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Scholar Views First Crusade as Apocalyptic Moment


Of the myriad scholarship done on the First Crusade, relatively little has cast it against the backdrop of medieval Europeans expecting an impending apocalypse.

Jay Carter Rubenstein, Ph.D., associate professor of medieval history at the University of Tennessee, said he is out to change that.

Speaking on Nov. 18 at the Rose Hill campus, Rubenstein argued that the story of the apocalypse as told in the Bible fundamentally shaped the way people viewed the First Crusade.

“For my money, the First Crusade is the most interesting and the weirdest of all the Crusades, in part because it was the first and nobody really knew what they were doing,” Rubenstein said in the Campbell Hall multipurpose room.

“They hadn’t even invented the word ‘crusade’ yet.”

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Jay Carter Rubenstein, Ph.D., says the people in the Middle Ages looked for signs of the apocalypse in natural phenomena and social unrest. Photo by Michael Dames

The lecture, which was sponsored by the Center for Medieval Studies at Fordham, drew from his forthcoming book Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse (Basic Books, 2011).

He pointed out that many Europeans were thinking about the apocalypse due to the occurrence of natural phenomena mentioned in the Bible, among other reasons.

“In 1095, for example, meteor showers lit up the night skies in Europe,” he said.

Rubenstein then read the Gospel passage in which Christ tells his apostles how to recognize the Last Days: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give forth its light and the stars will fall from Heaven.”

“Given subsequent events, most people learned to see these lights as portents of the impending march to Jerusalem,” he said.

Though the majority of scholars pin the source of the First Crusade to Pope Urban II’s declaration at the Council of Clemont in 1095, Rubenstein noted that the leading firsthand account of the Crusade, theGesta Francorum, offers a different rationale.

According to the book, “There was a great movement throughout all the parts of Gaul, so that anyone who zealously wished—with a pure heart and mind—to follow God, and wanted faithfully to bear His cross, did not hesitate immediately to take the road to the Holy Sepulcher.”

Rubenstein said that the passage indicates the desire of Europeans to be in Jerusalem—which was understood in the Middle Ages to be the center of the Earth—when the apocalypse occurred.

Just as the Crusaders fought against non-Christians over control of Jerusalem, the Christian apocalyptic tradition states that the forces of Christ will fight Antichrist for control of the “Heavenly Jerusalem.”

“The narrative of a war for the heavenly city fought against an anti-Christian opponent—if not Antichrist himself—would make the apocalypse an obvious source of inspiration for Crusade historians,” Rubenstein explained.

In fact, the earthly battle for Jerusalem and the foretold battle for the Heavenly Jerusalem were intertwined in medieval images depicting the Last Days. In artwork showing the battle for the Heavenly Jerusalem, Antichrist is shown with longish hair, bright red hosiery and pointy-toed shoes.

“The socks—and the long pointy-toed shoes especially—were a really controversial fashion item around the time of the Crusade,” Rubenstein said. “It was actually brought up through southern France from Spain from Islamic courts.

“So Antichrist is very much being presented to you here as a harbinger of Islamic fashion and style.”

Though other historians have offered economic and spiritual motives to explain the causes of the First Crusade, Rubenstein said that the apocalyptic motive is necessary to achieve a more complete impression of the event.

“Spiritual motives—penance and pilgrimage—are important, but to me that doesn’t really capture the stories of crusade that I was reading when I went through all of the chronicles and even read through some of the letters written by crusaders themselves,” he said.

He also pointed out that most apocalyptic historians focus on 1000 and 1260—both years in which a large portion of Europe expected the Last Days. Since the First Crusade falls in between those two dates, it has been overlooked as a part of the apocalyptic tradition.

Rubenstein told the audience that he began his inquiry as a skeptic trying to disprove the connection between the First Crusade and the apocalypse.

“I had gotten into a fight with a colleague who told me that the apocalypse was important for the First Crusade and I told him, ‘No, it’s not.’ So I gave a paper to prove him wrong,” he explained.

“However, I started to read books about the First Crusade and to read primary sources, and much to my shock, the apocalypse was all over it,” he said.

“Every writer was using apocalyptic imagery.”

– Joseph McLaughlin



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