through the distorting prism of the present.  This has been a temptation that many historians and, more commonly, popularisers of history have fallen into over the years.  It was particularly rife in the Enlightenment, when polemicists like Voltaire and historians like Gibbon portrayed idealised versions of the Romans and presented them, or the better ones at least, pretty much as versions of themselves, except in togas and minus the powdered wigs.  This is why we have a prevalent view of the Romans as tolerant, urbane, rational people who were concerned with great buildings and science and why the common view of them ignores or forgets things like gladiator fights, mass crucifixions, bloody religious persecutions, the annihilation of rebels and the bizarre cluster of irrational superstitions that made up Roman religion.

The Victorians inherited these illusions of a past informed by fantasies of the present and elaborated on them.  To them, for example, the Romans were stout, sensible, no-nonsense chaps who created an Empire for the common good of everyone and only crushed rebellions savagely when the lesser races forgot their place in the scheme of things, by Jove.  Similarly, over in the new nation of Germany, there was a vogue for histories of the early Germanic tribes that leaned heavily on fantasies about some kind of mystical proto-national Germanic spirit which went on to inspire people as varied as Jacob Grimm, Richard Wagner and, unfortunately, Adolf Hitler.  And in the Nineteenth Century the Crusades were seen as romantic adventures where brave chivalric gentlemen left their swooning ladies behind to go off to the hot countries and bash some civilisation into dusky chaps in robes - something Nineteenth Century Europeans were doing with gusto at the time.

The Nineteenth Century also saw the Arab world change its view of the Crusades.  Where before they had, fairly reasonably, been seen as wars they had won, now Western-educated Arabs saw them as precursors to modern European imperialism and colonialism.  This led to some oddities, such as taking the western, romantic view of Saladin as a paragon of gentlemanly chivalry and turning him into an Arab hero as well.  That, in turn, saw modern despots like Saddam Hussein depicting themselves as latter day Saladins - which is richly ironic considering Saladin was actually a Kurd.

More recently the Crusades have generally been depicted as "a bad thing" in the West as well.  Not only is the idea of a holy war in the name of Christianity unpalatable to modern western sensibilities, but many modern commentators accept without question the idea that the Muslim world harbours a centuries-long resentment about the Crusades, when in fact this resentment is less than 150 years old. Sir Steven Runciman's influential three volume history of the Crusades firmly cemented several recent ideas about these expeditions, eg that they were motivated by a desire for Papal power rather than genuine religious zeal, that they were land grabs by western lords and that the Crusaders were bumbling, incompetent military cretins.  Given that he was a Byzantist, his prejudices and biases should have been clear, but these ideas remain firmly entrenched.  They are generally accepted in the popular perception of the Crusades, along with the "fact" that most Crusaders were landless second sons looking for new territory and that the whole thing was motivated primarily by loot and the riches of the East.

All of these perceptions of the Crusades have been given a regular airing since 9/11 and, in particular, in commentary on the Iraq War and the "War on Terror".  But if those recent events have created a distorting perspective for perceptions of the Crusades, Rodney Stark's counter to them distorts far more than it clarifies.

The Crusades as Defensive Wars?  A Tenuous Thesis

Any book subtitled "A Case for the Crusades" is pretty clearly one written with an ideological agenda.   And Stark makes his agenda very clear early in his book - 9/11 is mentioned as early as page 4, which leads into a summary of recent western breast-beating over the Crusades during the Iraq War and its roots in anti-Christian condemnations of them by Voltaire, Hume, Diderot, Fuller and, of course, Gibbon (pp. 6-7).  Having traced the origins of the idea that the Crusaders were nothing more than "greedy barbarians in armor", Stark states his counter-case:

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. (Stark, p. 8)

He goes on:

[U]nlike most conventional Crusade historians, I shall not begin with the pope's appeal at Clermont, but with the rise of Islam and the onset of Muslim invasions of Christendom.  That's when it all started - in the seventh century, when Islamic armies swept over the larger portion of what was then Christian territory: the Middle East, Egypt and all of North Africa, and then Spain and southern Italy as well as many major Mediterranean islands .... Nor shall I merely recount the crusader battles, for they are comprehensible only in the light of the superior culture and technology that made it possible for European knights to march more than twenty-five hundred miles, to suffer great losses along the way and then to rout far larger Muslim forces.  (Stark, p. 9)
Or, to sum his thesis up in the plaintive cry of a nine year old caught fighting in a school playground: "But THEY started it!"   This argument is not really radically new.  I have been coming across it online regularly since 9/11, particularly from pro-Bush American bloggers and posters who have wanted to argue that Islam is an inherently violent, intolerant and expansionist faith that can only be stopped by some "shock and awe" and invasion and occupation by the God-fearing US military.  It is not even a new thesis to be presented in book form - Robert Spencer's The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) has been a best-seller amongst people with this mindset since its publication in 2005, and it makes exactly the same case.  Essentially, the "THEY started it!" thesis argues that far from being an isolated, innovative and unprovoked assault on the world of Islam from Europe, the Crusades were in fact a courageous and entirely justified counter-strike against the terror of Islam by a besieged Christendom.  In other words, an Eleventh Century equivalent to Bush's doctrine of "fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here" or "defending the Homeland".

The problem is that this revisionist thesis, like all ideologically-driven attempts at the analysis of history, is every bit as skewed as the ideas it is trying to revise and correct.

"Christendom Strikes Back"

After a brief summary of the period from the death of Muhammad (AD 632) to the sack of Rome by Sicilian Muslims (AD 846) and the rapid Islamic conquests of Syria, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, Sicily and Spain in that period, Stark begins to set the scene for his account of the Crusades by detailing how "Christendom struck back".  He starts with the defeat of Spanish Muslims by the Frankish warlord Charles Martel at Poitiers (or Tours, depending on which account you read) in AD 732 - which he re-elevates to the status of the turning of the Islamic tide and the beginning of a fight-back by "Christendom":  He writes:

As would be expected, some more recent historians have been quick to claim that the Battle of Tours was of little or no significance. (p. 43)
 Actually, current opinion remains divided on whether Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi's defeat  by Charlemagne's grandfather represented a significant turning point in the westward expansion of Islam or simply the defeat of a reconnaissance-in-strength by what was little more than a large raiding party.  Both interpretations have merit, though Stark plumps firmly for the former.  More importantly, Stark champions the idea that the battle represented a tactical turning point, with Martel's stout Frankish infantry forming a new and decisive counter to the light cavalry tactics of the Muslim forces that had seen them conquer so much territory over the preceding century:

It is axiomatic in military science that cavalry cannot succeed against well-armed  and well disciplined infantry formations unless they greatly outnumber them.  The effective role of cavalry is to ride down infantry fleeing from the battlefield, once their lines have given way.  But when determined infantry hold their ranks, standing shoulder to shoulder to present a wall of shields from which they project a thicket of long spears butted to the ground, cavalry charges are easily turned away. .... In this instance, the Muslim force consisted entirely of light cavalry .... Opposing them was an army "almost entirely composed of foot soldiers, wearing mail [armour] and carrying shields".  It was a very uneven match. (p. 41-42) 
 This is all more or less true, but it is also one early example of Stark greatly over-simplifying the military and tactical situation - something he does throughout the book.  To begin with, to pretend Spanish (or any) "Muslim" armies consisted of nothing but light cavalry is nonsense - they included infantry, archers and heavier cavalry troops as well.  Secondly, to claim that this was the first time "Muslim" armies had met "determined infantry" executing the anti-cavalry tactics he describes is ridiculous.  The Byzantine armies that Arab forces had (generally) defeated in the preceding century were based on precisely the stolid infantry, anti-cavalry tactics Stark describes here.  Finally, the battle probably was not the simple "light cavalry breaking on disciplined infantry" affair Stark reduces it to.  David Nicolle, a current leading military historian who is as well-versed in the equipment and tactics of the Islamic east as he is in that of the European west, writes:

The classic interpretation of Charles Martel's victory over a Muslim raiding force at Potiers maintains that the Christian Franks allowed their enemies to dash themselves to pieces against a stern but static defensive array.  Yet this is probably quite wrong; for the evidence could equally well be interpreted as the Franks charging and overrunning the Muslim-Arab camp in an sudden and unexpected assault. (David Nicolle, Medieval Warfare Source Book: Volume One - Warfare in Western Christendom, p. 77)
 Here, as in many other places in his book, Stark presents an oversimplified and tendentious interpretation that fits his thesis and ignores, downplays, or is blissfully unaware of more complex, recent or nuanced alternatives.

His tendency to oversimplify things to the point of distorting history continues in his account of the Spanish Reconquista by the Christian kingdoms of the north against the Muslim south.  According to Stark's version, this was very simple - it was a concerted counter-attack by Christians against Muslims in defence of Christendom.  He paints the success of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar - the "El Cid" of legend - in the 1090s as a turning point and holds him up as a paragon of Christian martial vigor against Muslims.  He attributes this "turning of the tide" to the disunity and fractious politics of the silly Muslims:

Perhaps the single most remarkable feature of the Islamic territories was almost ceaseless internal conflict; intricate plots, assassinations and betrayals form a lethal soap opera .... Spain was a patchwork of constantly feuding Muslim regimes that often allied themselves with Christians against one another. (p. 47)
To anyone with even a passing knowledge of Medieval Spanish history, these statements are simply bizarre.  This was not a "remarkable feature" of the "Islamic territories" at all - it was a common feature of all Spanish territories, Christian and Muslim alike.  Like their Muslim neighbours, Christian Spanish rulers indulged in no less of a "lethal soap opera" of intrigues, internecine conflicts and assassinations.  This is simply what Medieval rulers Europe-wide did.  As for Muslims allying themselves with Christians against each other, Stark conveniently neglects to take full account of the fact that Christians did this as well.  His hero, Rodrigo Díaz, spent six years in the service of Yusuf al-Mu'taman ibn Hud of Zaragoza and his successor.  In this time he inflicted defeats on Sancho I of Aragón and Ramón Berenguer II,  Count of Barcelona, capturing the latter in battle and holding him captive on behalf of his Muslim master.  Stark refers to this in passing, but fails to note its significance: these endless wars were not, at this stage anyway, brave counter-strikes by Christians against a tide of Muslim advance, but simply the kind of constant low level jockying for power, dominance and land that marked this period all over Europe.  Unlike Stark, Rodrigo Díaz and his contemporaries paid little heed to whether their lord of the moment went to Mass or attended the mosque.  Once again, Stark edits out the more complex parts that do not support his thesis and presents an oversimplified, dumbed-down version instead.

Stripping the Arabs from Arabic Science

Oversimplifying things is one matter, wilfully distorting them out of pure, unadulterated bias is entirely another.  In his next chapter - Western "ignorance" Versus Eastern "Culture" - Stark embarks on an absurd attempt at denigrating the idea that the Muslim world was greatly more advanced in learning than Europe in this period and tries to pump up an image of Europe as being superior.  It is, without a doubt, the stupidest argument in his whole creaking thesis.

His argument consists almost entirely of pointing to the scholars in the East who were dhimmis rather than Muslims and trying, bizarrely, to claim this meant we cannot claim the undeniably more-advanced scholarship of the Islamic world in the Eleventh Century was "Muslim" - as though ideas have some kind of religious affiliation.  He notes that much of the learning of the Islamic world was Greek in origin and that it had been preserved by Nestorian Christians working under Islamic masters.  This is ridiculous.  Leaving aside the fact that there were still many eastern scholars who were Muslims (because Stark certainly, and conveniently, leaves that aside), to claim that this means the Islamic world did not have a flourishing intellectual culture while the West remained almost totally ignorant of this (to them) lost Greek learning is absurd.  It is like claiming that there was no Carolingian Renaissance because Alcuin, Peter of Pisa, Paul the Deacon, Theodulf of Orléans and Joseph Scottus were not Franks.  Regardless of the ethnic or religious affiliations of some of the scholars that gave rise to the flowering of learning in this period, to pretend that this somehow means the east was not vastly more advanced than the west at this stage is simply stupid.

By the time I got to the part where Stark seriously tries to argue that the use of "Arabic" numerals in the east is not significant because they were actually originally "Hindu" (p. 59), this reader was about ready to throw Stark's idiotic book at the wall.

But it gets dumber.  In a section entitled "Contrasts in Technology" Stark embarks on an even more ludicrous attempt at arguing that the east was technologically less advanced than Europe as well.  While some of the evidence he draws on here is legitimate - Europeans did invent, refine and exploit some significant technology in this period - to stretch that fact into the idea that the "Muslim" world was technologically backward is simply stupefying.  It also includes some statements which are not just totally wrong, but hilariously so.  For example, when discussing the development of heavier armour in Medieval Europe, Stark claims that the mail hauberks of the Eleventh Century were somehow superior even to the elaborate plate armour of the later European Middle Ages:

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)
Apart from the words "these suits came later", every single thing in these two sentences is totally and completely wrong.  Plate harness was worn by knights, by their retainers and by everyone else who could possibly get their hands on it precisely because it was not "dangerously impractical" (were these knights morons?) but because it was incredibly effective.  It was only abandoned when firearms and attendant infantry tactics reduced this effectiveness to make it not worth the expense - about 200-300 years later.  The idea that armoured knights "had to be lifted onto their saddles by booms" is a Nineteenth Century myth, with its origin in a novel by Mark Twain.  And far from being unable to rise from their feet if unhorsed, knights in full plate harness could run, jump and literally turn cartwheels in their armour, as modern re-enactors like to demonstrate to crowds today.  This kind of elementary blunder would shame an undergraduate history student (who would probably be capable of the quick Google search required to show it is total garbage anyway), but it seems Stark did his research by reading Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court or watching Olivier's 1944 movie of Henry V.

Stark ends this monumentally stupid and error-riddled chapter with another of his clumsy excursions into military history in which he paints the crossbow as some kind of unbeatable über-weapon and makes out that the Crusaders were militarily superior to their Muslim enemies in every respect.  Again, this is garbage.  In a survey of 48 Crusader versus Muslim battles I did a few years ago I found the Crusaders won 26 and the Muslims won 21.  The two sides were actually very evenly matched.  This is hardly surprising, since for most of the Crusades, both sides used similar weapons, similar armour and, once the Crusaders adopted the very light cavalry troops Stark dismisses, similar troop types and tactics.

Stark Gets It WRONG

Stark's next section attempts to dismiss the idea that the Crusades were "unprovoked" and catalogues the Muslim atrocities and attacks on pilgrims that he claims were the "real" reasons the Crusades were launched.  What is notable to any objective observer here is actually how little material he has to work with and how far back he has to go (mostly to the Eighth and Ninth Centuries) to find it.  Of course, there were periodic pogroms against Christians in the Islamic world and sometimes Christian pilgrims were harassed.  But if we imagine a situation where there were Muslim enclaves in western Europe or large groups of (heavily armed) Islamic pilgrims regularly journeying to, say, central Eleventh Century France, do we really suppose we would not see much the same thing happening?

That aside, these incidents and things like the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009 were the exceptions, not the rule.  In addition, they do not feature in the reasons the Crusaders themselves gave for their expeditions in anything but the most peripheral way.

This last point can be extended into a key criticism of Stark's wider thesis as well.  If the Crusades were, as he tries to argue, simply a reaction to Muslim encroachment into the European "homeland", why is it we do not see this reflected in any of the enormous amount of material we have on the preaching of the First Crusade or any of the material we have on the motivations of the Crusaders?  Did Pope Urban and the other instigators of the Crusades forget to mention this?  And if this was the "true" motivation of the Crusaders, then launching a vastly expensive and highly dangerous 2500 mile long-distance military strike into Palestine, of all places, was an extremely weird way to carry it out.  It is not like Jerusalem was the religious heartland of Islam (that was Arabia) or even its political centre (that was, if anything, Cairo) or even its intellectual centre (which was Baghdad).

If the real objective was to turn back the teeming tides of fanatical Muslim expansion from the gates of Europe, as Stark tries to make out, then the obvious target was far closer to home: in Spain.  Stark even mentions, in passing, that one of Urban's papal predecessors, Alexander II, had already tried to stir the knights of Europe into joining the Spanish Christian kingdoms in attacking Muslim states in Spain back in 1063 , but the result was less than spectacular even by Stark's own fumbling admission:

The response was very modest.  A small number of Frankish knights seem to have ventured into Spain and their participation may have helped recover more Muslim territory, but no significant battles were fought. (p. 46)
 So we are supposed to believe that, in 1063, a Papal call to meet the the supposedly pressing need to defend a beleaguered Europe from Islamic expansion could only muster up "a small number of Frankish knights", despite a promise of remission of sins for those who embarked, yet just 32 years later it sparked a mass movement, armies in the hundreds of thousands and wars that lasted over 200 years in a land 2500 miles from home?  This simply makes zero sense.

Stark is clearly wrong.  Plenty of solid scholarly work has been done in the last 60 years on the real motivations behind the Crusading ideal - millennial ideas about the coming apocalypse, idealised visions of Jerusalem not as a place but a mystical concept, the increasing alignment of knighthood with religious ideals, the outward expansion of western Europeans in all directions etc - but there is no evidence that they were ever seen as defensive wars against enemies encroaching on Europe, as the Spanish example clearly demonstrates.

Motivations and Biases

Thankfully not everything in Stark's book is as bad as the biased nonsense that makes up most of its early chapters.  In the remainder of the book, which actually dwindles into a heavily abbreviated Wikipedia-style summary of the Crusades' history that adds very little to his thesis, he does manage to correct a few common and pernicious myths about the Crusades and the motivations of the Crusaders.  Modern westerners have a distinct difficulty with the idea that people could actually have been genuinely motivated by religious piety - especially the rather alien and distastefully bellicose piety of the Crusades - and cast around for other, more "likely" motivations that make more sense to them.  One idea is that the "real" motivation for Pope Urban was not assistance for the Byzantine Empire in regaining the Holy Land, but a crafty attempt by him to win Jerusalem so as to undermine and dominate the Orthodox Church.  So it was not about piety, they argue, but a Papal power grab.  This popular idea has its origins in Carl Erdmann's influential Die Enstehung des Kreuzzugsgedanken (The Origin of the Idea of Crusade (1935), but it does not stand up to scrutiny.  Actually, Urban was as surprised as anyone that his call led to a mass movement - he expected a few thousand knights to answer the call - and had no idea that the First Crusade would be abandoned by the Byzantine emperor and then go on, against all odds, to win the Holy Land on its own.  This was certainly not something he planned in advance, though I doubt he would have been unhappy about it if he had lived to see the Crusade, contrary to all reasonable expectation, achieve that objective unassisted.

Stark also manages to debunk another common myth about the Crusades - that they were actually carried out to win copious loot from the rich Levant and that they were undertaken by landless second, third and fourth sons in a massive colonial land snatch.  As meticulous recent research by Christopher Tyerman and Jonathan Riley-Smith has shown in great detail, going on Crusade was far more likely to bankrupt the Crusader and his family than win them riches.  Despite this, as Tyerman has shown, the same families continued to send Crusaders east for several generations and to wear the ruinous cost of doing so.  Clearly something other than riches was motivating these people.  The idea of landless second sons heading east to carve out territories to settle may also fit with modern ideas of likely motivations, but it also does not fit the evidence.  Apart from some notable exceptions - Bohemond and Tancred and their Normans spring to mind - most of the Crusaders did not go east to settle on new land at all.  In fact, the ultimate failure of the Crusader States of Outremer was precisely due to this not happening.  Instead of settling in the east, the overwhelming majority of Crusaders served their time in Outremer and then went home.  The Crusader States were, from their beginning to their end, desperately short of military manpower for exactly this reason and ultimately collapsed as a result.  This is partly because the "landless second, third and fourth sons" idea is also a myth.  The men that the Crusades attracted were far from "landless" and the history of the Crusades is riddled with accounts of men who did their "pilgrimage in arms", killed their quota of infidel "paynims" and then had to head home because of the pressing need to get back to their European estates.

As odd and unpalatable as it may be to modern people, the primary motivation of Crusaders seems to have been religious piety.  It was usually a form of piety that modern observers find bizarre and was often one informed by myth and a weird idealism that we find hard to reconcile with modern Christianity or with any modern ideas at all, but the evidence is overwhelming that it was genuine and highly motivating.

The few things that Stark manages to get right do not outweigh the fact that his central thesis is nonsense and that his whole argument is contrived, oversimplified and, in places, plain stupid and riddled with basic errors of fact.  Stark is not a historian and in this book it really shows.  He had some success with his first major book on the history of Christianity, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. At least in that book he stuck more or less to his discipline, sociology, and actually provided some useful insights for real historians from that perspective.  In more recent years, however, he has moved from being a self-described agnostic to something he calls "an independent Christian" and his books have become more popularist and, in the process, have veered into pseudo historical apologetics.  In The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success he presents a rather bungled and mangled version of the idea that Christianity led to the rise of western science.  This is a case that can certainly be argued, and has been set out, with far more accuracy, clarity and finesse by James Hannam's God's Philosophers, as I detail in my review of that excellent book below.  But Stark's hamfisted attempt at making this case in his book has left him wide open to attack from biased ideologues of the opposite stamp, most recently in the anti-theist polemicist Richard Carrier's chapter on the subject in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.  I hope to say more about why people like Carrier are no better than Stark in a future post, but the point remains that Stark may or may not be a good sociologist, but he is an appalling historian.  And the last person you want producing popularisations of history.

In summary, this book is, despite a few valid points, largely tendentious crap.  Its author is a poor researcher who starts with his ideologically-driven conclusion and then cherry picks the evidence to back it up.  It is a polemical exercise in apologetics dressed up as a scholarly revision of myths and it deserves little but scorn.  Avoid it if you can, or read it with its biases firmly in mind if you must.  But take nothing it says at face value.


Perplexed said...

Ouch. I hope I never end up on the receiving end of one of your reviews... :D Still, a thoroughly enjoyable read. I had avoided this book when I encountered it in a shop, and now feel thoroughly justified in my decision! Apologetics and history just don't mix. I'll be interested to see your analysis of Carrier's work when you eventually get round to it.

Baerista said...

Highly informative review. Thanks a bunch!

Jorgon Gorgon said...

Nice! A pity that most apologists will never see this, or ignore it even if they do.

"it is also one early example of Stark vastly over-simplifying the military and tactical situation"

Isn't it the standard MO of all too many religionists on all sides of the equation, regarding all issues in life and not just the military ones? (Yes, that is a cheap shot, but had to be done!)

Tim O'Neill said...

"it is also one early example of Stark vastly over-simplifying the military and tactical situation"

Isn't it the standard MO of all too many religionists on all sides of the equation, regarding all issues in life and not just the military ones? (Yes, that is a cheap shot, but had to be done!)

Well, yes. But, in fairness to the more reasonable "religionists" out there, many are not capable of not doing this. Nor is doing this limited to "religionists". As a rationalist who tries hard to study history as objectively as possible, I find it annoying when ANYONE let's ideology get in the way of objectivity.

As I note in my review of Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind or in my article on the movie Agora, non-"religionists" are just as capable of allowing their biases and beliefs to warp the analysis of history. That's why I hope to write an article soon on the atheist pseudo historian Richard Carrier, who poses as an objective historian but is actually just another polemicist whose biases cause him to present a skewed and therefore inaccurate view of history.

Glad you found my review useful.

Andrew Brew said...

Good to see another review from you, Tim. A pity about the book. I haven't read it, but from what you say it sounds as though some of its central arguments might be tenable if they were not handled with ham-fisted tendentionsness. It is surely woth mentioning, for example, that the background to the Byzantine call for aid was five centuries of Arab (and then, especially, Seljuk) advance and pressure? And that the amenity of pilgrims had declined noticably under as Seljuk influence increased? To the extent that such arguments are valid, though, it is all the more embarassing to have them over-stated and marred by cherry-picking of evidence.

On another note, you mention a study you did earlier of forty battles of the crusades. Was there more to this than a scoreboard? If so, do you have it on line anywhere? I would be intersted to read it.

Tim O'Neill said...

On another note, you mention a study you did earlier of forty battles of the crusades. Was there more to this than a scoreboard? If so, do you have it on line anywhere? I would be intersted to read it.

I don't have a copy Andy, just the tally of battles. It was in a post on a gaming forum where some guys were arguing the opposite to Stark and claiming that the initial victories of the First Crusade were a fluke and after that the Crusaders were consistently defeated by the wondrous superiority of the Turkish and Arabic forces. So I posted my results to show this was nonsense.

Andrew Brew said...

OK, thanks. Next time I comment here I will try to do so without a typo or two in every paragraph!

BTW, reading your paragraph beginning "The Victorians..." I couldn't help hearing it in the voice of Mr Haaande. Are my telepathic powers working, or was nothing further from your mind? : )


perseus said...

Enjoyed the review and agree with you about most things but

'But if we imagine a situation where there were Muslim enclaves in western Europe or large groups of (heavily armed) Islamic pilgrims regularly journeying to, say, central Eleventh Century France, do we really suppose we would not see much the same thing happening?'

Perhaps, but history is about what happened and not the hypothetical. It's much more difficult to react to what didn't happen.

Tim O'Neill said...

Perhaps, but history is about what happened and not the hypothetical. It's much more difficult to react to what didn't happen.

I'm simply pointing out that Stark's "Muslims = bad" shtick is pretty silly. To think that you could have large groups of pilgrims, usually armed and accompanied by armed retainers and often numbering in their thousands, venturing into what was effectively enemy territory and NOT have incidents of the kind he details occasionally is absurd. If it were troops of thousands of Muslims doing the same thing into, say, the Loire valley of course we would see the same kinds of thing happen on occasion.

But if someone then argued that this, somehow therefore justified 200 years of Muslim invasion and occupation of parts of France would be absurd. Yet that's precisely the argument Stark ties to make in reverse.

Guy said...

Another fantastic review.

It's very disappointing in this day and age to see Stark referring to infantry vs cavalry as "uneven". If infantry always trumped cavalry then the medieval mounted knight would make no sense.

He's misunderstood the infantry-cavalry dynamic; it's not whether infantry can stand against cavalry but whether infantry will. The psychological battle is the key, not the physical.

Your point about the motives of the Crusades reminds me of a personal experience. For some reason my course demanded I do an Int Relations module which was run by PolSci types. The first lecture was on the Crusades and the Lecturer simply couldn't understand religious motivations. She kept trying to explain the Crusades in political or economic terms instead.

(She also felt the Crusades were deeply immoral because religion wasn't a meaningful motive for her and was affronted when I protested that [in terms of scale] WW2 saw saw much worse for political motives that also make little rational sense.)

Tim O'Neill said...

He's misunderstood the infantry-cavalry dynamic; it's not whether infantry can stand against cavalry but whether infantry will. The psychological battle is the key, not the physical

Exactly. The key to using heavy cavalry is holding your charge back until the right moment and then unleashing it at the time and the point where it will have the most impact - preferably when your infantry has disordered theirs, or at their infantry's flanks or rear or as a counter-charge at their cavalry. Used wrongly (eg by the French at Crecy) and this didn't work, but used correctly (eg at Hastings or at Arsuf) it was devastating.

People who don't understand this see the age of the knight as simply a period of tactical idiots in too much armour riding at peasants with pitchforks, which is total nonsense. Knights dominated the battlefield until the coming of effective gunpowder weapons for a reason, and not because everyone turned into morons for 1000 years.

The first lecture was on the Crusades and the Lecturer simply couldn't understand religious motivations. She kept trying to explain the Crusades in political or economic terms instead.

People seem to do that simply because religious motives make no sense to them personally. So they search for motives that make sense to them and declare them the "real" motives. Stark fumbles around the edges of the actual religious motives of the time but gets too tangled up with his skewed notions of some kind of "Christian counter-strike against Muslim expansion" and misses the real motives of recapturing pilgrimage sites and the religious and mystical significance of Jerusalem as a concept as well as a place. He can't seem to grasp that so replaces it with some anachronistic post-9/11 nonsense instead. The result is as wrong-headed as most of the attributed motives he critiques.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Melbourne.

The title of the book alone screams "utter crapp" as the Black Adder famously said.

As though the Blissful Starry God in which all of this indivisibility arises could possibly have a battalion?

And yes Stark is altogether an appalling historian. The tragedy is, is that his simplifications are taken so seriously by so many people.

history_lover said...

Hi Tim, this is my first post and may I say, you are the first person other than Fr. Barron of Word on Fire Ministries, who I know demands and gives a critical argument for rationality.

You also happen to be the first athiest I know who does not fall for the nonsense that I have heard from those who consider themselves to be non-religious about the Middle Ages.

I can understand them hating religion, but to twist history - now that really grinds my gears.

This post is also though to ask you, and this is a very honest question, were the Crusades also not about making the passage to the The Holy Land safe for the pilgrims?

And how can you say that the destruction of the Church of the Holy Speluchre did not in any way inspire many from the West to go and fight for the Cross?

If I remember my history, the whole reason that the Crusades got momentum was pretty much becos of the Islamic Seljuk Turks, who were attacking the pilgrims, unlike the Arab Muslims who at least used the pilgrims for their own purposes of filling their coffers for the tax they had to pay to visit their own religious sites.

Also, weren't the Jews already living in Europe for centuries by then? Or were the Jews attacked more number of times by Christians in Europe compared to Jews lilving among Muslims in the Middle East? I do remember reading somewhere in fact that Jews were seen as "breathren race" among the Germans and treated more favourably compared to any other part in the world.

Heck, didnt Jews call Poland 'paradise on earth'?

Saying that Muslims in large numbers going to France would have brought about similar reactions (getting attacked by Christians) makes no sense - long before the Muslims came on the scene, Christian pilgrims were already travelling to Jerusalem - Jerusalem was to Christians what Mecca is to every Muslim.

Do you not think that to the Christian they saw the Crusades as their final response on to a people who promised to keep their pilgrims safe?

Who they had paid in high taxes, shameful as it was, to the Muslims in order to visit their own sites and then only to see their churches destroyed - and not any church, but one of the most important, dare is say it, the most important church in all of Christendom and also see these same people burn down St Peter's to the ground?

Do you not think that after seeing their lands and villages attacked by slave raiders from the Mideast for centuries and knowing that unlike the Vikings, bringing them into the Christian fold was not successful at all, do you honestly not think any of these events were also a reason for the Crusades?

Do you not think maybe that the Christians in the West saw the plea from the Byzantime Emperor as ordainly divined? While I think your belief in a millineal apocaplyse are sound, I wonder if you are putting too much empasis on this? Byzantium was Christian and the mightiest Christian Empire and for this empire to come pleading for assistance against an enemy that even those in West could identify with, surely that spurred the Crusades?

Please, understand that I really wish to know what you opinion is. For many years, I was also under the impression that the Crusades were this horrible thing and the whole reason behind the modern day troubles in the Middle East, so imagine my shock when i reaslied that was a bunch of lies. Now youre statements about christian millineal apocaplyse theory as the main reason for the enthusisam for the crusades has left me confused again. Please clarify

Martin said...

Tim, what book on the Crusades would you recommend instead of Stark's?

Rabbi said...

Jorgon Gorgon said: Isn't it the standard MO of all too many religionists on all sides of the equation, regarding all issues in life and not just the military ones? (Yes, that is a cheap shot, but had to be done!)

Tim O'Neill said: "Well, yes. But, in fairness to the more reasonable "religionists" out there, many are not capable of not doing this. Nor is doing this limited to "religionists". As a rationalist who tries hard to study history as objectively as possible, I find it annoying when ANYONE let's ideology get in the way of objectivity."

And that is precisely why "Religionists" like myself are frequent vistors to Tim O'Neill's Armarium Magnum. That fact that he is an atheist is neither here nor there.

Anonymous said...

Dang, I came in here with the same question as Martin's, but I see that it wasn't answered! Arg.

Tim O'Neill said...

Sorry - a blizzard of comments on other posts has had me neglect this discussion. To answer Martin's question, the book I'd recommend would be Christopher Tyerman's God's War: A New History of the Crusades. At almost 1000 pages it's quite a read, but it not only gives an overview of the Crusading movement generally and a good narrative history of each campaign but, as a work by a specialist in the origins of the movement and the motivations of the participants, it gives much more satisfactory and well-founded answers to the questions about how the whole business got started than Stark's polemic.

Any recent books by Jonathan Riley-Smith are also worthwhile and I've been told that as a short introduction Thomas F. Madden's A New Concise History of the Crusades is also very sound.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic! Thank you - I'm the anonymous from above. Great blog.

Anonymous said...

Where are your historical sources? Why type such long article without sources? You can say as much as you want but why should I believe you and not Rodney Stark if you can't prove anything? Just because you say so?

Thanks ;-),


(My english is not very good, i'm sorry...)

Tim O'Neill said...

Anony Mouse said:

Where are your historical sources? Why type such long article without sources?

It's not an "article", it's a book review. And I mention several sources - Runciman, Erdmann, Tyerman, Nicolle and Riley-Smith. Where do you think I got all this information about the Crusades and their historiography, from my imagination?

why should I believe you and not Rodney Stark if you can't prove anything?

"Prove"? What part of my review didn't I support with detailed argument? What part do you think I got wrong?

Brian Shapiro said...

From your description, I agree that the book has a really distorted account. I also agree with you when you say "the primary motivation of Crusaders seems to have been religious piety".

But from the picture you create, one would also think that Muslim encroachment wasn't even anywhere in European consciousness. That seems impossible to believe, given the expansion of the Islam around that time. Even though Alexander II failed to call to arms enough forces in 1063, when Pius II called for a new crusade in 1459 to defend Hungary he was also given meager support. The only leader who seemed enthusiastic about it was Vlad Ţepeş. All I would take that to mean, however, is that the lords in Europe at that time weren't interested in any idea of defending "Europe", they were more interested in defending their own fiefdoms.

So the Crusades can't be seen as a defensive war, in a political sense, because there was no imminent threat of attack on Europe as a whole. As long as there wasn't, there couldn't any motive for the lords to move to action and launch a full scale offensive. It took the faith and piety of the Crusaders to do that.

But how can you separate it from some understanding of Muslim encroachment? Would it have been enough to create the Crusades if the the Seljuks took the Byzantine Empire and the Moors never invaded Spain? Wasn't there a growing sense that Islam and Christianity were in conflict with one another?

Tim O'Neill said...

But from the picture you create, one would also think that Muslim encroachment wasn't even anywhere in European consciousness.

Show me some evidence that there was some sense of "Muslim encroachment" on Europe and I'll consider it. Because Stark came up with zero.

You're projecting modern ideas onto a past age and seeing several hundreds years of movement across the Mediterranean as some kind single "encroachment" by something called "Islam". It wasn't seen that way then.

What sparked a mass movement was Muslim encroachment on the Holy Places. Then guys in Europe got agitated. They did not see Islam as "encroaching" on "Europe" at all.

Brian Shapiro said...

I agree with you that the mass movement was sparked by the encroachment on Holy Places.

Like I said, there was no imminent threat of attack on all of Europe -- as you said, expansion of Muslim lands happened over several hundreds of years by different actors.

I don't have any illusion that Europeans felt that because Moors invaded Iberia and Seljuks in the Byzantine Empire that soon France would be taken over, then England, etc. and everything would fall in some Medieval version of the Domino Theory. Speaking of it in those types of terms would be giving a larger scope to the conflicts than existed at that time. I think we agree on that.

But what I'm trying to suggest is that Muslim wars with Christian powers affected Christian how Christians saw Muslims. Why was the Muslim invasion of the Holy Land such an earth shattering event to Christians? Why were Christians interested in pushing back Muslim incursions both in Spain and in the Holy Land, but not interested in going any further? Why didn't Ferdinand and Isabella end the Reconquista with Granada instead of pushing into Africa? Why did the Pope call for another crusade when Hungary was threatened?

So the question is less about whether the Crusades were a war to defend Europe, and more a question of how Christians perceived Islam.

Tim O'Neill said...

But what I'm trying to suggest is that Muslim wars with Christian powers affected Christian how Christians saw Muslims.

I think it's pretty clear they did.

Why was the Muslim invasion of the Holy Land such an earth shattering event to Christians?

I think a better question would be why did it suddenly become a big deal for western Christians about 450 years after it had fallen to the Arabs. That sort of question might have made a more interesting book than the one Stark wrote.

Why were Christians interested in pushing back Muslim incursions both in Spain and in the Holy Land, but not interested in going any further? Why didn't Ferdinand and Isabella end the Reconquista with Granada instead of pushing into Africa? Why did the Pope call for another crusade when Hungary was threatened?

These questions would probably need a book to answer them. Briefly, the answers lie in what they perceived they were returning to former Christian rule. Despoite that, the Crusader kingdoms would have expanded further if they could have done so, but they struggled to hold what they had already and this was beyond them. And the Spanish did push on further, jostling with Portugal for control of trade routes off Africa and annexing the Canaries. But the discovery of the route to "the Indies" (actually America) turned their attention west.

Brian Shapiro said...

I think it's pretty clear they did.

All I was trying to say is that after those wars, Muslims could be easily cast as enemies by polemicists, and perhaps Islamic control over former Christian lands would be pointed to as evidence of this.

I've read only a little about apocalyptic writings, but from my understanding, they seem to suggest more and more over time that Christians and Muslims were in a battle on some cosmic, teleological scale, which would eventually be won by Christians. Its not a "Domino Theory" that was expecting the fall of Europe, but still conveyed a sense that Islam was an enemy of Christendom, a feeling that Christians and Muslims would at some point in history be forced to war with each other, and a calling for Christians to be allies.

My sense is that the hundreds of years that had passed would have allowed the mythologizing of this in the minds of Christians. What were seen as temporal battles at the time they happened, with the fog of history could now be cast in some cosmic scale.

To the degree this was important on a cosmic scale, it would only be important to knights if there was some fight over holy sites.

I don't know whether you'd agree so far, but I'd add, first, that the apocalyptic theories, in turn, seem to be deeply influenced by Christian experiences with Muslims and reports about Muslims from foreign lands. If the Moors didn't invade Spain, for instance, would Christians have such negative feelings about Islam by the time the Holy Land was conquered? Would apocalyptic theories have been elaborated on to the extent they were? It was the appearance of Islam as an enemy that made the conquest of the Holy Land so much an affront to Christians.

Second, that the recapture of conquered Christian lands was taken as the first priority, as an attempt to 'beat back' a perceived enemy. Any other ambitions became second to that.

Of course, I've only started to read on this. If you have any good sources on apocalyptic writing I'd be interested in them.

Unknown said...

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We would love it if you could write a couple articles for us, link to us to help us spread trusted resources to other teachers, or even if Tweet or "Like Us" on Facebook. Anything is much appreciated in our quest to spread trusted resources.

Thanks and keep the great resources coming

Bre Matthews

Jason said...

Thanks Tim, I found this fascinating.

I have been troubled by some of Rodney Stark's errors for a while. In For the Glory of God, he is mistaken about the use of heavy cavalry being unique to the middle ages, Alexander with his companion cavalry being an early example that contradicts that proposition. (Online friends who are into mediaeval and ancient warfare corrected me on that)

A writer is only as good as his sources, and it seems that he does not engage with the full range of writers on these subjects.

Unknown said...

Hi Tim.

You mention at the end of the third paragraph that the Romans "[a] bizarre cluster of irrational superstitions that made up Roman religion."

Do you know of any good articles on the net about their beliefs and superstitions or a good book if not?

web hosting reviews said...

This was a really quality post. In theory I’d like to write like this also – taking time and real effort to make a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and never seem to get anything done… Regards, Mason

Tommykey said...

It seems like Stark has become a hack. I have one of his other recent books (though I'm at work right now and can't consult the actual title) which is titled something like Discovering God.

He relies heavily on a term he calls (though I don't know if he coined it)"divine accomodation", which basically means that God reveals himself to mankind according to their ability to understand and that he only reveals his messages to select few over time. The atheist in my chuckled at that, because such a god could have made all of us with the equal ability to understand instead of outsourcing it to one or two prophets per century.

At the risk of straying of topic, where Stark really made me laught in that book was when he gave as an example of divine accomodation when the head of the Mormon Church in the 1970's that God revealed to him that the Mormon's racist policies towards blacks were to be repealed. Did it never occur to Stark that in the wake of the Civil Rights movement in America, the Mormon leadership would be influenced by the climate of the times to refute such things?

But back to the Crusades, one thing I like to point out is that if the Crusaders were really interest in doing things intelligently, they would have assisted the Byzantines in expelling the Turks from Asia Minor before trying to take Jerusalem, beceause as long as there was a Turkish presence in Asia Minor, the position of the Crusader states was untenable in the long run. Of course, that would have depended on the Crusaders and the Byzantines having a commonality of interests that never really existed.

Larsen E Whipsnade said...

Nevertheless, Stark's book is a really enjoyable read. Sure, there's obvious errors,but the central thesis has nothing to do with heavy cavalry, etc. Rather, Stark suggests that Islamic fiefdoms are always bickering with each other, which leads to their downfall, as in the present day cases of Iraq, Palestine, and Libya. Because of their focus on correct interpretation of the Quran, Islamic cultures never quite get into creative analysis & learning the way Christian cultures do. That alone is reassuring, and worth the price of the book.

history_lover said...

:( I didn't think my comment had appeared on this site but I'm even more sad Tim doesn't feel like answering any of the questions I've asked - the history_lover rant. I really would like a reply to atleast some of my questions :C

Medievalgirl said...

I read this book, and I fear I may have believed more of it then I should. The major reason was for this I think was because I have heard a lot of the material before from other sources.

I may be wrong, but I do think that some Islamic learning may have been Greek/Byzantine in Origin, probably as a result of the annexation of Christian territory by Islamic powers. Perhaps there may be something in what Stark says here- though not the thesis that all was discovered by non-Muslims and so they were 'stupid' as you state.

I don't fully agree that Europe was entirely ignorant before the 11th century- men like Bede and Alcuin demonstrate that.

I stopped the error about Knights in armour being lifted into the saddle though - and gave the book 3 stars.

Thannks for this review.

Unknown said...

Hey Tim, what do you think of the Crusades? Were they a justified war by the Christians?

And why do you think the Muslims lost all their science and progress in the Middle Ages? What happened to them?

Paul said...

Having just purchased the book I was interested tonight in reading a critical perspective of it before I launched into it. You have certainly provided that.

But your high modality language increases my scepticism about your bona fides. You seem to rely a lot on hyperbole and emphasis to discredit Stark.

It is largely a hortatory rather than an analytical critique of the book. It makes me wonder if your primary motive in writing is apologetics rather than accuracy.

Still, I appreciated having it to read.


Tim O'Neill said...

"But your high modality language increases my scepticism about your bona fides. "

That makes absolutely no sense.

" You seem to rely a lot on hyperbole and emphasis to discredit Stark. "

Garbage. I back up everything I say with reasoned argument and evidence.

"It is largely a hortatory rather than an analytical critique of the book."


" It makes me wonder if your primary motive in writing is apologetics rather than accuracy."

"Apologetics" for what, exactly? Idiot.

Unknown said...

Interesting review. Not sure you make your case.

Stark's work is a short overview. So it will be lacking in some respects.

Tim O'Neill said...

Not sure you make your case.

Why not? Is there something I haven't addressed? Something I've got wrong? Details please.

Stark's work is a short overview. So it will be lacking in some respects.

It's a 275 page book. He couldn't make his case in that space? And the problem is not that his argument is somehow lacking in detail. The problem is that it is based on false premises, weak arguments and demonstrable errors of fact. Which I detailed above.

zildete said...

Thanks for your review! I was some 30 pages into the book when I threw it in the wall. Well, not literally, it was an e-book..

What do you think about Steve Weidenkopf's 'The Glory of the Crusades'

Tim O'Neill said...

"What do you think about Steve Weidenkopf's 'The Glory of the Crusades'

Never heard of it before. But having Googled it now, it looks awful.

zildete said...

Yeah, it was the same with Starks book, you don't have to read the sober reviews, it's plenty enough to read some of the positive reviews to become very, very, very sceptical..

PS: I got Starks book for free, I knew it was bad, but not so bad. Reminded me of 'Mohammed and Charlemagne revisited'. Not Pirennes theory, but Emmet Scotts book.

James L. Caldwell said...

This is a simple reply regarding memory. The idea of Muslim encroachment sparking the initial crusades has at least some merit, though, I believe, the act was one of reprisal rather than one motivated by wholly defensive concerns. It is true that hundreds of years passed between the incidents in question, but I would suggest that even the passage of a significant amount of time is not enough to deter an act of religiously or politically motivated reprisal. Consider the bells of Santiago de Compostela. Following the razing of the original structure by the forces of the Caliphate of Cordoba in 997, the bells and gates of the cathedralwere taken by Christian captives to Cordoba where they were installed in the Aljama mosque. Following the capture of Cordoba by the forces of Ferdinand III of Castille in 1236, the same bells and gates were taken from the Aljama and transported by Muslim captives to the Cathedral of St. Mary in Toledo. If this was not an act motivated by long memory, then it is certainly a fine example of unintended irony. I submit that the activities of the various muslim states were, indeed, part of European consciousness and memory at the time, and that reprisal,was very much a motivation behind the initial movement.

Tim O'Neill said...

"I believe, the act was one of reprisal rather than one motivated by wholly defensive concerns"

That's not that argument that Stark tries to make.

Unknown said...

A superb analysis, Tim, thank you! I'm sorry about all the semi-literates trying to sound intelligent in the comments. I guess it must come with the territory; I don't blame you for sometimes losing your cool. 😁. More off-topic (and forgive the momentary fawning), this is one of the most outstanding blogs I've ever had the pleasure of visiting. Please keep up the good work: those with brains can rest easier knowing that someone is out there battling ignorance in such a competent fashion.

Tim O'Neill said...

@ Wulf Nesthead

Thanks for the kind words. As you may have noticed though, this blog hasn't been updated for a couple of years now. These days I am focusing my attention on a particular type of bad history and fringe historical theory: that used by 'New Atheists'. That's not to say that the kind of warped history by Christians that we see in Stark's book (and in many of his subsequent books) isn't a problem. But as an atheist myself I have more of an issue with atheists who are ignorant about history using mangled pseudo history as the basis for their arguments. Besides, plenty of people are commenting on Christian bad history but no-one seems to be noting the same thing on the New Atheist side.

So you may find my History for Atheists blog interesting as well.