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Killing Jews in the Name of Jesus

Posted Friday, February 24, 2006 by Charlie Trimm

This is a slighty different topic than is usual for this blog, but I thought it would be close enough. It is a paper I am writing for my church history class. I have not yet turned it in, so if you have any helpful comments, I would be appreciative. It'd be kind of cool to quote a blog.

Ever since my time in Israel, I've been interested in anti-semitism and Christianity. A fairly common view is that anti-semitism results directly from Christianity, and that in fact the NT itself is anti-semitic. This paper is an attempt to examine some specific acts of anti-semitism and the links between those attacks and the church. It is rather depressing, but a topic that should be thought about. The first post is a little long, but it tells the gruesome details of the attacks. The next two (shortert) posts will discuss why the attacks happened and their relationship to the church.

The Church and the Attacks on the Jews during the First Crusade

Charlie Trimm


            The Crusades are a blemish on the history of Christianity. Many of the actions that were done in the name of Christ during the Crusades were atrocities. One of these tragedies involves attacks on the Jews by the Crusaders, especially during the First Crusade. While many years have passed, I know after living in Israel that the Jews have not forgotten the Crusades and the atrocities that were done against them and the Muslims.

How do we know about the attacks? What happened in these attacks on the Jews? Why did these attacks happen? What was the role of the church in the attacks? This paper will address these questions, based on the primary sources and the slew of secondary sources that have grown up around the First Crusade.


How Do We Know About the Attacks?

            The primary sources for the attacks are complex. The main sources for the European attacks are the Jewish chronicles. There are three chronicles for the first crusade, the Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson, the Chronicle of Rabbi Eliezer bar Nathan, and the Mainz Anonymous. They have all have been translated into English by Shlomo Eidelberg and are fascinating reading. The chronicles were written in Hebrew and are dripping with references to the Hebrew Bible as the writers try to place the events that just happened into the context of the God of the Bible (Chazan “Hebrew”). These chronicles were not written by eyewitnesses, but include eyewitness testimony. Their date is difficult to determine, although since the Second Crusade is not mentioned, they most likely date from before 1146. There are many theories as to their interrelationship, but it appears that they are not entirely independent, and there is significant doubt that the first was actually written by Solomon bar Simson. Abulafia lists ten different views as to the interrelationship of the chronicles and their respective dates (239).

The Christian sources are scant for the European attacks, since the attacks were not done by the main crusader armies and the Christian sources do not like to focus on the attacks. The only two Christian chronicles that mention the attacks are Ekkehard of Aura and Albert of Aix (Chazan European 39). These are not the main sources for the first crusade, but are the only Christian sources which mention the attacks on the Jews. The relevant sections can be found in an English translation at the Medieval Sourcebook (Albert).

            The situation for the conquest of Jerusalem is different. There are no Hebrew chronicles for that event, but there are several Christian accounts, since the conquest of Jerusalem was the highlight of the First Crusade. Christian accounts include the Gesta Francorum, the account of Raymond d’Aguiliers, and the accound of Fulcher of Chartres. All of these are in English translation at the Medieval Sourcebook (Siege).


What Happened?

            The First Crusade effectively began with the preaching of Pope Urban II (called “Satan” in the Hebrew Chronicles [“Solomon” 26]) at Clermont in 1095. While others might have wanted to preach a Crusade earlier, such as Gregory VII (Gonzalez 293), the time was not ripe until Urban II. What exactly Urban II said in that speech is difficult to determine, since there are various versions of the speech which share many common themes, but are also quite different in many aspects. The English translations of these versions (Fulcher of Chartres, Robert the Monk, Gesta Francorum, Balderic of Dol, and Guibert de Nogent) are found at the Medieval Sourcebook (Urban II). Depending on the version read, the crusade had one or two intentions: to rescue Eastern Christendom from the attacking Turks, and/or to rescue the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Jerusalem from the hands of the Muslims. While the versions do not agree as far as what was the target of the crusade, most mention Jerusalem, and they are more certain as to motivation: anyone who died on the crusade would have all of their sins forgiven, and those who did not die would acquire great plunder (Shelley 19). The Mainz Anon. exhibits some bitter irony by phrasing it this way in the mouths of some Christians in Germany who were thinking about joining the Crusaders: “’Why do we sit? Let us join them, for every man who goes on the path and clears the way to the unholy grave of the crucified one will be fully qualified and ready for Hell’” (100). This absolving of sins was apparently understood by some of the crusaders to mean more than simply attacking Jerusalem. The Mainz Anon. says that “[a] proclamation was issued: ‘Whosoever kills a Jew will receive pardon for all his sins (100).’”

            The pope appointed one man, Adhemar, Bishop of Puy, to be the leader of the crusade. The crusade was envisioned as being under papal control and as constituting one large organized army. However, this was not to be. Another motivating factor for the crusade was that the various princes and barons in France and Germany were busy fighting each other, and the pope desired that they turn their energy and hatred against a common enemy outside the of the west (Eban 174). And not only was violence common among the nobility, it was endemic among the common people (Chazan European 50). But these princes, who were in the habit of fighting each other, did not delight in joining together as allies, and infighting plagued the armies of the Crusades until the very end of the Crusades two hundred years later. This infighting meant that there were several groups of crusaders armies that went east, and it was very hard for the papal authority to keep them all under control.

            While the higher nobility were gathering a proper army to attack the east, the common people, under the influence of lesser nobility and the provocative preaching of Crusade preachers, decided that they also wanted to go east, and they did not wait for the necessary provisions. The only preacher we know of by name is the legendary Peter the Hermit, a complex figure in the account of the First Crusade. It is possible that Peter was the true instigator of the Crusade, as William of Tyre (written many years later) tells of his stay in Jerusalem when he received a vision in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher from Christ telling him to return to the Pope and request help to rescue the Church. The Muslims had been obstructing access to the Church and harassing Christian pilgrims, and apparently the reports Peter brought back also included stories about acts of  hatred by the Jews against Christians as well (Schwarzfuchs 1136). The accounts go on to say that he returned to France and preached the crusade even before Urban II did. While most disregard these stories as false, Blake argues for their validity.

The groups that went under the inspiration of Peter are known as the “popular” crusades, as they consisted mostly of common people and not of knights. The first group, under a knight named Walton, made it safely through to Constantinople without any problems, except for losing some men in Hungary, who were hung after they were killed. The main group under Peter left about ten days after Walton, and when they saw the men of Walton hung up in Hungary, they went on a killing rampage. Shortly afterwards in Bulgaria, they conquered Belgrade (which was undefended because the people had fled), then continued towards Constantinople through a garrison called Nish. There was fighting between the people of Peter and the locals, and by the time Peter arrived from the front of the army, his crusade was disintegrating. He eventually managed to calm his army, and they moved on to Constantinople with considerably fewer men than they started with. While there, various groups from Germany joined him or attempted to join him, including those under the leadership of Volkmar, Emicho, and Gottschalk. Peter did not follow the emperor’s advice to wait for the main crusader army, and instead led his troops to a massive defeat against the Turks (Payne 38-46, Stevenson 275-279, Runciman 140-141).

It is these groups going through Germany that were the perpetrators of the violence against the Jews, although it is often difficult to decide which group specifically attacked which city, so the following discussion will give a general overview based on the information in the Hebrew Chronicles. Apparently, there was some violence in France, as the Jewish communities there wrote letters to the Jews in Germany, warning them of attacks (“Mainz Anon.” 99-100), but we do not know any specifics.

From France, the popular crusade moved on to Germany and started spreading havoc there among the Jewish communities, although it is unclear under whose leadership they were operating. It is estimated there was between 300,000 - 500,000 Jews living in medieval Europe at the time (Katz 81). First the Jews at Speyer were attacked and 11 Jews were killed, but the bishop was able to rescue the rest of the Jews and even was able to punish some of the attackers (“Mainz Anon.” 100-101, “Solomon” 22, “Eliezer” 80-81). At Worms the Jews were divided between staying with the bishop and trusting their neighbors to help them. The first wave of attacks destroyed the latter group, while the second wave destroyed the former group, for a total of 800 killed. The preference of the Jews to be martyred rather than convert is seen clearly in the events here (“Mainz Anon.” 100-105, “Solomon” 23, “Elizer” 81-85).

The biggest attack happened at Mainz. Godfrey of Bouillon came with an army, but left after he was bribed. But then an army led by Emich arrived, and a bribe did not work with him. The burghers initially attacked the crusaders to defend the Jews until a crusader was killed, when all the Gentiles decided that the Jews had divided them and set upon the Jews. The Jews holed up in the house of the bishop, but were attacked nevertheless. After an unsuccessful military defense, the Jews decided to commit mass suicide, with fathers killing their families and mothers their children. The Hebrew Chronicles graphically tell of these deaths and the burning of the synagogue. About 1,000 Jews total were killed at Mainz (“Mainz Anon.” 105-115, “Solomon” 23-49, Albert).

The bishop at Cologne tried to save the Jews there by dispersing them in the surrounding villages, but the crusaders searched them out and destroyed them (“Solomon” 49-61, “Eliezer” 85-88, Albert). More attacks occurred at Trier, where Peter is recorded as attacking. The bishop tried to protect the Jews, but was forced to flee himself (“Solomon” 62-67). Metz was attacked (“Solomon” 67), then Regensburg, where the Jews were thrown into the Danube and compelled to be baptized (“Solomon” 67-68). Overall, there appear to be between 3,000 (Katz 335) to 5,000 deaths (Schwarzfuchs 1137) in Germany, although the Jewish presence in the cities in Germany was quickly reestablished (“Solomon” 71-72, Chazan European 137).

The main crusader army did not participate in these attacks in Germany, and there is very little record that they targeted Jews for attack, as the Jews in Israel were not attacked. However, the main exception to this is the attack on Jerusalem. This was the highlight of the First Crusade: the taking of Jerusalem and regaining access to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The main attack on the city was on MountZion and in the northeast corner, which was the Jewish quarter at the time. The Jews fought with the Muslims against the attackers, but the Crusaders eventually broke through the walls and ran through the city streets, killing all they could find (Gichon 79). Not all in the city were killed, but the vast majority were slaughtered (Katz 336). Many Jews were sold into slavery, and the synagogue and Torah scrolls were destroyed, although some of the Jews werer ransomed back later (Riley-Smith 64). The accounts of the chroniclers paint a graphic picture, of which the account of Raymond d’Aguiliers will be given as an example.

But now that our men had the possession of the walls and towers, wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men (and this was more merciful) cut off the heads of the their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of the men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon… So let it suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies. The city was filled with corpses and blood (Medieval Sourcebook “Siege”).

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