German Crusade, 1096

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The German Crusade of 1096 is that part of the First Crusade in which peasant crusaders, mostly from Germany, attacked Jewish communities. Although anti-Semitism had existed in Europe for centuries, this was the first organized mass pogrom. In some cases, authorities and religious leaders attempted to shelter their Jewish subjects. However, as Pope Urban II did not mention the Jewish people when preaching the First Crusade, and later condemned any violence perpetrated against the Jews, these attacks on Jewish communities can be considered perversions of the Crusader cause.


The preaching of the First Crusade inspired an outbreak of anti-Semitism. It was popularly believed that the Christian conquest of Jerusalem and the establishment of a Christian emperor there would instigate the End Times, during which the Jews were supposed to convert to Christianity. In parts of France and Germany, Jews were perceived as just as much of an enemy as Muslims: they were thought to be responsible for the crucifixion, and they were more immediately visible than the far-away Muslims. Many people wondered why they should travel thousands of miles to fight non-believers when there were already non-believers closer to home. It is also likely that the crusaders were motivated by a need for money, and the Rhineland communities were relatively wealthy, both due to their isolation, and because they were not restricted as Christians were against moneylending.

The first outbreaks of violence may have occurred in France, although no direct evidence survived. The French Jewish community sent a letter to the Rhineland Jews warning them of the crusaders' arrival, but the Rhinelanders responded that they had no fear.

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 in Prague in Bohemia. Folkmar's crusade split up before reaching Hungary. Another priest named Gottschalk led a crusade from the Rhineland and Lorraine into Hungary, occasionally attacking Jewish communities along the way. His force was attacked and destroyed by Hungarian troops after his drunken followers pillaged Hungarian territory.


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, the Bishop of Speyer, John, gave shelter to the Jewish inhabitants. The Bishop of Worms attempted to do the same, but the crusaders broke in to his episcopal palace and killed the Jews inside on May 18. News of Emicho's crusade spread quickly, and he was prevented from entering Mainz on May 25 by Bishop Ruthard. Ruthard tried to protect the Jews by hiding them in his lightly fortified palace, but nevertheless Emicho entered on May 27 and a massacre followed; Ruthard was possibly involved in this, as he took money from Jews who had been killed and then fled the city. Mainz was the site of the greatest violence, with possibly thousands of Jews being killed. 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.

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 and they were completely defeated at Nis; 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 they were expelled and forbidden from living in the city.

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.

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, a prominent Jew is willing 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 follows. Count Emicho is also cursed whenever he is mentioned ("may his bones be ground into dust"), and the Pope is compared to Satan.

In the years following the crusade, the Jewish communities were faced with troubling questions about murder and suicide, which were normally sins just as they were for Christians. The Rhineland Jews looked to historical precedents 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.

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