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Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse.

Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse. By Jay Rubenstein. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011. Pp. xi, 402. $29.99.)

The First Crusade has inspired a remarkable number of historical treatments, and scholars may be thusly forgiven for being skeptical about the need for yet another. It therefore comes as a pleasant surprise that Jay Rubenstein manages to tell a fresh story about this well-known event. Drawing on published chronicles and archival sources, Rubenstein seeks to uncover the "grand ideas behind the First Crusade--the beliefs that helped to create it and that helped to drive the armies forward toward their goal" (xiii). These ideas were rooted in an apocalyptic fervor that had been growing in Europe for much of the eleventh century. By the time Pope Urban II issued his call to crusade in 1095, apocalyptic expectations were far enough developed that they informed the enthusiastic lay response and helped shape the actions of the crusaders on the march.

Designed to appeal to both a scholarly and popular readership, the book is divided into twenty short chapters that proceed chronologically from al-Hakim's destruction of the Holy Sepulcher in 1009 to the battle of Ascalon in 1099. The main thrust of the book is to show the various ways in which the First Crusade was linked to (and fueled by) a belief in the coming apocalypse. Preachers proclaimed it and crusaders were motivated by it. Peter the Hermit seemed especially adept at exploiting a popular apocalyptic sentiment to recruit his army. The instigators of the 1096 Jewish pogroms tried to fulfill it, following a precedent of anti-Jewish violence as a response to Muslim perfidy that had emerged generations earlier. And most interestingly, the extreme violence and brutality undertaken on the expedition called to the minds of the crusaders stories from the Old Testament and prophecies from Revelations. This explains, for example, why beheading became such a frequent occurrence at the hands of the Christian army. Rubenstein finds ample support for these claims in the narrative chronicles, though it is worth remembering that most of these texts were written in the early twelfth century by churchmen who had not only the advantage of theological training but also (most crucially) knowledge of how the crusade ended. One wonders if the average crusader had such a theologically sophisticated understanding of the expedition, particularly since the vast number of surviving charters--the best window into the minds of departing crusaders--offer no whiff of any sort of apocalyptic motivation.

The writing is excellent, and when combined with Rubenstein's knowledge of the sources, even the crusades specialist will be rewarded with several new and amusing anecdotes. And yet the witty style is problematic at times. Undoubtedly hoping to keep the pace lively for a popular reader, Rubenstein is prone to sensationalizing seemingly mundane events. One will search in vain for evidence to support his claim, for example, that Bohemond and Firuz were lovers or that crusaders secretly resorted to cannibalism during the siege of Antioch (191, 151-152). Nevertheless, Rubenstein has written a thought-provoking book that will be of interest to scholars working in a number of fields.

James Naus

Saint Louis University

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Author:Naus, James
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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