Jay Rubenstein on the Apocalyptic Vision That Drove the First Crusade

A conversation with the author of a new book on the blood-drenched, costly and logistically ambitious war from the point of view of those who conducted and experienced it.

When he began looking at the First Crusade (1095-1099 ), Jay Rubenstein was expecting to write an academic paper or two demonstrating that the European Christians who answered the call of Pope Urban II to liberate Jerusalem from its Muslim rulers were motivated by something other than an apocalyptic vision. In fact, his research led Rubenstein, an associate professor of medieval history at the University of Tennessee, to write a highly accessible history of the First Crusade arguing that the nobles and peasants who fought the Crusade intended to usher in the End of Days and the return of Jesus Christ. In "Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse" (Basic Books; 448 pages, $30 ), Rubenstein tells the story of the blood-drenched, costly and logistically ambitious war from the point of view of those who conducted and experienced it, and the chronicles they left behind indeed suggest not only that they believed the Apocalypse was approaching, but that it had arrived.

Rubenstein, 44, grew up in Oklahoma, and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. His honors have included a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University, and, in 2007, selection as a MacArthur Fellow, a lucrative honor that brings a grant of $500,000 over a five-year period. He spoke with Haaretz from his home in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Jay Rubenstein
John Black

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Q: Your book offers us accounts from a number of men who actually participated in the First Crusade. Were these chroniclers professional or objective historians, in the modern sense?

A: Actually, the First Crusade is unique for medieval history in the number of books that it inspired in its immediate aftermath. There are about a dozen, written just in Latin. That's astonishing, as I can't actually think of another book written in Latin, from that time or earlier in the Middle Ages, that was dedicated to an event. And each writer claims to be objective, or to give you the actual sense of what happened. The problem is that "objectivity" for them includes God intervening in battles, armies of saints, and the notion that Muslims worship idols. To their mind they're being perfectly objective, but objectivity includes a large element of myth. But particular writers will have particular agendas, based on their personal experiences or on which lord they served.

Q: What would be an agenda for one of these writers?

A: The easiest example is Raymond of Aguilers. He was the chaplain of Count Raymond of St. Gilles. For him, the Crusade was, in my interpretation, a millennial expedition, which he saw as a divinely sanctioned mission to bring about a 1000-year era of peace and prosperity, when Christ would reign on earth through a group of divinely appointed judges. And for him, the Crusade received its best and purest expression through the poor pilgrims who were traveling with the army. He seems to have earnestly believed that if these pilgrims were put at the forefront, that they could march barefoot practically unopposed to Jerusalem and take the city, that the knights were there to serve the poor. Other historians have noted how important the poor are to him, but I think they have missed the crucial aspect that millenarianism held for him.

Q: When you read a Crusader chronicle, do you assume that the author believes what he's writing - that, say, he truly believes that Jesus appeared to him in a dream?

A: I think you have to take it on a case-by-case basis. For example, one really shocking moment in the Crusade, shocking to both many Crusaders and to the historians who wrote about it, was the cannibalism. Either during or after the siege of Ma'arra, there were significant cases of Crusaders eating the Muslim dead. Conventional wisdom is that it happened after the siege had ended, and it was intended only to avert starvation. I treat this differently from any other historian of the period: I say that the cannibalism took place during the battle, and that it was a tactic of psychological warfare. I do that in spite of the fact that two eyewitness historians say that it happened only after the siege ended. Instead, I am relying on other historians who were not present, but who were working with the memories of eyewitnesses who say that, no, it happened during the siege, and some of whom even described themselves as cannibals. They'll say: "We put the bodies on spits and we roasted them in full view of people in the city, so that they could see what we were doing." This is one of those places where I inserted my own authorial voice, and I said: "This is history speaking." I acknowledged that we have contradictory accounts, but that in this case we have eyewitnesses who are [themselves] implicated in eating dead bodies. Perhaps we have to give these voices a little more weight.

A second example would be the capture of Jerusalem. The scenes around the Temple Mount were described by one of our two eyewitnesses as, "the streets were running ankle deep in blood." That's obviously a bit of an exaggeration, though in fact, there are writers who say, it wasn't ankle deep, it was shin deep; or, it was so deep that it was splashing into the boots of soldiers; or, it was up to their knees. And then one of the writers says, and this gets back to the psychological element, the blood was up to the horses' bridles. That's a clear exaggeration, but as I say in the book, what he's drawing on is the Book of Revelation, in the New Testament, or as it was called in the Middle Ages, the Book of Apocalypse. There's an image in there of the angel of the Lord taking in the harvest of the earth, and running it through a winepress, and blood runs into the city up to the bridles of horses. What this means is that the person who wrote that history remembered it as a scene from the apocalypse. Does it mean that he actually saw the blood running that high? Obviously not. But what he wanted to communicate was: This is apocalyptic. And in representing it, I try to take that memory, and that mode of expression as seriously as possible.

Q: Why did you write a general book, rather than an academic one?

A: Let me say that I hope it will be a popular book, but I also hope that it won't lose the academic audience, and I was fairly adamant that we would retain substantial footnotes in it, so that it would be weighty within the academic world. It is a very different telling of the Crusader story, and I've been pleased at the response from professional Crusades historian, many of whom I expected to hate the book.

Q: Your book ends with the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem, in 1099. What comes next for you?

A: I'm in the very early stages here, but I'm thinking it's going to be the Kingdom of Jerusalem, between 1099 and 1153, which is the period in which the kingdom is established, the Second Crusade occurs, the order of the Templars gets founded, and it goes through a fairly significant near-civil war. The story I want to tell is, how do you take a kingdom that grows out of apocalypse and myth and make it into a functioning reality on earth. So I'm going to try to write a story which will address the needs of the Crusaders to deal with earthly realities while there was this ever-looming religious undercurrent with everything they did.

Q: So you're saying that the apocalyptic spirit didn't dissipate after the fall of Jerusalem?

A: The crazy thing is that for a lot of people in Europe, for at least 20 years, and even a little bit longer, they were writing as if the apocalypse had happened. Not just that it was imminent, but that 1099 was it. The moment when the light bulb went off over my head, I was looking at a facsimile copy of a 12th-century encyclopedia, and it had an outline of the six ages in history, which was the classic model of world history. For each of the six ages, the author had very carefully written about how many years there were, and what the key events were. Writing in about the year 1120, [he said that] in the sixth age, there have been 1099 years, and then Godfrey conquered Jerusalem. And I said: Wow, that's it. This writer has seen the apocalypse. After a while it became apparent that this was not the final act in history, and there was still a bit more to be done. So, yes, I will be looking at the ongoing dialogue between apocalypse and the end of time and the nitty-gritty realities of making a kingdom work.

Q: Why do you think the Jews were so victimized by the Crusaders?

A: I think that the Jews play a crucial role in the end-time Christian drama. Very specifically, the Jews are expected to convert to Christianity, or basically to disappear before the last days can happen. Medieval people had a very particular version of this legend, known as the "Last Emperor" prophecy. The belief was that a last emperor would appear on earth, at which time all of the Jews would be converted. He would conquer Jerusalem, lay his crown down, and anti-Christ would appear, and this would be the final stage of things. In describing these events, both Christian and Jewish authors really focused on the notion that the Jews either had to convert or die. The earliest epic poem about the Crusade is called "The Song of Antioch," and it actually opens with Christ on the cross, talking to the good thief, and he tells him: Don't worry, in about a thousand years, a group of people called the Franks are going to come here and will avenge what's happened to me. He's referring of course to the Jews, because Christ wasn't blaming the Romans in this poem; it was the Jews who crucified him. And the vengeance was going to be brought about by the Crusaders. And he was equating Muslims and Jews.

Q: Why didn't the Crusaders want to convert the Muslims, too?

A: I think it's because Christians could comprehend what the Jews were. They were a remnant left over from history; they were God's previously chosen people. History in the Middle Ages encompasses the future as well as past. Just as Marxists saw the world building toward a socialist utopia, Christian historians in the Middle Ages saw the world building toward the End Times. And in their understanding of history, the Jews would convert. I think they didn't really comprehend what the Muslims were, but the easiest category to fit them under was as servants of anti-Christ. And in that drama, there was going to be a great war against the enemies of Christ, and the Muslims seemed to fit the bill. They were like a generic enemy. You don't think of, can we get these people on our side; you think of, how can we take them out. Attempts to convert Muslims didn't start until the 13th century, after the Crusaders had been there for about a hundred years. I should add as a sidenote, that from my perspective, having been raised in a Protestant community in Oklahoma, these ideas are still very much in the air, in the fundamentalist community in America. I think perhaps I was better placed to write this book than a lot of my colleagues, precisely because I grew up in such an environment.