I have always heard the Crusades were an example of Christian imperialism, greed, intolerance, and involved all sorts of injustices and evils against Jews and Muslims that have served as a source of bitterness between Christians and Muslims ever since. After reading, God’s Batallions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark, I realize that this story of the Crusades is not one that matches the historical record. Among other things, Stark argues for the following propositions:
- The Crusades began due to Muslim aggression against Christians, not a vision for Christian imperialism or the evangelization of Muslims.
- The Crusaders were not seeking to expand the Christian faith, but to defend pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem and to free Christians that had been conquered and subjugated by Muslims. The Crusades were wars of defense.
- Crusaders did not go on Crusades to gain wealth. Rather, Crusaders spent enormous amounts of money funding and sustaining their mission. Wealth flowed from Europe into the holy land, not the reverse.
- Only a small minority of knights joined the crusades. If there was great glory and wealth to be made from crusading, the small turnout is inexplicable.
- The two reasons most people joined the crusades was out of their need for penance (full forgiveness of sins was promised to all who went) and a desire to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims. Piety, not greed, motivated the crusaders.
- The Crusades were not a source of anger for Muslims against Christians until little more than 100 years ago.
- While there were some atrocities committed against Jews, Muslims, and Eastern Orthodox, these were not sanctioned by the church, were not characteristic of all crusades or crusading groups, and those who committed them were condemned by both the pope and the bishops.
- Muslims were not the poster children for tolerance, nor were the Christians the poster children for brutality.
- As for the notion that Muslim culture was enlightened, most of the cultural achievements attributed to Muslims (architecture, mathematics, medicine, etc.) were actually inherited from the people they conquered.
- In the Crusader kingdom, Muslims were never forced to convert and their lands were not confiscated. In fact, many preferred to live under Christian rule because taxes were lower and justice was meted out equally between Christians and Jews.
While the Crusades are not the highlight of Christian history, they are not the epitome of Christian evil either. They were necessary wars to stop Muslim aggression against Christians and to make it safe for Christians to make pilgrimages to the holy land. I encourage you to read the book and evaluate the evidence for yourself.