The Lethal Mix of Religion and War, Or, Why the World Ended in 1099

What inspired you to write Armies of Heaven?

I wanted to write about war and how the experience of war changes a people or a culture. The First Crusade was, at the time, the biggest war in the history of the Middle Ages. After French and German warriors conquered Jerusalem in 1099, there was incredible excitement back home—a sense that one of the most important events in history had just happened and that the people who had fought in this war were among the most virtuous men who had ever lived.

When the veterans returned home, however, they acted in ways far from saintly. One of the heroes of the campaign, Thomas of Marle, was declared to be the worst man who had ever lived. My hypothesis was that Europeans became rapidly disillusioned with their own success, in part because the veterans of the First Crusade could not possibly live up to the myths that people at home had created about them.

In order to write about disillusionment, however, I needed first to understand what the original illusion was. Much to my surprise, almost everyone who wrote about the crusade in the 1100s did so in apocalyptic terms. That is to say, it was not just an important event in history. It was the culmination of history. The Christian victory at Jerusalem seemed to fulfill the prophecies of Daniel, 2 Thessalonians, and Revelation. The stage had been set for Armageddon and Antichrist or, more provocatively, Antichrist had been defeated at Jerusalem. Once I recognized that this wasn’t a story about war but a story about Apocalypse, I also realized that job one would be to retell the whole First Crusade story, emphasizing ghosts, prophets, miracles, demons, and Antichrist.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Mixing religion and war is lethal. It changes the people who fight and it changes the society they fight for. The longterm consequences of victory can be as devastating, or even more so, than the consequences of defeat.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

A lot of “historical argument” got left on the cutting room floor, or else confined to footnotes. My biggest regret, though, was losing the original version of the opening chapter. Rather than start at the beginning, I started at the end with a crusade veteran named Bohemond traveling around France in 1106 preaching a new crusade. Bohemond was a fascinating character. Initially the great hero of the crusade, he ended up a complete failure, dying a nearly forgotten man back in Italy where he started. As such he struck me as a compelling symbol for the entire crusade movement. There were definitely tearstains on my keyboard when I cut out that chapter.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

The biggest misconception is the belief that, at the time of the crusades, everyone understood them as religious wars between Christianity and Islam. Latin Christians understood it in that fashion—a war fought against an unbelieving enemy for control of Jerusalem, the center of the earth and the place of humanity’s salvation. For Greek Christians, on the other hand, the crusaders were essentially mercenaries employed against a rival empire, governed by Seljuk Turks. Both the Sunni Turks and the Shi‘i Egyptians probably understood the crusades in similar terms. It would take the Muslims several decades to learn to think of the battles against the Franks as religious wars rather than as conflicts over the control of frontier settlements.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I wrote this book to be accessible and compelling for all readers. However horrifying and disturbing the First Crusade was, it is a great story, and one that more people ought to know. I’m also hoping not to lose my scholarly audience, because the book is presenting genuinely new interpretations of the crusade as an apocalyptic event.

Are you hoping to simply inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

I’m hoping to inform readers and entertain them. People tell me that parts of the book are funny, which makes happy. But I also hope it’s a little scary. The scenes of cannibalism, of mass beheadings, of streets transformed into rivers of blood—there are some sections of the book that I hope function as “horror history.”

What alternate title would you give the book?

“Why the World Ended in 1099.”

How do you feel about the cover?

The cover is beautiful. The editors and designers at Basic Books know what they’re doing. Admittedly, I initially wanted to go with a more fantastical, apocalyptic image rather than an earthly battle scene. But the cover does a good job of conveying action. And I got to have all the apocalypse I wanted in the color plates, which are gorgeous.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

As a professional historian, it is difficult to enjoy history books. We are trained to see what’s wrong with books and to tear them apart. As a historian, though, I’ve always wanted to write like R. W. Southern. His book Saint Anselm and His Biographer has influenced me tremendously. As a human being, I’ve always wanted to write like Raymond Chandler.

What’s your next book?

I want to write a sequel to Armies of Heaven, a book that will study the first fifty years of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. The central question will be, “How in this world do you run a successful government originally founded on an Apocalypse?” As with the First Crusade, there will be blood-soaked battlefields, scheming churchmen, and wondrous signs in the sky. There will be a lot more women in that story, too. And, of course, there will be Templars.