“Crusader attacks on Jews throughout the Rhineland that spring (1096) amounted to… Europe’s rehearsal for the extermination of the Jews.”
(James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword, 1991, p. 248)
This is the second installment of Chapter Two, covering the period of the Middle Ages, from the year 1000 to the year of Martin Luther’s death in 1546.
By tradition the Quran was revealed to Mohammed in 610 marking the beginning of the third religious offshoot of Judaism, Islam. The religion spread rapidly through the Middle East, across North Africa, and east as far as the borders of China. In 711 Muslim forces invaded Iberia and the Caucuses, then Italy in 831. In 841 the conquering Muslim forces sacked Rome. By the year 1000 Islam still controlled the Emirate of Sicily in southern Italy, and large portions of southern Spain.
What follows is not so much a “history” as intended to provide a “feel” for the period, background for the atrocities committed. A good historical overview is available at Wikipedia’s, Persecution of the Jews in First Crusade.
The first crusade was ordered by Pope Urban II in 1095. The emperor of the Eastern or Byzantine Empire was under siege by the Turks and he turned to Pope Urban for assistance. “The principal stated objective was to drive the Turks out of Anatolia. The principal hidden agenda was to heal the Great Schism on Rome''s terms… The objective of going on to re-conquer the Holy Land for Christendom (as long as we''re in the neighborhood) was almost an afterthought.”
“As the soldiers passed through Europe on the way to the Holy Land, large numbers of Jews were challenged: "Christ-killers, embrace the Cross or die!" 12,000 Jews in the Rhine Valley alone were killed in the first Crusade. This [pattern of murder would continue] for 8 additional crusades until the 9th in 1272.”
Godfrey of Bouillon, leading one of the pope’s armies, was typical in his sentiments towards the Jews when he swore on departing for the Holy Land, “to go on this journey only after avenging the blood of the crucified one by shedding Jewish blood and completely eradicating any trace of those bearing the name ‘Jew’.” Although Godfrey and the crusaders failed to eradicate all “of those bearing the name ‘Jew,’” they did manage to destroy countless communities, murdered many thousands of Jews along the road to Jerusalem.
Three years after beginning their journey the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem in 1099. After capturing the city they “forced all of the Jews of Jerusalem into a central synagogue and set it on fire. Those who tried to escape were forced back into the burning building.”
In all there were approximately nine crusades and each targeted Jews and their communities for destruction. During the first Crusade alone tens of thousands of Jews met their deaths by sword, fire and drowning. “In Regensburg Jews were thrown into the Danube,” an ironic assertion recorded at the time was that at least their souls would be saved before dying.
On May 25, 1096, some 800 Jews were murdered in Wurms, Germany while many others chose suicide rather than subject their families to torture, rape and murder at the hands of the crusaders. In Mainz, Cologne, Prague and many other cities, thousands were killed and their possessions plundered. During the nine crusades, spanning a period of nearly 200 years, tens of thousands of Jews were massacred, their property destroyed or stolen. Thus began the long period of persecution, expulsion and murder which only began to ease, if temporarily, with the gradual secularization of Europe beginning in the 17th century.
In the year 1211 a group of 300 Jews immigrated to Eretz Israel from England and France. They were almost entirely murdered by crusaders who arrived eight years later.
The Crusades mark a shift in anti-Jewish persecution. For centuries previously anti-Judaism had been encouraged by the elites; with the eleventh century the “the atrocities committed against the Jews sprang from the people,” (Halperin and Grosser, 1983, Antisemitism, Causes and Effects, p.120). And it was the people, peasants living in proximity to the Jewish communities of Europe who, out of religious intolerance, fear and superstition, turned on the Jews during the years of the Black Plague.
Other articles in this series: