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Good myth-busting, but some deficiencies
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'.