The Crusades: Actually Not So Bad?

Look into those Stark eyes.

The sociologist of religion Rodney Stark is back (just in time for Medieval Week) with yet another in his always-controversial oeuvre, this time with a book about the very thing we all thought we could love to hate about Christian history: the Crusades.

Our friends over at Patheos recently put up an interview with Stark about the book. Here’s how he situates his polemic:

Several months after 9/11, former President Clinton gave a speech at Georgetown University in which he apologized for the Crusades. He said we had much to be sorry about, and we bore some of the guilt for sending those airplanes plunging into the Twin Towers. Now, Clinton isn’t a nut. He’s not an anti-American. He’s just been miseducated. He’s been told a whole lot of nonsense about the Crusades.

What really happened, instead, is something much more glorious, much more holy:

The notion, for example, that the Crusaders went to get loot and land and riches is made absurd by the survival of hundreds and hundreds of mortgages that have been found in the archives at various monasteries and convents. These people mortgaged away everything they owned in order to get the money to march East. They went at enormous personal cost. Most of them died. They knew there wasn’t anything out there in the sand that was going to reward them for going.

He’s off to a fair start. The way many people remember them today, on both sides of the “clash of civilizations,” those centuries of medieval warfare have been twisted into a caricature of evil white-faced Papists descending on peace-loving Mohammedans, because it has a certain resonance in our post-colonial age. As Stark rightly insists, this isn’t true to the history. The Crusades were Catholic Europe’s effort to sum up a united response to a very real sequence of incursions by Muslim armies. People joined in, as people join wars in the Middle East today, with all sorts of tangled intentions, and it isn’t always easy to see where the spoils won by some military orders (read: Blackwater, Haliburton) converge with or diverge from noble intentions and self-sacrificial cost (read: democracy for all, enormous expenditure).

And—surprise, surprise—beliefs and ideas matter.

It really was a religious Crusade. If you don’t believe it, all you have to do is look at the mortgages, documented by Riley-Smith, where the people taking out the mortgages go on at length about why they’re borrowing the money in order to go. It was about Jesus.

It mattered, for example, that the great Bernard of Clairvaux preached holy war from his monastery in-between sermons on the Song of Songs. By the same token, it mattered that Francis of Assisi, disgusted with all the violence, saw it as his Christian duty to put his life at risk to meet with the Egyptian sultan personally—and it mattered that the sultan saw it as his duty to treat Francis with respect.

Stark, however, doesn’t give the sultan his due. His rereading of the history seems entirely meant to produce a mirror image of the mistake he’s so critical of. While the Christians had Jesus, the Muslims had, well, nothing. Here are some gross examples, which he proudly celebrates as an affront to political correctness:

Suddenly the Muslims were all backward, and the question was, “How did they lose all that civilization?” They didn’t. They never had it. [10th century population of Baghdad: over 1 million; 10th century population of Paris: 20-30,000]

Saladin was your typical eastern butcher. [Oh yeah, those Eastern butchers. No butchers here in the West, no sir-ee.]

The famous “Islamic” architecture, for example, was not Islamic. It was eastern Christian. [It is interesting to see certain resemblances between the (Byzantine) Hagia Sophia and the (Ottoman) Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Then again, the same might be said for the Pantheon and St. Peters.]

I’ve lately been reading a bit about what brought the great mathematician and philosopher G. W. Leibniz to Paris as a young man in the 1670s: he was sent to persuade Louis XIV of a plan to invade Egypt. Centuries after the medieval crusades, this reprise was a brilliant plot in its way. It would simultaneously distract the attention of France’s armies from the fractured German states while also using the crusading legacy to unite warring Protestants and Catholics against the Muslim Other. Leibniz was obsessed, in his philosophy as well as his politics, with bringing unity back to Latin Christendom. It was, for him, God’s work. Fortunately for the Egyptians, he failed in this particular attempt (as in others)—the Sun King was perfectly happy to keep invading his European neighbors and leave the Orient be.

The point is that crusades—for Bernard, Leibniz, and George W. Bush—are not simply  “about Jesus” any more than they are reducible to petty greed. We have to simplify the history to tell good stories about it all, of course, and there are better ways to do so than others. But the bases for both Stark’s militant triumphalism and Clinton’s liberal self-flagellation crumble in the face of the messy, engrossing truth.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.