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God's Battalions: The Case for the…

God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades

by Rodney Stark

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God’s Battalions may one of those titles which is likely to create controversy, but controversy that may be necessary. Why? Perhaps because it is high time that the politically correct version of the ‘history’ of the crusades presented so often in the media was challenged. All too often it seems, the crusades are presented as an unprovoked attack by bigoted Western religious fanatics against a peaceful civilisation and its ‘enlightened’ populace.

Stark reveals that the reality was not so simple. I for one have heard or read before of Islamic aggression against Europe before the Crusades, and the conquest of much formerly Christian territory in North Africa and the Middle East, so this was nothing new to me, but it is useful in refuting the notion idea of the ‘unprovoked’ crusades. The author however, goes further to challenge the notion that the Islamic culture was technologically and intellectually superior to that of Europe, demonstrating that many of the intellectual advances in fact seem to have been made largely by Jews, Christians other minority groups, or pre-Islamic cultures.

He also rejects the notion of the ‘dark ages’, a term which is no longer favoured by historians, and argues that Western technology was actually superior to that of the East, which only triumphed in terms of ‘book learning’. Again, some of the above may be familiar territory considering my training in medieval history, though this first part of the book was altogether the more interesting.

As a historian the author’s occasional criticism or apparent distrust of the writings of those of this profession isn't something I would perhaps be entirely comfortable with.
I don't think they are all wrong and that he 'knows better' all the time, That said his his assertion about the lack of attention given to some events (like the massacre at Antioch) by some historians may be valid, and does not seem a good thing.
My only other concern was one claim made by the author which I know to have been historically incorrect – that knights who wore plate armour ‘had to be lifted onto their horses with looms’. This was never the case in battle, only with the more elaborate suits of armour worn at jousts, and its inclusion may cause some questions over the historical validity of some details and claims. For the most part however, I think the work is generally reliable.

The second half did not seem nearly as interesting and engaging, and seems to get caught up in what were essentially just brief accounts of the major events and persons of the crusading period.
There didn’t seem to be any real analysis, at least not in depth as one might expect from a more specialised history book, though this is not one of those. Rather it is an examination of the time period, and the major themes, trends and views thereof.
By arguing that there was indeed something in the stories of attacks on pilgrims, persecution of Christians and highlighting some of the massacres perpetrated by Islamic armies this work may do something to redress the imbalance of popular opinion against the crusades, and the ‘clashing civilisations’ which took part in them.
Also interesting was the mention of how some clergymen attempted to protect Jewish communities in the cities which crusaders targeted, demonstrating perhaps that anti-Semitic sentiments were not universally shared in the West.

Some have spoken of the author’s belief that the Crusades were a good thing, and whilst this work may indeed be somewhat polemical in its intention and the authors thinks regards the crusades as ‘Christendom fighting back’, I’m not sure if the author expressly praises them as something positive.
Maybe I just failed to notice such a sentiment which may have been present, but I personally get the impression that this book was more apologetic then designed to promote the ideals and actions of the crusaders, or apply them to modern American foreign policy.

Altogether God’s Battalions is a worthwhile work, though perhaps it would have been better as a more dedicated study of misconceptions about the crusades.
I understand that the author needed to give some overview of the main facts, but the way these took up much of the second half of the book, making it appear rather dull or dry, and seeming lack of analysis meant that I did not enjoy this as much as I could have. Also, whilst there are many good and worthwhile sources, I wouldn’t take everything the author says as ‘gospel’.
( )
  Medievalgirl | Oct 4, 2016 |
I did like Stark's willingness to probe a bit further into history and explain the Crusades and events leading to them, than to accept what is, in some quarters, a tendency to just pass off the Crusades as another Christian murder spree. He cites different bodies of work, (and some are dated, but which historical writer does not cite some dated material - duh - writing history sometimes does involve old materials?!). He exposes some of the biases or unwillingness of other authors to look at the contextual and cultural factors of the Crusades on both sides. I certainly was not aware of how many Crusades there were, how they were financed, how their mission was portrayed to their participants, and who fought in them. That being said, I felt there was some choppiness in the book. I also wish that there would have been some more maps, or maybe some better ones, included by the author so the reader could get a better perspective on the participant movements and locations of some of the cities/territories mentioned. ( )
  highlander6022 | Mar 16, 2016 |
Kindle. I expected more from this book. I didn't know that much about the crusades so this was very informative. I think he's stretching to make the contemporary connection. Sends me back to wonder about some of his earlier books I have admired. But this was very interesting. How could these events really have happened. Reality is always stranger than fiction. A good context for all of those stories about KNight Templars, etc. . . . . . This is a recommendation if you want to know more about Crusades.
  idiotgirl | Dec 26, 2015 |
I really liked this is part because it reminded me of other books and people from this time in history I've read about in the past. So many interesting people so largely forgotten.

A brief history of the crusades. The book appears to be very well cited and even if you disagree with the author's conclusions you have to admit his did his research.

One of the main points of the book is not that the crusades were wonderful but that they are unfairly understood in a modern context as a great evil mentioned in the same breath as the holocaust or the Spanish inquisition. Mr. Stark makes a very strong case that this demonstrates a misunderstanding for the motivations behind the crusades, the surrounding morals and rules of warfare in that time, competing atrocities on both sides, and how brief the negative view of the crusades has been. He makes a strong case that there is no tradition of hate in the middle east based on the depredations of crusaders.

Interesting book.

So many opportunities for great movies with the great characters in History. People like Richard the Lionheart and Iron Arm the conqueror of Italy are two that appear briefly here. ( )
1 vote Chris_El | Mar 19, 2015 |
Stark is right in saying that the crusades were not unprovoked. This, however, seems to be the most salient point he makes. On the whole, this work is quite tendentious. Stark relies too heavily on secondary sources. Furthermore, he uses his (limited) primary sources inconsistently and irresponsibly. This is a decidedly polemical pseudo-history that pushes well beyond what the evidence allows. With this attempt to offer a corrective reading of the crusades, Stark falls well short of his goal and probably does more harm than good. ( )
2 vote swaers | Sep 9, 2011 |
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In God's Battalions, award-winning author Rodney Stark takes on the long-held view that the Crusades were the first round of European colonialism, conducted for land, loot, and converts by barbarian Christians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. Instead, Stark argues that the Crusades were the first military response to Muslim terrorist aggession.… (more)

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