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The German Crusade of 1096 was the part of the First Crusade in which peasant crusaders from France and Germany attacked Jewish communities. Although anti-Semitism had existed in Europe for centuries, this is the first record of an organized mass pogrom.

Pope Urban II did not mention the Jewish people when preaching the First Crusade, and later condemned any violence perpetrated against the Jews. In some cases, authorities and religious leaders attempted to shelter their Jewish subjects.

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The preaching of the First Crusade inspired an outbreak of anti-Semitism. In parts of France and Germany, Jews were perceived as just as much an enemy as Muslims: they were thought to be responsible for the crucifixion, and they were more immediately visible than the distant Muslims. Many people wondered why they should travel thousands of miles to fight non-believers when there were already non-believers closer to home, with a good reason.

It is also likely that the crusaders were motivated by their need for money. The Rhineland communities were relatively wealthy, both due to their isolation, and because they were not restricted as Christians were against moneylending. Many crusaders had to go into debt in order to purchase weaponry and equipment for the expedition; as Western Christianity strictly forbade usury (unlike Orthodox Christianity, which merely regulated it), many crusaders inevitably found themselves indebted to Jewish moneylenders. Having armed themselves by assuming the debt, the crusaders conveniently rationalized the killing of Jews as an extension of their Christian mission.

There had not been so broad a movement against Jews by Christians since the seventh century's mass expulsions and forced conversions. While there had been a number of regional persecutions of Jews by Christians, such as the one in Metz in 888, a plot against Jews in Limoges in 992, a wave of anti-Jewish persecution by Christian millenniary movements (who believed that Jesus was set to descend from Heaven) in the year 1000, and the threat of expulsion from Treves in 1066; these are all viewed “in the traditional terms of governmental outlawry rather than unbridled popular attacks.”[1] Also many movements against Jews (such as forced conversions by King Robert the Pious of France, Richard II, Duke of Normandy, and Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor around 1007-12) had been quashed by either Roman Catholicism’s Papacy or its Bishops.[1] The passions aroused in the Christian populace by Urban II’s call for the first crusade moved persecution of Jews into a new chapter in history where these previous constants no longer held.

The extent of the era's anti-Semitism is apparent in Godfrey of Bouillon, who

“swore that he would not set out on the Crusade before avenging the blood of Christ [with that of the Jews]…so that there might not remain alive a remnant among them.”

Emperor Henry IV (after being notified of the pledge by Qalonymus the Jewish leader in Mainz) issued an order prohibiting such an action. Godfrey claimed he never really intended to kill Jews, but the community in Mainz and Cologne sent him a collected bribe of 500 silver marks.[2]

Sigebert of Gembloux wrote that before “a war in behalf of the Lord” could be fought it was essential that the Jews convert; those who resisted were “deprived of their goods, massacred, and expelled from the cities.”[2]

The first outbreaks of violence occurred in France. A contemporary chronicle of events written by an anonymous author in Mainz wrote

“There first arose the officers, nobles, and common people who were in the land of France [Sarefat] who took counsel together and plotted…to make clear the way to go toward Jerusalem.”[2]

Richard of Poitiers wrote that Jewish persecution was widespread in France at the beginning of the expeditions to the east.Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag Some Jews dispersed eastward to escape the persecution.[3]

On top of the general Christian suspicion of Jews at the time, when the thousands of French members of the People's Crusade arrived at the Rhine, they had run out of provisions.[4] To restock their supplies, they began to plunder Jewish food and property while attempting to force them to convert to Christianity.[4]

Not all crusaders who had run out of supplies resorted to murder; some, like Peter the Hermit, used extortion instead. While no sources claim he preached against the Jews, he carried a letter with him from the Jews of France to the community at Trier. The letter urged them to supply provisions to Peter and his men. The Jewish chronicler Solomon b. Simson recorded that they were so terrified by Peter’s appearance at the gates that they readily agreed to supply his needs.[2] Whatever Peter's own position on the Jews was, men claiming to follow after him felt free to massacre Jews on their own initiative, to pillage their possessions.[2]

Sometimes Jews survived by being subjected to involuntary baptism, such as in Regensburg, where a crusading mob rounded up the Jewish community, forced them into the Danube, and performed a mass baptism. After the crusaders had left the region these Jews returned to practicing Judaism.[1]

Folkmar and Gottschalk[]

In the spring of 1096, a number of small bands of knights and peasants, inspired by the preaching of the Crusade, set off from various parts of France and Germany. The crusade of the priest Folkmar, beginning in Saxony, persecuted Jews in Magdeburg and later, on May 30, 1096 in Prague in Bohemia. The Catholic Bishop Cosmas attempted to prevent forced conversions, and the entire Catholic hierarchy in Bohemia preached against such acts.[1] Duke Bratislav was out of the country and the Catholic Church's officials' protests were unable to stop the mob of crusaders.[1]

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church as a whole condemned the persecution of the Jews in the regions affected (though their protests had little effect). Especially vocal were the parish priests (only one monk, named Gottschalk, is recorded as joining and encouraging the mob).[1] Chronicler Hugo of Flavigny recorded how these religious appeals were ignored, writing

“It certainly seems amazing that on a single day in many different places, moved in unison by a violent inspiration, such massacres should have taken place, despite their widespread disapproval and their condemnation as contrary to religion. But we know that they could not have been avoided since they occurred in the face of excommunication imposed by numerous clergymen, and of the threat of punishment on the part of many princes.”[1]

In general the crusader mobs did not fear any retribution as the local courts did not have the jurisdiction to pursue them past their locality nor the ability to identify and prosecute individuals out of the mob.[1] The pleas of the clergy were ignored on similar grounds (no cases against individuals were brought forward for excommunication) and the mob believed that anyone preaching mercy to the Jews was only doing so because they had succumbed to Jewish bribery.[1]

Gottschalk the monk went on to lead a crusade from the Rhineland and Lorraine into Hungary, occasionally attacking Jewish communities along the way. In late June 1096, the crusader mob of Gottschalk was welcomed by King Coloman of Hungary, but they soon began plundering the countryside and causing drunken disorder. The King then demanded they disarm. Once their weapons had been secured, the enraged Hungarians fell upon them and “the whole plain was covered with corpses and blood.”[5]

The priest Folkmar and his Saxons also met a similar fate from the Hungarians when they began pillaging villages there because “sedition was incited”.[5][6]


The largest of these crusades, and the most involved in attacking Jews, was that led by Count Emicho. Setting off in the early summer of 1096, an army of around 10,000 men, women and children proceeded through the Rhine valley, towards the Main River and then to the Danube. Emicho was joined by William the Carpenter and Drogo of Nesle, among others from the Rhineland, eastern France, Lorraine, Flanders and even England.

Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, absent in southern Italy, ordered the Jews to be protected when he learned of Emicho's intent. After some Jews were killed at Metz in May, John, Bishop of Speyer gave shelter to the Jewish inhabitants. Still at least 12 Jews of Speyer were slain by crusaders on May 3.[2] The Bishop of Worms also attempted to shelter Jews, but the crusaders broke in to his episcopal palace and killed the Jews inside on May 18. At least 800 Jews were massacred in Worms when they refused Christian baptism.[7][2]

News of Emicho's crusade spread quickly, and he was prevented from entering Mainz on May 25 by Bishop Ruthard. Emicho also took an offering of gold raised by the Jews of Mainz in hope to gain his favor and their safety.[2] Bishop Ruthard tried to protect the Jews by hiding them in his lightly fortified palace. Nevertheless Emicho did not prevent his followers from entering the city[2] on May 27 and a massacre followed. Many among the Christian business class (the burghers) in Mainz, had working ties with Jews and gave them shelter from the mobs (as the burghers in Prague had done).[1] The Mainz burghers joined with the militia of the bishop and the burgrave (the town's military governor) in fighting off the first waves of crusaders. This stand had to be abandoned when crusaders continued to arrive in ever greater numbers.[1] Despite the example of the burghers, many ordinary citizens in Mainz and other the towns were caught up in the frenzy and joined in the persecution and pillaging.[1] Mainz was the site of the greatest violence, with at least 1,100 Jews and (possibly more) being killed by troops under Clarambaud and Thomas.[2] One man, named Isaac, was forcefully converted, but later, wracked with guilt, killed his family and burned himself alive in his house. Another woman, Rachel, killed her four children with her own hands so that they would not be killed by the crusaders.

Eliezer b. Nathan, a Jewish chronicler at the times, paraphrased Habakkuk 1:6 and wrote of

“cruel foreigners, fierce and swift, Frenchmen and Germans…[who] put crosses on their clothing and were more plentiful than locusts on the face of the earth.”[2]

On May 29 Emicho arrived at Cologne, where most Jews had already left or were hiding in Christian houses. In Cologne, other smaller bands of crusaders met Emicho, and they left with quite a lot of money taken from the Jews there. Emicho continued towards Hungary, soon joined by some Swabians. Coloman of Hungary refused to allow them through Hungary. Count Emicho and his warriors besieged Meseberg, on the Leitha. This led Coloman to prepare to flee into Russia, but the morale of the crusader mob began to fail which inspired the Hungarians and most of the mob was slaughtered or drowned in the river. Count Emicho and a few of the leaders escaped into Italy or back to their own homes.[5] William the Carpenter and other survivors eventually joined Hugh of Vermandois and the main body of crusader knights.

Later attacks on Jews[]

Later in 1096, Godfrey of Bouillon also collected tribute from the Jews in Mainz and Cologne, but there was no slaughter in this case. After the success of the First Crusade in the Holy Land, the Jews in Jerusalem were either slaughtered along with the Muslims, or expelled and forbidden from living in the city, unlike the traditional Islamic tolerance -at the price of a tax- for Christians and Jews.

The First Crusade ignited a long tradition of organized violence against Jews in European culture. Jewish money was also used in France for financing the Second Crusade; the Jews were also attacked in many instances, but not on the scale of the attacks of 1096. In England, the Third Crusade was the pretext for the expulsion of the Jews and the confiscation of their money. The two Shepherds' Crusades, in 1251 and 1320, also saw attacks on Jews in France; the second in 1320 also attacked and killed Jews in Aragon (Spain).

Jewish reactions[]

News of the attacks spread quickly and reached the Jewish communities in and around Jerusalem long before the crusaders themselves arrived. However, Jews were not systematically killed in Jerusalem, despite being caught up in the general indiscriminate violence caused by the crusaders once they reached the city.

The Hebrew chronicles portray the Rhineland Jews as martyrs who willingly sacrificed themselves in order to honour God and to preserve their own honour. Faced with conversion or death, they usually chose death. On numerous occasions, the chronicles mention a prominent Jew who expresses a willingness to convert, only to speak out against Christ and Christianity when a crowd has gathered for the baptism, mocking Jesus as a product of "lust" and "menstruation"; a swift death followed. The chronicles curse Count Emicho whenever he is mentioned ("may his bones be ground into dust"), and compare the Pope to Satan.

Sigebert of Gembloux wrote that most of those Jews who converted before the crusader threat later returned to Judaism.[2]

In the years following the crusade, the Jewish communities were faced with troubling questions about murder and suicide, which were normally sins for Jews just as they were for Christians. The Rhineland Jews looked to historical precedents since Biblical times to justify their actions: the honourable suicide of Saul, the Maccabees revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the suicide pact at Masada, and the Bar Kochba revolt were seen as justifiable deaths in the face of a stronger enemy.

Previous to the Crusades, the Jews were divided among three major areas which were largely independent of one another. These were the Jews living in Islamic nations (still the majority), those in the Byzantine empire and those in the Roman Catholic West. With the persecutions that began around 1096, a new awareness of the entire people took hold across all of these groups, reuniting the three separate strands.[1]

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