Thursday, September 05, 2013

Armies of Heaven, by Jay Rubenstein

This book presents itself as an argument that the first crusade was both inspired by apocalyptic thinking – the conviction that humans have entered a part of history where their actions take on cosmic significance – and also promoted that kind of thinking.

Jay Rubenstein's book does that, but the reader who expects an unwavering focus on apocalypticism may be disappointed. A great deal of Armies of Heaven is devoted to a rather detailed narrative history of the crusade. On the other hand, for a lot of readers this may be a virtue. Rubenstein does a good job of telling the basic story.

Recent scholarship has tended to focus on religious motivations for going on crusade, dismissing the idea that people went to Jerusalem for profit and self-advancement. Reading Rubenstein's book, devoted to the emergence of apocalypticism, has the perhaps paradoxical effect of showing that there was a real struggle between ordinary, greedy, ambitious warlordism and the more abstract motives of those most devoted to bringing on the final days. There are plenty of non-apocalyptic motives out there.

In an earlier blog post, I drew attention to the fact that Pope Innocent III in the early 13th century used the idea of crusading to attack any disobedient or unorthodox target, in Europe or in the Middle East. Somewhere in this book Rubenstein quotes people considerably earlier than Innocent saying much the same thing. "We have beaten the infidels in the Middle East, but have not yet been able to do something about the heretics and schismatics out this way."

You can hear Rubenstein being interviewed at New Books in History.

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