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“God’s Battalions”: a Revisionist History of the Crusades


I have been reading lately (I know, it’s a bad habit) and I picked up a couple of interesting books.  The first is “God’s Battalion’s”. a 148-page, heavily referenced but highly readable book about the Crusades.  The book makes the thesis that Christians should not feel guilty about the Crusades because it was part of a thousand-year-old world that just doesn’t exist anymore.

First, the Muslims who were evicted from (and massacred in) Jerusalem in 1099 had first evicted Greek Orthodox “owners” of Jerusalem a couple of hundred years earlier.  The First Crusade was initiated in an effort to regain control of Palestine, known as the Holy Land, from the Muslims.  The Muslim Arabs had themselves wrested control from the Constantinople-based Romans (after they had split off from the mother Church in Rome) shortly after the prophet Muhammad started a campaign of conquest in the seventh century.

The standards and practices of medieval warfare were violent in the extreme, and both Christian and Muslim warriors fought in ways we nowadays would consider most unchivalrous.  European Christians, however, possessed technological and material advantages in warfare that greatly enhanced their fighting ability and made engagements with Muslims rather one-sided.  Unless the Muslims were possessed of massive superiority of numbers, they were unable to win battles against the Christians.  Their main advantages were the crossbow and heavy chain mail armor, combined with close-marching infantry tactics that Muslims on horseback could not penetrate.

The First Crusade was successful because of these military advantages.  Despite their small numbers, European Christian knights were capable of overcoming the best Muslim armies in open warfare.  They also had advantages in siege techniques that made it possible to overcome resistance from Muslims defending their cities.  The later Crusades failed primarily because of insufficient material support from Europe; equipping field armies to fight two thousand miles from home was very expensive.  The Europeans held parts of Palestine for over a hundred years, until the money from home ran out.

In the meantime, the Crusaders built a number of very strong castles that are still standing today.  The Crusaders were motivated by religious devotion, in a way that we might find strange.  Anyone who went on a Crusade was offered remission of all their sins, and the Crusaders were an extremely sinful lot.  Many Crusaders promised to make the trip because they had committed outrages such as murder of a noble equal in status or making off with another’s wife and were promised salvation by their confessors.

In addition to military advantages, the Europeans also had cultural superiority on their side.  The Muslims were supposed to have great sophistication in the sciences and art, but this was entirely specious.  Their apparent advanced learning was due entirely to the non-Muslim people that were over-run in Muhammad’s conquests; they were allowed to maintain their prior status as long as they paid a tax to the conquerors and voiced their submission.

Arab armies conquered Persia, Byzantium, and western India, and allowed the sophisticated cultures that existed there to continue to operate much as before.  Much of the knowledge that these cultures possessed was translated into Arabic, and the great center of learning in Alexandria that had existed since the time of Alexander the Great was allowed to continue to function.  Since the Muslim Arabs had no knowledge of boat-building, they were forced to rely on the ports of Syria and Egypt for construction of the fleets that they used to venture into the Mediterranean.  They even had to use non-Arab sailors to pilot their ships.

As a result of their lack of sailing experience, the Arabs were unable to conquer Constantinople.  A vivid example of their inferiority at sea was the defenders’ use of Greek fire, which only Constantinople knew how to make.  This napalm-like substance quickly destroyed several Arab fleets; its precise formula has been sadly lost.  Apparently the substance of Greek fire was a liquid which would burst into flame on exposure to air and which floated on water; it could be sprayed through long nozzles onto attacker’s ships, instantly setting them on fire.

It was only long after the Crusades that the Ottoman Turks (non-Arab Muslim converts) were able to capture Constantinople by siege; by then they had superseded the Arabs in the Near East and North Africa and had over-run Spain.  The Ottomans ruled Jerusalem until their empire crumbled in the first World War.  The British took over control of Palestine at the end of the war and promised the Jews that they could have a homeland there.  This promise enraged the Arabs, who were living in Palestine when the Ottomans melted away and who had helped the British to drive out the hated Turks.  One of the motives for the British promise to the Jews (known as the Balfour Declaration) was that the British were forced to borrow huge sums from Jewish bankers to underwrite their prosecution of the war against the Germans and the Turks.

The double promise of the British was partly responsible for the conflict in Palestine that came to a head after World War II.  Jews, who had no other country in the world where they were really accepted, infiltrated soldiers into Palestine, declared a new sovereign country of Israel, and evicted 800,000 Arabs from the area.  Unlike the Arabs, who in 700 AD had massacred a significant portion of the Greek Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem, and the Crusaders in 1099 who massacred the entire population of Jerusalem, they only killed a few thousand resisters.  Some would argue that the genocide of six million Jews and the unsympathetic attitude of the rest of the world justified the Jewish occupation of Palestine and forcible removal of the Palestinian Arabs.  I would only say that “force majeure” and it is by now a long-accomplished fact.

It was only at the time of the development of Arab nationalism in the late nineteenth century that the concept of the Crusades and crusaders was resurrected to provide an analogy to the colonizing activities of the European powers before and after WW I.  Crusading had been forgotten for eight hundred years until the idea was given new life by Arab nationalists.  The resettlement of the world’s Jews in Palestine gave especial motivation to the Muslim attitude of jihad and resentment of European interference.

To make a controversial point, the Muslim religion is highly exclusionary and allows for only one interpretation.  Sharing Jerusalem with anyone, British or Jewish, was and is not on the agenda for devout Muslims.  In fact, to a truly devout Muslim, the entire world rightly belongs to Muslims, particularly Wahhabis.  The only correct place for Jews and Christians is as “dhimmis”, or subject populations who voice submission and pay a heavy tax.  The only right for Hindus and Buddhists is to die since they are “polytheists”.  Sharing the planet is not in the vocabulary of Muslims.

The book makes the point that the Crusades were a response to Arab Muslim aggression and should not be seen in isolation as a “greedy barbarian” invasion of a previously peaceful state.  The book also does a good job of puncturing myths of Arab superiority in warfare and cultural sophistication.

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