In a previous posting, an article by Thomas Madden was introduced, which dispels some of the myths and misunderstandings regarding the crusades. In addition to Madden’s extremely helpful work in general, sociologist Rodney Stark released a book in the last year called “God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades.” While there are small areas of disagreement between the two, Stark and Madden’s work are highly complimentary, with the medieval historian (Madden) providing the framework for cultural and religious analysis (Stark). While Stark’s book necessarily contains a large amount of history (and should in our rather historically ignorant climate), Stark spends even more time with cultural and economic factors that hopefully spell the death-knell of those who have bought into the myth that, “the Crusades were a series of colonial invasions fought by barbarous, greedy, and superstitious knights against the civilized and cultured Islamic world.” In lieu of a formal book review, some of Stark’s most useful points are outlined here:
1. There was no such thing as a “superior Islamic culture.” In Stark’s words, “…the sophisticated culture so often attributed to Muslims (more often referred to as ‘Arabic’ culture), was a actually the culture of the conquered people-the Judeo-Christian-Greek culture of Byzantium, the remarkable learning of …Christian groups such as the Copts…extensive knowledge from Zoroastrian (Mazdean) Persia…”(p. 56-57). This was true in virtually every area of science or the humanities, including medicine, astronomy, math, philosophy, and the like. In fact, after the conquered peoples were either assimilated, expelled, killed, converted, or in some other way removed, this “Muslim culture” became very backward. In fact, the wheel disappeared from an entire area for centuries in Egypt, North Africa, and Spain!
2. The idea of a church-caused “Dark Ages” is an a post-Enlightenment myth. Enlightenment-era figures such as Voltaire and Rousseau propagated this idea, especially since this type of reasoning criticized the church. However, Stark provides several technological advances that occurred to show how this is a myth; Europeans invented a collar and harness that allowed horses rather then oxen to pull wagons, and invented iron horseshoes, allowing goods to travel a greater distance and at greater speed. Also, Europeans discovered a collar that allowed horses to be lined up in columns, as opposed to abreast, allowing the hauling of large equipment such as giant catapults. Superior plow and crop-rotation methods allowed Europeans to eat a diet far better then had the common people anywhere, ever (p. 70). Also, military technology such as the crossbow and chain-mail allowed Europeans to win spectacular victories when greatly outnumbered. In addition, European (including Byzantine) ship building and sailing was vastly superior to Muslim navies, with Muslims hiring exiled ship Captains form Europe to man fleets (p.74-76). Stark then points out that in one area Islam had an advantage (the Greek classics in translation), the works were translated by Jews or Christians, and the work of Aristotle was often considered infallible, shutting down any sort of building or inquiry into other ideas. The Europeans were also familiar with these works, far more so then originally thought, as evidenced by such figures as Thomas Aquinas.