Crusaders massacre of Jerusalem was done in cold-blood, not religious frenzy, historian argues

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A leading historian of the Crusades believes that 1099 massacre of Jerusalem’s inhabitants by the army of the First Crusade was not the result of religious fervour, but rather, “the cold-blooded implementation of…’ethnic cleansing’.”

In his recent article, “The Demographics of Urban Space in Crusade Period Jerusalem (1099-1187), Alan V. Murray of the University of Leeds examines what happened when the Crusaders stormed into the Holy City on July 15th after a long siege. Many of the chronicles graphically describe the violence as the Crusaders slaughtered the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants. For example, Raymond of Aguilers wrote, “Some of the pagans were mercifully beheaded, others pierced by arrows plunged from towers, and yet others, tortured for a long time, were burned to death in searing flames.”

Many historians believe that the massive slaughter was the outcome of pent-up religious zeal, which had intensified during the course of the crusade and the fighting outside the walls of Jerusalem. Other scholars have noted that this kind of massacre was not uncommon when a city or castle was taken by storm.

Meanwhile Professor Murray raises some interesting issues, including why the slaughtered continued for a second and possibly a third day – presumably the Crusaders frenzy would have subsided somewhat after the first day. Murray also notes that the accounts of the massacre are heavily laden with Biblical phrases and imagery. He writes that the “extensive use of Biblical imagery seems more like a retrospective justification of the slaughter, and does not by itself necessarily explain why the crusaders embarked upon the massacre.”

Murray finds that a passage in the account by Albert of Aachen is instrumental in determining why the crusaders embarked upon the slaughter. In the chronicle, Albert relates a speech by an unnamed Crusade leader, who tells his colleagues that even though Jerusalem has been captured, “we must be careful lest we lose it through avarice or sloth or the pity we have for our enemies, sparring prisoners and gentiles still left in the city. For if we were to be attacked in great strength by the king of Egypt we should be suddenly overcome from inside and outside the city, and in this way carried away into external exile.”

The leaders of the First Crusade would have been very aware of their precarious position – their army, which had dwindled over the years, was still surrounded by hostile Muslim states.  Therefore it probably seemed more expedient to kill captives rather than hold them for ransom.  Murray notes that on July 16th and 17th the crusaders began a systematic purge of the city, going into homes and killing off anyone they found. Only some captives were spared, so they could carry out the work of removing the dead bodies to outside the walls, and after this they too were executed.

Murray explains, “the massacres of 1099 can be understood as a horrific, short-term solution to the strategic situation, which found its retrospective justification in religious idealism.” His article goes on to examine how the Crusaders repopulated the city, which would be off-limits to Muslims or Jews, and how they dealt with Islamic holy places within Jerusalem. The city would remain in Christian hands until 1187, when it was captured by Saladin.

The article appears in the book Urban Space in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age, edited by Albrecht Classen. Professor Murray has written extensively about the crusades, and is also the editor of the International Medieval Bibliography.

Click here to read the article Prosopographical Research on the Crusader States, by Alan V. Murray

Sharan Newman