How the Apocalypse Found Me: Interview with Jay Rubenstein

By Taylor Smith

Jay Rubenstein, professor of history at University of Tennessee and author of numerous works of medieval history, received Phi Beta Kappa’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for his latest book, Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse (Basic Books, 2011). For over fifty years the Emerson Award has recognized excellent literary achievement for works which seek to explore and interpret the complexities of the human condition.

Rubenstein has a Masters of Philosophy in medieval history from the University of Oxford, and a Ph.D. from the University of California-Berkeley in medieval history. He has been honored with the awards of a Rhodes Scholarship in 1989, American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship in 2002, and most recently, the MacArthur Fellowship in 2008. 

Armies of Heaven is a unique retelling of the First Crusade in that the motivations and perceptions of the Crusaders is highly detailed. The various accounts and records provided by Rubenstein concerning this eleventh-century holy war provide the insight necessary to understand the reasons behind the violence of the First Crusade.


Though there have been many retellings of the Crusades, yours is distinctive because of the sources you consulted and the insight you provide into the apocalyptic worldview of the Crusaders. Can you tell us a bit about how these came together in your book?

RUBENSTEIN: The apocalypse found me. When I started this project, I was, like most everyone else who worked the crusades, skeptical that apocalyptic beliefs were of any real importance. But the more contemporary retellings of the First Crusade that I read, the more signs of the apocalypse I started to see in them. Likewise, the better I understood specifically medieval ideas about the apocalypse, the more it became apparent that these references in twelfth-century crusade histories—to Antichrist, to signs in the sky, to rivers of blood, to ghostly armies of saints charging into the heat of battle—were not just literary flourishes. They were fundamental elements in a narrative about how Christians had recently fulfilled God’s plan through the conquest of Jerusalem and the defeat of Muslims, enemy warriors who were understood as servants of demons and foot soldiers of Antichrist.

These connections became most clear to me when I looked at the actual medieval manuscripts of crusade chronicles. I was very lucky during my research to spend a lot of time in Europe (two years living in Paris and one year in Rome, with side trips to England, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium) reading through manuscripts in national archives and local libraries alike. It was striking how often material about the crusade was bound together—literally bound together in a single book—with prophetic material. The story of the crusade made medieval observers think about the story of Armageddon. And no wonder! The last battle described in Revelation was widely expected to be a war between Christians and Muslims fought in the shadows of the walls of Jerusalem. Anyone aware of these prophecies—and they were widely known texts—could not have failed to see the potential connections between the war for Jerusalem in 1099 and the long-awaited climax of human history predicted in Revelation.

Finally, I also spent a little time in Jerusalem itself and was either lucky or unlucky enough, depending on your perspective, to be their in the middle of a major riot on and around the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque are today and where the Temple of Solomon once stood. I don’t think I had any real understanding of the power of the apocalyptic imagination until I had actually walked the streets of Jerusalem and felt firsthand the tensions that course around its ancient monuments.

Armies of Heaven details the personal lives and motivations of many Crusade leaders, including Peter the Hermit, Mark “Bohemond” Guiscard, and Pope Urban II. Where in their lives and actions are lessons for the contemporary world?

RUBENSTEIN: I’m always reluctant to draw too straight a line between events in the past and lessons for the present. Not that I don’t think such lessons can’t be drawn, but my hope is that readers will be inspired to find their own morals to the story.

That said, Bohemond is probably the most compelling character in the crusade saga. The bastard son of a Norman mercenary, a man blessed with extraordinary charisma and ambition, plus, as one of the tallest men alive, a literal giant—he managed to create himself as the Prince of Antioch while on crusade and then spent the latter years of his life trying to steal the imperial throne from Emperor Alexius Comnenus in Constantinople. He was someone who for a time was within a heartbeat of being remembered as the next Alexander the Great, but instead died in obscurity. In the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem, he became one of the most outspoken and influential promoters of the crusading ideal. He toured Europe, distributed books, preached sermons, and encouraged other people to write books about what he and his fellow crusaders had accomplished. Did he believe what he was saying? A lot of our evidence suggests that Bohemond was an unusually skeptical man—capable of shockingly cold-hearted calculation and one of the most transparently venal of all the crusaders. In terms of the grandeur of his ambitions and the sheer magnificence of his failure, Bohemond stands comfortably alongside any person who ever lived, a reminder than in the seemingly constrained and superstitious world of the Middle Ages, personalities dazzling in their splendor and complexity were as capable of taking the stage as at any other time in history.

As for the other two people you mention, Urban II was the pope who first preached the crusade in 1095 and early 1096. Peter the Hermit was, as the name suggests, a much more obscure figure, but he also preached the liberation of Jerusalem at the same time as the pope and perhaps independently of him. Peter’s message seems to have been more directly apocalyptic than Urban’s. He carried a letter which he claimed had fallen from heaven and in which God supposedly endorsed his cause. He traveled on a mule in a way intended to recall Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and he based his message on Christ’s instructions to the Apostles on how to recognize the Last Days. Urban II may have been more restrained in his preaching, but we don’t really know enough to say for sure. Regardless, both men espoused a cause—war in the Middle East in the name of the spread of Christianity—whose justice and logic seemed obvious to them and to their audiences but whose impact was to let loose really horrific forces with truly dreadful long-term consequences. The amateur political commentator in me wants to add, “But our leaders today are not so different from Urban and Peter. We are still fighting wars in the Middle East in the names of ideals, democracy and capitalism, whose virtues seem transparent to us, systems of belief whose historical rightness and inevitability we take for granted.” But, as I say, I’d prefer that readers draw their own conclusions rather than beating them over the head with my own heavy-handed ideas.

In her review of your book for Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Sarah Whitten writes: “Rubenstein argues that this violence was not learned in the small wars of eleventh-century Europe but rather in Deuteronomy 20. By destroying the city and its people, the Europeans were taking up a biblical precedent that transformed them into the Children of Israel.” What acts of violence are being indicated here? In what other ways did the Crusaders believe their actions were merged with biblical events or stories?

RUBENSTEIN: Three battles in particular stand out. When the crusaders captured Antioch, they massacred most of the city’s population, including a lot of Syrian Christians who were in the streets singing “Kyrie Eleison” in the pitiable hope that they might be spared. When the crusaders conquered Ma‘arra in Syria, they enslaved some of the population, massacred everyone else, and for good measure cannibalized many of the enemy. Most famously, when Jerusalem fell on July 15, 1099, the crusaders killed enough of the locals that the streets were said to have run ankle deep in blood. A few of the Muslim citizens of Jerusalem did manage to ransom themselves, but their escape stirred up enough anger and resentment that over the next two days, all of the city’s remaining Muslims were systematically killed—men, women, and children. Now, the standard historical response to these battles of late has been, “The crusaders were just applying the standard rules of war. If a city under siege surrendered, the inhabitants were spared. If it fell while under attack, their lives were forfeit. There was nothing unusual about the crusade! Move along, please.” The problem is, these rules were not applied by Latin Christians anywhere outside of the crusade. In eleventh-century Europe, conflict was usually small scale and casualties were minimal. What happened on crusade was a new phenomenon and for the Western soldiers involved, a new experience of warfare. One of the few places they could appeal to for precedents would have been the Old Testament, where battles were fought for God and not coincidentally were fought in the same lands through which the crusaders were traveling.

Outside of specific points of comparison (the crusade’s ecclesiastical leader, Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy, was often compared to Moses; the long march through the deserts of the Levant were like the Children of Israel’s wanderings to the Promised Land; the battle of Jerusalem was compared to Joshua’s conquest of Jericho and Saul’s war with the Amalekites), the Latin Christians believed that they had finally, fully supplanted the Israelites as God’s chosen people. They saw themselves, “the Franks,” as a newly divinely favored nation. Their conquest of Jerusalem represented God’s final seal of approval.

It may seem obvious to contemporary Christians why people of other faiths would react negatively to forced baptism, but this was not apparent to eleventh-century Christians. Can you explain how such actions were understood?

RUBENSTEIN: Some of the earlier crusaders, inspired by Peter the Hermit, gave Jewish communities in Normandy and in Germany, the choice between baptism or death. Many hundreds of these Jews allowed themselves to be killed. In some cases they even killed their own children before committing suicide. But some did accept baptism. Legally speaking, you could not force Jews to convert in the Middle Ages. But, also legally speaking, once a Jew had converted, even if the conversion was forced, he could not renounce his new religion. My own reading on these pogroms, based on a combination of Christian and Jewish evidence, is that Franks were hoping to set the preconditions for the Last Days. It was widely believed that at the end times, the Jews would all convert to Christianity. One way or another, these crusaders didn’t intend to leave home until they had taken care of the Jewish problem.

As a side note, the emperor of Germany, Henry IV, who is often portrayed as a villain in modern historical writing because of his wars with popes, did allow the Jews in his kingdom to renounce Christianity and return to their faith. This turn of events seemed genuinely surprising many contemporary Christian observers, who had really believed that the pogroms and the plainly fictive baptisms had inaugurated a new stage in world history.

What do you think your readers will find most surprising to learn about the First Crusade?

RUBENSTEIN: I think readers will be surprised to find out how integral to the crusade supernatural events were, and how ultimately commonplace miracles, visions, and ghostly warriors became for the Franks.

If we take history as our teacher, what do you think we still have to learn from these events, and from the people who participated in them?

RUBENSTEIN: This is one moral I am comfortable drawing: When the leaders who direct wars and the men who wield the weapons of war become convinced that their actions align perfectly with the divine, we are inviting unthinkable atrocities. It’s a big enough lesson that putting it into words verges on the maudlin. But, unfortunately, it’s a lesson that is relevant for our world. I’ll be happy if someday crusade stories can go back to being simple anachronistic entertainments.

What does winning the Phi Beta Kappa Emerson Award mean to you?

RUBENSTEIN: This award for me is one of the greatest honors I could ever imagine receiving. Most obviously, a lot of books which I deeply admire have received the Emerson Award. It is a thrill for me to be in their company. Among those books, I would especially highlight Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, which was one of my models in writing Armies of Heaven. I truly believe that the First Crusade was comparable to World War I in the way that it introduced into Europe a new and extraordinary brutal style of combat and in the way that, in the crusade’s aftermath, nothing looked quite the same as it once had done. I also am particularly happy to have received the Emerson prize because of what it seeks to recognize—scholarly studies that contribute to the understanding of humanity, a quality which is often most apparent in the most inhuman of conditions. One of the most memorable twelfth-century observations about the crusade was how comfortable the soldiers felt around corpses. Two writers say, essentially, the people naturally feel horror at the dead, but the crusaders learned to walk among them and even sleep beside them. How did that happen? How did a basic human impulse, that crosses the medieval-modern divide, become lost? But, fundamentally, while the honor of the Emerson Award (not to mention to remuneration) is gratifying, what is most important to me as a writer and a historian is to know that someone has read my book and found something in it to be meaningful and worthwhile.

Taylor Smith is a senior at Louisiana State University majoring in the liberal arts with a concentration in disaster science management. Louisiana State is home to the Beta of Louisiana chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.