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Killing Jews in the name of Jesus Part Two

Posted Monday, February 27, 2006 by Charlie Trimm

This section of the paper examines why the attacks took place. Not quite as distressing as the first section of the paper, but more distressing in some ways since the church was involved in the attacks.

Why Did the Attacks Happen?

            There are various speculations about why the Jews were attacked, and scholars disagree as to the basic reason for them. One of the speculations was that the crusaders desired plunder: the Jews were rich, and the best way to get these funds was to kill them. Another spin of this theme is the fact that since the Jews were the bankers, if they were dead then there would be no need to repay any loans (Johnson 206). This was the attitude seen by some of the contemporary reports. For example, a near contemporary, Albert of Aachen, a churchman who did not like the attacks on the Jews, says they acted “more from avarice for money than for justice of God” (Riley-Smith 56).

Another aspect related to this theme is anger over privileges given to Jews: in some cities the Jews were separate from much of the control of the burghers, being directly under the bishop. This arrangement would certainly have aroused the ire of the burghers and might have contributed to a desire for revenge (Chazan European 24).

While this greed and envy are obvious reasons for the attacks on the Jews, it should not be viewed as the essential reason (Katz 321). Riley-Smith notes that looting became common not because of greed but because of hunger: the popular crusades were not well supplied and thus had to resort to living off the land, buying supplies for exorbitant prices from Christian suppliers, or looting those they could, including the Jews (Riley-Smith 58). The plundering was done after the attacks, not so much as the motivation for the attacks, but as a practical result of the attacks (Chazan European 68). While the Hebrew sources do mention several cases where money is taken from the Jews, this is not done by the crusaders, but by the locals who make promises to safeguard the money of the Jews but then later turn on the Jews in the face of the crusaders (Riley-Smith 56).

Chazan points out several reasons why the attacks were about much more than simply loot. There is no record that the crusaders were suffering great need and want at this point, and when they were suffering greatly later on, there is no report of this of kind of attack. Further, if all the crusaders wanted to do was get plunder, they would not have been so extreme, and the Jewish response would not have been so extreme. He sums up by saying that “economic want or envy may well have exacerbated the essentially doctrinal animus is of course a perfectly reasonable notion; human motivations are complex in all ages” (Chazan European 81).

Another reason given occasionally is that the massacres were done because the popular crusaders were made up of “undisciplined horde of peasants (Riley-Smith 54). Their lack of money, culture, and military training allowed them to commit these attacks. An example usually given is the story of the goose. “One day a Gentile woman came, bringing a goose which she had raised since it was newborn. The goose would accompany the Gentile woman wherever she went, and the woman would call to all passerby, saying: ‘Look, the goose understands my intention to go straying and he desires to accompany me.’ … And they [crusaders] all came with swords and lances to destroy us [the Jews]” (“Mainz Anon.” 106). But while there are certainly a greater percentage of peasants in these groups than the main army of the crusaders, Riley-Smith argues strongly that they were not contemptible. They put up a good fight when they needed to, and the groups had many knights and acted with military strength and tactics at points (Riley-Smith 54-56).

Another reason for the attacks was the lack of imperial control in Germany which could have held in check the radical theology of the local crusaders and restrained the attacks on the Jews. The German government was more central than the very divided French government, where local barons ruled their lands. But the central government was not strong at this point in Germany, and the emperor had not even been in the land for seven years. When the attacks came, the emperor was still in Italy, and was basically ineffectual in trying to protect the Jews. And not only this, but many of the crusaders, who were under the papal call, felt that they were opposed to the emperor, or were at least indifferent to his opinions (Chazan European 82-84). But this does not explain the essential reason why the attacks happened, only why it was allowed to happen.

The most probable reason for the attacks is that the crusaders were acting from misguided crusader zeal. Urban called for a holy war against the Muslims to regain the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for the Christians, but he did not call for a general holy war against all Muslims. It is because of a present reality (the Muslims control Jerusalem) that the Muslims are to be attacked until the specific goal is attained, not because of a historical event (such as the Jews killing Jesus). But the German crusaders generalized the call to mean that it was a holy war against all infidels and against those who had done something historically against Jesus (Chazan European 80-82). One of the Hebrew Chroniclers records this reasoning of the crusaders:

They [the crusaders] said to each other: “Look now, we are going to a distant country to make war against mighty kings and are endangering our lives to conquer the kingdoms which do not believe in the crucified one, when actually it is the Jews who murdered and crucified him.” They stirred up hatred against us in all quarters and declared that either we should accept their abominable faith or else they would annihilate us all, even infants and sucklings (“Mainz Anon.” 99).

So the attacks on the Jews could have been motivated by revenge on the Jews for the death of Jesus. The attack on Jerusalem and the widespread, gleeful killing there also might reflect the idea of revenge: they were getting back at the Muslims who had desecrated the holy places (Chazan European 79-90). The extreme measures on both sides also contribute to this view. “Rather the catastrophic assaults in such Jewish communities as Worms, Mainz, and Cologne reflect a doctrinal commitment to the elimination of the Jews, either through conversion or through death” (Chazan European 68). The crusaders did not simply take plunder, but they gave the Jews only two options: convert or die.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006 8:47 PM

Brian wrote: Motivation or Excuse

From the information that you have given, revenge for the death of Jesus was not the motivation for the attacks, they were the excuse. You noted that the massacres could have had any of a number of possible motivations. Greed, hunger, bankruptcy...each could have prompted the attacks. The lure of these (other than hunger) cannot draw and keep a large group of peasants unified. The greediest or the most indebted barely needed to cast about for a motivation that would tempt many peasants to violence.

They found this motivation in the crucifixion of Jesus.

Some peasants may have originally been piously motivated to go on the crusades. Others simply had no qualms about using the crucifixion of Jesus as an excuse for violence. Those who had unpious motivations (i.e. greed) for the death of Jews tapped into this religious fervor. That, I believe, is called the bottom line.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006 3:19 PM

Charlie wrote:  I agree that the motivations for the killings was very complex. But I'm not so sure that greed was the bottom line. I think that the Crusading fervor as a whole and the anti-Semitism was stronger than you give them credit for. The idea that everyone who died on the Crusade would have all their sins taken care of would be a powerful draw. And the anti-Semitism was almost a way of life, although this active kind was rather rare. But I truly think most of the Jews were killed simply because the bands hated Jews. Maybe I am reading too much Nazi Germany back into the Middle Ages, (and maybe I am misreading Nazi Germany), but I think that this hatred was much stronger than we can fathom in modern America.

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