Stark Truths

Pray for me, folks, because I’m nostalgic for the Crusades.

Of course a twenty-first-century fellow can’t really be nostalgic for the eleventh or twelfth centuries, since nostalgia properly means severe homesickness, a yearning for familiar conditions from a prior period in our own lives. But there’s a secondary meaning: a wistful longing for a lost dominion. I’m idealistically attracted – as perhaps I should be – to the qualities of the knight, such as honor and bravery, and incautiously suppose – as no doubt I shouldn’t – that these qualities arose in a time and in places congenial to virtue. Chivalry! The Crusades! Something to fight for! Where the heck are my sword and my steed?

If the Crusades ever evoked appreciation – and they did – that particular lost dominion took a pretty serious blow on September 16, 2001 when in an Oval Office speech George W. Bush said: “This crusade, this war on terrorism is gonna take awhile.” The press swooned and Muslim sensibilities were outraged, encouraged perhaps by the media swarf. That’s a mere eight years ago, but the Crusades – their reputation already foundering in the multicultural chop – have all but sunk into the black hole of politically correct disdain. Even “Kingdom of Heaven,” Ridley Scott’s 2005 film about the Third Crusade, failed to make the great expedition very interesting. Many saw the film as a scolding commentary on Crusader Bush.

Enter historian Rodney Stark, riding my missing horse. His new book, God’s Battalions, is actually subtitled: The Case for the Crusades. And he makes the case! With admirable frankness and flair. He writes that the prevailing wisdom about the Crusades may indeed be that “an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted, and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam,” but Stark’s next words are telling:

“Not so.”


Professor Stark (Baylor University) emphasizes that the onset of hostilities between Christians and Muslims long pre-dated the Crusades. We too often forget that for six centuries after the Resurrection there was no Islam and much of northern Africa and what we now call the Middle East were Christian or pagan. But from the beginning of Muhammad’s public life – and especially after his death in 632 – his followers began making war on just about everybody, and within a century Islam had swallowed up most of that eastern territory and by 1095 – when the First Crusade left Europe for the Holy Land – the Byzantine Empire, Christendom’s eastern bastion, was in grave peril of conquest, which is why the emperor, Alexius Comnenus, wrote to Pope Urban II telling horror stories about Muslim atrocities against Christians and begging for military aid from Europe.

Islam, according to the historical record as Stark presents it, is a “religion of peace” mostly in the sense that it seeks to subdue and unify the people it conquers. True, the Qur’an forbids forced conversions, but in practice this has meant that “subject peoples were ‘free to choose’ conversion as an alternative to death or enslavement.” And to be fair, in some places – Spain (Al-Andalus) is a good example – Christians and Jews might live in relative peace, since the Muslim ruling class sequestered itself, paying little attention to subject people (dhimmis) except at tax time. To many in southern and eastern Europe, Muslim expansion began to seem all but unstoppable . . . until it stopped. Christians fought back. Constantinople was able to hold off its invaders in several successful sea battles. Charles Martel defeated a Muslim force in what would become France. The Reconquista began in Spain, and in 1094 the legendary El Cid defeated an Islamic army at Valencia. Islam was in retreat.

With the letter from Alexius in hand, Urban II exhorted Christians to come to the aid of their besieged and battered co-religionists in the east, and 35,000 answered the call.

Stark not only busts the myth of Western imperialism, he also challenges the received wisdom that Islamic culture was superior to and actually transformed European culture. This impression, he writes, is at best an illusion: “To the extent that Arab elites acquired a sophisticated culture, they learned it from their subject peoples.”

Most important of all Stark’s contrarian conclusions is that many – perhaps most, certainly not all – crusaders marched to Jerusalem in a spirit of penitential piety and not in search of loot or earthly glory. That said, Stark’s tale spares none of the seedier subplots of the story: the anti-Semitism, the slaughter, the staggering expense. And in conformity to his counter-intuitive perspective, Stark’s portrait of Richard the Lionheart is actually quite positive. Richard has lately been portrayed as a war-mongering blunderer, but God’s Battalions shows him to be a courageous and cagey leader who bested Saladin and failed to re-take Jerusalem only because he knew the cost of holding it would be too great.

That history has tended to judge the crusaders unkindly derives less from their actual motives and achievements than from Western modernity’s faithlessness and incessant hand-wringing over our own cultural triumphs. No good deed goes unpunished.


Brad Miner, a former literary editor of National Review, is senior editor of The Catholic Thing and author of The Compleat Gentleman.

© 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

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  • William H. Phelan

    Thank you, Brad. You just gave me an idea for a Christmas gift!

  • Willie

    Onward Christian Soldiers
    Pray for me also.I am nostalgic for the Crusades. Despite the feel good, get along with everyone mentality of the the present regime, We are in a battle for the soul of Christianity. Those who would compare the Crusades with Islamic jihad would be wise to recall that the Crusades were a response to Islamic aggression. Then we seemed to have something to fight for. Those who think that the Infidel is not out to obliterate Christianity are naive. I wonder what would happen today if Islam attacked?

  • Richard A

    if they attacked?
    They have attacked! They are attacking!

  • Arthur

    Not a lone voice
    Stark is not alone in in the view that the Crusades were primarily a defensive endeavor. Professor Thomas Madden, crusade specialist, has convincingly pointed this out in lectures, TV appearances, and print. See his “The New Concise History of the Crusades.”

  • Willie

    To Richard A
    It’s only the beginning, my friend!

  • Joseph

    Jumpin Jihad
    Just what we need, another “just war.” Whatever happened to =”Love thy enemy”?

  • crazylikeknoxes

    Unashamed but
    The crusader spirit is lacking today, and I’m unashamed to be enthusiastic about this history. That said, I endorse Pope Gregory VII’s letter to the Muslim Ruler of Bijaya: “God, who wishes that all should be saved … approves of nothing in us so much as that after loving him one should love his fellow, and that what one does not want done to oneself one should not do to others. [W]e owe this charity to ourselves… [W]e…confess one God, admittedly in a different way and daily…venerate him…”

  • Maggie

    I wish a good historian would write, now, about whether the Inquisition was a response to the Islamic occupation and the subsequent Reconquest of Spain and the Mediterranean regions. It is always treated in isolation from the centuries that preceded it. One is always left to wonder why it came about.

    Thank you for this article.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Just War Inded,
    Dear Jospeh: If those who believe that “Love they neighbor” is a blanket command to never fight had their way Christianity would be, at best, an underground sect. If Christians had not answered the call of Pope St. Pius V to defend Christendom at Lepanto we would all be Muslims now. Our Lord told Peter to put his sword in his scabbard, not to throw it away.

  • Jeff Hendrix

    Legitimate Defense
    I’m with you, Brad. Marian chivalry, of course, need not be violent. It is saying YES like Our Lady in all kinds of circumstances, but the chivalric code is a yearning, IMO, not for a reason to whack and crack skulls, but to stand firm as a Pope’s man practicing the theological virtues. And, as per St. Thomas, legitimate defense of what needs our protection. Cheers

  • Timothy O’Donnell

    A brilliant piece!!! Also, Prof Thomas Madden has made a valuable contribution to much of Church History most especially the Crusades, Inquisition, and the Eastern Christian Empire. As luck would have it, Reine Pernoud’s “The Crusades” is available in English which further corrects the narrative from the Enlightenment.

  • Joseph Blain

    Great American Historians
    Dear Brad, yes Chivalry is a fair and noble thing. I also just finished reading Rodney Stark’s God’s Battalions and was deeply impressed on many levels not the least of which that it was written by a former Lutheran academic and acknowledged agnostic. Still waters run deep; it is reminiscent of the great William Thomas Walsh and the Last Crusade and Warren Carroll and the longest war of reconquest in history – Spain 770 years

  • Arthur

    History of Inquisition
    Dear Maggie, Prof. Madden also has a good audio course on CD covering the whole history of inquisitions, called “Heaven or Heresy: A History of the Inquisition.” Produced by modernscholar dot com, it’s probably available at your local library.