Friday, June 7, 2019

An Argument for the Defense

On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II mounted a platform set up in a meadow outside the French city of Clermont, surrounded in all directions by an immense crowd.

This is precisely the point where history began as far as the mainstream narrative of the Crusades is concerned.

In 1999, the New York Times had solemnly proposed that the Crusades were comparable to Hitler’s atrocities or to the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

And this is precisely where the mainstream narrative of this history ends.

This book was recommended to me in the comments of a recent post I had written on the topic of the Crusades, where I offered how my thinking has evolved on this topic.  The book generally conforms to my views, but offers much more detail regarding the history.

I do not intend to go into great detail in reviewing this book; an overview of some of the key points is my intent.  To begin…before Muslims lived in the Middle East, Christians lived there.  Before Christians brought an army from Europe at the end of the eleventh century, Muslims brought one about four centuries earlier.

Syria, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, Spain, Sicily and Southern Italy, major Mediterranean islands.  To the extent Christianity “conquered” some of these lands in the centuries after the Resurrection, this was accomplished not by warriors but by missionaries who would become martyrs.  To the extent all of these lands later succumbed to Islam, this was not done by missionaries, but by warriors.

The narrative is that the Muslim invaders left the Christian subjects in peace – once conquered.  The reality is not so neat.  To the extent there was peace, the Christians were always second-class – even third-class, behind Jews.  But this “peace” – such as it was – would often be interrupted by episodes of violence, rape, forced conversion, etc.  I hope none of this is controversial – invading armies and rulers behave this way often.

Further, there was no reason to believe that the Muslim armies would be satisfied where they were – on the doorstep of Constantinople, Rome, and Paris.  It was in this environment – and prompted by a request from the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus (a duplicitous character in his own right) – that the Pope gave his speech. 

Pilgrims to the Holy Lands were often persecuted, executed, crucified, stoned; monasteries attacked with monks slaughtered or burned and nuns raped; churches destroyed; the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the tomb below.  And this was all before the real difficulties surfaced, under the invasion by Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century.  It was in response to this invasion that Alexius wrote his letter to the Pope in Rome.

The Crusades didn’t begin with the Crusades; more specifically, the battle was not taken up by Europeans on foreign soil.  The Muslim armies were first turned back at Tours in France; Spain, Italy, and Sicily would be retaken; the seas would once again be controlled – to a large extent – by the Christian navies of Europe.

Stark offers a contrary view on the idea that European (Greek) culture and literature survived only due to Muslim scholars, noting – for example – that this culture and tradition was surviving just fine under Byzantium before the Muslims invaded.  As it was, even under Muslim rule much of the scholarship was conducted by non-Muslims.

Stark further contrasts technologies employed by and available to Christian Europe vs. Muslims in the east: transport, agriculture, and military might (shielding and crossbows being two of the more important examples) all favoring the Europeans. 

Stark also offers a different picture of the typical Crusader: not in search for riches, as the Crusade was self-financed, often by selling or mortgaging much of his real property; not as a way to get rid of too many sons, as often entire families and extended families would ride out together.  Many fought for the perceived need for penance; many also saw in it the liberation of the Holy Land.

Regarding the First Crusade, the journey was arduous – by land over thousands of miles, often unfriendly miles.  Only a minority of Crusaders would ever get to see the Holy Land, and only a few of these even survived the fighting once there.  In addition to the princes, there was a “People’s Crusade,” led by Peter; most of these Crusaders died along the way.  There was the German Crusade and the slaughter of Jews along their way.

Once the remnants reached Byzantium, they were virtually abandoned by the same Alexius who requested aid.  Over the course of the several Crusades, the Byzantines would continue in such a manner – even to include making alliance with the Muslims and against the Crusaders.

What follows are bloody victories; the struggle to maintain and defend these kingdoms via further Crusades; Saladin and the retaking of Jerusalem (no, he was not as honorable as we have been told); finally, the abandoning of the entire endeavor. 

Those in Europe were tired of fighting and paying taxes (the Holy Lands were not a source of revenue, but a cost center); they found no support from Byzantium – in fact, they found antagonism.


I will leave this in Stark’s hands:

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

Of course, we could have a robust discussion around the concept of “God’s battalion.”  But that is entirely a different subject.


  1. Rodney Stark has a lot of other interesting books I've been thinking about reading too. Here are a few on my list (along with the one you've chosen):

    "Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History"

    "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success"

    "The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries"

    "Reformation Myths: Five Centuries of Misconceptions and (Some) Misfortunes"

    Some other Catholic authors I'm looking to read up on are Peter Kreeft and Christopher Dawson.

    Interestingly enough, I think I first heard a defense of the Crusades by the libertarian atheist Stefan Molyneux. Before this I thought it was a somewhat substantial blemish on the Christian record, but now I'm convinced that the case of defense was justified.

  2. " noting – for example – that this culture and tradition was surviving just fine under Byzantium before the Muslims invaded."

    Wasn't a lot of this heritage of antiquity preserved among the Christian monasteries of Ireland as well? St. Patrick?

  3. You wrote: To the extent Christianity “conquered” some of these lands in the centuries after the Resurrection, this was accomplished not by warriors but by missionaries who would become martyrs.

    This is simply false. We know from the accounts of Christians themselves that they spread Christianity by the sword and government fiat. Christianity was imposed on the people of the Roman empire by decrees of Roman emperors. Competing Christian cults fought each other in the streets. Eusebius, bishop of Caesaria wrote about sending a group of his thugs out to destroy a pagan temple. The pagans objected to this and defended their temple. Several of Eusebius's thugs were killed and Eusebius refers to them as martyrs. Read the accounts of Charlemagne's army in Saxony. They would go from house to house demanding that any pagan statuary be destroyed. People who refused were murdered by Charlemagne"s thug army. After the Saxons were forcibly converted, they later followed Charlemagne's example by ravaging through eastern Europe converting the pagans. The Tuetonic Knights were every bit as vicious as Charlemagne's thugs, Eusebius's thugs, and any muslim thugs such as ISIS.

    The image of the humble monk walking from house to house spreading the gospel, and of the poor pagans being thrilled to learn "the truth" and falling to their knees in blissful prayer is pure balderdash. The victors write the histories. But often they reveal a bit too much.

    1. Unknown,

      These facts are well-known, even to me.

      None of these have to do with the first three centuries of Christianity - prior to Constantine. Which is exactly the time period I wrote of ("in the centuries after the Resurrection") and you even included in your quote.

      This, compared to the conquests of Islam, which were by the sword from the beginning.

      Perhaps you can now apologize?

    2. Apologize to whom?

      In fact very little is known about the spread of Christianity in the first three centuries. Much of it is from the writings of the very creepy Eusebius who readily admits to forging documents. For example, the tale of a young girl singing songs of praise to Jesus while being ripped apart by lions in the Roman Colosseum are obvious nonsense. All for a good cause, I guess.

    3. The Christians had no power until Constantine, three centuries later. Christianity certainly didn't spread by military conquest at any time before this.

      We aren't speaking of young girls signing songs, so please try to stay on point. You are deflecting; it would be better if you just said that you didn't read my original sentence carefully enough.

    4. In your post you did not specify the "first three centuries" after the mythical resurrection. And again, neither you nor anyone else has any idea how Christianity did or did not spread during the first three centuries. If I'm wrong about this, please tell me how so.

      We do, however, know a great deal about how Christianity was spread after Constantine because Christian writers at the time were all too happy to tell us all about it. It was made a crime to be anything other than a Christian. And a short time later that crime was punishable by death. There was really very little difference between living where Christians were running things verses where Muslims were running things.

      Christians used to kill heretics. See the Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas, his chapter on "Heresy" says it all. It's great that Christians have finally given up on the killing of heretics. Perhaps in the future the Muslims will give it up too?

    5. You are correct, my use of the term "centuries" could be taken to mean two or twenty. Given the context of what I wrote, it seemed to me clear.

      Now, to be precise, it was more than two centuries but less than three centuries; we cannot say with certainty because there is some disagreement as to the dates of Jesus. I hope some slight lack of precision does not cause you further grief.

      We need not have a daily diary of these first centuries (again, more than two but less than three, so you understand my specific meaning) to know one thing: Christians did not have a military that could conquer Rome. Which, again, is within the context when I compared this to how Islam was spread in its early centuries (do you require more precision here as well?).

      If you have some evidence to the contrary regarding Christianity being spread by military conquest in the first more-than-two-but less-than-three centuries after Christ, please enlighten me.

    6. So, let's assume that Jesus existed and was crucified and resurrected approximately 30AD - 33AD. About 300 years later the Roman Emperor Constantine allows Romans to worship Jesus. A few decades later another Emperor makes it a crime to worship anyone other than Jesus. About 250 years later Mohammad and his army begin their wars of expansion and forcible conversion to Islam. A couple hundred years after that, Charlemagne begins his wars of expansion and forcible conversion to Christianity.

      You want to focus on the first 300 years of Christianity, a time period when very little is known about Christianity, and claim that it was spread "by missionaries who would become martyrs." Well, maybe that's true. But then you want to ignore the period between Constantine and Mohammad, a time when we know a lot more about the spread of Christianity by thugs like Saint Ambrose.

      You're essentially making a claim about Christianity based on myths about a time period about which very little is known, and using those myths to make a comparison between Christianity and Islam. But if you compare what is actually known about Christianity and Islam during time periods about which we know a great deal, the two cults don't seem all that different.

  4. "There was the German Crusade and the slaughter of Jews along their way."

    Bionic, I know you can only include so much history in one blog post, but this sentence can definitely use a dose of context. Jews throughout history have collaborated with the Mohammedans against their Christian hosts--not just during the Crusades but the Reconquista, as Catholic apologist Tracy Tucciarone has written at her Fisheaters website:

    "Now, there was another big problem, too: from the beginning of the Islamic onslaughts, Jews had also been cooperating with Muslims in their attempt to conquer Spain. The Spanish Historian and Orientalist Pascual de Gayangos y Arce put it very simply by saying that 'the Jews opened the gates of the city to the Moslems.' Given what most people think about the state of Jewish-Muslim relations today, that might sound surprising, but in that time, before the rise of Zionism which has been the source of grave injustices against the Christian and Muslim Palestinian people--murder, being forced from the lands their families had lived on for thousands of years, etc.--Muslims and Jews got along very well. They thrived together in lands conquered by Muslims, especially in North Africa. Post-Temple Judaism teaches utter contempt for Jesus Christ, treating the worship of Him as 'idolatry,' and Islam sees Jesus as a mere Prophet, thereby escaping the 'idolatry' charge. Muslims and Jews became allies, with Jews seeing Islam as a force to wipe out their greatest perceived enemy: the Christians (just as many religious Jews and Jewish leaders do today)."

    Of course, one must take care when portraying Jews as a fifth column in Western lands, lest one be accused of "perpetuating anti-Semitic canards." Far safer to couch the conflict as springing entirely from Christianity's inveterate anti-Semitism. Now that's just vanilla history.

    1. Tony, the author did not really include any context in his book, and I did not look further into it as it seemed secondary to the larger story. Even tertiary, behind the duplicitous behavior of the Byzantine emperor.

      But I agree, that there is more to the story.