MEETING # 1600
MARCH 19, 1998
Clash of Cultures in the Year 1096:
The First Crusade and the Jews
by Donald L. Singer Ph.D.
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public
Biography of the Author
Donald L. Singer received four degrees from the
University of Southern California : B.A. (with honors); M.S. in Education; M.A. in
History; and Ph.D. in Higher Education.
His professional experience was in public education, serving as a
teacher in the public schools of Los Angeles, a professor in a number of community
colleges in Southern California, and as an administrator in community colleges. For the
last 15 years of his professional life he served as president of the two colleges in the
San Bernardino Community, College District: Crafton Hills College and San Bernardino
Valley College. He also served as a part-time lecturer at California State University at
Long Beach and the University of Redlands.
His professional associations include membership in the :
Association of California Community College Administrators; the Organization of American
Historians; and the Board of Directors of the California Community Colleges Chief
In the community his activities include: member of the Board of
Directors of Temple Emanuel; member of the Board of Directors of Redlands Community
Hospital; President of the United Way of the East Valley; and member of the Board of
Directors of San Bernardino Area Chamber of Commerce.
He has written a number of papers for professional journals, and
has delivered papers before a number of civic and professional groups.
He is married to Joanne and they have three adult children:
Larry, Beth, and Jennifer.
Following his retirement from the presidency of San Bernardino
Valley College, he became the Executive Director of Inland Action, a non-profit
organization dedicated to the economic development and betterment of the quality of life
in the Inland Empire.
Two years ago the world commemorated the 900th anniversary of the
First Crusade. In the year 1096, as the Crusaders began what they hoped would lead them to
retake the "Holy Land" from the Moslems, there was also leashed pogroms or
massacres upon the Jews of the Rhineland.
Particularly hard hit were the Jewish communities in Mainz,
Worms, and Cologne.
This paper portrays the dramatic clash between three of the
conflicting forces in medieval Europe: the German crusaders, the Rhineland burghers, and
the Rhineland Jews. The paper discusses the assaults by the Christian upon the Jewish
communities and the intense Jewish responses.
The paper shows that the Jews of 1096 emerge as anything but
uniform and as anything as passive. They lived in a vigorous environment and they met
their unexpected predicament with emotional strength and spiritual creativity. Their
diverse patterns of behavior belie depictions of pre-modern Jews as insensitive to their
environment, politically inept, and spiritually arid. The Jews overturn all stereotypes,
especially in their innovative spiritual responses to the challenges posed by utterly
unanticipated crusader and burgher violence.
Clash of Cultures in the
The First Crusade and the Jews
On Sunday, the twenty-fifth of May 1096, the crusading army of
Count Emicho camped outside the city of Mainz, nestled along the Rhine River. The gates of
the walled city had been shut against this unruly crusading horde of the citys
archbishop and the municipal authorities, who feared for the wellbeing of their town and
for endangered Mainz Jewry.
The time of Count Emichos encampment was special for the
Jews of Mainz, as it was for Jews the world over. In the first days of Sivan, Jews began
preparing for the festival of Shavout, the festival which celebrates Israels
receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. According to the Biblical account, Moses addressed the
Israelites and ordered them to prepare for the great event to come. On that very day (the
third of Sivan), more than 2,000 years later, Count Emicho and his troops broke through
the outer walls of Mainz.
Once through the city gates, the troops of Count Emicho made
directly for the episcopal palace and surrounded it. The Jews, sequestered inside,
prepared themselves to fight and die. Exhorted by on of their spiritual leaders, they
shouted out the traditional cry of Jewish faith: Shema Yisrael, Adonai, Elohenyu Adonai
Ehad. Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.
As a near-contemporary account recalls,
they all then drew near to the gates to do battle with the
crusader and the burghers. They did battle one with another around the gate. Our sins
brought it about that the enemy overcame them and captured the gate. The men of the
archbishop, who had promised to assist, fled immediately in order to turn them over to the
enemy, for they are splintered reeds.
Jews were also presented with an alternative -- conversion.
Stripped of the archbishops protection and barred from flight, these hapless Jews
could accept death or Christianity. For almost all of these Jews, the decision was painful
They all said acceptingly and willingly! Ultimately one must
not question in the ways of the Holy One blessed be he
and to kill ourselves for the
unity of his holy Name.
The enemy, immediately upon entering the courtyard, found
there some of the perfectly pious with Rabbi Isaac ben R. Moses. He stretched out his neck
to and they cut off his head immediately. The Christian attackers struck down all those
whom they found there, with blows of sword, death and destruction.
But not all of the Jews waited passively for the crusaders'
blows. Some took matters into their own hands. Thus, another cry rang through the
Ultimately we must not tarry, for the enemy has come upon us
suddenly. Let us offer ourselves before our Father in heaven. Anyone who has a knife
should come and slaughter us for the sanctification of the unique Name of God who lives
forever. Subsequently, let him pierce himself with his sword either in his throat or in
his belly or let him slaughter himself. They all stood -- men and women -- and slaughtered
The third of Sivan, which normally would have been a joyous time
of preparing for the holiday Shavuot, turned into a day of mourning, a catastrophic
bloodbath decanting one of the great communities of Western European Jewry. More than a
thousand Jews reportedly lost their lives on that terrible day.
In order to comprehend properly the tragic events of 1096, we
must gain some sense of the broad developments that brought Jews northward, of the
contours of early Jewish life in the area, of the tensions created between these Jews,
their Christian neighbors, and of the sudden emergence of the crusading movement in its
turbulence and complexity.
The first permanent settlement of northern European Jews was
probably formed during the last decades of the 10th century.
We have full information on the process of Jewish settlement of a
Jewish community in the city of Spyer in 1084.
At the outset, when we came to establish our residence in
Spyer, it was a result of the fire that broke out in the city of Mainz
decided to set forth from there and settle wherever we might find a fortified
The bishop of Spyer greeted us warmly, sending his ministers and soldiers after
us. He gave us a place in the city and expressed his intention to build about us a strong
wall to protect us from our enemies to afford us fortification.
The Jewish community in Spyer and elsewhere across northern
Europe, raised tax revenues, ensured law and order within the Jewish neighborhood, and
provided requisite social, educational, and religious services. This arrangement was,
however, resented by the Jews burgher neighbors. These burghers, anxious to expend
self-rule as their rigidly developing town, looked with disfavor on the Jewish enclaves
that the lords had planted in their midst. The autonomous arrangements for Jewish living,
so positive from the Jewish to baronial perspectives, raised considerable animosity in
burgher circles. Like immigrant groups everywhere in history, the Jews as recent arrivals
evoked considerable antipathy.
This hostility involved more than Jewish newness in the region.
The perception of the Jews as the enemy, which pervades so much classical Christian
teaching, deepened the potential for anti-Jewish animus. The Gospel portraits of the Jews
as ill-disposed to Jesus in general and the instigators of his death in particular have
had a remarkable impact upon Christians in a variety of epochs and under radically diverse
Jews as newcomers, Jews as dissidents, Jesus as enemyall
these perceptions had an impact on the burghers of northern Europe, as well as upon other
elements in the populations.
On November 27, 1095, in a large open field outside the French
town of Clemont, Urban II, one of the leading reform popes of the 11th century,
exhorted his listeners to commit themselves to a new, religious-military enterprise, which
we know as the crusade.
What moved Pope Urban II to issue his innovative appeal? What did
he hope to achieve? How did he envision to crusading force he had called forth? He almost
certainly had a fairly restricted view of this enterprise. He envisioned an army of
professional soldiers, which would operate under the control of a papal legate. This
professional force would take the time necessary to organize itself properly and to
provision itself adequately; it would set out for the Holy Land only when the requisite
preparations had been completed.
Unknowingly, Urban II had touched a sensitive nerve in
dynamically developed western Christiandom. A preaching campaign emerged immediately. Some
of the preachers were appointed by the Pope and seemingly carried his message. Others were
self-appointed and carried messages which diverged considerably from that intended by the
pontiff. Powerful ideas and ideals swirled about northern Europe, affecting diverse
elements in unanticipated ways. The end result differed radically from papal expectations.
The Papal army, led by the bishop of Le Puy, never materialized.
In its place emerged a series of baronial militias, moved by a bewildering combination of
deep religiosity and casual adventurousness, of profound piety and naked desire. The
militias submitted to none of the central ecclesiastical control envisioned by Urban II.
In addition to the baronial armies which successfully swept
eastward, a series of popular fighting forces coalesced, the largest and most well known
led by an obscure charismatic figure named Peter the Hermit. Peter is portrayed as a
reclusive, yet magnetic figure who gathered thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, to the
cause of crusading. Managing such a large volatile, poorly organized, and inadequately
provisioned mob was extraordinary difficult. At times Peter seemed to meet the challenge;
at other times he seemed inadequate to the task.
One of the most striking images of the First Crusade shows
Peters army camped outside the walls of Constaninople, befriended by the Emperor,
but prohibited from entering the great city itself. Shortly after leaving the security of
Christian territory, Peters followers encountered for the first time Muslim foe and
were savagely slaughtered. Peters popular crusade came to an ignominious end,
although Peter himself escaped and resurfaced periodically during the ensuring years.
We now come to the Spring of 1096 and to the crusade-related
anti-Jewish violence which exploded in the Rhineland that year. On a Saturday morning, on
the 3rd of May in 1096, a coalition of crusaders and burghers planned to
surprise the Jews of newly-settled Spyer in their synagogue. Alerted to the threat, the
Jews of Spyer prayed earlier and left their house of worship. Enraged, the attackers
randomly killed 11 Jews. The danger posed by this coalition impelled the Bishop of Spyer
to act energetically and decisively.
When the Bishop heard, he came with a large force and helped
the Jewish community wholeheartedly and brought them indoors and saved them from the
burghers hands. He arrested some of the burghers and cut off their hands
Though the Emperor, the Bishop removed the remnants of the community to his fortified
tower and hid them until the enemies of the Lord had passed.
The Jews in Spyer were protected by the local church leader. Such
was not to be the case in older and larger Jewish communities along the Rhine River.
The Jews of Worms constituted one of the greatest enclaves of
early Western European Jewry. The Jews of Worms had some forewarning of possible trouble,
learning quickly of the abortive assault on Spyer. What could be done? Not surprisingly,
the community divided itself into two groups. Some of them fled to the bishop; some of the
remained in their homes.
Each of the two groups was attacked in turn. The attack on those
who remained in their homes was sparked by a malicious fabrication. Enemies of the Jews
craftily against them. They took a trampled corpse of theirs, that had been killed 30 days
earlier, and carried it through the city saying: Behold what the Jews have done to our
comrade. They took a gentile and boiled him in water. They then poured the water in to our
wells in order to kill us. When the burghers heard this, they cried out and
gatheredall who bore and unsheathed a sword from great to smallsaying: Behold
the time has come to avenge him who has crucified, whom their ancestors slew. Now let not
a remnant or a residue escape; even an infant or suckling in the cradle. They then came
and struck those who had remained in their homes
All of them stretched forth their
necks. Even manumitted serving men and serving women were killed.
A fortnight later came the turn of the Jews who had sought safety
in the bishops tower. Their course had been the wiser one, but it too ultimately
It came to pass on the 25 of Iyyar (May 20, 1096) that the
burghers said: Behold those who remain in the courtyard of the bishop and in his chambers.
Let us take vengeance upon them as well. They gathered from all of the villages in the
vicinity, along with the crusaders and the burghers; they besieged the Jews and did great
battle against them. There took place a very great battle, one side against the other,
until they seized the chambers in which the children of the sacred covenant were. Whey
they saw the battle raging to and fro
then they accepted divine judgement and
offered up true sacrifices. They took their children and slaughtered them
unreservedly for the unity of the revered and awesome name. Then were killed the notables
of the community.
By the evening of the 20th of May, one of the great
communities of northern European Jewry was no more.
The turn of Mainz Jewry had now come. The community of Mainz was
the jewel of early northern European Jewry, the "very crown of Israel."
The troops of Count Emicho brought destruction to Mainz. They
camped outside the city, entered within its wall, besieged the archbishops compound,
and in evening were comported themselves like an organized military force.
Jews chose at least two forms of refuge in addition to planning
its trust in episcopal walls and militia. Some had sequestered themselves in the fortified
compound of the burgrave (who was the appointed head of a fortress), others entrusted
themselves to the goodwill and offices of friendly Christian neighbors. Their attempts at
self protection would fail, however, as the crusading followers of Count Emicho were
determined to destroy the Mainz Jewish community in its entirety and moved systematically
to achieve that goal.
Then the crusaders began to exult in the name of the
crucified. They besieged them as well and did battle against them and seized the entrance
way to the courtyard and smote them also.
The second major refuge of Mainz Jewry had fallen. Although Count
Emichos troops had, by now, killed the majority of Mainz Jews, isolated pockets
remained. These, too, were hunted down relentlessly. One of the most illuminating stories
concerns a prominent Jewish family that had sought safety with a friendly priest.
The crusaders and burghers
came to the center of the
city; to a certain courtyard. There was hidden David ben R. Nathanielhe, his wife,
his children, and all the members of the householdin the courtyard of a certain
priest. The priest said to him: "Behold there remains in the courtyard of the
archbishop in the courtyard of the burgrave neither a remnant nor a residue. They have
been killed, cast out, and trampled in the streets, with the exception of a few whom they
have baptized. Do likewise and you will be able to be savedyou and your wealth and
all the numbers of your householdfrom the hands of the crusaders." The God
fearing man replied: "Indeed go to the crusaders and to the burghers and tell them to
come to me.'"When the priest heard these words, he was very happy for he thought:
"This distinguished Jew has agreed to head us." He ran to meet them and told
them the words of the saintly one. They likewise were very happy. They gathered around the
house by the thousands and the ten thousands. When the saintly one saw them, he trusted in
his Creator and called to them saying. "Lo you are the children of the lust. You
believe in one who was born of lust. But I believe in the God who lives forever. In him I
have trusted to this day, to the point of death. If you kill me, my soul will repose in
paradise, in the light of life. But you will descend to the nethermost pit, to everlasting
abhorrence, to hell, where you will be judged along with your deity, who was a child of
lust and crucified." When they heard the pious one, they were enraged. They raised
their standards and camped about the house and began to call and shout in the name of the
crucified. They assaulted him and killed him and his saintly wife and his children and his
son-in-law and all of the members of his household and his maidservant.
The last of the great communities to be destroyed in the spring
of 1096 was the Jewish community of Cologne. Reports of the events in Worms and Mainz
reached Cologne immediately.
When they heard that the Jewish community had been killed,
they fled to gentile acquaintances. They remained there during the two days of Shavout. On
the 3rd day, as morning dawned, there were rumblings, and the enemy rose up
against them. They broke into the houses, taking spoil and seizing booty. They destroyed
the synagogue and took out the Torah Scrolls and desecrated them. They gave them over to
trampling in the streets
Empty houses had been ransacked and the synagogues had been
desecrated. The Jews of Cologne, however, had found safety with sympathetic neighbors and
there was little bloodshed. Only 3 Jews lost their lives, each having made the fatal error
of leaving refuge and venturing forth into the streets.
The Jews of Cologne had been saved by the efforts of the
Archbishop of Cologne, who divided them up and placed them in seven of his towers. Were
they to be saved, then? Unfortunately, not. During the last week of June 1096, a crusading
army moved from refuge to refuge assaulting and killing those who had sought safety and
thus, when all was said and done, Cologne Jewry perished almost in its entirety.
While the events of 1096 made the Rhineland Jews who suffered and
their subsequent chronicles unanimously negative with respect to the Christianity itself,
both the Jews who lived through the experience and those who later reconstructed it
recognize diverse elements in Christian society. It needs to be said that crusaders
differed from one another; burghers were sometimes friendly to the Jews and sometimes
hostile; and sometimes the authorities helped the Jews and at other times failed to assist
Jewish communities. Were there ideas in the original crusading message that lent
themselves to the distortions encountered among the popular German crusading bands? The
answer is guardedly positive. Scholars say that two central ideas dominated the call of
the First Crusade: holy war and vengeance upon the Muslim perpetrators of alleged
atrocities against the sacred sites of Christiandom. However, the notion of holy war was
against the enemies of Christiandom suggest that, for all the enemies of Christiandom,
none was more heinous than the Jews. To put the matter another way, any battle against the
enemies of Christiandom must begin with the worst enemies of all, the Jews. To 11th
century Christians, the Muslims merely denied Jesus, while the Jews were responsible for
What about the burghers? Were all of them anti-Jewish or were
their actions different at different times and different circumstances? The answer is
varied. Many of them were active participants in the anti-Jewish activities of 1096.
Others undoubtedly stood on the sidelines, as most people generally do during turbulent
periods; yet others took an active pro-Jewish stance, committed for a variety of reasons
to maintaining the status quo which meant preserving the constructs that
normally bound members of this evolving society.
An analysis of the Jewish situation in 11th century
northern Europe shows that by and large the political authorities held the key to Jewish
fate. Where they were disposed to protect the Jews and capable of so doing, Jewish life
could flourish; failure meant constriction of Jewish life, or on occasion, disaster. So it
was in 1096.
Good relations between Rhineland Jews and Emperor Henry IV are
attested from a well-known Hebrew chronicle of that period. The emperor appears
prominently in the story of Duke Godfrey, who allegedly threatened to do violence against
the Jews prior to departing for the crusade. The Jews, frightened at the wrath of the
baron, turned for protection to the absent Emperor.
The chronicle says the following:
To be sure a protector arosethe exemplar of the
generation, the God-fearing, R. Kalonymous, a leader of the community of Mainz, who
immediately sent an emissary to Emperor Henry. He told them of all these events
(particularly the threat of Duke Godfrey). Then the anger of the Emperor was aroused, and
he sent letters throughout all the provinces of his empire, to the princes and bishops, to
the nobles and to Duke Godfreymessages of peace and order with regard to the Jews
that they protect them, so that no one harm them physically and that they provide aid and
refuge to them. The wicked duke swore that it had never occurred to him to do them any
This response was well-intentioned and was probably exactly what
the Jews had hoped for. It was predicated, however, on the ability of the local
authorities to provide the necessary protection. This was precisely where the breakdown
would take place. Thus, while the crusading call included elements that might be turned
into rationales for anti-Jewish violence, many crusading armies did not come to such
conclusions. In addition, the broad Christian populace was divided in its reactions. Some
agreed with the crusaders and readily involved themselves in the acts of murder and
pillage; some stood off to the side; others remained steadfastly loyal to their Jewish
neighbors and the ideals of a civilized society. Finally, while the authorities were
committed to the maintaining law and order, they were not always capable of so doing. The
tragedy of the Rhineland Jewish community lay in the combination of radical crusader
thinking and general political weakness. This special and unfortunate combination set the
stage of the devastation that struck the central Jewish communities of northern Europe,
the Jewish communities of Worms, Mainz, and Cologne.
Many scholars of Jewish history have portrayed the Jews as a
powerless minority acted upon by the majority, as flotsam and jetsam floating along in an
historical current over which they exercised no control. I would disagree with this thesis
and would note particularly the Jewish activism and militance of the Jews in the events of
1096. Proper understanding of the behavior of Rhineland Jews of 1096 can be achieved only
by projecting them against the broader backdrop of that frenzied period. The First Crusade
took everyone by surprise.
Jews were not loath to deal directly with the crusaders
themselves. Peter the Hermit arrived in the Rhineland bearing letters from the Jews of
France, urging their German brethren to provide provisions. This the Jews did, as a
result, they were spared serious damage from Peters forces. The overall picture
shows Jewish communities with well established political connections and the capacity to
utilize these connections effectively.
Much of the Hebrew literature of the First Crusade talks to
martyrdom. To properly understand this Jewish martyrdom, we need to have some sense of the
traditions which shaped Jewish behavior and thinking in 1096. The Rhineland Jews saw
themselves as the heirs of Jewish norms and teachings. They prided themselves on their
unswerving devotion to the legacy of halakhah (Jewish legal norms) and aggadah (Jewish
philosophical and ethical teachings).
The Talmudic dictum states that, when faced with enforced
alternatives of transgression of the law or death, Jews are to transgress the law, except
for 3 extreme demands: idolatry, the shedding of blood, or gross sexual immorality. Given
the medieval Jewish sense that Christianity fell into the category of idolatry, the
implications for the Jews of 1096 were straight forward: Jewish law required them to
respond to the radical choice between conversion or death by accepting the latter. The
original sources tell us of the inordinately high percentage of Rhineland Jews who chose
to abide the requirement to give up worldly existence rather than agree to conversion.
More striking is the number of Jews who went beyond the halakhic requirement to accept
death at the hands of persecutors rather than behave in idolatrous fashion, choosing
rather to take their own lives and the lives of neighbors and loved ones.
One of the most striking narratives detailing the Jewish
propensity for martyrdom comes from the courtyard of Archbishop Ruthard of Mainz, at the
point when the crusaders burst into it and the fate of the Jews who had sought refuge was
When the children of the sacred covenant saw that the decree
had been issued and that the enemy had overcome them, they all cried outyoung men
and older men, young women and children, menservants and maidservantsand wept for
themselves and their lives. They said: "We shall suffer the yoke of awe of the
sacred. For the moment the enemy will kill us with the easiest of the four deathsby
the sword. But we shall remain alive, our souls will repose in paradise, in the radiance
of the great light forever." They all said acceptingly and willingly:
"Ultimately, one must not question the ways of the Holy One
who gave us his
Torah and commanded us to put to death and kill ourselves for the unity of his Holy Name.
Blessed are we if we do his will and blessed are all those who are killed and slaughtered
and who die for the unity of his name. Not only are they privileged to enter the world to
come and sit in the circle of the saintly, the pillars of the universe. What is more, they
exchanged a world of darkness for a world of light, a world of pain for a world of
happiness, a transitory world for a world that is eternal and everlasting." They all
cried out loudly in unison: "Ultimately, we must not tarry. For the enemy has come
upon us suddenly. Let us offer ourselves up before our Father in heaven. Anyone who has a
knife should come and slaughter us for the sanctification of the unique Name of God who
lives forever. Subsequently, let him pierce himself with his sword either in his throat or
in his belly, let him slaughter himself." They all stood--men and women--and
slaughtered one anther. The young women and the brides and bridegrooms looked through the
windows and cried out loudly and said: "Look and see, God, what we do for the
sanctification of your great Name, rather than abandon your divinity of a crucified one, a
trampled and wretched and abominable offshoot, a bastard, and a child of menstruation and
lust." They were all slaughtered.
Thus, the Jews of 1096 emerged as anything but uniform and as
anything but passive. They lived in a vigorous environment, and they met their unexpected
predicament with emotional strength and spiritual creativity. Their diverse patterns of
behavior belie depictions of pre-modern Jews as insensitive to their environment,
politically inept, spiritually arid. The Jews overturn all stereotypes, especially in
their innovative spiritual responses to the challenges posed by utterly unanticipated
crusader and burgher violence.
Chazan, Robert. European Jewry and the
First Crusade. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987
Eidelberg, Sholmo. The Jews and the Crusaders. Madison:
University of Wisconsin Press, 1977
Jews, Burghers, and Crusaders
Agus, Irving. The Heroic Age of Franco
German Jewry. New York: Block Publishing Co., 1969
Bartlett, Robert. The Making of Europe.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993
Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusaders,
3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951-1954
The Events of 1096
BenSasson, Haim Hillel. A History of the
Jewish People. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976
Conversion and Martyrdom
Johnson Riley Smith, "The First Crusade and the Persecution
of the Jews" in Sheils, W.J. (ed.), Persecution and Tolerance
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 51-72
Haym Solovcitchik, "Religious Law and Change: The Medieval
Ashkenazic Example" in American Jewish Studies Review 12
(1987), pp. 205-221