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Dissecting the Crusades

April 9, 2012

Detail from the Temple Church in London, built by the Knights Templar during the Crusades in the twelfth century

By Dennis McCarthy

Jay Rubenstein—Rhodes Scholar, history professor, and only the second UT faculty member to have won the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship—published the book Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse in late 2011. We recently enjoyed having coffee with Rubenstein, talking mostly about the Crusades and the “Clash of Civilizations.”

Quest: You wanted to be a novelist, not a historian, when you were a kid?

Jay Rubenstein: That’s right. I started a novel in the fourth grade and wrote about thirty pages before giving up. In high school, I wrote two epic fantasy novels.

Fantasy novelist . . . historian? I guess there’s a connection.

In college, I expected to major in English. I also wanted to spend a semester in England, but there were only two programs that allowed you to do that—one in theater and the other in medieval studies. I didn’t think theater would work out, so I went with medieval studies. I took a medieval history class and just kept taking more. It helped that I had an excellent advisor.

So not wanting to be a thespian led you down the history track. What have you learned from that? What has history taught you?

The most common thing people say about history is that if you don’t remember the mistakes of the past, you’re doomed to repeat them. I don’t think that’s true. I think we either make new mistakes or we look at mistakes of the past and say, “Those don’t apply to me this time.” I’m not sure anyone ever learns that much from history. You can’t use history to say with clarity that this is what we should or shouldn’t do. We can use history only to comment on what is already done. That said, there are a few no-brainers that people ought to pay attention to but don’t.

Such as?

Sunni and Shia don’t really get along, for one. And not everyone wants to be a Western democratic capitalist. The mistakes of the last ten years happened largely because we assumed that everyone in the world wants to be just like us.

Jay Rubenstein

Jay Rubenstein

Do you think historians in the future will look back on the current conflict between radical Muslims and the West—what Samuel Huntington called the “Clash of Civilizations”—and see a major historical shift, or will they see only a blip on the radar?

I suspect we’ll look back on this period as a transformative time, with the clash being a part of it. The information revolution, the embrace of globalization as an economic and political philosophy, the clash of ideologies, defined partly on religious and partly on cultural bases—all these factors will be recognized as important. People will look back and say, “Yeah, that was a time when everything changed.

But are we changing for the better? Clearly we have progressed technologically. We’re healthier and have a higher standard of living. For the most part, folks in the West no longer enslave one another. But the twentieth century was a grim period for the West. The level of slaughter was horrific. Are we wiser? Are we more morally advanced? Have we gained any ground ethically and spiritually since the Crusades?

We have more information, and while we’re not dying wholesale as we did in the past, we are killing wholesale. One of the things that attracted me to medieval history was its irrelevance. If you were studying the French Revolution, you were also dealing with the Cold War; but if you were writing about the Middle Ages, you didn’t have to concern yourself with a modern political agenda.

My advisor in college would make the compelling argument that there was no Holocaust during the Middle Ages, no genocide, no atomic bomb, no apartheid, and that we have regressed since then. I’m not as comfortable with that argument today after having researched the underbelly of the Middle Ages. Crusaders committed horrific crimes against the Jews, for instance, although nothing on the scale of what we have done in the modern world.

If the Crusaders had today’s technology, would their crimes have been just as brutal?

Oh, yes. One of the themes of my work has been that the Crusades were genuinely horrific—especially the First Crusade. They weren’t business as usual. They weren’t about acquiring territory or increasing wealth—although some Crusaders did fight with those motives. The ideological basis of the Crusades was to purify the land of unbelief, not to exploit its resources. It’s an ideology that justifies genocide. The mindset that would allow you to cut off an enemy’s head with your sword is very different from the drone warfare mindset of today. With drones, you are disconnected from the act of violence. To make the decision to enter a city like Jerusalem—which was larger than any city the Crusaders had known—and to kill everyone within it requires an ideological commitment.

Rubenstein's latest book is “Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse.”

Rubenstein's latest book is Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse.

You once said that after the Crusades, everything was different. What did you mean by that?

The First Crusade is like the end of the Cold War or the French Revolution. It’s one of those moments in history that is truly transformative. After the First Crusade, warfare became a large-scale enterprise, and it was much more brutal. Atrocities happen in a territorial war, but in ideological warfare, atrocities happen as a matter of principle. In an ironic way, the First Crusade also created a sense of shared achievement among the people who stayed in Europe. When the victory was celebrated back home, people said, “Look what we’ve done!”

The Crusade also helped to define Europe as a common people, a common culture—Christendom—in opposition to everything that was Eastern. Christendom was expected to spread out and take over the world, in a Fukuyama-like sense, bringing an end to history.

The First Crusade was also an apocalyptic event. Before the First Crusade, the standard interpretation of the apocalypse was that it would come when it would come and there was nothing anyone could do to affect the timing. God would work his will. The First Crusade, however, created among contemporary historians and theologians the notion that humans could activate God’s plan. History was no longer just one event following another. Instead, history was leading to the apocalypse, and we had the capacity to bring it about.

What impact did the Crusades have on the Muslim world?

Initially, I don’t think Muslims took a lot of notice. Eventually, and to their surprise, however, they saw the Crusaders as religious fanatics intent on conquering Jerusalem. The long-term impact was that the Crusades reinvented the concept of the jihad in the Muslim world. Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders in 1099. Beginning around 1130 or 1140, Muslim leaders adopted the rhetoric of the holy war as an ideological rallying point, much as the Crusaders had. Saladin, the great Muslim leader, effectively used jihad to almost wipe out the Crusader states that had grown up in the century after the First Crusade.

Do you think Muslims were humiliated by the success of the First Crusade? After all, they were in many ways more sophisticated than Westerners and couldn’t have been happy about these outlanders driving them from their lands.

I don’t know if it’s right to say they were humiliated. From the Muslim perspective, the Crusaders were just another frontier army that had come through and had some surprising successes, but the locals still expected to take care of these intruders fairly quickly. At the same time, however, the great Sunni and Shia cultures were so internally fragmented that there was no possibility of a concerted response.

How about today? Do the Crusades have currency among contemporary Muslims? Are Muslim kids who are burning cars in Paris angry about the Crusades?

Bear in mind that I’m no expert on contemporary Muslim thought, but it’s pretty obvious that the most radical elements in the Muslim world do use the language of Crusade deliberately. It’s no secret that almost all the Muslims in Jerusalem were killed in 1099, and it’s easy to use that as justification to commit atrocities today. For the next several centuries after the Crusades, the Muslim world didn’t talk much about it, however. It wasn’t an open wound for them, in part because they eventually won. The Crusaders were driven out and never returned.

The Muslims at the time were more concerned about driving out the Mongols, which was a much more pressing problem than driving out the Crusaders. It was really not until the nineteenth century—when Europeans began to celebrate the Crusades—that Muslims began to use resistance to Crusade as a metaphor for resistance to colonialism, especially after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and European expansion into the Middle East. When General [Edmund] Allenby marched into Jerusalem, liberating the city from Ottoman control in World War I, he instructed people not to talk about the Crusades. Newspaper headlines the next day, however, read, “Richard the Lionheart Returns,” “Crusaders Are Back in Jerusalem.”

Today, the Crusades are an even more obvious comparison, especially considering the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the 1967 War. The ’67 War was fought over the same territories as the Crusades were. From the typical American perspective, Israel was returning to the Promised Land. From the Arab perspective, the Jews were the new Crusaders, occupying what had been Muslim or Arab territory for 1,800 years. Whether it’s right or wrong, it’s just hard to avoid the analogies.

My most revelatory moment in understanding the First Crusade happened in Jerusalem a few years ago during a riot. I was at the Temple Mount and could see the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque, two major historic Muslim shrines. As I looked down at the Western Wall and saw all the Orthodox Jews in prayer, I knew that many of them were praying that the buildings on the Mount would be destroyed so that they could rebuild the Temple, which had been razed nearly two millennia before. At that moment, I realized why this conflict really is so intractable.

Follow Jay Rubenstein on Twitter: @JCRHistorian

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