Post-classical history


Eschatology, in the sense of Christian beliefs about the end of the world, played an important part in Christian responses to the rise of Islam and also came to form a significant component in the ideology of crusading. Eschato- logical beliefs, so intense in early Christianity, were derived mainly from biblical prophecies: the Book of Daniel, the Book of Revelation, Jesus’s prophetic speech on Jerusalem (Matt. 24), and St. Paul’s allusions to the “son of perdition” who, although hidden, will reveal himself at the end of time

(2 Thess. 2:3). Two of Daniel’s prophecies (the statue and the four beasts) were interpreted as outlining the progress of future history up to its end: the four successive universal empires (those of the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans) will be followed by the collapse of the Roman Empire, symbolized by the ten toes of the statues or the ten horns of the fourth beast. An evil power will then appear, which will eventually be annihilated. The Apocalypse depicted in the Book of Revelation follows the same pattern, but the prophecy here is more specific about certain elements that are to take place before the last days. Thus, the persecution of the Woman (the church) by the Dragon (Satan) will last (as in Daniel) “a time, and times, and half a time” (Rev. 12:14), that is to say, 42 days, or 1,260 prophetic days. The Dragon will be helped by “a Beast” that will “rise up out of the sea,” representing the Antichrist. Its number is 666 (Rev. 13:18). It has seven heads and ten horns, ten “kings” (Rev. 17:12) who will fight the Lamb (Christ) in the last battle of history. They will be defeated by Christ and those faithful to him. The Beast will be captured, as will the “false prophet” who had seduced mankind, and they will be annihilated forever (Rev. 19). When evil has been thus defeated, the heavenly Jerusalem will appear. All these eschatological elements lead to Jerusalem, to which Christ will return to defeat the Antichrist and the false prophet before the Last Judgment takes place and the Kingdom of God is established.

Development of Eschatological Beliefs before the Crusades

Speculation on the time of Christ’s return (if not on its precise date, which Christ declared was known only to God the Father, according to Matt. 24:36) began in the first centuries of the Christian church, occasionally drawing on nonbibli- cal prophecies and various other traditions. To combat such speculation, which he thought harmful, St. Augustine of Hippo condemned all those who tried to know when the world would end; he laid down a spiritual and nonhistori- cal interpretation of the eschatological prophecies. For him the Last Times had already been accomplished in the church, which foreshadowed the heavenly kingdom into which the faithful would eventually enter. This doctrine was adopted by the Western church. However, it did not wipe out the earlier historical interpretations, which remained popular in the Middle Ages, and were often associated with Islam and the crusades.

As early as 634, the patriarch of Jerusalem envisaged the Arab invasions of the Byzantine Empire in eschatological terms: he likened the capture of Jerusalem to the “abomination of desolation... in the holy place” prophesied by Daniel and Jesus (Dan. 9:27, 11:31; Matt: 24:15). Around 640, a work written in Carthage by a converted Jew interpreted the Book of Daniel in the traditional way: the fourth beast represented the Roman Empire, then in decline, and soon the little horn would appear, a demonic power heralding the imminent end of the world. But the “prophet of the Arabs,” who was thought by some Jews to announce the Messiah, was a false prophet who came fully armed and preached false doctrines. Several Eastern writers soon came to see the Muslim invasion as a punishment inflicted upon Christians for their sins, and it was hoped that this punishment would be brief. As Arab rule went on, it was given a place in prophetic history: in times past, God had punished his people by imposing upon them the successive rule of the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans; God now was using the Arabs as a scourge with which to chastise the church.

For some, Arab rule marked the beginning of the Last Times. Such was the case for the author known as Pseudo- Sebeos, writing around 660. Soon afterward, the duration of Arab rule was fixed at “ten weeks of years” (i.e., 70 years) in the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodios of Patara. As the invasion of Syria had taken place in 636, the defeat of the Arabs was expected in 706. The Byzantine emperor would defeat the “pagans” (i.e., Muslims) and present God with his crown at the Mount of Olives. This would usher in the Last Times: the Antichrist would appear, but be defeated by Christ. Around 700, a reworked Latin version of this text spread across Europe: in this version, Arab rule was a temporary punishment and heralded the Last Times. These would begin with the coming of a Christian king who, uniting East and West, would defeat the Arabs in Jerusalem.

In Spain, Paulus Alvarus of Cordoba interpreted the Book of Daniel in the traditional manner, but identified the Arab power with the “little horn” that was to persecute the saints during the last days. He prophesied that it would be annihilated in 16 years’ time, that is around 868. The so- called Prophetic Chronicle (883), assigned an important part in history to the Arabs; however, its interpretation of one of the prophecies of Ezekiel was employed for the benefit of the Asturian dynasty, without any eschatological dimension: it predicted an imminent Christian victory over the Arabs, after 170 years of their rule.

Around 950, the monk Adso of Montier-en-Der abandoned any reference to the Arabs and corrected Pseudo- Methodios: for him the Last Times could not be imminent, since the Roman Empire had been continued by the Frankish kings of the West, thus postponing the coming of the Antichrist. However, when the last Frankish king relinquished his crown in Jerusalem, then the End of the World would come. This interpretation proved highly popular in the eleventh century, as is witnessed by the large number of manuscripts of the text. Around 1085 Benzo of Alba depicted Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor, as the “Latin” king of the Last Days: he would become king of the Greeks in Constantinople, march on Jerusalem, venerate the Holy Sepulchre, and be crowned with everlasting glory.

Eschatology and the Crusade Movement

The period preceding the crusades (perhaps more than the years around the year 1000) was propitious to the birth of a movement with eschatological undertones. Interpretations of the apocalyptic prophecies indeed focused on Jerusalem and on the Holy Sepulchre, which it was thought had to be reconquered before the end of time by a king who would unite Latins and Greeks. There was, moreover, a vague hope of a prophetically announced victory over the Arabs, whose rule marked a divine punishment that was nearing its end. This idea that Muslim Arab rule was destined to disappear can be found expressed in the letters of Pope Urban II, and the preaching of the crusades was entirely in line with this pedagogic conception of history.

Although the crusade movement was not principally motivated by eschatological expectations, such expectations were associated with many of the crusades. For example, Guibert of Nogent gives an eschatological dimension to Urban II’s call that brought forth the First Crusade (1096-1099): according to prophecy, the Antichrist would come to fight the faithful in Jerusalem, which could only happen if Christian warriors were present in the city. Other sources report such a motivation on the part of some crusaders. The main aim of the anti-Jewish pogroms led by Emicho of Flonheim in the Rhineland was to bring about the forcible conversion of the Jews, which, it was believed, was to take place at the end of time. Emicho, moreover, styled himself the king of the Last Days.

The sources for the Second Crusade (1147-1149) do not suggest any eschatological expectations. However, the anti-Semitic preaching of the monk Ralph makes it plausible, but no more, that there may have been such expectations. There is more certainty that they were present during the Third Crusade (1189-1192); Frederick I Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, was indeed inspired by the eschatological myth of the Last Emperor, which was then widespread in Germany. King Richard the Lionheart of England shared this preoccupation with eschatology, as is shown by his dialogue with the mystic Joachim of Fiore. Joachim and Richard understood the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation as an announcement of the persecution of the church, which was to last 1,260 years. The seven heads of the Dragon represented the seven persecuting powers; for Joachim, the penultimate one was Saladin and the last was the Antichrist in person. Richard was thus living in the penultimate age of the world and it was his duty to fight Saladin, whose demise was imminent. Joachim announced that this would take place in 1194, seven years after the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin. The Antichrist was then expected to make his appearance about that time.

The deviation of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) ruled out any reference to eschatology, but expectations had not disappeared. An author known as William Aurifex or Auri- faber announced that the world would end within five years’ time and saw Philip II Augustus, king of France, as the last king of History. The Antichrist had already made his appearance, in the form of Pope Innocent III. According to the chronicler Rigord, who was recording popular rumour, the Antichrist had been born in Babylon and the end of the world was nigh.

In the case of the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), Joachim of Fiore once again prophesied the demise of Islam. In the encyclical Quia major (1213), Innocent III also predicted the collapse of Islam and its false prophet, a collapse announced by the “number of the Beast” (666), which represented a length of time. According to him, 600 years had gone by since the appearance of Muhammad; approximately 60 years thus remained before the end of Islam. The crusade itself was characterized by the same eschatologi- cal atmosphere. The capture of the city of Damietta in Egypt in 1219 heightened expectations, giving rise to pseudoprophetic writings in Arabic. These texts announced that the fall of Damietta would be followed by the coming of the Antichrist, while two Christian kings would come and annihilate Islam. Such hopes may explain the intransigence of the papal legate Pelagius of Albano in response to concessions offered by the Ayyûbids: relying on these prophetic writings, he was awaiting the arrival of Emperor Frederick II and of a “King David” who would help the Christians to defeat Islam.

When Frederick II himself did eventually arrive in the Holy Land, he fulfilled an eschatological belief when he had himself crowned king of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (18 March 1229), thus identifying himself with the “king of the Latins and of the Greeks” who was to reign in Jerusalem and present Christ with his crown before the coming of the Antichrist. The stained-glass windows of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris suggest that there was also an eschatological dimension to the two crusades of King Louis IX of France.

Eschatological expectations linked to the (supposedly imminent) demise of Islam were thus a feature of most crusades, despite repeated disappointments. These expectations persisted after the last crusade, but the aim would henceforth be to convert Muslims rather than defeat them by the sword.

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