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on 6 January 2013
In 732 on a battlefield near Tours Charles Martel stood triumphant,maybe not then knowing fully that the tide of history had been changed as the armies of Allah retreated to Al-Andalus,at this point it can arguably be stated that the first Christian Crusade began as a reaction to the Islamic Crusade that began in the deserts of Arabia.
Crusader histories always seem begin in the 11th century and seem to ignore the continued attacks and colonialist/imperial zeal of Islam that witnessed the submission of the Middle East and North Africa plus parts of the European continent in less than 200 yrs.
This book seeks to redress that imbalance and explain the Crusade as a reaction to not an attack upon Islam and i believe he succeeds,if you wish to understand present affairs and how the Crusades are taken out of context then this book should be on your list.
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on 17 April 2012
Stark is a sociologist who delights in digging up evidence undermining the conventional wisdom on issues of history and faith; which is what he does provocatively in God's Battalions.

Provocatively, because it is undisputed in the school education system and general culture that the Crusades were `a bad thing', that the Muslims were on the side of the angels, that the `Christians' were primitive thugs, and that all the current woes of the West's relationship with the Middle-East are merely the inevitable outworking of this earlier, unfortunate phase of our history. Stark refutes all these givens.

A significant problem for us in considering the Crusades is that we are dealing with a culture that is in pretty much every respect alien to us. It is hard to imagine ourselves into a world where everyone was deeply religious, yet at the same time often deeply immoral. To step back into medieval Europe would be at least as culturally disorienting for us as going to live amongst the Taliban today. Our cultural grid is radically different from that of our Crusading forbears.

The greatest tragedy of the Crusades is perhaps that those taking part truly believed that by doing so they were atoning for their sins and earning salvation. A clear understanding of salvation by grace through faith would have avoided a lot of grief... But this erroneous theology did produce some colourful characters: "Thorvald was a renowned Viking who had converted to Christianity... He undertook a pilgrimage in 990 seeking to atone for having killed two poets who had mocked his faith and another man who had criticized his preaching." I feel a certain empathy with Thorvald..!

Stark takes a broadsword to the assumptions we have about this period of history. He refutes the accepted wisdom that Muslims were tolerant of non-Muslims in the lands they conquered. He argues that the accomplishments of Muslim culture were actually the accomplishments of Christians and Jews (the dhimmi) living under Islamic rule, and that the Muslim population itself was culturally backward. (For example, the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem was built by Byzantine architects and craftsmen rather than Muslims.) He accepts Crusader claims on their own terms - that Muslims were the aggressors, who had invaded Christian lands, and oppressed the Christians over whom they ruled. He states that "Muslim memories and anger about the Crusades are a twentieth-century creation" in response to British and French imperialism after World War I and the creation of the state of Israel after World War II.

The fact that "the total number of books translated into Arabic during the 1,000 years since the age of Caliph Al-Ma'moun (a ninth-century Arab ruler who was a patron of cultural interaction between Arab, Persian, and Greek scholars) to this day is less than those translated in Spain in one year" has been oft quoted and Stark claims that "the inability of Muslims to keep up with the West occurred because Muslim or Arab culture was largely an illusion resting on a complex mix of dhimmi cultures, and as such, it was easily lost and always vulnerable to being repressed as heretical. Hence when in the fourteenth century Muslims in the East stamped out nearly all religious nonconformity, Muslim backwardness came to the fore."

Stark argues that the military successes of the Crusaders were also due to Muslim backwardness. For example, the Muslim navy was composed of ships that were copies of the boats of Christians, and were crewed by mercenaries from the West - this inevitably put them at a disadvantage against the more up-to-date craft of the Crusaders, and their more motivated crews.

A recurring theme in Stark's romp through the Crusading centuries is the tension that existed between Eastern and Western Christianity. Again and again the Byzantines, who had requested help from the West in order to resist the encroaching Muslims, betrayed and undermined the Crusader armies. That the Crusaders plundered Constantinople is often quoted as an example of the brutality and idiocy of the period, but reading Stark's arguments it becomes much more understandable why this event occurred.

Stark concludes his book pithily,

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

This conclusion will probably jar against everything you have ever been told about the Crusades, and if for no reason other than that this book is worth a read.
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on 22 February 2016
Most histories of the Crusades begin on 27th November 1095, with Pope Urban II standing on a wooden platform in the centre of the French city of Clermont-Ferrand addressing an assembly of Bishops and laymen. The pope had received an urgent request from the Byzantine emperor asking for help. Muslim forces had invaded Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine and had attacked Christian pilgrims and holy places. In response Urban urged the noblemen of Europe to mount an armed crusade, under the banner of the Cross, and march to Jerusalem. In God’s Battalions, Rodney Stark’s provocative, revisionist account of the Crusades, he begins - not with the pope’s appeal at Clermont - but 500 years earlier in the seventh century with the rise of Islam and the onset of the Muslim invasions of Christendom.

According to Stark, recent Crusade historians have argued that during the Crusades “an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalised, looted and colonised a tolerant, cultured and peaceful Islam” yet this is simply not the case. History can only be interpreted this way if one disregards events of the preceding five centuries. Once these are taken into account it becomes clear that, says Stark, “the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations: by centuries of bloody attempts to colonise the West and by sudden attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places”. Unfortunately, this reality has been largely ignored by the self-loathing, West-hating intellectuals who have framed the debate for the past 50 years.

In God’s Battalions Stark challenges this new orthodoxy and explains why the Crusades were a perfectly rational response to Muslim aggression and that for ideological reasons peace with the Muslim world was never attainable except through abject surrender. He also takes aim at those who claim the Crusaders themselves were motivated by nothing other than greed and he explores the strong religious faith which inspired the knights to engage in what Stark describes as “penitential warfare”. His arguments are thoughtful, well laid out and convincing and at the end of each chapter he writes a short conclusion in which he summarises and reiterates the points he has made. He’s fair too and he never tries to pretend that the Muslims were any more [or less] brutal and tolerant than were the Christians and Jews as they all lived in a brutal and intolerant age.

I enjoyed this book enormously and I found it to be a useful antidote to some of the more anti-Crusader, pro-Islamic histories of the period that are knocking around and I thought Stark’s underlying message about the dangers of considering historical events in isolation is something which has particular relevance today.
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on 16 December 2014
Stark starts by cataloguing the long list of Muslim conquests against Christian states and peoples from Syria and North Africa to Armenia, Spain and Southern France, but he also provides a chilling list of mass murders of Christian monks and pilgrims — each with dates and numbers: 70 Christian pilgrims executed in Caesura for refusing to convert to Islam and 60 crucified in Jerusalem in the early eighth century, the sack and slaughter of the monastery near Bethlehem in the later eighth century, the destruction of two nearby churches gradually escalating to multiple attacks on churches, convents and monasteries in and around Jerusalem including mass rapes in 808 and 813, a new wave of atrocities in 923, the destruction of an estimated 30,000 (yes, thirty-thousand) Christian churches including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 1009. So much for Muslim “tolerance.”

Stark also brings considerable evidence that the alleged “superiority” of Muslim/Arab culture was largely based on accomplishments of Persian, Jewish, Indian and, indeed, Christian scholars living under Muslim rule. Thus the alleged mathematical superiority of the Arabs came from the Hindus, the great libraries and legacy of learning came from the Greeks, Arab medicine was, Stark argues, “Nestorian Christian” in origin and so on. He then contends that the Christian west was anything but “backward” and the so-called “Dark Ages” is a misnomer that says more about the ignorance of historians than the state of civilization in the period between the fall of Rome and the First Crusade. Stark points out that the military technology of the crusaders — from stirrups, horseshoes and crossbows to the devastatingly effective “Greek Fire” — was markedly superior to the military technology of their opponents. But it wasn’t just in military matters that the crusaders were ahead of the Saracens. In the fields of agriculture, land-transportation and nautical technology, Western technology also significantly out-stripped that of the Middle East.

Stark is perhaps at his best in documenting the many times that Muslim victors slaughtered the garrisons and inhabitants of conquered cities — long before the first crusaders even set out from Europe. He points out the hyperbole in popular accounts of the fall of Jerusalem in the First Crusade as well. But he is most effective in countering the myth of Muslim chivalry is his account of the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the second half of the 13th Century, where time and again the Mamluk leaders broke their word and enslaved or massacred those to whom they had promised freedom and life. One quote from a primary, Muslim source about the sack of the great Roman city of Antioch should suffice to make this point. The source is a letter to the Prince of Antioch (who had not be present in his city to defend it) by none other than the Muslim Sultan himself. Sultan Baibars gloated: “You would have seen your Muslim enemy trampling on the place where you celebrate Mass, cutting the throats of monks, priests and deacons upon the altars, bringing sudden death to the Patriarchs and slavery to the royal princes. You would have seen fire running through your palaces, your dead burned in this world before going down to the fires of the next.” Ah, yes, Saracen “chivalry” at its best indeed.
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on 17 November 2012
The single best AND most readable work on the Crusades. Just about all books on this subject are heavily biassed against the West-not this though.
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on 18 January 2016
I wasn't sure what to expect when I ordered this book, but it definitely wasn't what I found. It's lively, funny and irreverent. A re-interpretation of all the dull history books you've read in the past. How accurately the crusades are portrayed is debatable, but isn't that the point? No-one really knows. All historians include guesswork and hunches, albeit based on research and this is no exception. I'm pretty sure the facts are verifiable but this interpretation has none of the stamp of 'blame' that we have come to hear so often lately in the West. We can't judge the past with the standards of the present and this book, very refreshingly, doesn't.
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on 3 April 2010
The author sets out his views with clear supporting arguments, nicly argued and cites his sources, how a history book; should be written
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on 15 September 2013
God's Battalions may one of those titles which is likely to create controversy, but controversy that may be necessary. Why? Perhaps because maybe 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 attributed to Islam seem in fact to have been made largely by Jews, Christians other minority groups, or in 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.

On the downside as history graduate the author's criticism or apparent distrust of the writings of those of this profession was an position which I would be unlikely to entirely accept.
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 no 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 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'.
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on 19 January 2016
As with all work by Rodney Stark, this is truly impressive and convincing. The most powerful part of it is that he sets out the case for current understanding in the strongest terms—and then shows why it does not match up to the established facts. Compelling stuff which will make you rethink your understanding of this important period of history—which has profound consequences for current geopolitics.
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on 13 June 2016
This is one of those books that aims to overturn all your previous assumptions - and it succeeds brilliantly. Rodney Stark shows that the supposed outrages of the crusades have largely been taken out of context. Both sides were brutal - that was the nature of the age - but seen in context, the crusades were not unusually cruel or unjust. Much of what we are commonly think we know about them is caricature.

What makes his account so plausible is that he demolishes a facile understanding of history: horrific, barbaric crusaders going east to confront enlightened, noble Saracens. History as a rule doesn't work like that, one side very bad, the other very good. Even the fourth crusade - the sacking of Constantinople - comes in for a review here. Again, the author convinces by restoring the century in question to the century in question. Taking it falsely out of the 21st century, in other words, where it is distorted by alien (admittedly much better!) norms.

Stark doesn't just state his case. He argues for it very clearly, and as the evidence and argument mount up, I'm sure even the most hidebound reader won't be able to resist the impression that he's got a point. More than one point, in fact.

Don't take my word for it, though. Read it yourself.
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