"Crusader attacks on Jews throughout the Rhineland that spring (1096) amounted to... Europe''s rehearsal for the extermination of the Jews."
Background: The High Middle Ages was a period in which church influence within Europe expanded north and, later, was able to push back against the Islamic expansion in the south.
“During the first 700 years of Christendom, Jewish communities in Europe are rarely placed in direct physical danger. But the situation changes when, in 1095, Pope Urbanus calls for a crusade to liberate Jerusalem [Constantinople] from the hands of the Muslims… On their way to Jerusalem, the crusaders leave a track of death and destruction behind in the Jewish communities along the Rhine and Danube. "Because," as they exclaim, "why should we attack the unbelievers in the Holy Land, and leave the infidels in our midst undisturbed?”
With the start of two centuries of crusades beginning in 1096 the holy warriors would begin their journey to Jerusalem to wrest the Holy Land from the infidel Muslims by first murdering the infidel Jews of Europe.
As portrayed in the movies and literature the Crusades had a single purpose, to liberate the Holy Land. As is frequently the case other, perhaps less “spiritual" considerations may have motivated the crusades than just “liberating” the Holy Land from the “infidels.” In fact the first crusade, of 1096, was launched not to liberate Jerusalem, but rather in response to an appeal by Constantinople, Christianity’s Eastern Empire, then under siege by the Turks:
“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.”
Not just an “afterthought.” In addition to the affront to Christendom of the Holy Land being in the hands of the Muslim infidels, Palestine also just happened to sit astride the trade route to the East. So a business opportunity may also have inspired reclaiming Jerusalem for Christendom. But whatever the true motivation, the impact of the crusades on Europe’s Jewish communities was devastating.
During the first Crusade alone tens of thousands of Europe’s Jews met their deaths by sword, fire and drowning. “In Regensburg Jews were thrown into the Danube,” recorded at the time as, undergoing “baptism” to save their souls before dying.
“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.”
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. 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.
The Crusades as recorded by Jewish Chroniclers:
Several descriptions of the atrocities committed by the Crusades have survived, perhaps the most famous by the author of The Mainz Anonymous. The following excerpts are the words of this unknown author.
For a brief, excellent history I recommend, In the Year 1096: The First Crusade and the Jews, by Michael Chazan.
“There first arose the officers, nobles, and common people who were in the land of France [Sarefat] who took counsel together and plotted…to make clear the way to go toward Jerusalem.”
“At the time the [Jewish] communities in France heard [about these things], trembling… seized them. They wrote letters and sent messengers to all the communities around about the River Rhine, [to the effect] that they should fast…and seek mercy from Him who dwells on high, that He might save them from their hands. When the letter reached the holy ones in the land [of the Rhine], namely the men of renown … in Mainz, they responded [to their brethren in] France as follows: ‘The communities have decreed a fast. We have done that which was ours [to do]. May the Lord save us and may He save you from all sorrow and oppression [which might come] upon you. We are in great fear.’”
The Mainz Anonymous: “I shall begin the narrative or past persecution-may the Lord protect us and all of Israel from future persecution... this evil befell Israel:
“The errant ones [the Crusaders] gathered, the nobles and the commoners from all provinces, until they were as numerous as the sands of the sea. A proclamation was issued: "Whosoever kills a Jew will receive pardon for all his sins.
“On the New Moon of Sivan, the wicked Emicho, may his bones be ground to dust between iron millstones, arrived outside the city with a mighty horde of errant ones and peasants… He was the chief of all our oppressors. He showed no mercy to the aged or youths, or maidens, babes, or sucklings-not even the sick; and he made the people of the Lord like dust to be trodden underfoot, killing their young men by the sword and disemboweling their pregnant women.
“They encamped outside the city for two days. The leaders of the community now said: "Let us send him money and give him letters of safe conduct, so that the communities along the route will honor him. Perhaps the Lord will intercede in His abundant grace." For they had already given away their money, ''"giving the bishop, the count, his officers and servants, and the burghers [bribes]… to aid them [the Jews]. But it was of no avail whatever.”
In the year 1211 a group of 300 Jews fled to Eretz Israel from England and France. Eight years later they too were murdered at the hands of crusaders who arrived with the Fifth Crusade, eight years later.
The sack of Jerusalem, 1099: 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.’”
Arriving in Palestine in 1099 his troops breached the walls of Jerusalem, captured the city and,
“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.”
The Crusades marked 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.
Recent writings in this series: