By Burt Westermeier
Michigan Journal of History, Vol.10:1 (2013)
Introduction: On Good Friday in the year 1064, according to the chronicler Marianus Scottus, a German knight was torn limb from limb by Arabs just outside the abandoned citadel of Carvalasim. Impatient with being trapped behind the walls by the enemy forces, the knight stripped off his clothes to demonstrate his peaceful intent and came out from the fortified town, determined to once again take up the way to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, as the chronicler reports, “the Arabs immediately stretched him out flat in the shape of a cross, pinning his hands and feet to the ground with nails, and they cut open the surface of his stomach on two sides…After that, they chopped him up into bits.” In case the knight’s companions watching from the walls did not get the message right away, the Arabs clarified the meaning of their brutal deed: “This is what will happen to you, if you don’t hand over all of your money!”
In light of this horrible spectacle, it seemed that the outnumbered Christians would be forced to yield to the besiegers’ demands. Although they received a reprieve after one of their leaders, Bishop Gunther of Bamberg, managed to knock the leader of the Arabs unconscious during surrender negotiations and his men were able to take several hostages, the besieged Christians were still unable to escape. Only the fortuitous arrival of the ruler of Ramla with a large force was enough to disperse the hostile Arabs, allowing the Christians to continue on their journey and reach Jerusalem at last.
This anecdote is taken from an account of the so-called ‘Great German Pilgrimage’ of 1064-1065, an event commonly cited by scholars as a small-scale precursor to the First Crusade preached a generation later in 1096 by Pope Urban II at Clermont. Jay Rubenstein, for example, discusses the event at length in Armies of Heaven, his apocalyptic history of the First Crusade, saying that “such a story would have provided useful imaginative fodder for preachers hoping to inflame Christian passion. The Turks…were money-crazed killers…who preyed upon pilgrims.” For Rubenstein and other like-minded scholars, the take-away message of the Great German Pilgrimage is that conflict was already brewing between Christians and Muslims almost three decades before anyone sewed a cross to their clothes and headed to Jerusalem on the First Crusade shouting “God wills it!” As he puts it, “A war was already occurring in the Holy Land, incited by the ‘enemies of Christ.’…If something were not done soon, no right-thinking person would ever be able to visit Jerusalem again.”