Q&A: Historian Jay Rubenstein

University of Tennessee history professor and MacArthur Fellow Jay Rubenstein's new book, Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse, is a detailed account of the First Crusade and an analysis of the religious and political conditions in Europe that led to the great 1095 pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a cataclysmic event in world history. It's also a bloody, violent tale of adventure and intrigue. And it's got a jacket blurb by Monty Python's Terry Jones, the director of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and a series of BBC documentaries on medieval life.

What's the intended audience for this book? It's obviously scholarly, but kind of popular, too.

I tried to write it with as wide an appeal as possible. Because of the MacArthur Fellowship, I had a chance to tell a story that would appeal to a scholarly audience but also be able to reach a general audience as well. That's one of the luxuries of writing about a topic like the Crusades.

What made you want to write this particular book, tell this particular story?

I didn't expect to really write a book about this story when I started. I was going to do two or three scholarly papers on the Crusades, and perhaps an article. I wanted to do it to fill out a lacuna in my earlier research. I'd done a biography of a monk named Guibert, who had written a Crusade chronicle, but I didn't have time to deal with it as fully as I wanted to. The more research I did, the more I realized that there was still a lot of potential for new angles on the Crusades story, in particular the apocalyptic angle, which I didn't expect to do at all when I started.

You never say this explicitly, but you set up some parallels between the Crusades and contemporary world affairs.

They're kind of hard to avoid or miss, even if you don't say them out loud.

Did you intend for there to be lessons for modern audiences?

I guess I did, but I tried to keep the urge to preach under control while I was writing. I tried to make it as much of a story as possible without explicitly drawing the morals until the very end, in the conclusion. My hope in writing it is that people are going to find their own lessons in the story. One of the things that can be irritating about historical writing is that we, as historians, have the luxury of drawing lessons after it's too late to get any good out of them. It's easy enough now, 10 years after 9/11, to see what lessons we ought to have drawn and how things were similar to the Crusades. But when you're in the midst of it all you can't really step outside your world and make those conclusions.

When you discuss the innovations that came from the Crusade and allowed it to happen—new ways of waging war, new theology, new European contact with the Muslim world—it seems like you're making an argument that the First Crusade was one of those "birth of the modern world" moments.

Yeah, I am implicitly saying that. There's a huge topic within medieval history of what happened in the 12th century. It's been called the 12th-century renaissance, the age of the discovery of the individual. Everybody who has studied the Middle Ages has known something happened in the 12th century, but it's been hard to qualify, and it's been hard to say what the cause of it was. It was awfully tempting to say, "It was the First Crusade. That was the cause." But simple cause-and-effect things never hold up under prolonged analysis. Be that as it may, the First Crusade does seem to me to be a moment like the French Revolution, when a lot of forces that had been building up suddenly coalesced. After the First Crusade, everything was different. It was an event that everybody followed in Europe, or had a stake in it, felt a connection to it. Once it was over, everybody viewed their world very differently. Like a lot of those great historical moments—and I would throw in the French Revolution, possibly the English Civil War, the Russian Revolution—a lot of those moments also had a real apocalyptic backdrop to them. Even the Russian Revolution, which was a very secular event—there's something really apocalyptic about Marxism and the idea that the Communist revolution will remake the world.

The end of history.

We went through one of those very recently, of course.

This has been an apocalyptic decade.

It seems like it. The '90s were apocalyptic, as far as the Cold War was over, it's liberal democracy as far as the eye can see, nothing really interesting is going to happen. And then the '00s were apocalyptic for all the bad and obvious reasons you would use the word apocalyptic.

One last thing: You got a blurb from Terry Jones!

I did! I was obviously very excited about that. The editor was trying to figure out who we could get to give us a blurb who wasn't a traditional academic, but who was nonetheless connected to the Crusades. It popped into my head, Terry Jones did those documentaries, so I said, "Send it to Terry Jones, see what he thinks." Luckily, they got his e-mail and sent it to him. You can't get much more thrilling than having somebody from Monty Python endorse your book.