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Jay RubensteinArmies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse

Basic Books, 2011

by marshall poe on November 23, 2011

Jay Rubenstein

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You’ve got to be pretty creative to get anything like “holy war” out of the New Testament, what with all that trespass-forgiving, cheek-turning, and neighbor-loving. By all appearances Jesus didn’t want his followers to fight for their faith, but rather to die for it as he had. And during the first three centuries of Christianity–in the time of the Roman persecution–that’s just what they did. “To die in Christ is to live,” wrote the Apostle Paul. And it seems a lot of early Christians believed him for they sought martyrdom. Jesus passively gave his life; and they passively gave theirs. What could be more fitting?

All this passivity makes the Crusades seem very strange indeed. If Christ’s message was one of peace, what in the world were Christians doing taking up arms in the his name? In his excellent Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse (Basic Books, 2011),  Jay Rubenstein explains that the reason they did so had everything to do with the conviction that the world was going to presently end. The Crusaders fervently believed that the closing chapter in temporal history upon them and that they had a role in bringing it to the right conclusion. They didn’t know exactly what that role was, but there were good hints in ancient scripture and contemporary signs. Everyone agreed that, whatever part the Crusaders were to play, it involved liberating Jerusalem from the infidels. So off they went. Since they were on a holy mission–in fact the last holy mission before Christ’s return–the ordinary rules did not apply. The Crusaders forced Jews to convert or else die (many were murdered). They killed Muslims indescriminately. They made sport of desecrating the bodies of their victems. They even roasted some on spits and ate them. That’s right: they roasted and ate them. It was like something out of the Book of Revelations. Which made sense, because the Crusaders believed they were in the Book of Revelations.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne is a Man November 24, 2011 at 1:36 am

Looking forward to listening to this interview. For a moment I thought: didn’t you already do this one? But what I recalled was the 2009 interview with Brett Whalen

Clarke Morledge November 24, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Thank you for the fascinating interview with Dr. Rubenstein. Unfortunately, while he complicatedly advocates the view (as in here that the First Crusade was NOT principally an act of defense, I do not find his argument entirely convincing. As Thomas Madden has pointed out, the Roman papal leadership saw that the recapture of Jerusalem was part of the overall objective to reunify the churches of the East and the West, a fact that Rubenstein never really explores. Having a divided church, culminating with the Schism of 1054, was a big deal. The idea of a split church like this was an unthinkable tragedy to Pope Urban, sort of like enduring a marriage on the rocks. So when the Muslims began to successfully chip away at the East, there was a sense of moral obligation to defend their Eastern brethren when the call came for the West to help. Since this predated our modern notions of church/state separation, it is hard for us modern folk to grasp how the spiritual and political were bound together. True, the immediate objective was Jerusalem for these First Crusaders but if we lose the context of East/West relations within Christendom, we miss the big picture. In this sense the Crusades were ultimately a failure in that instead of healing the rift between East and West in the common fight against the Saracens, the whole debacle only made relations worse.

Furthermore, while the Crusaders did a lot of cruel things, as was the case in Jerusalem, this was typical of warfare at the time. If a city accommodated an invading army they were typically treated better than if they resisted. This principle was practiced by Christian and Islamic warriors of the time alike. For example, when Saladin later recaptured Jerusalem, he treated the inhabitants relatively well, not because he was such a nice guy, but because the city tried to negotiate with Saladin instead of being resolutely defiant in the case of the First Crusade.

Nevertheless, the questions about the Christian’s relationship to the state and the response to violence are important ones, as your Lutheran pastor points out. So while we may condemn the Crusaders as being aggressive and brutal, and rightly wish that they had aspired to something more Christ-like, it does not really answer the question: how would you respond to the aggressive and brutal actions of those who demand that you submit to the rule of Islam?

Zhu Bajie November 27, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Given the large number of Americans who think we are in the Last Days, this sounds like a relevant book!

Jay Rubenstein December 9, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Thanks to Marshall for setting up the interview, and thanks as well to everyone who listened, liked, and tweeted it! That said, after just checking back on this page, I thought I should respond briefly to the November 24 comment and have one more go at convincing Mr. Morledge about my arguments . . . The root of my disagreement with Professor Madden’s article is this: We don’t have any evidence that the eleventh-century papacy in 1095 was intending to reunite the Eastern and Western churches through the crusade. Urban II mentions helping Eastern Christians in one letter, but his emphasis there and elsewhere is on Jerusalem, not Constantinople. Arguments that the First Crusade aimed at Greek-Latin reunification are modern speculation. The crusade also fits neither the medieval nor the modern criteria for defensive war. Jerusalem had been ruled by Muslims for over 450 years — for perspective, about as long as there have been European settlers in America.

And (and I think this is an extremely important point), while the massacres at Antioch, Ma’arra, and Jerusalem may have adhered to unwritten rules of war, none of the crusaders had ever done anything like that in previous combat. I can’t find a precedent in in the Middle Ages for the deliberate massacre of an entire city before the First Crusade. That’s what I hope people will take away from my book: the First Crusade was as strange and brutal and horrifying as the crusaders themselves believed it to be.

And to “Anne Is a Man” — it’s flattering to be confused with Brett Whalen! He’s one of the best historians working today.

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