Apocalypticism and the First Crusade


Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of the prophesied harbingers of the Last Days. Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov.


At the end of the 11th century, the outlook for Christendom was bleak. The Church had split between East and West in 1054, and the Byzantine Empire, a large Christian empire in the East, was being hemmed in by Seljuk Turks and other Muslim forces. When Alexius I Comnenus, the Byzantine Emperor, requested help from the west, Pope Urban II called a widespread pilgrimage to the Christians of Western Europe in 1095, urging them to come to the aid of the Byzantines and recapture the holy city of Jerusalem.

The Routes of the First Crusade

The Routes of the First Crusade.

Thousands responded to the call of Pope Urban II. Knights, peasants, priests, and even women and children, all embarked on a journey to the Holy Land. Today, historians cite a number of reasons to explain why so many went on a pilgrimage towards Jerusalem, including to absolve their sins, to acquire land or wealth, or to simply spread Christianity’s influence. Yet few argue that many of the crusaders felt that by going on the crusade, they were helping to bring about the Apocalypse, the final battle between good and evil that would bring the end of the world.

Following the assertions of prominent medieval historian Jay Rubenstein, it is clear that those popular explanations are insufficient to explain why the crusaders left their families and possessions and embarked on the First Crusade.  An additional explanation is required: Crusaders were motivated to go to Jerusalem because they fundamentally believed that their pilgrimage would help spur the prophesied end of time. Being a part of a divine event and helping to bring about the Apocalypse was a far more compelling reason to go on the journey to Jerusalem than many of the other common reasons cited today.

Background on Apocalypticism

Much of the inspiration for the crusaders’ apocalyptic thinking comes from the final book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation. This biblical book, also known as the Apocalypse of John, is famous for its vivid imagery and depiction of the coming End of Times. Although the book is initially introduced as a revelation, the author later presents the book as a prophecy of what is to happen during the Second Coming of Christ.

John of Patmos, author of the Book of Revelation, receiving the prophecies.

John of Patmos, who is attributed with writing the Book of Revelation, receiving the prophecies.

In summary, the Book of Revelation predicts the inevitable end of the world and the culmination of history. The revelation is mediated by a series of otherworldly beings, including the prominent Antichrist, a heavenly elder, and angels. Though the book is concerned with a range of revelations of heavenly secrets, the main focus is that of the unfolding process which will lead to the dawning of a new heaven and a new Earth. The author prophecies a period of intense tribulation, but also a period of 1000 years of godly rule with Christ.

An important theme that arises out of the Book of Revelation is the notion that there are clear distinctions between earthly and heavenly. Additionally, the culminating predicted event is a battle between good and evil, or between the the forces of God on one hand, and the forces of Satan on the other. This idea causes apocalypticism to necessarily be linked with duality. In every apocalyptic battle, there are good and evil sides, and they are distinctly different from each other.

Although early crusaders also relied on prophecies from the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels to frame their Apocalyptic thinking, the primary source of their eschatological obsession was the Book of Revelation. Crusaders grew very concerned with finding the portents of the Apocalypse that John predicted. Additionally, many crusaders believed that if they could bring about some of the prophesied events, they could bring about the Last Days.

Crusaders’ Motivation

When Pope Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095, many Europeans felt inspired to join the Crusade because they believed that the Apocalypse was at hand. Urban was calling for an earthly battle in Jerusalem, and the biblical prophecies had predicted a heavenly battle in Jerusalem. It was impossible to not see the link between the two battles. One motivation for pilgrims joining the First Crusade was that they believed that the Apocalypse was nigh, and they wanted to be in Jerusalem when these events took place (Fordham News). Additionally, some crusaders believed that by going to Jerusalem, they could set in motion the events of Apocalypse.


Image of Pope Urban II calling the crusade at Clermont.

One of the key figures of the First Crusade, Peter the Hermit, amassed thousands of enthusiastic followers throughout Germany and France by preaching about imminent apocalyptic battles against evil and the coming of the Last Days (Dallas News).

Manifestations of the Apocalypse During the First Crusade

Signs of the Apocalypse

During the First Crusade, many crusaders believed that the events they were witnessing were directly linked to the Apocalypse. Current events, in essence, were all understood to be signs of the impending Apocalypse or proofs that the Apocalypse was at hand. An early example of this type of interpretation occurred shortly after Pope Urban called the First Crusade in November 1095. The Book of Matthew records an interaction between Christ and his apostles in which Christ explains what some of the signs of the End of Times will be. Christ says, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give forth its light and the stars will fall from Heaven” (Matt 24:29). Early crusaders swore they saw these signs of the Last Days, such as meteor showers, comets in the sky, and red clouds (Rubenstein, 45). These early crusaders most likely believed that the apocalypse was about to come, as the predicted signs had clearly manifested. Albert of Aachen, a 12th-century historian of the First Crusade, recorded that they were living in the Apocalypse. “Know this well,” Albert of Aachen writes, “The days have come that the Lord promised to Blessed Mary to his apostles, that He would raise up to the kingdom of Christians while casting down and trampling the kingdom of pagans.” The dualistic battle between good and evil as predicted in the Last Days was happening.

This image depicts several of the signs of the Apocalypse that crusaders claim to have seen. For example, it illustrates meteors in the sky and death all around.

This image depicts several of the signs of the Apocalypse that crusaders claim to have seen. For example, it illustrates meteors in the sky and death all around.

A powerful way in which early crusaders further understood the First Crusade in terms of the Apocalypse is found through their application of the Book of Revelation to the First Crusade. For example, Revelation 20 predicts a millennium, or 1000 years, of saintly rule. Consequently, some crusade leaders such as Peter Bartholomew believed that they needed to set up a council of saintly rulers and purge any non-believers. An arguably more important application of the Book of Revelation to the crusades occurred when the crusaders finally took Jerusalem in 1099. According to Revelation 14:20, blood of the enemy was predicted to flow for 200 miles. Famously, Raymond of Aguilers depicted in an account of the sack of Jerusalem, when he said, “Let it suffice to say that in the temple and around the portico of Solomon they were riding in blood to their knees, and up to the reins of their horses” (Rubenstein, 291). As in the Book of Revelation, in Jerusalem, the evil enemy (the Saracens) had been wiped out and the streets of Jerusalem ran with blood.  Moreover, it was hard for the crusaders to ignore the eschatological significance of their retaking of Jerusalem and their establishment of what they believed would be the Last Emperor, which was yet another prophecy.

Rhetoric of Opposites

Another major way in which Apocalyptic thinking influenced the First Crusade is through the language that the crusaders used when describing their opponents, the Saracens. Christian eschatology depicted a clear duality of forces: good vs. evil, or Christ vs. the Antichrist. Since the First Crusaders interpreted the events around them through an apocalyptic lens, they believed that they were fighting the Antichrist, who was manifested in  their Saracen opponents. Consequently, in order to fit the Saracens into their understanding of the apocalypse, Muslims were defined and understood to be the complete opposite of Christians, or as demons. (Rubenstein, 12-14).


In this medieval image, the Antichrist is depicted in typical Muslim fashion. He is shown wearing bright red socks and long pointy shoes, both of which Christians would have found to be questionable pieces of style for that time. This “Islamic fashion” as Jay Rubenstein describes it, originated in Muslim Spain and made its way into France. This depiction of the Antichrist in these clothes shows that crusaders envisioned and expected the Antichrist to be Muslim (Fordham News).

For example, the Benedictine historian and theologian Guibert of Nogent depicted the Saracens as the Antichrist in his early 12th-century account of Pope Urban II’s call for the crusades at the Council of Clermont. Guibert’s use of apocalyptic language when discussing Urban’s call for the crusade is evident throughout his account and his view of the Saracens reflects the way in which many crusaders interpreted their fight; a true struggle between good and evil. He argued that the “head of all evil” was present at the Holy Land, and Christians ought to be in Jerusalem to oppose evil, as “it is clear that Antichrist…will attack Christians”. By Antichrist, he means, of course, the Saracens, but his reference to the Apocalypse in referring to warfare cannot be ignored. (Guibert of Nogent, pg. 35)

Extreme Violence

Painting by Emile Signol, 1847

Painting by Emile Signol, 1847. Depicts the violence of the Crusaders as they recaptured Jerusalem, and the Dome of the Rock can be seen in the background.

The early crusaders further demonstrated how apocalyptic thinking influenced their behavior during the First Crusade through their use of extreme violence. The guide to siege warfare is found in the Bible, specifically in Deuteronomy 20, which clearly delineates how to fight battles and when it is appropriate to pillage a city and its inhabitants. Generally, it is acceptable to seize a city when they refuse your initial offer of peace. (Deut. 20). Although most crusaders seemed to rely on Deuteronomy 20 to justify their behavior during the Crusades, Professor Jay Rubenstein argues, “Had the crusaders ever followed this ethos in their European homeland, their actions would have been viewed as atrocities” (203). In other words, Deut. 20 rationalizes warfare, but the rules of warfare were never upheld in Europe. When the crusaders realized victories at places such as Nicaea, Antioch, and finally Jerusalem, however, they tended to completely siege the cities and pillage the conquered people. Rubenstein argues that “the result was a new level of violence, leading to battles that in scale and character were truly apocalyptic” (203). From the violent pogroms against Jews in the European homeland to the brutal massacres of their enemies in seized cities, the crusaders clearly used an apocalyptic frame of mind to justify their unprecedented violent behavior.


Apocalyptic thinking was not new to the Crusades. Since Jesus’s death and through the first millennium CE, Christians had speculated about when the prophecies would be realized and Christ would return. Most times when Christians tried to explain current events in terms of eschatology, however, they were let down. Signs never manifested, prophecies never came true, and the Last Days never occurred. What was remarkable about the First Crusade is that it seemed to follow the predictions set forth in the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels, and the Book of Revelation relatively faithfully. After all, they did manage to establish what they believed to be the Last Emperor in Jerusalem. Jay Rubenstein summarizes:

“The First Crusade was different. It was an apocalypse for a time that worked. The grandest predictions were fulfilled. Christian armies marched east, they witnessed miracles, they bathed in rivers of blood, and they remade history. The crusade, then, became part of an ongoing apocalypse.” (Armies of Heaven, pg. 319)

Essentially, the First Crusade was incredible in that everything lined up. It made sense for the Crusaders to believe that they were playing a part in the End Times. Raymond of Aguilers’ account of the Crusaders finally entering Jerusalem even mirrors Revelation 14:20 where the streets of Jerusalem were covered in blood up to the horses’ bridles. It seems as though everything fit together and all signs pointed towards the Apocalypse.


Landers, Jim. “Book Review: ‘Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse’ by Jay Rubenstein”” The Dallas Morning News. N.p., 23 Dec. 2011. Web. 

“Apocalypse Then: The First Crusade with Professor Jay Rubenstein of the University of Tennessee.” Video file, 62 mins. Posted by Howard Burton, 2013. https://dartmouth.kanopystreaming.com/video/apocalypse-then-first-crusade.

Rubenstein, Jay. Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse. New York: Basic, 2011. Print.

Peters, Edward. “Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont: The Version of Guibert of Nogent.” The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres & Other Source Material. N.p.: U of Pennsylvania, 1998. 33-37. Print.

News, Fordham. “Scholar Views First Crusade as Apocalyptic Moment.” Fordham News. N.p., 18 Nov. 2011. Web.

Bonga, Friso. “11th Century Holy War: Ordo, Chivalry, and Apocalypticism during the First Crusade.” Academia.edu. Universiteit Van Amsterdam, Apr. 2012. Web.

1st Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Horsemen_of_the_Apocalypse#/media/File:Apocalypse_vasnetsov.jpg

2nd Photo: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_wX0ryj-RWpw/S9jwr7Mh4JI/AAAAAAAACSQ/1KL_ptK1wpQ/s1600/The+Routes+of+the+First+Crusade.gif

3rd Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_of_Patmos

4th Photo: http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/crusades_claremont.jpg

5th Photo: http://www.renegadecatholic.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/medieval-starfall.jpg

6th Photo: http://www.cvltnation.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/apocalypse.jpg

7th Photo: http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/full.php?ID=133014

Further Resources

Claster, Jill N. Sacred Violence: The European Crusades to the Middle East, 1095-1396. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2009. Print.

Dunn, James. “Archbishop of Canterbury Warns That ISIS Wants to Bring ‘apocalypse’ to Christianity in Its Birthplace, Labelling the Jihadist Group the ‘Herod of Today'” Daily Mail UK. N.p., 25 Dec. 2015. Web.

Laskey, Mark. “Wretched of the Earth: Peasant Armies, Apocalyptic Prophecies and the Christian Atrocities of the First Crusade.” Cvlt Nation. N.p., 7 Apr. 2015. Web.