Jewish People Caught in the Crusades

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Jewish People Caught in the Crusades

The darkest chapter in the history of the Crusades was the treatment of Jews at the hands of Europe's Christians, both in Europe and in the Middle East. What began as distrust and scorn often turned into widespread persecution and slaughter. Many Crusaders left in their wake the bodies of hundreds of Jews as they made their way to the Holy Land. Jews lost their homes, families, property, and lives in a frenzy of anti-Jewish feeling among many European Christians.

For centuries, Jewish people commemorated the horrors they endured during the Crusades. These memories were only partly overshadowed by the Holocaust of the twentieth century, the systematic extermination of Jews by the Nazi regime in Germany before and during World War II (1939–45). Referring to this later period of violence, the historian Malcolm Billings noted in his book The Crusades: Five Centuries of Holy Wars, "The road to the Holy Land ran through what Jews later came to describe as the first Holocaust."

The Jews of Europe

By the time Pope Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095 (see "The Sermon at Clermont" in Chapter 6), Jews had matured and established communities throughout Europe. In nearly every city of any size could be found synagogues (places of worship for Jews), schools, Jewish cemeteries, and rabbis (leaders of Jewish congregations), some of whom, because of their high level of education, consulted with and influenced civil rulers. These communities had their own local histories. Their religious identity, based on centuries-old rituals and use of the Hebrew language to record, pass down, and practice their traditions, set them apart from the surrounding Christian communities.

Many Christians came to see these Jewish communities as hostile to Christianity. Jews, in their view, were not part of "us," that is, of the Christian, feudal way of life. They were "others," a people apart from that way of life, and in that respect they were no different from Muslims. They looked different, dressed differently, spoke a different language, practiced their religion in a different manner, and for the most part did not assimilate into (become absorbed into) the surrounding French, German, English, Spanish, or other communities.

More and more throughout the tenth and eleventh centuries, European Christians feared the threat from the Muslim empire, the empire that had formed around the Islamic faith and the teachings of the founder of Islam, Muhammad. This empire had expanded throughout the Mediterranean region and into Spain (see "The Spread of Islam" in Chapter 1) and in the eighth century had to be driven back out of France. Faced with this fear, Christians were accustomed to referring to "enemies of God" and calling for vengeance, or revenge, on those enemies. While Jews posed no such threat, they were not Christians, so they too fell under the heading of "enemies."

Also during this period, there developed among Christians a "cult of the cross." The cross referred to was the one on which Christ was nailed when he was put to death. Crusaders, when they vowed to go to the Holy Land (Jerusalem and the surrounding region) to free it, were said to have "taken the cross." As a symbol of their promise, they wore a cross on their armor and shields. During the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century,
a relic (a fragment of a holy object) of the so-called True Cross, the actual cross on which Christ died, was found in Jerusalem. In the centuries that followed, the image of a suffering Christ hanging on the cross, the Catholic crucifix, became central to the faith. Veneration of (devotion to) the crucifix, in turn, led to a focus on Christ's death, and many Christians began to hold the Jews responsible for that death.

One way many Christians acted on this belief was to call for the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. But this belief began to take on more unreasonable forms. Many Christians came to believe, for example, that the Jews were somehow the "agents" of the Muslims in the Holy Land. In France charges were made that French Jews had urged Caliph Hakim to destroy the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of the tomb of Christ, in Jerusalem in the early years of the eleventh century (see "Destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre" in Chapter 2). These charges set off a wave of persecution against the Jews.

Other Christians convinced themselves that the Jews actively supported the Muslim occupation of the holy city of Jerusalem. This was at best a partial truth. Life for Jews was actually better under the Muslims after they took control of the city in 638 than it had been under the Byzantine Christians before that (see "Muslims and Jerusalem" in Chapter 2). None of this mattered, though. Jews, as non-Christians, were infidels, or nonbelievers. So were Muslims. Therefore, when Pope Urban II called the First Crusade, many European Christians interpreted his call to fight "infidelity," or lack of belief in the Christian faith, as a call to fight any infidel, that is, anyone who did not believe in Christianity. The nearest targets were Europe's Jews.

Massacres of European Jews

Persecution of the Jews lasted throughout the Crusades. For example, during the Second Crusade (1047–49) there were uprisings against Jews in the German city of Würzburg. Ronald C. Finucane, in Soldiers of the Faith: Crusaders and Moslems at War, quotes the powerful and important abbot (religious leader) of the monastery at Cluny, France, who wrote: "What is the good of going to the end of the world at great loss of men and money to fight the Saracens [Muslims], when we permit among us other infidels who are a thousand times more guilty towards Christ than the Mohammedans." At the time that one of the leaders of the Third Crusade (1189–92), Richard I, was being crowned king of England, anti-Jewish riots were breaking out in the city of York.

Much of the worst violence, though, took place during the First Crusade (1095–99; see "The First Crusade" in
Chapter 6). Historians have many eyewitness accounts, both from Jews and non-Jews, of violence in cities such as Speyer, Mainz, Cologne, and Worms in the German Rhineland (that is, the area along the Rhine River), as well as in such cities as Regensburg (near Munich, Germany) and Prague (in the modern-day Czech Republic). These cities lay along the route that many Crusaders, particularly German Crusaders, followed to the Middle East.

One city whose Jews were hard hit was Worms. Jews in the city heard that those in Speyer were being attacked, so they asked the Christian bishop of Worms for protection. Many even gave him their savings for safekeeping. But as the Crusaders descended on the city in May 1096, they began murdering Jewish men, women, and children. Led by a German named Emicho from the city of Leiningen, they plundered (robbed) the homes of Jews, seizing whatever wealth they could find. Many Crusaders used stolen Jewish wealth to finance their journey to the Holy Land. They destroyed the Jewish cemetery just outside the walls of the city. They looted the city's magnificent Byzantine-style synagogue. They tried to force Jews to be baptized as Christians. Those who refused were either killed or committed suicide. In many instances, Jewish men killed their wives and children rather than allow them to be brutalized by the Crusaders. In all, about eight hundred people died.

Was Christopher Columbus Jewish?

Some people have theorized that Christopher Columbus, who sailed to the New World in 1492, the same year that the Jews were expelled from Spain, was himself Jewish, or at least that his voyage was financed by Jews. These Jews, according to the theory, were looking for a place of refuge and hoped that Columbus might find one across the Atlantic Ocean. There is little evidence to support this theory other than the fact that the crew member who served as a translator for Columbus is known to have been well-versed in Hebrew. (For more on Columbus and his connection with the Crusades, see "The Jews Are Expelled from Spain" in Chapter 13.)

The Crusaders then moved on to Mainz, where similar scenes were replayed during the summer of 1096. Again, Jews in Mainz heard about events in Worms, so they appealed to the Christian archbishop for protection. Once more they tried to buy protection—this time, from the local count—with silver and gold. But it was no use. The Crusaders again stormed the city. Some Jews, trapped in the archbishop's palace and grounds, where he tried to protect them, attempted to fight back, but they stood no chance. Others taunted the Christians, hurling insults about Christ and his mother, Mary. These insults, of course, only inflamed the Crusaders. In Mainz, too, many men, seeing that they had no hope of surviving the onslaught, committed suicide, first sacrificing their families. About nine hundred Jews were killed in the city.

Efforts to help

Not all European Christians shared in this blood lust against the Jews. Many members of the Christian clergy tried to excommunicate, or expel from the church, those who were persecuting the Jews. Numerous local nobles threatened Crusaders with punishment, but they had no way to back up the threat. One historian of the time, William of Tyre, an archbishop, wrote in A History of Deeds Done beyond the Sea of the "mad excesses" of the Crusaders, who "cruelly massacred the Jewish people in the cities and towns through which they passed."

During the Second Crusade, the preaching of Bernard, the abbot at the monastery at Clairvaux in France, like that of Pope Urban II at the start of the First Crusade, aroused enthusiasm for the undertaking (see "The Second Crusade" in Chapter 6 and "Knights Templars" in Chapter 9). Bernard sought to use his great influence to stop the bloodshed. He tried, for example, to silence a monk in the Rhineland who was calling on the Crusaders to attack Jews and whipping up anti-Jewish feelings. When he wrote to England, urging the nation to join the Crusade, he cautioned the English against persecution of the Jews.

Many other people tried to help. One historian in Würzburg recorded the story of a Christian washerwoman who found a young Jewish girl inside a Christian church. The girl had been beaten, spat upon, and left for dead. The woman took the girl home, tended her wounds, and gave her shelter. The bishop of the city, pained by the actions of the Crusaders, ordered that the bodies of Jews be collected, cleaned, and anointed with oil in preparation for burial. The bodies were then buried in the bishop's own garden.

The massacres at Worms, Mainz, and other cities did not satisfy the Crusaders' thirst for Jewish blood, however. When the Crusaders stormed Jerusalem in 1099 (see "The First Crusade" in Chapter 6), they slaughtered not only Muslims but also most of the city's Jewish residents, who had taken refuge in the synagogue. This type of anti-Semitism, or hatred of Jews, persisted throughout the Crusades and beyond, as many Christians in Europe continued to see Jews as untrustworthy, as "Christ killers," and as strangers and foreigners.

European Jews in the centuries that followed the Crusades were systematically excluded from government jobs, the professions, and places of education. At various times, they suffered forced migrations if they refused to convert to Christianity: from England in 1290, France in 1394, and Spain in 1492. Because they were denied many "respectable" ways to earn a living, they often became moneylenders. In this way, they acquired an unfair reputation for greed. Especially inclined to this view were needy members of the middle and upper classes, who often turned to the Jews when they had to borrow money, scorning them even while taking it. One legacy of the Crusades was nearly a millennium of hostility and distrust between Christians and Jews, a legacy whose effects are still felt today.

For More Information


Billings, Malcolm. The Crusades: Five Centuries of Holy Wars. New York: Sterling, 1996.

Chazan, Robert. European Jewry and the First Crusade. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Finucane, Ronald C. Soldiers of the Faith: Crusaders and Moslems at War. London: J. M. Dent, 1983.

Krey, August C. The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1921.

William of Tyre. A History of Deeds Done beyond the Sea. 2 vols. Translated by Emily Atwater Babcock and A. C. Krey. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.

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Jewish People Caught in the Crusades

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Jewish People Caught in the Crusades