Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Jay Rubenstein's "Nebuchadnezzar's Dream"

Jay Rubenstein is Riggsby Director of the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and the Alvin and Sally Beaman Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Nebuchadnezzar's Dream: The Crusades, Apocalyptic Prophecy, and the End of History, and reported the following:
I feel like Ford Madox Ford was trolling me. Page 99 of my book, in its entirety, reads, "Part III—Prophecy Revised (1144-1187)." This test may not be a complete failure, however, because the section title does point to the overall architecture of the book. Nebuchadnezzar's Dream is about ideas and about people. Part I was about the joyous reaction that greeted the First Crusade, and how it forced people to rethink the structures of history (revealed by God centuries earlier in the dream of a Babylonian King). Part II was mainly about people, specifically about how crusaders so badly upon their return home that everyone had to rethink what the original expedition had meant. Part III examines various people carried out the project of rethinking history and trying to make sense of the divine plan.

Most of the characters in Part III are not prophets in the technical sense — someone who seems to speak with the voice of God. One is a monk and a preacher, Bernard of Clairvaux, who successfully recruited new armies to march to the Holy Land. Bernard recognized that the prophet structure he'd inherited had gotten so wobbly that it was unlikely to inspire anyone. So he set aside appeals to history and relied instead on fake miracles to drum up excitement. Another character is a bishop named Otto who himself went on crusade. His experiences there convinced him that God would never send Christian armies to such an awful place. At about the same time, an actual prophet, Hildegard of Bingen, had a vision of monstrous head chewing its way out of a woman's loins and reached the same conclusion. There was enough trouble at home. Christians should stay put and get their houses in order.

So, while Ford Madox Ford could have picked a happier number, the signpost on page 99 points to what makes my book (hopefully) interesting: It shows where people got their weird ideas and why weird ideas matter.
Learn more about Nebuchadnezzar's Dream at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue