Jews in the First Crusade: Culpability, Martyrdom, and Blood Vengeance
By Zohar Atkins
Brown Journal of History, Spring (2008)
For Christians of the Holy Roman Empire, the First Crusade commenced in 1095 with Pope Urban II’s declaration to the French knights at Clermont that “God wills it!” and ended four years later with the conquest of Jerusalem. During this period, Christians united in opposition to a common enemy—the Muslims of the East—and witnessed a “renaissance” in areas such as music, literature, geometry, philosophy, and theology. Historians have proposed several explanations for the First Crusade. One school of thought argues that the Pope’s desire to aid his fellow Byzantines and to bring about a united “Christendom” was the primary cause of the First Crusade. Another claims that the Pope sought to reassert the papacy’s power over the King in the wake of the investiture conflict, a fierce dispute concerning the right to appoint bishops and cardinals. Yet another interpretation suggests that overpopulation and peasants’ heightened religious fervor created an environment that facilitated crusading.
Whatever the causes of the First Crusade, it was a monumental and vitalizing success for the “Holy Roman Empire.” Even though none of the other Crusades proved to be as successful, and the Muslims eventually reconquered Jerusalem, the religious wars provided a source of unity, religiosity, and discovery for anyone willing to call himself one of “God’s soldiers.” For Christians, the First Crusade offered an opportunity to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to secure a place for their souls in heaven. Many twelfth-century tales glorified the First Crusade as the historical backdrop for knights’ chivalrous quests. Meanwhile, the Jews of twelfth-century Northern Europe associated the First Crusade with a different experience: the 1096 Rhineland massacres, in which bands of Christian soldiers marched through Worms, Mainz, Cologne, and other cities, murdering those Jews who refused to submit to the baptismal waters.
In the wake of the massacres of the First Crusade, Jewish survivors struggled to make sense of the unexpected eruption of anti-Semitic violence. Weighing even more heavily upon them was the mass martyrdom of their brethren, who, rather than converting to Christianity or submitting to the Crusaders’ swords, took the lives of their own family members before committing suicide. This response proved especially disturbing to survivors, not simply because it was a violation of Jewish law, but because it was done in the very name of the Jewish law. One thousand years earlier, when Jewish parents had killed their children at Masada in anticipation of the Roman army’s advance, they had done so out of mercy for their children or in defiance of the Romans. In contrast, the Jews of twelfth-century Northern Europe saw themselves fulfilling an Abrahamic test of faith.