History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

The Crusades

As we turn from Spain to the rest of Europe, it is like coming from a balmy to a bleak atmosphere. Here the Middle Ages are the Dark Ages — ignorant, superstitious, bigoted, savage.

We have seen the Christian armies kept busy in resisting the "infidel" — checking the Mohammedan advance into Europe. Christianity had become so strongly entrenched that by the eleventh century it was able to conduct this conflict of centuries not only as the defensive but as the offensive foe.

Pious Pilgrimages.

It was regarded a duty by pious Christians to make pilgrimages to the tomb of their Savior, Jesus of Nazareth, in Jerusalem. A pilgrimage was a natural and popular expression of religion, and is found among all creeds. Nor were the Christian pilgrims who came to Jerusalem interfered with by the liberal Moslems, who permitted them to build there a church and a hospital. But when the Seljuk Turks, barbarians with a mere veneer of Mohammedanism, in 1065 acquired Syria, including Palestine, they made it hard for the pilgrims. Many returned with burning tales of woe and outrage, fomenting the fanaticism of the masses against the Turks.

The First Crusade

The culmination came in 1096, when Peter the Hermit, with the sanction of Pope Urban II, stirred all Christendom with a flaming appeal to rescue the Savior's tomb from the hand of the infidel. Like fire the contagion spread through England, France and Germany, and armies were enrolled to march to Jerusalem with different colored crosses on their banners — hence the name given these holy wars — Crusades (crux — cross).

The summons appealed to the lawless as well as to the pious, since the Pope offered to all who volunteered under the cross absolution from their sins and remission of their debts. A Latin proverb runs, "Corruptio optimi pessima" — "the degeneration of the best becomes the worst." It was, alas, exemplified in these expeditions, which roused the religious enthusiasm of some, but also the base passions of others.

Then, too, the worthiest causes may have unworthy adherents. Some of the scum of Europe enrolled under the crusade banner and saw in it only an opportunity for plunder and rapine.

So it is a very "mixed multitude" that in the year 1096 we see moving towards Palestine with women and even children among their number. Many had but an obscure notion either of the purpose or the destination. A goose was carried in the van, as advance herald, with the delusion that it would lead them to Palestine! What wonder that this first contingent should meet overwhelming defeat! A sorry few returned.

Peter the Hermit, so brave of words, was the earliest cowardly deserter.

But these were followed by a more orderly, organized campaign — the better classes gathered from the feudal estates of Europe — six armies of about a hundred thousand each.

Jewish Victims in Germany.

Well might the Jews tremble with foreboding when they saw the advancing crusaders. Had not Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the generals, declared that he would avenge the blood of Jesus on the Jews!

So, with Jerusalem in the hazy distance, the word soon passed through this French and German rabble, "Why seek the infidel Turk afar; here is the infidel Jew at hand?"

It was at the Rhine district that the savage army, having tasted blood, let loose the passions of bigotry, avarice and lust. The Jewish quarters were surrounded. Houses and property were destroyed. Maidens threw themselves in the Moselle to escape worse horrors. The bishop often had civil jurisdiction, a kind of local governor. So the Jews appealed to the bishop of Treves. He refused protection unless they submitted to baptism. With the howling mob steadily gaining on them, some in desperation decided to recite the baptismal formula.

At such tragic moments of life, with helpless children clinging at their feet, it is hard to tell which way duty points. In some instances the women were more heroic than the men, their courageous conscientiousness deciding for martyrdom. In Speyer, with the alternative of baptism or death before them, many chose death, men and women both. Here, however, the humane bishop, Johannsen, regarding this hounded people not as outcast heretics, but as suffering humanity, took them under his protection and even executed some of the marauders. In Worms nearly the whole community were slain with the declaration of the Shema on their lips, voluntarily choosing death rather than renounce Judaism. The memory of the eight hundred martyrs was annually cherished by the Jews who later settled there.

In Mayence the archbishop and the two crusade leaders, Counts Enricho and Emmerich, decoyed thirteen hundred persons into the palace and slaughtered them — the wavering bishop yielding and sharing the plunder.

In Cologne the Jews were protected in the homes of the kinder burghers. Here, too, the bishop, Hermann III, following the noble example of his colleague of Speyer, went so far as to convey the Jews secretly to hiding places outside the city. Ultimately the mob discovered them — so all perished by the sword, except those left to die by exposure to the elements.

Pillage, massacre and forced conversion, begun at Metz, went merrily on in Neuss, Ratisbon, Altenahr, Xanten, Regensburg, Magdeburg and also throughout Bohemia. In the Rhine district about four thousand are said to have lost their lives.

In the following year, 1097, reason returned somewhat. Many were indignant at the atrocities. The emperor, Henry IV, in spite of the Pope's protest, permitted the forced converts to return to the Jewish fold, and even exacted from the people of Mayence an oath that they would not illtreat them. Some even regarded the news that the crusaders had perished by the way as deserved punishment.

Jerusalem Taken.

But not all the crusaders perished. Some of the armies reached Jerusalem and took it in 1099. They celebrated the conquest by the slaughter of Mohammedans and the burning of Jews. Three Latin kingdoms were now established in Palestine — at Jerusalem, Edessa and Antioch, which lasted half a century. At Jerusalem were established the two famous religious orders, the Knights Hospitalers and the Knights Templars.

The social status of the Jews in Christendom was now more precarious than ever. The crusade deepened their sense of isolation and broadened the chasm between them and a hostile world. They drew the cloak of their faith still more closely about them and waited with martyr patience for "the salvation of the Lord." They found it in the study of the Law.

With what strange irony they must have regarded this conflict between Christian and Moslem, for their own ancestral home — which was sacred to these two creeds only through the sanctity the Jew had given to it! To this conflict none the less he was not presumed to belong, yet he became its greatest sufferer.

Second Crusade.

It was about fifty years later that the second crusade was launched (1146). The Jews had been looking for the advent of the Messiah. The Messiah did not come; the crusaders did. Remission of all debts to Jews was proposed by the Pope to all who embarked in the holy war. If only they had been deprived of their property, well might they have chanted, "Dayenu" (we are content).

Losing some of their Eastern conquests, two avenging armies of crusaders were mobilized under the direction of the French king and the German emperor, with over a million men. Again it was made the excuse for Jewish pillage. Abbot Peter of France and Monk Rudolph of Germany preached and circulated bitter calumnies against the Jews in order to work up the masses into a fanatic temper.

Berhard of Clairvaux.

Had not the Emperor Conrad III shown himself more of a man than the Pope, it would have gone hard with Jewry of Germany. But the virtual hero of this crusade was really the man who preached it — Bernhard of Clairvaux. He alone was able to draw the line between veneration of the tomb of the Savior and hatred of those who did not accept him as Messiah. This distinction he tried to preach to the masses.

So when the crusaders began their pilgrimage with the slaughter of harmless Jews, the righteous indignation of this greatest soul in Christendom was aroused. His voice and his pen were at their service. Rudolph he stigmatized as an outlaw and drove him from the scene. But though he traveled to Germany to plead for the Jews, he failed to make clear the moral distinction between killing Turks and killing Jews. Perhaps there was none. But the Turks held the coveted soil and had legions to protect it and themselves; contest with them was war — but attack on the Jews, peaceable and unarmed, was massacre.

So Jewish slaughter went on unabated at Wurtzberg in spite of the protest of its bishop and of Bernhard. Jews were expelled from Magdeburg and Halle. In Carenton (France) they made a fortress of a house and defended themselves to the last man. At Rameru the mob attacked the congregation while worshiping on the Festival of Pentecost and almost killed the famous Rabbi Jacob Tam. Fortunately a knight intervened and saved the man, whose commentary on the Talmud made him a great European authority and who was one of the early Tosa fists (see note).

Though the good Bernhard stopped all further slaughter in France, his power did not reach as far as Bohemia to stay the marauder's hand.

For Christendom, the second crusade ended in total failure, owing partly to treachery within its own ranks. Only a small remnant of its vast army returned.

Another Synod.

Its ravages in Jewry strengthened the fraternal bond. They were made to feel that "all Israel are brethren," because none else were such to them. At the call of Rabenu Tam, there assembled another synod to solve the religious and civil problems growing out of these troublous times. Organized action was needed, and it was vitally important that all Israel should present a united front, when treated like "the Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind" with nearly "every man's hand raised against them."

So one of the main purposes of such synods, called from time to time, was to strengthen the Jewish esprit de corps. It laid great insistence on the duty of Jews settling their disputes among themselves. The threat of excommunication was held over those who appealed, except under compulsion, to outside secular courts against their own brethren. Most severe were their denunciations against "informers." For such traitors wrought incalculable woe to their much-harassed brethren.

The Remaining Crusades.

We will briefly summarize the remaining crusades:

The Third Crusade (1189) had the most romantic interest of all for the striking characters, Saladin, the chivalric Saracen, and Richard Coeur de Lion, king of England, were pitted against each other — while the famous Frederick Barbarossa of Germany and the infamous Philip Augustus of France participated. So its setting is a favorite theme for the novelist from Scott to Lessing.

As to its results, while Jerusalem remained in Moslem hands, the right of Christian pilgrims to visit it without taxation was granted. It was like its predecessors in so far that this crusade began with a preliminary massacre of Jews, which will be told in a chapter on England.

From this time on, crusading became a feature of the intriguing policies of ambitious popes — a card they could always play to rearrange a political situation. So Pope Innocent III planned another in 1203. It was successful and Christendom held Eastern sway for another half century, when it was lost again.

In a fifth Crusade, Emperor Frederick II of Germany, in 1228, once more won back Jerusalem.

Losing it yet again, a sixth crusade was preached by Gregory IX. Louis IX of France was the central figure of this crusade, in which he won nothing but glory. To the Jews it meant an attack upon their French communities. On a few baptism was forced, but the majority were trampled to death, their homes looted and burnt. Some three thousand coreligionists lost their lives.

Edward I of England was successful in the seventh and last Crusade. But before the close of the thirteenth century all Palestine drifted back into Moslem hands. In Moslem hands it remains to-day. The Jews had been the first victims of this movement, and they were the last.

Some Good Results.

Cruel and desolating though the Crusades were, a colossal tragic blunder, yet Providence, "shaping our ends," ever turneth evil into good. It brought many Christians in contact with Mohammedans to find they were not monsters, but much like themselves. In so far its influence was humanizing. Still in its dark ages, Europe, through the Crusades, got the benefit of contact with the Orient's higher civilization. This meeting of East and West broadened minds and fostered commerce. Thus even the Jews to whom the crusades had brought unmixed evil ultimately enjoyed the salutary benefits of their remoter consequences. They lost the monopoly of trade, but trade in turn lost its stigma. For when it became legitimate and respectable, the Jews had to encounter new restrictions. Still the world moved on to larger light.


Turn to the map of Europe in front of the book for the route taken by the crusaders.

Read "Bernhard of Clairvaux," article by Frederick Harrison, in Choice of Books. Nearly two million lives are said to have been sacrificed in the crusades.

Third Crusade:—Read Lessing's "Nathan der Weise" and Walter Scott's "The Talisman."

Tosafist —From the Hebrew verb, "to add," was applied to those rabbis after the period of the Geonim, who derived from the Talmud additional law to meet the religious needs of occidental environment. All knotty questions were referred to them and they revealed great ingenuity in their interpretations. The giving of authoritative answers {Responsa) on Jewish practice became the main function of later mediaeval rabbis.

Theme for Discussion:—Pilgrimages in Judaism. Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles are called "The Three Festivals of Pilgrimage."