The Rhineland Massacres of the First Crusade

By Peter Konieczny

Around the mid-twelfth century, a Jewish chronicler named Solomon bar Simson penned an account of events that had happened 50 years earlier – events that were devastating for his fellow Jewish community in parts of Europe: 

At this time arrogant people, a people of strange speech, a nation bitter and impetuous, Frenchmen and Germans, set out for the Holy City, which had been desecrated by barbaric nations, there to seek their house of idolatry and banish the Ishmaelites and other denizens of the land and conquer the land for themselves. They decorated themselves prominently with their signs, placing a profane symbol—a horizontal line over a vertical one-on the vestments of every man and woman whose heart yearned to go on the stray path to the grave of their Messiah. Their ranks swelled until the number of men, women, and children exceeded a locust horde covering the earth.


Solomon was describing the beginning of what we now call the First Crusade, where armies from Western Europe marched across the continent, into the Middle East, and ultimately captured the city of Jerusalem in the year 1099. The story of the First Crusade will be well-known to the readers here, but that of the events of 1096, particularly those that took place in present-day Germany, is one that should also be explored and better understood.

On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II delivered a speech at the Council of Clermont, in which he called upon his fellow Christians to go on a crusade to the Holy Land. Within months his message had spread throughout Western Europe, with tens of thousands of people “taking up the cross.” The Pope had expected the knights and nobles would go to provide military assistance to the Byzantine Empire, but the response was much wider than he had foreseen. Clerics, minor nobles, townspeople, and even peasants all vowed to go to Jerusalem and began organizing in various bands for the journey across Europe.


The launch of the crusade would have huge effects on the European Jewish population, most of whom lived in towns and cities. Various groups of crusaders would target these peoples as they formed groups and marched from place to place. In some cases, the crusaders demanded money and supplies from the Jewish community; in others, they forced entire groups to be baptized as Christians. Worst of all, there were direct attacks and murders of Jews, particularly in the Rhineland area. In towns such as Worms and Mainz, entire communities were destroyed. It has been estimated that more than 10,000 Jews were killed that year by the crusaders.

One of the important questions to be asked is: Why did these attacks happen? It is a topic that has been much debated, with various answers given. Contemporary writers tried to give reasons to explain these massacres. Solomon bar Simson and other Jewish chroniclers of the First Crusade saw these attacks as Christians wanting revenge against their people for their alleged involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which had taken place more than a thousand years earlier. Solomon writes how some unnamed crusaders were talking with each other and said:

“Look now, we are going a long way to seek out the profane shrine and to avenge ourselves on the Ishmaelites, when here, in our very midst, are the Jews—they whose forefathers murdered and crucified him for no reason. Let us first avenge ourselves on them and exterminate them from among the nations so that the name of Israel will no longer be remembered, or let them adopt our faith and acknowledge the offspring of promiscuity.”

While most Christian chroniclers of the First Crusade report little or nothing, Albert of Aachen (fl. 1100) offers a surprisingly sympathetic account of these massacres:


I do not know if it was because of a judgment of God or because of some delusion in their minds, but the pilgrims rose in a spirit of cruelty against the Jews who were scattered throughout all the cities, and they inflicted a most cruel slaughter on them, especially in the kingdom of Lotharingia, claiming that this was the beginning of their crusade and service against the enemies of Christianity.

While Albert’s explanation is vague, it does point to a religious reason for the crusaders attacking the Jewish populations.

Historians on the massacres

In his article, “Crusade Historians and the Massacres of 1096,” Benjamin Z. Kedar argues that in the centuries since the First Crusade, there have been six main explanations put forward to answer why the crusaders attacked their Jewish neighbours:


The first, hostile to crusading as such, regards the massacres as still another aspect of a reprehensible phenomenon; the second, extolling the crusades, condemns the massacres as an aberrant deviation. Among historians who set out to contemplate the crusades impartially, some regard the motives of the massacres’ perpetrators as basically materialistic; some assume that the massacres were triggered, at least in part, by the economic activities of the Jews; others attempt to place the massacres within the framework of the struggle between the reform papacy and the empire; and still others endeavor to reconstruct the perpetrators’ spirituality through a close reading of the sources, both Latin and Hebrew.

Kedar notes how since the nineteenth century, we have seen practically every historian of the crusades comment on the issue. Hans Eberhard Mayer simply calls the true motive greed, while Steven Runciman finds that the attacks were motivated by the fact that Jews were moneylenders to Christian communities and that this activity bred resentment. Jonathan Riley-Smith’s opinion on the matter changed somewhat as his career went on, but he believed that the crusaders were primarily motivated by vengeance, essentially agreeing with Solomon bar Simson that the crusaders wanted to punish the Jews for the crucifixion of Christ. Finally, Jean Flori believed that the crusaders originally just wanted to convert the Jews, and when that failed, they attacked and looted them in response. In all of these cases, other historians have pointed to problems in their explanations, in which evidence is lacking or is contradictory.

A thirteenth-century depiction of a soldier about to kill a Jewish person – Bibliothèque municipale de Boulogne-sur-Mer

Some historians have drawn a line connecting the massacres during the First Crusade to the long history of anti-Semitism, where Christians persecuted Jewish people in Europe for centuries – committing violence and forcing them into exile – all of which would eventually lead to the tragedy of the Holocaust during the Second World War. However, the research that was done by Robert Chazan (undoubtedly the most important historian when it comes to the First Crusade and the Jews) puts into question this interpretation as well. Chazan sees these massacres much more as isolated events – and that Jewish communities would soon thrive again in the Rhineland.

Emicho of Flonheim

A 2007 article by Matthew Gabriele brings up another reason for the violence inflicted by the crusaders against the Jewish communities – a sense of apocalypticism that had emerged among at least some crusaders. The idea that an “End of Days” would come has been part of Christianity since its inception, and as Gabriele notes, it could persist and re-emerge at certain points:


Perhaps it would therefore be best to think of the continuation of apocalyptic feeling in the West throughout the Middle Ages as always simmering below the surface and only erupting through into the historical record and the popular consciousness at key moments — either because of the advent of specific dates or a conjunction of events. These eruptions, in turn, could spur some portion of the population into action.

The launching of the First Crusade – an attempt to defeat the enemies of Christ – could certainly be interpreted by medieval people as a sign of the apocalypse. It could also lead them into more unexpected and violent paths.

A 19th-century drawing by Gustave Doré depicting Count Emicio and his followers attacking Mersbourg – Wikimedia Commons

One of the key figures in the events of 1096 is Emicho of Flonheim, a count who lived in the Rhineland. His name is mentioned among Jewish and Christian accounts as a leader of the crusader band that unleashed the attacks on the Jewish communities in the Rhineland, starting with Speyer. Emicho has been dismissed by other historians as an unprincipled thug or even as a literary construct, but Gabriele focuses on the idea that he was personally motivated by apocalyptic beliefs. The evidence from this comes from Solomon bar Simson’s account, where the chronicler explains that Emicho “concocted a tale that an apostle of the crucified one had come to him and made a sign on his flesh to inform him that when he arrived at ‘Italian Greece,’ he [Jesus] himself would appear and place the kingly crown upon his head, and Emicho would vanquish his foes.”

Gabriele and others believe that Emicho of Flonheim may have believed (or at least convinced others) that he was the Last Emperor, a legend that had recently been revitalized within the Holy Roman Empire. It had stated that such a figure would emerge and journey to Constantinople, where he would be crowned and then lead Christians to convert and defeat the pagans of the Holy Land. Gabriele believes that Emicho then served as the catalyst for the attacks on the Jews. He writes:

The Rhenish crusading army, fed by apocalyptic ideas from the numerous itinerant preachers who sprang up after Urban’s call, converged on the cities of the Rhine determined to combat the enemies of Christ. In the emotionally and religiously charged period between Easter and Pentecost 1096, they found the Jewish communities and tried to eradicate them — through conversion or massacre. Emicho emerged as their leader in this apocalyptic drama that was predicated on two things: the final conversion of the Jews and the emergence of a powerful leader who would lead a united Christendom to Jerusalem as its conqueror. This was a drama predicated on Emicho as the apocalyptic Last Emperor.

This band of crusaders’ attacks continued for about two months, only ending when they were destroyed in Hungary. While we have other acts of violence inflicted on the Jewish communities at this time, it seems that Emicho’s group bears much of the responsibility for the worst atrocities.

The debate over the causes of the Rhineland Massacres of the First Crusade has yet to be settled. It is a difficult topic to analyze, as there are few sources, and the story they reveal is a heavy one to comprehend. However, understanding the causes of violence and hatred also remains an important goal and one that historians continue to ask questions about today.

Peter Konieczny is the editor of

Timeline of Emicho of Flonheim and Massacres of 1096

March-April, 1096 – various bands of crusaders arise in Western Europe and begin marching through Europe under Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless.

May 3 – Crusaders under Emicho of Flonheim attack the Jewish community at Speyer, killing 11 people. The remaining Jews in the area take refuge with the local bishop.

May 18 – Emicho’s band arrives at Worms. Most of the Jewish community takes refuge in the bishop’s palace, but eight days later the crusaders break in and slaughter between 800 and 1000 Jews.

May 25/26 – Emicho’s band reaches Mainz, and on the following day are allowed into the city by sympathizers. About 1000 Jews are killed and others were forced to convert to Christianity.

June 1 – Emicho’s band goes to Cologne, where they look for more Jewish people to kill. However, the citizens of the town protect most people from harm.

June – Other groups break off from Emicho’s band and attack other towns, including Trier, Metz, Neuss, Weverlinghofen, Eller and Xanten.

June 30 – Attacks on the Jewish community in Prague leave hundreds dead.

July – The crusader band led by Emicho of Flonheim is destroyed in Hungary. Emicho gives up on the crusade and returns home.

Further Readings:

Robert Chazan, In the Year 1096: The First Crusade and the Jews (Jewish Publication Society, 1996)

Shlomo Eidelberg (ed.), The Jews and the Crusaders: The Hebrew Chronicles of the First and Second Crusades (University of Wisconsin Press, 1977)

Matthew Gabriele, “Against the Enemies of Christ: The Role of Count Emicho in the Anti- Jewish Violence of the First Crusade,” in Christian Attitudes toward the Jews in the Middle Ages: A Casebook, edited by Michael Frassetto (Routledge, 2007), 61-82.

Benjamin Z. Kedar, “Crusade Historians and the Massacres of 1096,” Jewish History 12:2 (1998), 11-31.

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine. Click here to learn more.

Top Image: Massacres of the Jews of Metz during the First Crusade, by Auguste Migette