+ Real Crusades History +

+ Real Crusades History +

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

REVIEW: God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark

At the start of each month + Real Crusades History + brings you a review of a book relevant to the crusades or the crusader states. Today we start with an essential background work which we recommend for anyone starting out to learn about the crusades.

This well-researched book with its profuse bibliography and copious notes is not a history of the crusades. Nor is it, as some reviewers suggest, an apology for the crusades. Rather this is an extended essay which refutes a number of common myths or outdated theories about the crusades and the crusader states. Stark is not a polemicist, but a professor at Baylor University, who has published extensively on religion and sociology.  In short, he is a scholar intent on paring away legend and prejudice to enable academic and popular discourse shaped by fact not fiction. Any serious scholar of the crusades and the crusader states should start with this book — and then get on with their actual research unencumbered with false notions.  Even more important, this ought to be required reading in all classes that touch on the topic of the crusades.

Stark systematically dissects and destroys the following notions about the crusades that still dominate public perceptions and debate.

  1. The idea that the crusaders were aggressors, who fell upon peace-loving and tolerant Muslim states without provocation.
  2. The equally anachronistic idea that the crusades were an early form of European colonialism.
  3. The claim that Jerusalem was particularly “holy” to Muslims in the period before the Crusades.
  4. The thesis that crusaders were primarily motivated by greed.
  5. The portrayal of crusaders as uncultivated barbarians fighting a “higher” civilization in the Muslim east.
  6. The assertion that the Christians conducted warfare in ways that were more brutal and cruel than their enemies.
  7. The myth that the Muslim rulers were more tolerant of other religions — and their own heretics — than Christian rulers.
  8. The thesis that Western/Latin crusaders fell upon Constantinople without provocation and “destroyed” the city without cause.
  9. The notion that bitterness over the crusades persisted (despite the Muslim’s complete and utter victory over the Crusader States in the second half of the 13th century) to the present day.
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 agricultural, 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.

The book does have its weaknesses, of course. Stark is covering far too great a canvas to provide any analysis or detail.  His book is structured as a rebuttal to unfounded allegations and theses, but for the most part he does not provide alternative theses.  Certainly, he does not describe personalities and their impact on events except in some rare instances. His explanations of developments are often facile, and occasionally he falls into outright errors. (For example, he claims plate armor was so heavy a knight needed a crane to mount his horse; in reality it was much lighter than chainmail and a knight in his prime could vault onto his horse without use of a stirrup much less a crane. ) But the bottom line is that this book does what it sets out to do: it destroys a whole series of insidious myths that turn the crusades into an excuse for all subsequent barbarity; it clears the way for a more productive debate based on fact rather than falsehood.

Dr Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is the author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction, including a three-part biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Battle of Montgisard, November 25, 1177

On November 25, 1177 a Frankish army under the command of a 16-year-old leper routed the army of the mighty Sultan of Cairo and Damascus, Salah ad-Din. It was a surprise victory to say the least, and won by a mere fragment of the Frankish chivalry (because a large portion of the knights of the kingdom were campaigning in the north) and the hastily summoned, amateur infantry of the arrière ban. 

In in 1177, Salah-ad-Din (known in the West as Saladin) launched a full-scale invasion of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.  It was less than ten years since Saladin had assassinated his way to power in the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo, and only three years since the coup d’etat in Damascus by which he had established himself in the heart of Syria. Although he had yet to take the key cities of Aleppo and Mosul (both of which remained loyal to the son of Nur ad Din), Saladin had for the most part united the Caliphates of Cairo and Baghdad for the first time in 200 years. However, his hold on power was precarious. In Egypt his faced suspicion and opposition because he was Sunni, and in Syria he was viewed as a usurper and upstart because he was a Kurd and had stolen the Sultanate from the rightful heir.

A Contemporary Depiction of Salah-ad-Din from an Islamic Manuscript

Saladin countered these internal doubts and dissatisfaction with his rule with the age-old device of focusing attention on an external enemy: the Christian states established by the crusaders along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. These states represented not merely a military threat to his lines of communication between Egypt and Syria, but had also five times in the 1160s invaded Egypt. The Frankish campaigns in Egypt were not all been wars of aggression, as in three of them the Shia Viziers had requested Christian help against their Sunni enemies.  Nevertheless, the fact remained that army of Jerusalem, often aided by Byzantine fleets, had conducted repeated campaigns on Egyptian territory and once come close to capturing Cairo.

Saladin did not simply beat the drum of alarm concerning an external enemy in order to rally his subjects around him; he took up the cry of “jihad” — Holy War. This was a clear attempt to increase his stature vis-a-vis his remaining rivals in Syria. Salah-ad-Din means “righteousness of the faith,” and Salah-ad-Din throughout his career used campaigns against the Christian states as a means of rallying support.

Another depiction of Saladin; Source Unknown

Saladin had not invented jihad. The word itself appears multiple times in the Koran, but with varying meanings. It was also used as justification for the Muslim conquests of the 7th Century.  It had, however, become less popular in later centuries until Nur ad-Din, the Seljuk ruler of Syria from 1146-1174, reinvigorated the concept. Most historians agree, however, that Nur ad-Din used jihad when it suited him, but remained a fundamentally secular ruler. He had, however, unleashed the jinni from the bottle and the concept of “Holy War” soon gained increasing support in the madrassas and mosques across the Seljuk territories of the Near East. By the time Saladin came to power there was a body of already radicalized youth eager to follow the call to jihad.

Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, King Amalaric, who had been so intent on conquering parts if not all of Egypt, had died.  He had been succeeded by Baldwin IV, a youth suffering from leprosy. Conscious of his own weakness and immanent death, Baldwin IV sent to the West for aid, and in early August 1177, Count Philip of Flanders reached Acre with a large force of Western knights.

On the advice of the High Court, Baldwin IV offered Philip of Flanders the regency of his kingdom, whose armies were preparing yet another invasion of Egypt aided by a large Byzantine fleet. Flanders, however, insisted on being made king of any territories the joint Christian forces conquered. The idea did not sit well with either the King of Jerusalem or the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, both of whom were footing the bill and providing the bulk of the troops for the expedition. The result was that the entire expedition was called off, the Byzantine fleet withdrew and Philip of Flanders took his knights and half the barons of Jerusalem north to attack the Seljuk strongholds of Hama and Harim instead.

A Medieval depiction of a Crusading Host

Salah ad-Din had gathered his forces in Egypt to repel the impending attack. He rapidly learned that not only had the invasion of Egypt been called off, the Byzantine fleet had withdrawn and the bulk of the fighting forces of Jerusalem had moved north. It was a splendid opportunity to strike, and the Sultan seized the opportunity with a force estimated at 26,000 light horse — which leaves open the question of whether there were infantry with him or not. The force also allegedly included some 1,000 mamluks of the Sultan’s personal body guard.

According to an anonymous Christian chronicler from northern Syria, the news of Saladin’s invasion plunged Jerusalem into despair. The king was just 16 years old, had no battle experience of his own, and his most experienced commanders (or many of them) were besieging Hama. The Constable of the Kingdom, the competent and wise Humphrey de Toron II, was gravely ill. But according to Archbishop William of Tyre, Baldwin’s former tutor now his chancellor and our best contemporary source, Baldwin rallied his forces and with just 376 knights made a dash to Ascalon, the southern-most stronghold of his kingdom.

Arriving there only shortly before Saladin himself on November 22, King Baldwin took control of the city, but then hesitated to risk open battle with the Saracens because of the imbalance of forces.  Thus, while King Baldwin's dash to Ascalon had been heroic, it had been less than wise strategically. Salah ad-Din had effectively trapped the King and his knights inside Ascalon, and nothing lay between Saladin and Jerusalem except scattered garrisons. Rather than wasting time besieging a fortified city with a strong defending force, Saladin left a enough of his army behind to maintain the siege of Ascalon and moved off with the bulk of his troops.

But this was where Salah ad-Din miscalculated. The Sultan and his emirs were so confident of victory that they took time to plunder the rich cities of the coastal plain, notably Ramla and Lydda, but also as far inland as Hebron. In Jerusalem, the terrified population sought refuge in the Citadel of David.

The Citadel of David as it appears today.
But Baldwin IV was not yet defeated. With the number of Saracen troops surrounding Ascalon dramatically reduced, he risked a sortie. Even more impressive, he somehow managed to get word to the Templars in the fortress of Gaza, and they sortied out to rendezvous with the King. Together this mounted force started to shadow Saladin’s now dispersed and no longer disciplined army. Frankish tactics, however, required a combination of cavalry and infantry, so King Baldwin could not engage the enemy  until he had infantry as well. He therefore issued the arrière ban, a general call to arms that obligated every Christian to rally to the royal standard in defense of the realm. Infantry started streaming to join him.

On the afternoon of November 25, King Baldwin’s host of about 450 knights (375 secular knights and 84 Templars from Gaza), with their squires, Turcopoles and infantry in unspecified numbers caught up with the main body of Saladin’s troops at a place near Montgisard or Tell Jazar, near Ibelin (modern day Yavne).  The Sultan, as he later admitted to Saracen chroniclers, was caught off-guard. Before he could properly deploy his troops, the main force of Christian knights, led (depending on which source you believe) by Reynald de Chatillon, “the Ibelin brothers” or the Templars, smashed into Saladin’s still disorganized troops, apparently while some were still crossing or watering their horses in a stream.

A modern portrayal of the Battle of Montgisard by Mariusz Kozik

Although the battle was hard fought and there were Christian casualties, the Sultan’s forces were soon routed.  Not only that, Salah ad-Din himself came very close to being killed or captured and allegedly escaped on the back of a pack-camel. Yet for the bulk of his army there was no escape. Those who were not slaughtered immediately on the field, found themselves scattered and virtually defenseless in enemy territory. Although they abandoned their plunder, it was still a long way home — and the rains had set in.  Cold, wet, slowed down by the mud, no longer benefiting from the strength of numbers, they were easy prey for the residents and settlers of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  The latter, after the sack of Lydda, Ramla and other lesser places, had good reason to crave revenge. Furthermore, even after escaping Christian territory, the Sultan’s troops still found no refuge because once in the desert the Bedouins took advantage of the situation to enslave as many men as they could catch in order to enrich themselves. Very few men of the Sultan’s army made it home to safety in Egypt.

Saladin was badly shaken by this defeat. He had good reason to believe it would discredit him and initially feared it would trigger revolts against his rule. Later, he convinced himself that God had spared him for a purpose. Certainly he was to learn from his defeat. He never again allowed himself to be duped by his own over-confidence and his subsequent campaigns against the crusader states were marked by greater caution. It was not until the crushing defeat of the Frankish armies at Hattin in July 1187 — almost ten years later — that he had his revenge.

The Battle of Montgisard is an important episode in "Knight of Jerusalem," the first book in the Jerusalem Trilogy.

Buy now!                                         Buy now!                                        Buy now!

Dr. Helena P. Schrader has joined the Real Crusades History Team and taken over the position as Editor in Chief of the + Real Crusades History + Blog.