Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hypatia and "Agora" Redux


Well, it's been just over a year since I wrote my article on Alejandro Amenábar's film Agora and expressed my misgivings that it would perpetuate some Gibbonian myths about how Hypatia of Alexandria was some kind of martyr for science, how wicked Christians destroyed "the Great Library of Alexandria" in AD 391 and how her murder and the Library's destruction ushered in the Dark Ages.  That article certainly attracted some attention and stirred up emotions - so far it's racked up 4,872 page views and attracted 125 comments, many highly hostile.

Of course, when I wrote that article the film had only been screened at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and so I was simply able to comment on what the director and star said about it in press releases and interviews and on what could be gleaned from trailers and a couple of brief clips.  Inevitably, some of those who weren't happy with what I had to say pounced on this and claimed that I couldn't criticise the movie until I'd seen it, even though I made it very clear that I wasn't criticising the film per se and that I would withhold judgement on it as a whole until I'd seen it.

Agora has now been released in both the UK and US and so is attracting rather more attention.  Since there is still no sign of when (or if) it will be released here in Australia, I decided to put aside my usual principles and download a copy from the internet so I could finally see it for myself.

The Good, the Bad and the Silly

To begin with, there's actually quite a bit to like about this movie.  The cinematography is rich and engaging and the sets combine nicely with some judicious use of CGI to give us a vivid reconstruction of late Fourth and early Fifth Century Alexandria.  At several points Amenábar pulls the camera out of the action, up into the sky for a bird's eye view of the city and then out into space to look down on the earth as a whole.  A few critics have called these the "Google Earth shots", but personally I thought it worked well as a way of noting how petty and insignificant the violent political and religious squabbles at the centre of the story actually were.  Amenábar has noted in interviews that he was originally inspired to make the movie by Carl Sagan's 1980s TV series Cosmos and these shots were a nice nod to Sagan's ability put our human concerns into a cosmic perspective (even if, as I detailed in my original article, Sagan also managed to bungle the history of Hypatia rather badly in that series).

I also thought  Rachel Weisz and most of the rest of the cast did a very good job with a story and, at times, a script that had the potential to be highly unwieldy.  The dialogue was often clunky, as it certainly can be in historical epics like this, but Weisz managed to make scenes where she expounds on the Ptolomaic cosmological model interesting and certainly captured the "self-possession and ease of manner" that Socrates Scholasticus says Hypatia was known for very nicely.

While the sets were impressively detailed, with Roman and Hellenic elements mixed with Egyptian motifs, the same can't be said for the costumes, which tended to be "generic ancient tunics and togas" rather than clothing of the specific period.  Even less thought was given to the arms and armour of the Roman troops and the warring factions.  It seems no-one can make a "Roman" film without equipping Roman soldiers in generic First Century AD helmets, swords and armour, regardless of what century the film is actually set in.  So here the Romans wear what look like left-overs from Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, with brassy-looking pseudo-First Century helmets, short gladius swords and, of course, leather lorica segmentata for armour.  It would have been nice for nitpicky obsessives like me to finally see a movie set in the later Roman Period where the soldiers actually look like late Roman troops, but that was probably expecting too much.

The movie does do some playing around with the timeline of events and with the major characters in the story, but most of this can be excused on dramatic grounds.  In the first half of the story the Prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac) is depicted not just as one of Hypatia's students but also as the one who, according to the famous story, publicly declared his love for her and got rebuffed.  It's said the historical Hypatia rejected him by presenting him with rags stained with her menstrual blood and said "This is what you're in love with".  But because the film never bothers to make her neo-Platonist asceticism clear - exactly what her philosophical views might be is never explored except in the vaguest terms - this incident doesn't really make much cultural sense - she comes across as a modern career academic "married to her job" rather than a disciple of the school of Plotinus. 

We know that Synesius (Rupert Evans), who later became Bishop of Cyrene, was one of her students.  And in the movie he comes back into the latter part of the story as well and tries to convince Hypatia to placate her enemies by converting to Christianity.  Finally, a fictional slave, Davus (Max Minghella), is introduced to provide the third element in an unrequited love triangle with Orestes and Hypatia.  All these changes to the historical accounts are fairly tolerable, but where the "history" in the story goes widly off the rails is when Amenábar and fellow screenplay writer Mateo Gil begin their hamfisted sermonising.  Then things get silly.

The Library That Never Was

The screenplay includes sufficient elements and details from the actual historical story to indicate that Amenábar and Gil did enough homework to have been able to depict things as they actually happened.  But this is a movie with a message and an agenda, so these elements get mixed around, downplayed, countered or simply distorted to suit Amenábar's objectives.  More importantly, most of the elements that support the "message" the director is preaching are wholesale fictional inventions.

To begin with, "the Library of Alexandria" forms the focus of the first half of the film.  Amenábar depicts this "Library of Alexandria" as forming the core of the Temple of Serapis - in fact, the Temple itself seems almost an adjunct to it - and it is described as containing "all that remains of the wisdom of men".  This is historically problematic on several fronts.  To begin with, as I detailed in my article last year, there was no "Great Library of Alexandria" as such in the city at this time.  The former Great Library had degraded and suffered several major losses of books over the centuries but it had ceased to exist by this stage - the last clear reference to it that we know of dates all the way back to AD 135.  We do know from several sources that the colonnades of the Serapeum did contain a collection of books at one time and this was a "daughter library" former Great Library's collection.  But Ammianus Marcellinus, who may have visited Alexandria himself when he was in Egypt in the late 360s, refers to the "two priceless libraries" it had once housed in the past tense, indicating they were no longer there by his time.  This fits with the descriptions we have in no less than five sources about the sack and destruction of the Serapeum at the hands of the Christians in AD 391: none of which mention any library or books at all.  This silence is made more significant by the fact that one of these sources was Eunapius of Sardis, who was not only a vehement anti-Christian but also a philosopher himself.  If anyone had an incentive to at least mention this aspect of the destruction it was Eunapius, but he makes no mention of any library or any destruction of books.

So the idea that any "Library of Alexandria" or any library at all was destroyed by the Christian mob in AD 391 is simply without evidential foundation.

Amenábar's screenplay gives some indication that he is aware of at least some of this.  The opening titles (in Spanish) do declare explicitly that in Hypatia's time "Alexandria .... possessed ... the (world's) largest known library" (poseia .... la biblioteca mas grande conocida) and a subtitle a few minutes later declares the site of Hypatia's lecture in the opening scene is "the Library of Alexandria" (Biblioteca de Alejandria).  But later one of the characters mentions " ... the fire that destroyed the mother library ... ", though this is in a piece of background dialogue while Hypatia is saying something else - less attentive viewers may even miss it completely.  Amenábar himself referred in one interview last year to the library in his film as "the second Library of Alexandria", so he clearly understands that the original Great Library no longer existed in AD 391.  But he doesn't exactly go out of his way to make this clear to his audience.  And he not only includes a library in the Serapeum, despite the evidence even this smaller library no longer existed at this point, but makes it the centre and focus of the whole complex.

Not surprisingly, it is also the focus of the scenes of the storming of the Serapeum by the Christian mob that form the climax of the first half of the film.  The accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum make it clear that the mob did not just storm the temple, they tore it to the ground, leaving little more than its foundations.  But the movie doesn't depict this at all.  Apart from toppling the great statue of Serapis and some other vandalism, the Christians leave the building intact and concentrate almost entirely on dragging the scrolls out of the library and burning them in the temple courtyards.  At one point as they swarm through the gate someone can even be heard shouting "Burn the scrolls!", as though this was the whole point of the exercise  So, oddly, Amenábar doesn't bother depicting what the mob did do and concentrates instead on something not even hinted at in the source material.  He wants to keep the emphasis firmly on the idea of Christians as destroyers of ancient knowledge and reason.  One reviewer, accepting this scene as wholly factual, calls it "the movie's most emotionally powerful moment" and says "it really makes you cry".  She's blissfully unaware that the whole scene is almost entirely fiction.

 Alexandrian Street Politics

The second act of the film concentrates on the disputes within the city that led to the murder of Hypatia.  Again, Amenábar and Gil's screenplay indicate that they are aware of some of the complexities of the situation, but their movie's agenda means that it's almost always the Christians who are cast in the worst possible light.  Socrates Scholasticus makes it clear that the political struggle for civic dominance between Bishop Cyril and the prefect Orestes had its origin in the Orestes torturing to death a follower of Cyril's, Hierax, who the Jewish community in the city accused of stirring up emnity against them.  In response, Cyril threatened the Jews, ordering them to "desist from their molestation of the Christians" and the Jews reacted by setting an ambush for Christians in the Church of Alexander, killing a number of them.  Cyril retaliated by setting his mob on the Jews and driving them (or at least some of them) out of the city.

Amenábar depicts some of this tit-for-tat series of threats and violence, but invents a scene where the Taliban-style Parabolani instigate the whole dispute by sneaking into the theatre where the Jews are holding a Sabbath celebration and stoning them.  This is found nowhere in the sources but, once again, Amenábar introduces a fictional incident into the story to make the whole conflict with the Jews and the subsequent feud between Cyril and Orestes into the fault of Cyril's faction - a clear distortion of the reported facts.

He also distorts other incidents in the dispute.  Again, Socrates Scholasticus reports that Cyril made overtures of a negotiated settlement with the prefect, but "when Orestes refused to listen to friendly advances, Cyril extended toward him the book of gospels, believing that respect for religion would induce him to lay aside his resentment." (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, VII, 13).  Orestes, however, rejected the gesture and refused to be reconciled with the bishop.  A garbled version of this incident appears in the movie, but - yet again - Amenábar adds a fictional scene where Cyril implicitly condemns Orestes, not for supporting the Jews, but for being influcenced by Hypatia: something not mentioned in the sources.  In this scene, during a church service Cyril reads the passage in 1Timothy 2 where Paul orders women to be modest, to submit to men and to be silent and condemns women teaching men.  He then orders Orestes to kneel before the Bible he's just read from in acknowledgement that what Cyril has read is true and Orestes refuses.  Amenábar changes the incident to put its focus on Hypatia, despite the fact this scene is almost totally invented.

The movie then moves from this fictional scene to Cyril ordering the Parabolani to respond by attacking Hypatia.  So while it does make it clear that this was in retaliation for the torture and death of another of Cyril's followers by Orestes and due to the political struggle between the two rivals - which is factual - by inventing a scene where Cyril condemns Hypatia for being a woman who teaches men  Amenábar sets up the idea that this was the also a reason Hypatia was targeted - which is not factual at all.  But it serves his ideological purpose of implying that Hypatia's learning was a major issue, not simply the political faction fighting.

None of the factions come out of the movie looking particularly good, but these invented scenes do their best to cast Cyril and his followers as the instigators of the trouble and make them the clear villains in what was, on all sides, a rather grubby power struggle.  It's very odd that Cyril and most of his Parabolani fanatics are swarthy types who, despite being native Alexandrians, speak with thick Middle Eastern accents.  They also always wear black.  The pagans and members of Orestes' faction, on the other hand, all speak with clipped upper-class English accents and tend to wear white.  The implications here are less than subtle.

Fictional Science and Supposed Atheism

The final major invention by Amenábar which also suits his agenda is the rather fanciful idea that Hypatia was on the brink of not only proving heliocentrism when she was murdered but at establishing Keplerian elliptical planetary orbits into the bargain.  The film makes reference to the fact that Aristarchus of Samos had come up with a heliocentric hypothesis in the 300s BC, and mentions a couple of reasons it was regarded as making "no sense at all" (though doesn't mention the primary one - the stellar parallax problem).  But it invents a series of scenes depicting Hypatia pressing on with this idea despite these (then) not inconsiderable objections.  The whole purpose of these sequences is to make the murder of Hypatia seem like more of a loss to learning at the hands of ignorant fundamentalists.  Hypatia was certainly renowned for her learning, but there is actually no evidence she was any great innovator, let alone that she had any interest at all in Aristarchus' long-rejected hypothesis.  In fact, as the daughter of Ptolemy's most famous ancient editor and commentator, the idea that she would reject the Ptolemaic model of cosmology is pretty far fetched.  Once again, it's Amenábar's invented elements that work to support his agenda of simplifying the story into one of "ignorance and fanaticism versus scholarship and inquiry".

The movie also heavily implies that Hypatia was entirely non-religious or even an atheist - something else not found in any of the source material.  Confronted with the accusation that she is without any religion ("someone who, admittedly, believes in absolutely nothing") Hypatia replies, rather vaguely, "I believe in philosophy".   Later Cyril describes her as "a woman who has declared, in public, her ungodliness".  In fact, of all the pagan schools of thought, the neo-Platonists were the closest to a monotheistic view of the world, which is why first Jewish and then early Christian theologians took on board so much of their philosophy and integrated it into their ideas.  Yet again, Amenábar invents something that has no basis in any of the evidence that suits the sermon his movie is preaching.

Over and over again, elements are added to the story that are not in the source material: the destruction of the library, the stoning of the Jews in the theatre, Cyril condemning Hypatia's teaching because she is a woman, the heliocentric "breakthrough" and Hypatia's supposed irreligiousity.  And each of these invented elements serves to emphasise the idea that she was a freethinking innovator who was murdered because her learning threatened fundamentalist bigots.  The fact that Amenábar needs to rest this emphasis on things he has made up and mixed into the real story demonstrates how baseless this interpretation is.


It may be baseless, but it's receiving a predictably enthusiastic reception by many critics and moviegoers.  One IMDB reviewer certainly got the message, writing a glowing review entitled "Atheists of the all the world unite!". Another notes, "Amenábar made a statement before the screening that if the Alexandria library had not been destroyed, we might have landed on Mars already."  A third declares "I hope the film is appreciated and understood, and that we learn a little bit from its depiction of history so that we can't allow the destruction of art, history, knowledge, and the respect that allows civilizations to flourish."  And these comments are typical.  These viewers accepted all the invented pseudo historical additions to the story without question and happily swallowed the sermon they rest on.

Several blog posts and articles have attempted to counter these distortions of history (notably Father Robert Baron,, Jeffrey Overstreet, and the Catherine of Siena Institute).  All these writers are, however, Christians.  While several of them have attempted to deflect the charge that they are biased by reference to my article of last year (one poster on notes that I am "an atheist, no less!"), I know from my encounters with true believers in The Da Vinci Code that their Christianity will mean these attempts will be generally rejected or ignored - people like to cling to myths that confirm their ideas.

Which means, rather ironically, this film exposes who are the true fundamentalists in this picture.

Friday, May 14, 2010

God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark

Rodney Stark, God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, (HarperOne, 2009) 276 pages. Verdict?: 2/5  A few good correctives to modern myths, but badly marred by blatant bias, tendentious polemic and weak apologetics.

It is a bit of a cliché that we should study the past to understand the present.  This is something high school history teachers tell children to explain why it is important to study something which seems, to a bored fourteen year old, totally irrelevant to them.  Like many things said by high school history teachers, this one is only partly convincing and really only true to a limited extent.  In deft hands, of course, some careful lessons about the present can be drawn from the past.  Adrian Goldsworthy does this well in his epilogue to The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower and Harvard's Niall Ferguson has made a popular career as an author and TV presenter who can explain the present by examining the past. So long as we do not stretch analogies too far or indulge in simplistic historical determinism, our high school history teachers were correct up to a point.

But it is far more problematic when people start trying to examine the past through the distorting prism of the present.  This has been a temptation that many historians and, more commonly, popularisers of history have fallen into over the years.  It was particularly rife in the Enlightenment, when polemicists like Voltaire and historians like Gibbon portrayed idealised versions of the Romans and presented them, or the better ones at least, pretty much as versions of themselves, except in togas and minus the powdered wigs.  This is why we have a prevalent view of the Romans as tolerant, urbane, rational people who were concerned with great buildings and science and why the common view of them ignores or forgets things like gladiator fights, mass crucifixions, bloody religious persecutions, the annihilation of rebels and the bizarre cluster of irrational superstitions that made up Roman religion.

The Victorians inherited these illusions of a past informed by fantasies of the present and elaborated on them.  To them, for example, the Romans were stout, sensible, no-nonsense chaps who created an Empire for the common good of everyone and only crushed rebellions savagely when the lesser races forgot their place in the scheme of things, by Jove.  Similarly, over in the new nation of Germany, there was a vogue for histories of the early Germanic tribes that leaned heavily on fantasies about some kind of mystical proto-national Germanic spirit which went on to inspire people as varied as Jacob Grimm, Richard Wagner and, unfortunately, Adolf Hitler.  And in the Nineteenth Century the Crusades were seen as romantic adventures where brave chivalric gentlemen left their swooning ladies behind to go off to the hot countries and bash some civilisation into dusky chaps in robes - something Nineteenth Century Europeans were doing with gusto at the time.

The Nineteenth Century also saw the Arab world change its view of the Crusades.  Where before they had, fairly reasonably, been seen as wars they had won, now Western-educated Arabs saw them as precursors to modern European imperialism and colonialism.  This led to some oddities, such as taking the western, romantic view of Saladin as a paragon of gentlemanly chivalry and turning him into an Arab hero as well.  That, in turn, saw modern despots like Saddam Hussein depicting themselves as latter day Saladins - which is richly ironic considering Saladin was actually a Kurd.

More recently the Crusades have generally been depicted as "a bad thing" in the West as well.  Not only is the idea of a holy war in the name of Christianity unpalatable to modern western sensibilities, but many modern commentators accept without question the idea that the Muslim world harbours a centuries-long resentment about the Crusades, when in fact this resentment is less than 150 years old. Sir Steven Runciman's influential three volume history of the Crusades firmly cemented several recent ideas about these expeditions, eg that they were motivated by a desire for Papal power rather than genuine religious zeal, that they were land grabs by western lords and that the Crusaders were bumbling, incompetent military cretins.  Given that he was a Byzantist, his prejudices and biases should have been clear, but these ideas remain firmly entrenched.  They are generally accepted in the popular perception of the Crusades, along with the "fact" that most Crusaders were landless second sons looking for new territory and that the whole thing was motivated primarily by loot and the riches of the East.

All of these perceptions of the Crusades have been given a regular airing since 9/11 and, in particular, in commentary on the Iraq War and the "War on Terror".  But if those recent events have created a distorting perspective for perceptions of the Crusades, Rodney Stark's counter to them distorts far more than it clarifies.

The Crusades as Defensive Wars?  A Tenuous Thesis

Any book subtitled "A Case for the Crusades" is pretty clearly one written with an ideological agenda.   And Stark makes his agenda very clear early in his book - 9/11 is mentioned as early as page 4, which leads into a summary of recent western breast-beating over the Crusades during the Iraq War and its roots in anti-Christian condemnations of them by Voltaire, Hume, Diderot, Fuller and, of course, Gibbon (pp. 6-7).  Having traced the origins of the idea that the Crusaders were nothing more than "greedy barbarians in armor", Stark states his counter-case:

To sum up the prevailing wisdom: during the Crusades, an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam.

Not so.  As will be seen, the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations: by centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places. (Stark, p. 8)

He goes on:

[U]nlike most conventional Crusade historians, I shall not begin with the pope's appeal at Clermont, but with the rise of Islam and the onset of Muslim invasions of Christendom.  That's when it all started - in the seventh century, when Islamic armies swept over the larger portion of what was then Christian territory: the Middle East, Egypt and all of North Africa, and then Spain and southern Italy as well as many major Mediterranean islands .... Nor shall I merely recount the crusader battles, for they are comprehensible only in the light of the superior culture and technology that made it possible for European knights to march more than twenty-five hundred miles, to suffer great losses along the way and then to rout far larger Muslim forces.  (Stark, p. 9)
Or, to sum his thesis up in the plaintive cry of a nine year old caught fighting in a school playground: "But THEY started it!"   This argument is not really radically new.  I have been coming across it online regularly since 9/11, particularly from pro-Bush American bloggers and posters who have wanted to argue that Islam is an inherently violent, intolerant and expansionist faith that can only be stopped by some "shock and awe" and invasion and occupation by the God-fearing US military.  It is not even a new thesis to be presented in book form - Robert Spencer's The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) has been a best-seller amongst people with this mindset since its publication in 2005, and it makes exactly the same case.  Essentially, the "THEY started it!" thesis argues that far from being an isolated, innovative and unprovoked assault on the world of Islam from Europe, the Crusades were in fact a courageous and entirely justified counter-strike against the terror of Islam by a besieged Christendom.  In other words, an Eleventh Century equivalent to Bush's doctrine of "fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here" or "defending the Homeland".

The problem is that this revisionist thesis, like all ideologically-driven attempts at the analysis of history, is every bit as skewed as the ideas it is trying to revise and correct.

"Christendom Strikes Back"

After a brief summary of the period from the death of Muhammad (AD 632) to the sack of Rome by Sicilian Muslims (AD 846) and the rapid Islamic conquests of Syria, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, Sicily and Spain in that period, Stark begins to set the scene for his account of the Crusades by detailing how "Christendom struck back".  He starts with the defeat of Spanish Muslims by the Frankish warlord Charles Martel at Poitiers (or Tours, depending on which account you read) in AD 732 - which he re-elevates to the status of the turning of the Islamic tide and the beginning of a fight-back by "Christendom":  He writes:

As would be expected, some more recent historians have been quick to claim that the Battle of Tours was of little or no significance. (p. 43)
 Actually, current opinion remains divided on whether Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi's defeat  by Charlemagne's grandfather represented a significant turning point in the westward expansion of Islam or simply the defeat of a reconnaissance-in-strength by what was little more than a large raiding party.  Both interpretations have merit, though Stark plumps firmly for the former.  More importantly, Stark champions the idea that the battle represented a tactical turning point, with Martel's stout Frankish infantry forming a new and decisive counter to the light cavalry tactics of the Muslim forces that had seen them conquer so much territory over the preceding century:

It is axiomatic in military science that cavalry cannot succeed against well-armed  and well disciplined infantry formations unless they greatly outnumber them.  The effective role of cavalry is to ride down infantry fleeing from the battlefield, once their lines have given way.  But 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 to the ground, cavalry charges are easily turned away. .... In this instance, the Muslim force consisted entirely of light cavalry .... Opposing them was an army "almost entirely composed of foot soldiers, wearing mail [armour] and carrying shields".  It was a very uneven match. (p. 41-42) 
 This is all more or less true, but it is also one early example of Stark greatly over-simplifying the military and tactical situation - something he does throughout the book.  To begin with, to pretend Spanish (or any) "Muslim" armies consisted of nothing but light cavalry is nonsense - they included infantry, archers and heavier cavalry troops as well.  Secondly, to claim that this was the first time "Muslim" armies had met "determined infantry" executing the anti-cavalry tactics he describes is ridiculous.  The Byzantine armies that Arab forces had (generally) defeated in the preceding century were based on precisely the stolid infantry, anti-cavalry tactics Stark describes here.  Finally, the battle probably was not the simple "light cavalry breaking on disciplined infantry" affair Stark reduces it to.  David Nicolle, a current leading military historian who is as well-versed in the equipment and tactics of the Islamic east as he is in that of the European west, writes:

The classic interpretation of Charles Martel's victory over a Muslim raiding force at Potiers maintains that the Christian Franks allowed their enemies to dash themselves to pieces against a stern but static defensive array.  Yet this is probably quite wrong; for the evidence could equally well be interpreted as the Franks charging and overrunning the Muslim-Arab camp in an sudden and unexpected assault. (David Nicolle, Medieval Warfare Source Book: Volume One - Warfare in Western Christendom, p. 77)
 Here, as in many other places in his book, Stark presents an oversimplified and tendentious interpretation that fits his thesis and ignores, downplays, or is blissfully unaware of more complex, recent or nuanced alternatives.

His tendency to oversimplify things to the point of distorting history continues in his account of the Spanish Reconquista by the Christian kingdoms of the north against the Muslim south.  According to Stark's version, this was very simple - it was a concerted counter-attack by Christians against Muslims in defence of Christendom.  He paints the success of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar - the "El Cid" of legend - in the 1090s as a turning point and holds him up as a paragon of Christian martial vigor against Muslims.  He attributes this "turning of the tide" to the disunity and fractious politics of the silly Muslims:

Perhaps the single most remarkable feature of the Islamic territories was almost ceaseless internal conflict; intricate plots, assassinations and betrayals form a lethal soap opera .... Spain was a patchwork of constantly feuding Muslim regimes that often allied themselves with Christians against one another. (p. 47)
To anyone with even a passing knowledge of Medieval Spanish history, these statements are simply bizarre.  This was not a "remarkable feature" of the "Islamic territories" at all - it was a common feature of all Spanish territories, Christian and Muslim alike.  Like their Muslim neighbours, Christian Spanish rulers indulged in no less of a "lethal soap opera" of intrigues, internecine conflicts and assassinations.  This is simply what Medieval rulers Europe-wide did.  As for Muslims allying themselves with Christians against each other, Stark conveniently neglects to take full account of the fact that Christians did this as well.  His hero, Rodrigo Díaz, spent six years in the service of Yusuf al-Mu'taman ibn Hud of Zaragoza and his successor.  In this time he inflicted defeats on Sancho I of Aragón and Ramón Berenguer II,  Count of Barcelona, capturing the latter in battle and holding him captive on behalf of his Muslim master.  Stark refers to this in passing, but fails to note its significance: these endless wars were not, at this stage anyway, brave counter-strikes by Christians against a tide of Muslim advance, but simply the kind of constant low level jockying for power, dominance and land that marked this period all over Europe.  Unlike Stark, Rodrigo Díaz and his contemporaries paid little heed to whether their lord of the moment went to Mass or attended the mosque.  Once again, Stark edits out the more complex parts that do not support his thesis and presents an oversimplified, dumbed-down version instead.

Stripping the Arabs from Arabic Science

Oversimplifying things is one matter, wilfully distorting them out of pure, unadulterated bias is entirely another.  In his next chapter - Western "ignorance" Versus Eastern "Culture" - Stark embarks on an absurd attempt at denigrating the idea that the Muslim world was greatly more advanced in learning than Europe in this period and tries to pump up an image of Europe as being superior.  It is, without a doubt, the stupidest argument in his whole creaking thesis.

His argument consists almost entirely of pointing to the scholars in the East who were dhimmis rather than Muslims and trying, bizarrely, to claim this meant we cannot claim the undeniably more-advanced scholarship of the Islamic world in the Eleventh Century was "Muslim" - as though ideas have some kind of religious affiliation.  He notes that much of the learning of the Islamic world was Greek in origin and that it had been preserved by Nestorian Christians working under Islamic masters.  This is ridiculous.  Leaving aside the fact that there were still many eastern scholars who were Muslims (because Stark certainly, and conveniently, leaves that aside), to claim that this means the Islamic world did not have a flourishing intellectual culture while the West remained almost totally ignorant of this (to them) lost Greek learning is absurd.  It is like claiming that there was no Carolingian Renaissance because Alcuin, Peter of Pisa, Paul the Deacon, Theodulf of Orléans and Joseph Scottus were not Franks.  Regardless of the ethnic or religious affiliations of some of the scholars that gave rise to the flowering of learning in this period, to pretend that this somehow means the east was not vastly more advanced than the west at this stage is simply stupid.

By the time I got to the part where Stark seriously tries to argue that the use of "Arabic" numerals in the east is not significant because they were actually originally "Hindu" (p. 59), this reader was about ready to throw Stark's idiotic book at the wall.

But it gets dumber.  In a section entitled "Contrasts in Technology" Stark embarks on an even more ludicrous attempt at arguing that the east was technologically less advanced than Europe as well.  While some of the evidence he draws on here is legitimate - Europeans did invent, refine and exploit some significant technology in this period - to stretch that fact into the idea that the "Muslim" world was technologically backward is simply stupefying.  It also includes some statements which are not just totally wrong, but hilariously so.  For example, when discussing the development of heavier armour in Medieval Europe, Stark claims that the mail hauberks of the Eleventh Century were somehow superior even to the elaborate plate armour of the later European Middle Ages:

These (plate) suits came later and only some knights of the heavy cavalry ever wore them, as they were dangerously impractical.  Knights in plate-armor suits had to be lifted onto their saddles by booms; if they fell off they could not rise to their feet to fight on.  (pp. 71-72)
Apart from the words "these suits came later", every single thing in these two sentences is totally and completely wrong.  Plate harness was worn by knights, by their retainers and by everyone else who could possibly get their hands on it precisely because it was not "dangerously impractical" (were these knights morons?) but because it was incredibly effective.  It was only abandoned when firearms and attendant infantry tactics reduced this effectiveness to make it not worth the expense - about 200-300 years later.  The idea that armoured knights "had to be lifted onto their saddles by booms" is a Nineteenth Century myth, with its origin in a novel by Mark Twain.  And far from being unable to rise from their feet if unhorsed, knights in full plate harness could run, jump and literally turn cartwheels in their armour, as modern re-enactors like to demonstrate to crowds today.  This kind of elementary blunder would shame an undergraduate history student (who would probably be capable of the quick Google search required to show it is total garbage anyway), but it seems Stark did his research by reading Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court or watching Olivier's 1944 movie of Henry V.

Stark ends this monumentally stupid and error-riddled chapter with another of his clumsy excursions into military history in which he paints the crossbow as some kind of unbeatable über-weapon and makes out that the Crusaders were militarily superior to their Muslim enemies in every respect.  Again, this is garbage.  In a survey of 48 Crusader versus Muslim battles I did a few years ago I found the Crusaders won 26 and the Muslims won 21.  The two sides were actually very evenly matched.  This is hardly surprising, since for most of the Crusades, both sides used similar weapons, similar armour and, once the Crusaders adopted the very light cavalry troops Stark dismisses, similar troop types and tactics.

Stark Gets It WRONG

Stark's next section attempts to dismiss the idea that the Crusades were "unprovoked" and catalogues the Muslim atrocities and attacks on pilgrims that he claims were the "real" reasons the Crusades were launched.  What is notable to any objective observer here is actually how little material he has to work with and how far back he has to go (mostly to the Eighth and Ninth Centuries) to find it.  Of course, there were periodic pogroms against Christians in the Islamic world and sometimes Christian pilgrims were harassed.  But if we imagine a situation where there were Muslim enclaves in western Europe or large groups of (heavily armed) Islamic pilgrims regularly journeying to, say, central Eleventh Century France, do we really suppose we would not see much the same thing happening?

That aside, these incidents and things like the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009 were the exceptions, not the rule.  In addition, they do not feature in the reasons the Crusaders themselves gave for their expeditions in anything but the most peripheral way.

This last point can be extended into a key criticism of Stark's wider thesis as well.  If the Crusades were, as he tries to argue, simply a reaction to Muslim encroachment into the European "homeland", why is it we do not see this reflected in any of the enormous amount of material we have on the preaching of the First Crusade or any of the material we have on the motivations of the Crusaders?  Did Pope Urban and the other instigators of the Crusades forget to mention this?  And if this was the "true" motivation of the Crusaders, then launching a vastly expensive and highly dangerous 2500 mile long-distance military strike into Palestine, of all places, was an extremely weird way to carry it out.  It is not like Jerusalem was the religious heartland of Islam (that was Arabia) or even its political centre (that was, if anything, Cairo) or even its intellectual centre (which was Baghdad).

If the real objective was to turn back the teeming tides of fanatical Muslim expansion from the gates of Europe, as Stark tries to make out, then the obvious target was far closer to home: in Spain.  Stark even mentions, in passing, that one of Urban's papal predecessors, Alexander II, had already tried to stir the knights of Europe into joining the Spanish Christian kingdoms in attacking Muslim states in Spain back in 1063 , but the result was less than spectacular even by Stark's own fumbling admission:

The response was very modest.  A small number of Frankish knights seem to have ventured into Spain and their participation may have helped recover more Muslim territory, but no significant battles were fought. (p. 46)
 So we are supposed to believe that, in 1063, a Papal call to meet the the supposedly pressing need to defend a beleaguered Europe from Islamic expansion could only muster up "a small number of Frankish knights", despite a promise of remission of sins for those who embarked, yet just 32 years later it sparked a mass movement, armies in the hundreds of thousands and wars that lasted over 200 years in a land 2500 miles from home?  This simply makes zero sense.

Stark is clearly wrong.  Plenty of solid scholarly work has been done in the last 60 years on the real motivations behind the Crusading ideal - millennial ideas about the coming apocalypse, idealised visions of Jerusalem not as a place but a mystical concept, the increasing alignment of knighthood with religious ideals, the outward expansion of western Europeans in all directions etc - but there is no evidence that they were ever seen as defensive wars against enemies encroaching on Europe, as the Spanish example clearly demonstrates.

Motivations and Biases

Thankfully not everything in Stark's book is as bad as the biased nonsense that makes up most of its early chapters.  In the remainder of the book, which actually dwindles into a heavily abbreviated Wikipedia-style summary of the Crusades' history that adds very little to his thesis, he does manage to correct a few common and pernicious myths about the Crusades and the motivations of the Crusaders.  Modern westerners have a distinct difficulty with the idea that people could actually have been genuinely motivated by religious piety - especially the rather alien and distastefully bellicose piety of the Crusades - and cast around for other, more "likely" motivations that make more sense to them.  One idea is that the "real" motivation for Pope Urban was not assistance for the Byzantine Empire in regaining the Holy Land, but a crafty attempt by him to win Jerusalem so as to undermine and dominate the Orthodox Church.  So it was not about piety, they argue, but a Papal power grab.  This popular idea has its origins in Carl Erdmann's influential Die Enstehung des Kreuzzugsgedanken (The Origin of the Idea of Crusade (1935), but it does not stand up to scrutiny.  Actually, Urban was as surprised as anyone that his call led to a mass movement - he expected a few thousand knights to answer the call - and had no idea that the First Crusade would be abandoned by the Byzantine emperor and then go on, against all odds, to win the Holy Land on its own.  This was certainly not something he planned in advance, though I doubt he would have been unhappy about it if he had lived to see the Crusade, contrary to all reasonable expectation, achieve that objective unassisted.

Stark also manages to debunk another common myth about the Crusades - that they were actually carried out to win copious loot from the rich Levant and that they were undertaken by landless second, third and fourth sons in a massive colonial land snatch.  As meticulous recent research by Christopher Tyerman and Jonathan Riley-Smith has shown in great detail, going on Crusade was far more likely to bankrupt the Crusader and his family than win them riches.  Despite this, as Tyerman has shown, the same families continued to send Crusaders east for several generations and to wear the ruinous cost of doing so.  Clearly something other than riches was motivating these people.  The idea of landless second sons heading east to carve out territories to settle may also fit with modern ideas of likely motivations, but it also does not fit the evidence.  Apart from some notable exceptions - Bohemond and Tancred and their Normans spring to mind - most of the Crusaders did not go east to settle on new land at all.  In fact, the ultimate failure of the Crusader States of Outremer was precisely due to this not happening.  Instead of settling in the east, the overwhelming majority of Crusaders served their time in Outremer and then went home.  The Crusader States were, from their beginning to their end, desperately short of military manpower for exactly this reason and ultimately collapsed as a result.  This is partly because the "landless second, third and fourth sons" idea is also a myth.  The men that the Crusades attracted were far from "landless" and the history of the Crusades is riddled with accounts of men who did their "pilgrimage in arms", killed their quota of infidel "paynims" and then had to head home because of the pressing need to get back to their European estates.

As odd and unpalatable as it may be to modern people, the primary motivation of Crusaders seems to have been religious piety.  It was usually a form of piety that modern observers find bizarre and was often one informed by myth and a weird idealism that we find hard to reconcile with modern Christianity or with any modern ideas at all, but the evidence is overwhelming that it was genuine and highly motivating.

The few things that Stark manages to get right do not outweigh the fact that his central thesis is nonsense and that his whole argument is contrived, oversimplified and, in places, plain stupid and riddled with basic errors of fact.  Stark is not a historian and in this book it really shows.  He had some success with his first major book on the history of Christianity, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. At least in that book he stuck more or less to his discipline, sociology, and actually provided some useful insights for real historians from that perspective.  In more recent years, however, he has moved from being a self-described agnostic to something he calls "an independent Christian" and his books have become more popularist and, in the process, have veered into pseudo historical apologetics.  In The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success he presents a rather bungled and mangled version of the idea that Christianity led to the rise of western science.  This is a case that can certainly be argued, and has been set out, with far more accuracy, clarity and finesse by James Hannam's God's Philosophers, as I detail in my review of that excellent book below.  But Stark's hamfisted attempt at making this case in his book has left him wide open to attack from biased ideologues of the opposite stamp, most recently in the anti-theist polemicist Richard Carrier's chapter on the subject in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.  I hope to say more about why people like Carrier are no better than Stark in a future post, but the point remains that Stark may or may not be a good sociologist, but he is an appalling historian.  And the last person you want producing popularisations of history.

In summary, this book is, despite a few valid points, largely tendentious crap.  Its author is a poor researcher who starts with his ideologically-driven conclusion and then cherry picks the evidence to back it up.  It is a polemical exercise in apologetics dressed up as a scholarly revision of myths and it deserves little but scorn.  Avoid it if you can, or read it with its biases firmly in mind if you must.  But take nothing it says at face value.