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