Crusading Distortions (I): The Anti-Jewish Pogroms of the First and Second Crusades

We’ve discussed many aspects of the crusades so far: their genesis, their appeal, their justification, their evolution, and their relation to the Islamic jihad. Now we turn to crusading distortions, manifestations of the holy wars which were unsanctioned or condemned by the church. This post examines the anti-Jewish pogroms of the first two crusades. In subsequent posts we will look at the Fourth Crusade and the Children’s Crusade.

The church never proclaimed a crusade against the Jews, but some crusaders began wondering why they shouldn’t rid Europe of “Christ-killers” on their way to do battle with Muslim infidels. Count Emich of Leisingen (1096) and the monk Radulf (1146) were the ringleaders. As the First Crusade was getting under way, Emich’s troops massacred Jews in Speyer, Worms, Mainz (most horribly), and Cologne. Synagogues were burnt, Torah scrolls desecrated, Jews who refused baptism (conversion) killed on the spot; fifty years later, at the outset of the Second Crusade, Radulf incited similar attacks. Three questions press: (1) who were the attackers, (2) what motivated them to go after Jews, and (3) why did the attacks occur in the Rhineland in each case, and only the Rhineland?

(1) Who were the attackers?

A myth that persists, particularly in apologetics, is that the waves of anti-Semites consisted mostly of uneducated “low-lives”. That was certainly the explanation given by contemporaries, but most scholars today know better. “We cannot allow ourselves to be lulled by the comforting belief that the persecution of Jews was perpetuated mostly by gangs of peasants,” (Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History, p 20). We know — factually, undisputably — that many knights were involved in the attacks. Nobles and commoners alike participated in the massacres.

(2) What motivated them?

The answer to this question is less clear. Was it greed or religious zeal? Jonathan Riley-Smith says the latter:

“The Hebrew accounts ascribe greed more to local bishops, their officials and townspeople than to the crusaders, who seem to have been more interested in forcing conversions. Everywhere Jews were offered the choice of conversion or death, and synagogues, Torah scrolls and cemetaries were desecrated. The Jews feared that the crusaders intended to wipe Judaism out of the regions through which they passed. There is overwhelming evidence that uppermost in the crusaders’ minds was a desire for vengeance. They found it impossible to distinguish between Muslims and Jews and if they were being called upon, as they saw it, to avenge the injury of Christ’s honor of the loss of his patrimony to the Muslims, why, they asked, should they not also avenge the injury to his person of the crucifixion?” (The Crusades: A Short History, p 17)

But Christopher Tyerman sees a strong financial motive at work too — not greed per se, but simple need. The crusaders had sold or pledged their patrimonies in order to afford going on crusade, and still faced further expenses (see God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, pp 103-104). In his view, financial and religious motives went in tandem. As I read the primary accounts, both Riley-Smith and Tyerman are right. Non-crusaders could be complicit for greedy reasons, but the crusaders themselves were driven by religious zeal, if also an obsession with cash to meet the demands of their journey.

(3) Why only the Rhineland?

Not because Germany was inherently predisposed to anti-Semitism (despite Luther and Hitler, the worst of the lot), but because conditions in the region were ripe for it. Jews had been encouraged to migrate to northern Germany during the tenth and eleventh centuries, in order to enhance the economic prestige of the Rhineland cities. They were guaranteed protection by the Holy Roman Emperor, but royal authority had been weakened in the 1070s by the Investiture Contest and general conflict with the papal reformers. Henry IV was in no position to enforce protection, and when the lure of Jewish riches — and Jewish blood — beckoned, it was hard to for the German authorities to do anything about it.

Opposition to the pogroms

That’s not to say that the pogroms went unopposed. The preacher of the Second Crusade, for instance, Bernard of Clairveaux, is legendary for countering Radulf’s anti-Judaism:

“It is good that you march against the Muslims, but anyone who touches a Jew to take his life, is as touching Jesus himself. Radulf, my pupil, who said that the Jews should be destroyed, did not speak correctly. For it is written about them in the book of Psalms, ‘Slay them not, lest my people forget.'” [Psalm 59:11]

Here we have the curious spectacle of a medievalist outdoing modern liberals. In claiming that “anyone who kills a Jew is killing Christ”, Bernard inverted Jewish guilt, foisting the blame for Jesus’ death onto misguided Christians. The real “Christ-killers” weren’t Jews, but those who harmed Jews.

Conclusion: An Unnatural Perversion

The pogroms of the first two crusades show how the holy wars could degenerate into perverse vendettas against the Jews. But it is completely wrong to say, as James Carroll does, that the crusades were inherently anti-Semitic (Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, p 248). Attacks on the Jews were in no way a natural outgrowth of the crusading movement. They were recognized as a perversion of that movement.

In the next post we will look at the Fourth Crusade.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s