Post-classical history

Jews and the Crusades

Crusaders had many motives for taking the cross, but it is fair to say that crusades to the Holy Land were characterized by the enthusiasm of participants about becoming soldiers of Christ to reconquer for Christendom the land that Jesus Christ had inhabited as a human being. It is hardly surprising, then, that such a movement should have had grave repercussions for the Jews of Europe when crusades were preached and crusading armies gathered before departing for the East.

The call to crusade by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095 was far more successful than anyone could have envisaged. Besides the princely armies, bands of unofficial armies gathered in northeastern France, Lotharingia, Flanders, and the Rhineland. These armies constituted what are commonly called the popular, or People’s Crusades because they included poor men and women and undisciplined children, although many of their leaders, such as Emicho, count of Flonheim, were far from lowly in status, while many participants were men of military skill and experience. These armies left for the Holy Land in spring and early summer 1096, before the departure of the princely armies in August, choosing a land route to the East that took them through cities along the Rhine and Moselle that contained flourishing Jewish communities. Their encounters with these Jewish communities resulted in the first well-documented major attack on Jews by Christians in medieval Europe (excluding the persecutions in seventh-century Visigothic Spain). The chronicler Guibert of Nogent (d. c. 1125) writes about an attack on the Jews of Rouen, and Hebrew material relates that northern French Jewry sent warning letters to the Jews of Mainz about the impending danger. It seems that the Jews in Germany were able to meet any demands early French crusaders made on them for supplies. In the Rhineland, deaths started occurring when German crusaders together with burgesses attacked the Jews; Speyer is portrayed as the first scene of trouble, but the disorganized nature of the attack made it relatively easy for Bishop John to come to the aid of the Jews, and only a few Jews died.

Crusaders murdering Jewish citizens.

Crusaders murdering Jewish citizens.

It is important to emphasize that murdering Jews or forcing them to convert ran against official church law. Accord ing to St. Augustine of Hippo’s maxim of Testimonium ver- itatis (witness to the truth), Jews were granted a place in Christian society in order to function as witnesses to the truth of Christianity. They were seen as the bearers of the books of the Hebrew Bible, which contained the prophecies concerning the birth, life, and Passion of Christ. Nor were episcopal leaders of towns keen to risk public disorder by accommodating hordes of crusaders. The archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne and the bishop of Worms all tried to protect the Jews of their cities from harm, and, in many cases, Christian neighbors initially offered help, too. Yet as the weeks went by, help from the burgesses seems to have diminished, and many joined the crusaders in their attacks on Jews; when skirmishes claimed Christian casualties, bishops seemed unable or unwilling to restrain the crowds. In Worms the attacks by crusaders, burgesses, and inhabitants of surrounding villages seem to have been more organized. Jews who chose to stay at home were murdered or forcibly baptized; those who had taken refuge in the bishop’s palace were besieged and eventually overcome; many chose to slaughter themselves and their children in sanctification of God’s name (Heb. kiddush ha-Shem).

The Jews of Mainz were subjected to concentrated attack by Emicho of Flonheim, supported by burgesses who had opened the city gates to his forces on 27 May 1096. Emicho first besieged the palace of Archbishop Ruothard where many Jews had taken refuge, and after their armed resistance failed, many Jews martyred themselves. Those who had fled to the palace of the burgrave met a similar fate. The Jews of Cologne were sent by Archbishop Hermann III to seven surrounding villages for safety, but during June they were hunted down by crusaders. Trier had been visited by Peter the Hermit and his army in April 1096. The Jews there successfully bribed him to go on his way without harming them, but after his departure the townspeople turned on them. When in June the attackers were joined by burgesses from other towns who had travelled to Trier to attend a market, Archbishop Engilbert was not strong enough to protect the Jews, who were forcibly baptized. Jews were also forcibly converted in Metz and Regensburg. In the wake of the crusade Emperor Henry IV (1056-1106) allowed Jews who had been forcibly baptized to revert to Judaism. His leniency in this matter was, in fact, contrary to canon law; although forced baptism was prohibited, anyone who had been baptized was considered to be a Christian.

That far fewer Jews died during the Second Crusade (1147-1149) was partly due to the timely intervention of the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, who stopped the inflammatory anti-Jewish preaching of the Cistercian monk Ralph. Reminding his audience of the Augustinian principle, Bernard stressed that Jews should not be harmed because, unlike the Muslims, they had not attacked Christendom. In addition, Bernard expressed the fear that if there were fewer Jews, the numbers of Christian usurers would increase. Bernard used the word judaize for the concept of lending money on interest. In his bull Quantum praedecessores (1145), Pope Eugenius III had legislated that crusaders should not be charged interest on their loans by Christian moneylenders. Encouraged by Bernard, King Louis VII of France probably extended this rule to Jewish loans as well, causing great financial hardship to the Jews involved. Besides incidental local attacks on Jews, twenty-two Jews are reported to have been killed in Würzburg in February 1147 after they had been accused of having murdered a Christian found in the River Main. The crusaders began to venerate the Christian as a martyr.

In the run-up to the Third Crusade (1189-1192), Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa curtailed anti-Jewish violence in the Rhineland. But great loss of life occurred in England, where the crusades had so far not exacted Jewish casualties. Anti- Jewish riots accompanied the coronation of King Richard I in September 1189 in London. In the absence of the king, who was preparing to go on crusade, the riots spread to Norwich, King’s Lynn, Bury St. Edmunds, Stamford, Lincoln, and York. In March 1190 the Jews of York took refuge in the city’s castle, but through a series of misunderstandings lost the support of local royal officials and were attacked by the sheriff and his knights. The inhabitants of York joined in the attack and soon took over. As the castle burned, most of the Jews took their own lives in sanctification of God’s name, while those escaping the castle were butchered. Immediately following the carnage, the rioters destroyed evidence of all debts to Jews, which was kept in York Minster. During later crusades, major incidents of physical violence against Jews were by and large prevented by those in authority. An exception is the Second Shepherds’ Crusade (1320), which caused many casualties in the Jewish communities of France to the south of the Loire. Many Jews were also forcibly converted.

Why did crusaders persecute Jews? The Hebrew material together with the evidence of Guibert of Nogent says plainly that crusaders in 1096 wondered why they should march to Jerusalem to wreak vengeance on the Muslims when so many Jews lived in their midst, whom they considered guilty of crucifying Jesus Christ. They decided they should avenge themselves on the Jews before doing anything else. The chronicler known as Annalisto Saxo echoes this in the midtwelfth century. Indeed the call to crusade was permeated with calls to avenge Christ for all the dishonors heaped upon him by the Muslims. These calls echoed contemporary views concerning vendettas and family honor. It seems that the call for vengeance was all too easily transferred from Muslims to Jews. Economic reasons were also given for the persecutions. Greed is often mentioned, as, for example, by the German chronicler Albert of Aachen in the context of the First Crusade. The Hebrew First Crusade sources dwell on this theme, reporting that the Jews tried to bribe their way to safety and also that crusaders preyed on Jewish goods. The role of greed must reflect to a large extent the simple fact that the bands of the popular crusade had started their march to Jerusalem before the harvest of 1096. Even more than other crusading armies, they were dependent on alms, extortion, or plunder for their survival. Perhaps it was felt right that Jews, who were considered to be the enemies of Christ, should be made to finance the crusade.

Edict of King Louis VII of France banishing relapsed Jews from the kingdom, 1144-1145. Musee de l’Histoire de France aux Archives Nationales, Paris, France. (Réunion des Musées Nationaux/ArtResource)

Edict of King Louis VII of France banishing relapsed Jews from the kingdom, 1144-1145. Musee de l’Histoire de France aux Archives Nationales, Paris, France. (Réunion des Musées Nationaux/ArtResource)

Economic themes increased in importance during the Second and Third Crusades, as crusaders turned more and more to moneylenders to finance their undertaking. As papal strictures dried up the Christian supply of crusading loans, more and more crusaders turned to Jewish finance. By the midtwelfth century ill feeling toward Jewish money lending had already increased. Abbot Peter the Venerable of Cluny wrote a scathing letter in 1146 to Louis VII of France, damning the Jews for their engagement in usury and specifying that they should bear the cost of the crusade. Bernard’s use of the word judaize for lending money on interest exemplifies how, in the minds of some, usury was somehow the special forte of Jews, despite the fact that Christian usurers abounded. All of these factors reflect contemporary tensions caused by a booming economy in areas of Europe unused to rapid and widespread economic growth, coupled with ecclesiastical qualms about the morality of pursuing wealth. For various theological reasons, Jews were identified with greed and were used as scapegoats for unloading feelings of guilt about engaging in a profit economy. There was also a growing tendency in northern Europe to restrict most Jewish economic activity to money lending. By the time of the Third Crusade, Jews were important figures in crusade finance, while the royal government in England closely controlled and supported Jewish money lending. When Richard I ascended the throne, he did not curtail the right of Jewish moneylenders to collect interest on loans to crusaders. The events in York must reflect at least in part how explosive an issue this turned out to be.

Interconnected with different kinds of economic motives and the motive for revenge was the fact that enthusiasm for late eleventh- and twelfth-century crusading seems to have interacted with growing empathy for the figure of Jesus Christ and his mother. Theological tracts, monastic devotional tracts, miracle stories of the Virgin, artistic representations of the suffering Christ, and mystery plays in churches all attest to this trend. These manifestations are part of a society that was in the process of becoming more Christianized, a process that seemed to make it harder and harder to accommodate Jews, who were increasingly identified as Christ- killers. Part and parcel of this trend was the spiritual aspect of crusade preaching, which exhorted Christians to purify their own society so that they could be assured of divine assistance. This need for purification became especially important as crusading became less and less successful.

The persecutions of the Jews in 1096 obviously left their mark on medieval Jewry, but they should not be seen as a watershed in Jewish history. It is not true that after 1096 we can only speak of Jewish decline. On the contrary, the Hebrew sources for the First Crusade reveal a vibrant community fully in touch with its non-Jewish surroundings. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries display enormous advances in Jewish learning and spirituality in Ashkenaz (northern Europe) as well as in Sefarad (southern Europe). Nor is it true that relations between Christians and Jews were unequivocally positive before 1096. The history of medieval Christian-Jewish relations involves a range of complex and ambiguous ideas, which interact with diverse political, socioeconomic, religious, and cultural circumstances at any given time or place. What the persecutions of 1096 do show are early signals of the kinds of problem that could arise when Jews were faced with a Christian movement so replete with anti-Jewish motifs. The persecutions during the Second and Third Crusades reveal the growing importance of economic features, but anti-Jewish crusading violence is only one of the many factors that need to be considered when charting the course of Jewish history in medieval Europe.

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