By Jay Rubenstein
Basic Books, $29.99, 402 pages

 

The First Crusade was a monumental undertaking, a journey across continents, cultures, languages, and religions toward the Apocalypse. So why did it happen? What actually did happen? And what was the result? Mixing religion, politics, military might, and prophetic fervor at just the right time kicked things off. Knights, clerics, and pilgrims set off to Jerusalem with all kinds of intentions. Some died, some deserted, and some made it to the city, but they all endured hardships along the way—extreme violence, starvation, crises of faith and fealty—all to reach the Holy Sepulchre.

Jay Rubenstein brings together the story of this Holy War in a fascinating way. He gets into the minds of all the players and brings them to life, whether discussing political maneuvers or petty disagreements, zealous virtue or the sadistic tactics carried out in its name. The varying perspectives show just how much—or how little—things have changed since those days. The book is thoroughly researched and academic but also intriguing and approachable. It is also a rather dense work, so readers may want to have a good chunk of time to set aside to concentrate on it.

Reviewed by Leah Sims