Friday, February 5, 2016

Understanding the Crusades (Pt. I)

Islamic terrorism, it's sometimes alleged, is fueled by resentments fostered by the wars conducted against Muslims in the Holy Land 800 years ago. The Crusades are often claimed to have been wars of imperialism waged against peaceful Muslims who defended themselves heroically against the malevolent Europeans, defeating them time after time in battle. All of that, however, happens to be false, according to Rodney Stark in his excellent book on the Crusades titled God's Battalions.

The Crusades, Stark argues, were defensive wars fought in response to Muslim atrocities against Christian pilgrims. The Crusader armies were technologically superior to their foes and were almost invariably victorious over them, but, after several centuries of occupation, eventually failed to hold their gains because of a lack of will among political leaders back home to spend the money necessary to sustain an army at such a distance. Moreover, so far from going to war to rob Arabs of their wealth, the Crusaders incurred enormous expense to make the arduous journey and few expected to reap any profit from a land that, in any case, offered precious little wealth to plunder. Indeed many Crusaders expected never to return home at all and many did not.

A review by Greg Scandlen in The Federalist of Stark's book helps clear away a lot of the mythological fog about the Crusades. Here are some highlights:
In light of President Obama’s recent remarks comparing the brutality of the Islamic State to the Crusades, it might be time to take a fresh look at those events. Were they really the one-sided Dark Ages barbarism we have been taught? Were they an early manifestation of Western imperialism and global conquest?
Scandlen notes that the Crusades were first of all a reaction against Muslim aggression and atrocities:
[I]n the final years of Mohammed ... a newly united Arab people swept through (Zoroastrian) Persia and the (Orthodox Christian) Byzantine- controlled areas of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa. (Byzantine refers to the Greek-speaking eastern remainder of the Roman Empire.) Eventually Arabs took over control of the Mediterranean islands, most of Spain, and the southern part of Italy, and even reached as far as 150 miles outside of Paris before being turned back by the Franks, or early French.

The Muslims were brutal in their conquered territories. They gave pagans a choice of converting to Islam or being killed or enslaved. Jews and Christians other People of the Book) were usually but not always treated somewhat better, and allowed to retain their beliefs but under conditions of Sharia subjugation....

Not surprisingly, there was intense Christian resistance and determination to take back lost territories. Especially effective were the Normans and the Franks in Spain and Italy.
But that was all prelude. One myth Stark wishes to dispel is that Islamic science and learning was somehow superior to that of Europeans of the period. In fact, he argues, Islamic learning and technology was largely a borrowed commodity:
Stark says the best of the Islamic culture was appropriated from the people Muslims conquered—the Greeks, Jews, Persians, Hindus, and even from heretical Christian sects such as the Copts and Nestorians. He quotes E.D. Hunt as writing, “the earliest scientific book in the language of Islam [was a] treatise on medicine by a Syrian Christian priest in Alexandria translated into Arabic by a Persian Jewish physician.” Stark writes that Muslim naval fleets were built by Egyptian shipwrights, manned by Christian crews, and often captained by Italians. When Baghdad was built, the caliph “entrusted the design of the city to a Zoroastrian and a Jew.” Even the “Arabic” numbering system was Hindu in origin.

And, while it is true that the Arabs embraced the writings of Plato and Aristotle, Stark comments,
However, rather than treat these works as attempts by Greek scholars to answer various questions, Muslin intellectuals quickly read them in the same way they read the Qur’an – as settled truths to be understood without question or contradiction…. Attitudes such as these prevented Islam from taking up where the Greeks had left off in their pursuit of knowledge.
Meanwhile, science and technology were burgeoning in Europe and it was these advances which gave the Europeans enormous advantages over their Muslim opponents in war:
[The] explosion of technology [in Europe] made ordinary people far richer than any people had ever been. It began with the development of collars and harnesses that allowed horses to pull plows and wagons rather than oxen, doubling the speed at which people could till fields. Plows were improved, iron horseshoes invented, wagons given brakes and swivel axles, and larger draft horses were bred. All this along with the new idea of crop rotation led to a massive improvement in agricultural productivity that in turn led to a much healthier, larger, and stronger population.

Technology was also improving warfare with the invention of the crossbow and chain mail. Crossbows were far more accurate and deadly than conventional archery, and could be fired with very little training. Chain mail was almost impervious to the kind of arrows in use throughout the world. Mounted knights were fitted with high-back saddles and stirrups that enabled them to use more force in charging an opponent, and much larger horses were bred as chargers, giving the knights a height advantage over enemies. Better military tactics made European armies much more lethal. Stark writes:
It is axiomatic in military science that cavalry cannot succeed against well-armed and well-disciplined infantry formations unless they greatly outnumber them…. When determined infantry hold their ranks, standing shoulder to shoulder to present a wall of shields from which they project a thicket of long spears butted in the ground, cavalry charges are easily turned away; the horses often rear out of control and refuse to meet the spears.

In contrast, Muslim warriors were almost exclusively light cavalry, riding faster but lighter horses bareback with little armor, few shields, and using swords and axes. Their biggest advantage was their use of camels, which made them much more mobile than foot soldiers and gave them the ability to swoop in and out of the desert areas to attack poorly defended cities.
Another advantage Stark discusses but Scandlen omits is the development of something called Greek fire, a mysterious napalm-like substance that could be sprayed from tubes at enemy ships and other fortifications. Because it was flammable even in water, it was extremely effective in warding off incursions by Muslim fleets in the centuries prior to the Crusades but doesn't seem to have been used much during the Crusades themselves.

Tomorrow we'll take a closer look at what prompted the series of campaigns against the Muslim Arabs that came to known as the Crusades.