Post-classical history

Hebrew Sources

The Hebrew sources for the First Crusade (1096-1099) are especially rich, comprising three narratives, which constitute some of the oldest examples of medieval Jewish historiography, and a considerable number of piyyutim (liturgical poems). For the Second Crusade (1147-1149) we have, besides poetry, one chronicle, which also contains some brief additional material in an appendix on the York pogrom in the Third Crusade (1189-1192). A second short work concerns Mainz at the time of the First Crusade.

The material for the First Crusade has engaged scholars since the end of the nineteenth century. Recent decades have seen a spate of new assessments of the material, especially in the United States and Israel. The three narratives consist of one long composite text ascribed to Solomon bar Simson, a shorter prose text interspersed with four pieces of liturgical verse by Eliezar bar Nathan, a halakhist (Jewish legal expert) from Mainz, who lived from about 1090 to about 1170, and another shorter text by the so-called Mainz Anonymous. The manuscript transmission of all three is sparse and faulty. Only Eliezar bar Nathan’s chronicle has been transmitted in more than one manuscript, the oldest dating to the fourteenth century. The Mainz Anonymous exists only in one incomplete manuscript of the fourteenth century. The so-called Solomon bar Simson text exists in a single fifteenth-century manuscript. Because there is a great deal of overlap between the material covered in each of the narratives, many theories have been advanced about the relationship between them. Some have argued that their interrelationship is indirect, with all three relying on common source material, such as an earlier report or communal letters; others have suggested that the shorter texts rely directly on the longer one, while still others have asserted the exact opposite. Some have combined all three propositions in a number of different ways. Generally most scholars agree that the three narratives were composed within fifty years of the 1096 pogroms, in other words, before the Second Crusade, although Robert Chazan has dated Eliezar bar Nathan’s chronicle to after the Second Crusade. Most scholars also agree that of the three, the Mainz Anonymous was completed first.

The three chronicles describe the confrontation between the crusaders of the so-called People’s Crusades (1096) and the Jews of the Rhineland. Considerable detail is given about relations between Jews and Christians in these towns, which seem to have been on the whole good in the beginning. Many Christians seem at first to have been prepared to help their Jewish neighbors. Graphic accounts are given about how the Jews sought protection of the bishops or archbishops of their towns. There are suggestions concerning the motives of Christians (crusaders, and later townsfolk, too) for attacking Jews (vengeance and greed) and offering them the choice between baptism and death, and also information about Jewish self-defense and the conversion many Jews were forced to endure. Attention is drawn to the plight of the converted and to the fact that most returned to Judaism as soon as they could. Particularly evocative are the heartrending scenes in which whole Jewish families decide they should martyr themselves in order to sanctify God’s name (Heb. kiddush ha-Shem) rather than risk death or baptism at the hands of their enemies. The sacrificial slaughter of the young and old is an essential component of these texts. Very striking is the prominence given to female protagonists. The narratives are written in passionate Hebrew, celebrating the heroic deeds of the martyrs and invoking God’s aid for his people.

All of these elements raise crucial questions about these texts. Were they written as history or as liturgy? How accurate is the information they give about what actually happened in 1096? How do they compare with the Latin sources concerning these events? Can so many Jews have martyred themselves and sacrificed their children? If so, how can this novel response to persecution, which hardly conforms to conventional halakhah (Jewish law), be explained? If not, what do these texts mean? What do these texts tell us about Jewish experience in the Rhineland in this period? In short, what are these narratives really about?

Historiography of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century assumed that the narratives are essentially historical. Although the Latin sources for these events are much shorter, they corroborate the fact that many Jews were killed and forcibly converted; they also attest that many Jews committed suicide and killed their children rather than be baptized. Scholars accepted the scale of martyrdom as accurate and tended to interpret this as a particular feature of the Jews of Ashkenaz (northern Europe). In the wake of the Holocaust, an extra dimension of emotionality was added to research into the 1096 pogroms, and many scholars took the acts of martyrdom as proof of the special tenacity of Ashkenazi Jews in resisting apostasy against all odds.

In recent years scholars have gone beyond examining the narratives for factual material and have paid much more attention to possible underlying meanings of the texts. A combination of literary and anthropological methods has been employed to decode their rich biblical imagery. These methods have produced suggestions that the chronicles contain far more information about the survivors of the pogroms, who wrote the texts, than about the martyrs themselves. Seen in this light, the narratives would bear testimony to how those who remained alive by succumbing to baptism came to terms with the guilt and ambivalence they felt toward those who had the courage to die. The underlying assumption here is that many more Jews were forcibly baptized than the chronicles were willing to admit. This methodology has also produced a reading of the texts as an ex post facto explanation of the 1096 pogroms. According to this assessment, the narratives would constitute a legitimization of the new kind of martyrdom that had occurred. By referring over and over again to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the texts place the mass sacrifice of life in the Rhineland within the context of the Temple. Abraham bound Isaac on Mount Moriah, the supposed site of the future Temple of Jerusalem. Isaac was only one person; the Jews of Mainz outdid his sacrifice by over a thousand. By turning themselves and their children into Temple sacrifices, they brought Jerusalem to Mainz, robbing the crusaders of the very goal toward which they were marching. (Interestingly enough, no reference is made to those Jews who chose martyrdom through suicide rather than surrender to the Roman forces at the siege of Masada in 73, even though the Jews of Ashkenaz would have known about Masada through a Hebrew version of Jose phus’s History of the Jewish War.) The narratives come alive through this kind of interpretation as a creative response to persecution and a dramatic statement of firm Jewish identity. Especially striking is the way close reading of the texts seems to reveal remarkable similarities with Christian images and values. The chronicles seem to reveal Jewish communities that were very much part of their surrounding society, notwithstanding the religious gulf that separated them from it.

Others have used similar methods, even as they have interpreted the texts as more accurate reflections of the actual events. A storm of debate was caused by a recent suggestion that the reports of martyrs slaughtering their own children before committing suicide themselves helped stimulate medieval Christians to suspect Jews of killing Christian children. These suspicions would have fed into blood libel accusations against Jews, which began to surface in the twelfth century, and they would have been strengthened by eschatological passages in the narratives that expressed the hope that the blood of the martyrs would hasten God’s revenge on the enemies of Israel.

Another recent approach has been to distinguish carefully between different voices within the three narratives: the Mainz Anonymous, the author of the Trier section in the long composite text, the author of the Cologne section of that composition (Solomon bar Simson is named in this unit as the recorder of the persecutions in a village outside Cologne), the voice of the editor of the composition, and, finally, the voice of Eliezar bar Nathan. Voices one and two probably stand closest in time to the 1096 persecutions and seem to be particularly interested in the actual occurrences of spring and summer 1096. The other voices seem to be more concerned to give broader meaning to what occurred. They seem more ideologically propelled, with the aim of presenting a counterideology to the crusading ethos that was threatening Jewish survival. By extolling the heroism of the martyrs, they invoke God’s future intervention on behalf of the Jews. It is the Jews undergoing kiddush ha-Shem, rather than the milites Christi (soldiers of Christ), who thus become the true servants of God. By contrast, the chroniclers’ interest in the actions and intentions of individual Jewish men and women betray the twelfth century’s widespread interest in the human condition, which is known so well from contemporary Christian sources.

In summary, one can say that it does seem likely that more Jews were forcibly baptized than the chroniclers wished to portray. To a certain extent, they probably describe in broad terms what occurred, but at the same time the narratives should certainly also be read as the interpretations of events by people who survived the carnage of 1096. Seen in this light, the narratives present us with a vivid picture of robust Jewish communities engaged in an uncompromising rejection of Christianity even as the very terms of their response betray considerable knowledge and even absorption of Christian values and culture. The response of martyrdom to religious persecution, as recorded in the chronicles, became normative among Ashkenazi Jews and found its way into their liturgy.

The Hebrew narrative of the Second Crusade is the Sefer Zekhirah (Book of Remembrance), written by Ephraim of Bonn (died after 1196), a liturgist who headed the rabbinical court in Bonn for some years. The chronicle contains a number of poems, and the text was transmitted in the same manuscripts that contain Eliezar bar Nathan’s narrative on the First Crusade. The narrative is particularly interesting in that it records how Bernard of Clairvaux stopped the monk Ralph from preaching violence against the Jews. An additional section describes anti-Jewish violence from 1171 to 1196 and contains some material on the martyrdom of the Jews of York in 1190. It is the Latin source material, however, that provides the greater amount of detail for that event. The Divrei Zikhronot ( Words of Remembrance) by the pietist Eleazar ben Judah of Worms (c. 1165-c.1230) provides valuable information on the situation in Germany in the years 1187-1188.

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