The Preaching of the First Crusade and the Persecutions of the Jews

The Preaching of the First Crusade and the Persecutions of the Jews

By Shmuel Shepkaru

Medieval Encounters, Volume 18, Issue 1 (2012)

Abstract: Although the versions of Pope Urban’s call for the First Crusade focus on the need to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims, crusaders and locals attacked first the communities of the Franco-German (Ashkenazic) Jews. Both contemporary and modern historians have offered a variety of explanations for these uncalled-for devastating attacks. Without discounting some of these proposals, this article applies the psychological explanation of Displacement to offer an additional reason. The article suggests that the urgent call to retaliate against the Muslims immediately and the many graphic descriptions of alleged Muslim atrocities against Eastern Christians and Christian pilgrims in the propaganda of the First Crusade created mounting frustration in Europe. And since this frustration could not be expressed immediately and directly against its source, i.e., the faraway Muslims, the attackers displaced their aggression onto the nearby Jews. Moreover, Displacement also explains the many close parallels between the images of Muslim atrocities in crusading rhetoric and the idiosyncratic manifestations of the violence against European Jews in the early stages of the First Crusade.

Introduction: In November 1095, Pope Urban II made his renowned appeal for the First Crusade. The surviving versions of Urban’s speech assign the campaign the objectives of freeing Christian places and people from the Muslims. Yet despite Urban’s numerous references to Islam, his labeling it “paganism,” the pinpointing of Palestine as the grand theater of this eschatological war, and the scanty reference to antique Jews — the Jews of Europe became the first casualties of the First Crusade. In the spring and summer of 1096, bands of crusaders, at times with the help of the local population, destroyed Jewish life and property before leaving for the East. Thousands of Jews are reported to have lost their lives or to have been forcibly converted to Christianity. Contemporary Jewish sources focus on the devastation that took place in the Jewish communities (Ashkenazic) of the Rhineland.

What possessed men and women to carry out their uncalled-for horrific attacks against European Jews is the subject of this article. The question is complex. The response to Urban’s request was overwhelming, as Christians from all walks of life embarked on this armed expedition eastward. The crusaders constituted diverse groups with miscellaneous goals. Members of the nobility and of the so-called “popular crusaders” are mentioned, in one way or another, as participants in these attacks, occasionally with the help of the Jews’ neighbors (while other neighbors offered assistance to the Jews). The nature of the Jewish and the Christian accounts pose additional challenges. Not all accounts were written by eyewitness and those that were do not guarantee historical accuracy either. Both the Jewish and Christian sources reported their accounts in the context of their own theological and social agendas.

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