Takeaway: This is a good example of why scholarship is about the sum of multiple takes on a subject, not just one side. Stark attempts to show that the crusades were not as bad as they seem. He makes some good points, but over plays some of his arguments.
Rodney Stark has a history of taking an unpopular side of an historical argument and making a good case for it. He is not by any means a radical opponent of history, but rather attempts to correct the pendulum swings.
God’s Battalion is provocative, especially when the crusades have been used often in the last decade to bring up issues around 9/11, the Iraqi wars and Islamic terrorism. But Stark stays away from modern history and concentrates on the history of the crusades and the way those crusades are viewed by modern historians. Interestingly, he spends some time talking about when different shifts in thinking about the crusades originate and traces some of the historians that led the shifts.
About the first third of the book give pre-history to the crusades as well as the economic and cultural setting. I think this is a very strong section. Moving this history of the crusades back a few hundred years before Pope Urban II called for the crusade, Stark shows that there was already much interaction between the west and Islam including several failed Muslim attempts at invading the west. Already much of what is now Spain was under Muslim control and Urban II had called for a crusade to help Christians in Spain escape from Muslim rule prior to his call to free Jerusalem. One incursion into France got as far as Tours (about 150 miles south east of Paris) in 732.
Stark also shows that Europe was fairly prosperous at the time of the first crusade and the Crusades were not an attempt at getting rid of younger sons as is often charged, but instead it was mostly large segments of extended families that went to the crusade, not younger unattached sons.
Where he seems to overstep is how he deals with some of the atrocities. Mostly he blames them on lack of training and leadership, not on the intention of the Pope or leaders of the crusades. And he has a point. But it is no less true that the atrocities happened, no matter what the reason. I find it appropriate that apologies for atrocities have happened over the past couple decades. I think Stark is less in favor of apologies because he sees them as bad history. I see them as good theology, but want to know good history as well. I also think it reasonable that he attempts to compare the atrocities both with other Muslim warfare tactics and those from Europe. Both comparisons show the rules of war that the crusades were fighting under.
Stark is also clear to show provocations by both the Muslims and the Byzantines. It was the Byzantine emperor that first asked for the first crusade, but once it was started he was not sure he wanted Western armies roaming around his kingdom. So the first four crusades were marked by the Byzantines either actively working both sides, or in open treaty with the Muslims, or at very least not carrying through with promises for supplies and assistance. The sack of Constantinople seems to have been more a result of poor western planning than intention. This is the point where the crusades are often seen most wrong. Stark tries to show that it was really not as bad as either Byzantine persecution of western Christians or Muslim sacks of other cities. Stark systematically shows that much of the problems of the crusades were are result of internal politics and poor planning and not a result of overt racism, xenophobia or intention. He also is careful to show all the provocations, but I am continually reminded of my second grade teacher that used to always say, “two wrongs do not make a right.”
One area that I significantly question (because Stark does not really address it directly, and MacCulloch spends some time talking about) is the theological change with views toward war. Pre-Constantine most scholars think that Christians were pacifists or close to it. MacCulloch says that from Constantine to Urban II war was still considered sin, even though it was a necessary one. (Augustine wrote the basics of Just War theory around 500 AD). But that Urban II broke with theological tradition in promising salvation to those that served in the crusades. Then within a generation the Knights Templar were founded to be an actual fighting religious order. This seems to be a very significant change in theology in a very short period of time. But I am unsure how much bias is being introduced by MacCulloch and Stark. If anyone knows some history of this theological shift I would love to hear about it. I also wonder about the Templars as an order because the knights necessarily had squires, blacksmiths, and a host of support personnel that were not official full members. And the Knights Templar were a significant financial organization (lending money, transporting money, collecting rents, early insurance brokers and other financial services that were indispensable throughout Europe).
Within the last year I have read accounts of the crusades from Rodney Stark, Thomas Madden and Diarmaid MacCulloch. I tend to read my history like I read different versions of the bible. My Greek is pretty much lost and I never did learn any Hebrew. So when three different types of bible translations agree on a similar reading of scripture I am fairly certain that the English translation is good. So when these three historians agree on part of the understanding of the crusades I am more comfortable than in the areas where they disagree. (Although all three are primarily historians of Christianity, not historians of the Middle Ages or historians of Islam, etc.)
Overall I think this is a book that should be read if you have an interest in the history of Christianity or even interest in modern Muslim/Christian relations. I do not think this should be the only book you read on the subject. But I do think it should be one of the books you read.