Jay Rubenstein’s book is – other then the title might suggest – mainly a military history of the first crusade. It details the sequence of events form the first calls to free Jerusalem from the “Yoke of the Turks” until the capture of Jerusalem. It even concludes the narrative by telling what happened to some of the major protagonists of the war. And those major protagonists were – according to this book – mostly nobility, counts and princes from Catholic Europe. Rubenstein does not seem to think it necessary to frame his narrative of the crusade in any kind of historical theory. In fact I often thought that he did not rise much above being an arbiter between and a translator of differing medival descriptions of the crusade. His proclaimed interest in the apocalypse is at best a very weak guidance through his narrative and often felt like added as an afterthought. In fact he does not even try to define what he means by apocalypse and seems to have no interest in its theological implications even though he does quote relevant parts of the bible.
In his retelling he regularly stays so close to the medival narratives that he speaks of the miracles mentioned there as if they had happened. Comets and eclipses of the moon, and even earthquakes might be considered historical, but apparitions such as the extra ghostly hosts that helped defeat the Turks before Antioch or the Apocalyptic rider on Mount Olive or the hordes of animals falling in with the crusaders’ army during the battle of Ascalon would have deserved a more critical treatment. To me this speaks of a lack of distance from the sources as well as of an unclear line of questioning.
By and large Rubenstein manages to write 300 pages on the crusade but remains very vague on core questions like who was fighting, how many where fighting, how supply and communication with Catholic Europe where managed, and even what actual apocalyptic spirit motivated the crusaders. Instead we read all about mostly inconsequential battles and diplomatic wranglings that do little to nothing to explain either the apocalyptic or the material base of the first crusade. This kind of history of kings makes for fantastic adventure stories – and more then once was I reminded of Jack Vance and wondered whether he took inspiration from similar narratives. As historical analysis it is near worthless to me. I did – however – read it less because I was interested in a historical question but rather because of wanting some more complete sense of what the first crusade was and what messianic spirit permeated it. I got what I needed as far as overview is concerned but sadly did not learn much about the believe systems of people like Peter the Hermit.
According to Rubenstein the first crusade is the result of apocalyptic expectations running wild near the turn of the first millennium, of worsening conditions for pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem and exaggerated tales of those back home, and of the cunning plan of one pope Urban II. This kind of idealistic (in the sense that ideas drive actions) perspective as always is plagued by the fact that it does not really answer why this concoction of interests managed to put into motion people from the Rhineland, Flanders and the Provance but did not really stir up much interest in England, Southern Germany or Italy. Or why it had not happend earlier, or in smaller scope.
All together this book is easy to read but not much to think about. Maybe – if good translations exist – the medival narratives would actually provide more insight as they likely filtered their story rather differently – even if they are also just histories of kings…