By Dr. Paul Stenhouse © 2007 Chevalier Press. Used by permission.

Catholics and Jews down the centuries is a topic that deserves to have an encyclopaedia devoted entirely to it. Thoroughly researched and truthfully written it would go far towards rebuilding bridges over chasms of ignorance and prejudice on both sides that continue to keep the two great Pharisaical religions apart, to the impoverishment of both.

Despite wars, earthquakes, periodic storms, fires and civil disturbances, a vast amount of documentary material survives from the past two thousand years. These enable us to gain an insight into the manner of life and thought and belief of our ancestors and their contemporaries. At least that's the theory. How accurate those insights are depends on our ability and willingness to let these documents speak to us. The temptation to make them mirror our thoughts and beliefs, or lack of them, proves too much for some commentators.

Regrettably, thorough research does not underpin the claim by Karen Armstrong that attacks on European Jews during the Crusades 'bequeathed' to the Western world 'a long and shameful tradition of hatred for the Jewish people'; and, if that were not enough, that the attacks were the first pogroms of Europe and that the Crusades inspired the anti-Jewish prejudices of Nazi-Germany.[1]

Equally short on truth is the claim by James Carroll that attacks on Jews during the crusades were 'Europe's rehearsal for the extermination of Jews that [sic!] would not conform'.[2]

The attacks on Jews that occurred during the prelude to the First Crusade [to consider only the incidents of the 'People's Crusade' that we are covering here] were cruel and detestable acts that merited the opprobrium that contemporary[3] and future generations of Catholics and others have poured on them. But there is no evidence to suggest that their perpetrators set out on their Crusade intending to target Jews, or planning to pillage and loot their way to the Holy Land.

If the attacks 'bequeathed' anything to the Western world it was not 'a tradition of hatred for the Jewish people'. It was shame and regret that such outrages could occur and that concerned Catholics could do little to prevent their occurring and that so many good-hearted and simple people were misled into paths of injustice and violence against innocent strangers whose wealth, or imagined wealth, made them prime targets for a hungry and disorderly mob. 'Is that Jerusalem?' they would reportedly ask, whenever they caught sight of the smallest fortified township.[4]

Evidence supporting a systematic 'tradition of hatred' for the Jewish people among mediaeval Catholics is difficult to find. Localized incidents caused by envy, misunderstanding, dislike, opportunism, fear and intolerance, yes; but a tradition of hatred? Such negative sentiments as one encounters towards Jews across the various social strata of mediaeval Christian society can be matched by negative sentiments towards Christians on the part of Jews who, at the time of which we write, considered Christians to be idolaters,[5] and had a passionate revulsion for images of the cross or crucifixes which they regarded as the abomination that Mordechai refused to bow before, in the book of Esther.

A late midrash dating from the 8th century AD transforms Haman, the arch-enemy of the Jewish people, into a Catholic bishop, and represents the abomination which he was wearing by a cross, described by an uncomplimentary trinity of Hebrew terms - tzelem [idol], to'eva [abomination], shikutz [obscene].[6]

The unusual spectacle of thousands of largely undisciplined armed men bearing the image of the cross on their shoulders, or backs as they moved through the German and Hungarian countryside would have aroused emotions of fear and dread in all the inhabitants, and not just among the Jewish communities in their path. They attacked and pillaged their fellow Catholics with equal ferocity.

Elliott Horowitz suggests that the attacks of the First Crusade did bequeath something to the Jewish communities who suffered because of them. While they did not initiate violence and desecration against images of the cross on the part of Jews, they seem, however, to have raised it to new heights.[7]

For that reason Catholics owe a great debt to Rabbi Menahem ben Solomon ha-Me'iri [1249-1306] of Provence, one of the most noted Jewish scholars of the Middles Ages, who pioneered the notion that Christians were not idolaters.[8]

Before the crusades the Jews had been an active part of European settlement living both in market towns and villages and scattered among the frontier zones. One tragic consequence of the 'People's Crusade' and subsequent ones was that they forced Jews to consider security and their security answer was to create ghettoes, areas of intensive settlement in cities. The ghetto itself marked the Jews off as separate, so the truth is that the crusades drew attention to the vulnerability of Jews and exacerbated problems caused by isolation and lack of contact. Psychologically, the 'People's Crusade' exacerbated existing mistrust and fear that led to the setting up of barriers between Jews and Christians that took until the twentieth century to breach.

Background to the massacre of Jews

At the end of the eleventh century feudal fiefdoms in European Christendom were mobilizing for what has come to be known as a 'Crusade' - from the 'Crux' [Cross] imprinted on the back and front of the over-garment worn by knights, foot-soldiers and pilgrims - to free the Holy Places from Muslim control, and to relieve pressure on the beleaguered Byzantines.[9]

The date set by Pope Urban II for the various groups of Crusaders to join forces outside Constantinople, was August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of our Lady, 1096.

Not all were willing to abide by the Pope's timetable, nor by the command of German Emperor Henry IV, who ordered that no one leave for the August rendezvous until the main body of Crusaders was ready to depart.

The emperor also wrote to all his vassals commanding them and to guarantee the safety of all the Jews on their lands.[10]

Notwithstanding all this, by the end of April 1096 the first of three unauthorized 'hordes of undisciplined'[11] 'confused'[12] and 'hapless'[13] people, had made its move. Led by a certain Volkmar, of whose background nothing has come down to us, an armed force of around 10,000 headed from the Rhineland along the road to Bohemia towards Hungary.

A few days later, a second force of around the same strength, led by an itinerant preacher named Gottschalk, headed up the Rhine through Bavaria.

Then, on May 3, 1096, a third group led by Count Emich von Leisingen, a shrewd leader with a reputation as a brigand, set out for Hungary by way of Spier (Speyer).

Historian Philip Hughes describes the scene:

Long before the organized force was ready, enormous hordes of simple peasants, raised to a pitch of extraordinary fervor by the extravagance of wandering preachers, confounding often enough the heavenly Jerusalem with [the one] that the Pope desired to free, victims of all manner of apocalyptic fantasies, set out for the east. Poor men, weary of the endless oppression of their masters, broken by the strain of bad harvests, driven desperate by the hopelessness of a hard life, they readily listened to what seemed the offer of an easy way to the millennium, and, a vast, unorganised rabble, with their wives, children, and old people, all their movables stowed on the farm waggon, their oxen shod and harnessed to it, by thousands and by tens of thousands, they slowly made their way through southern Germany and Hungary. Necessity made them lawless; they pillaged and looted as they went. A misguided piety led them, more than once, to wholesale slaughter of such Jews as they encountered.[14]

It was not just misguided piety. Most of those who set out on the crusade did so to expiate their sins and to defend their families and their Faith. But war, as any returning soldier could tell you, and as the recent example of Abu Ghraib has brought home to a world that should not have been surprised, is not just about protecting values and beliefs or one's family by using force against others who would deprive us of them. Even for professional soldiers, well trained and briefed, it involves the suspending of 'normal' human reactions and relations and possibly becoming desensitized in the process. War, even a just defensive war, is always a dirty business and if some who wage war are twisted, cynical, fanatical or just plain confused before they embark upon it, then the waters soon become muddied.

Massacres - the popular and insensitive cliche today would be 'collateral damage' - are a by-product of the mental and moral instability that war creates around it, and in which it flourishes.

Efforts to forestall Attacks on Jews

Despite papal[15] and local ecclesiastical[16] as well as civil[17] protection extended to the Jews, the Jewish communities of Spier, Worms, Mainz, Rudesheim, Cologne, Metz, Ther, Neuss, Wevelinghofen, Eller and Xanten all suffered carnage, rape and pillaging by the horde led by Count Emich von Leisingen.

In Spier the bishop had given refuge to the Jews,[18] but twelve were killed. The bishop saved the rest and even captured several of the murderers, whose hands were cut off.

At Worms again the local bishop intervened and opened his palace to the Jews. The mob broke down the doors and slaughtered all the Jews within, despite the bishop's protests.

In Mainz Archbishop Rothard had closed the gates of the city but the mob gained entrance with the help of sympathizers, stormed the archbishop's palace and that of the civil lord of the city, and massacred all the Jews within.

In Cologne many of the Jews were saved by hiding in the houses of Catholic friends until the mob dispersed and the archbishop's efforts saved many others of them.

In Trier most of the Jews were given refuge in the archbishop's palace, but some panicked and threw themselves into the Moselle and were drowned.

Gottschalk and his band who had taken the road through Bavaria paused at Ratisbon and attacked the Jews there. When the horde led by Volkmar reached Prague, Bishop Comas did everything he could to prevent a massacre but was unable to curb the frenzy of the mob.

If modern armies [corporations, political parties, universities, seminaries etc] have problems identifying and excluding from their ranks psychopaths, sadists, opportunists, control freaks, exhibitionists and people suffering from a variety of mental disorders, the impossibility of filtering out all such types from those volunteering to take the Cross to win back the Holy Places from the Muslims in 1095/1096 needs no stressing.

The mixed bag of simple and pious pilgrims, millennialists, con-men, zealots, and the violent and the greedy had sealed their doom with the first massacre. Long before the horde reached the Byzantine frontier their acts of brigandage had outraged the sensibilities of all decent-minded people and roused whole populations of Catholics against them.

The march through [Catholic] Hungary was a series of massacres and fights. In Constantinople itself, what of the horde survived gave itself to plunder, even stripping the churches crossed the Bosphorus into infidel territory the Turks speedily made an end of the most of them.[19]


Jonathan Riley-Smith claims that the attacks on the Jews during the First Crusade were motivated largely by a desire for vengeance,[20] by members of 'an exceptionally violent society'.[21]

The peasants, and poorer townspeople, and many of the lesser nobility found themselves increasingly in need of money which replaced the older system of payment in kind. They fell into debt and felt resentment towards their creditors. The Jews, for their part, as Runciman notes,[22] lacking legal security, charged high rates of interest. If by vengeance Riley-Smith is referring to the tall-poppy syndrome not uncommon among disadvantaged people who envy the rich - then he is right. Money for food and shelter had to be found somehow for the thousands of 'hapless' pilgrims wending their way through Germany, Bohemia and Hungary. Looting and foraging was a convenient solution and Jews, often wrongly assumed to be wealthy, were the unfortunate and helpless victims. Also unscrupulous debtors would not have been above taking advantage of the mayhem by preying on and even eliminating their creditors.

The German monk-chronicler Ekkehard attributed the involvement of the poor in the first crusade to rampant social unrest, a 'plague' of 'ergotism' - ergot of Rye is a plant disease that is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea and causes hallucinations, even insanity, gangrene and death - and economic hardship.[23]

Riley-Smith's description of early mediaeval European society as 'exceptionally' violent - by comparison, presumably, with contemporary Byzantine and Islamic empires - seems difficult to reconcile with the bloodletting and court intrigues that characterized the periods of the white, green and black factions that ruled over Islamic Cordova, Cairo and Baghdad, the violence and barbarism of the Seljuk Turks and the unstable social and political fortunes of the far-flung Byzantine empire.

In 1064, when Catholic forces were besieging the Muslim-held town of Barbastro near Zaragossa in Spain, Pope Alexander II had written to all the Spanish bishops congratulating them for protecting their Jewish citizens from 'those who had entered Spain to fight the Saracens' and who from 'brutish ignorance or blind cupidity' wanted to kill the Jews. He reminded the bishops that 'the case of the Jews and the Saracens is very different. While it is just to fight against the Saracens who persecute Christians and drive them from their cities and homes, the Jews are everywhere willing to be accommodating'.[24] Alexander then quoted Pope Gregory the Great who in the sixth century 'forbade anyone, even a bishop, to destroy Jewish synagogues'.[25] He wrote along similar lines to Berengarius, the Viscount of Narbonne,[26] and to Wilfred, the Archbishop of the same city.[27]

The Malign role of Rumour and Suspicion

Rumour has always played a big part in marring relations between peoples. Jews and Catholics in the Middle Ages were no exception.

In December 1095 rumours of a massacre of Jews in Rouen, in France, caused alarm among Jews in France and Germany.

Around the same time, as Godfrey de Bouillon, Duke of Basse-Lorraine made preparations for the Crusade, rumours spread that he had vowed to attack the Jews. In panic the Jewish communities of Mainz and Cologne sent him gifts which he accepted and gladly gave guarantees that he did not intend doing any such thing.[28]

When the horde of Count von Leisingen reached Worms a rumour went round that the Jews had taken a Christian, drowned him and then used the water in which they kept his body to poison the wells. This gave a pretext for the killings that followed.

The Jews in Trier were safe inside the Archbishops palace but as the mob approached rumours spread [probably questioning how safe they were] and the Jews panicked and started fighting among themselves. Some threw themselves into the river Moselle and were drowned.

Rumours served the marauding mobs just as badly. As von Leisingen was laying siege to the fortress of Wiesselburg a rumour went round that the Hungarian King Coloman was approaching with a vast army. The mob panicked, and was utterly routed by the Hungarian forces.

Peter the Hermit's force of more than 20,000 was tricked into leaving the safety of their camp at Civetot by rumours spread by Turkish spies that German forces had captured Nicaea, capital of the Seljuk Turkish Sultan Kilij Arslan ibn Suleiman. As the crusaders unsuspectingly entered a narrow wooded valley the Turks sprang their ambush and massacred everybody apart from 3,000 who managed to flee to an old fort by the sea.

With the death of Peter the Hermit's army, the so-called 'People's Crusade' was over. It had cost the lives of most of those who joined it, as well as of many innocents along the way. It proved how unwise it had been for ten of thousands of simple-minded, undisciplined and impressionable people, disregarding the pope and the emperor, to set out without proper authorization and leadership, and without adequate provisions or planning for the long journey. It did nothing to open the pilgrim route to the Holy Land and it worsened relations between Christians and Jews.


[1] Karen Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World, New York, Anchor, 2001, p. 71.
[2] James Carroll, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2001, p. 248.
[3] Albericus Aquensis [Albert of Aix] Migne PL clxvi, chapter xxx says that the attacks on Jews was a 'scelus detestabile' - a detestable crime: 'they slaughtered the Jewish exiles who would not accept Christ, but they did it out of need for money [my emphasis] and not [as some may claim] from a concern for God's justice. For God is a just judge and does not approve of the use of force to make someone come unwillingly under the yoke of Catholic faith.'
[4] H. Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade, J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1957, p. 439.
[5] J. Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1961, pp. 24-47.
[6] Elliott Horowitz, Recldess Rites, Purim and the legacy of Jewish Violence, Princeton University Press, 2006, p. 155; 157-158 [my translation of the Hebrew terms].
[7] ibid., p. 162.
[8] Katz, op. cit., pp. 114-128.
[9] See Paul Stenhouse. 'The Crusades in Context', Annals 5/2007, pp. 3-8; 'The Crusades and the Spin Doctors', Annals 8/2007, pp. 3-7.
[10] Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Cambridge University Press, 1951, vol. 1, p. 136.
[11] Horace Mann, The Lives of the Popes in the Middle Ages, Kegan Paul Trench Trubner & Co Ltd, London, 1910, vol vii, 1049-1099.
[12] See Michoud's History of the Crusades, trans. W. Robson, George Routledge, London 1852, vol. 1, p. 70.
[13] H. Daniel-Rops, op. cit., p. 438.
[14] Philip Hughes SJ, A History of the Church, Sheed and Ward, 1935, pp. 254-255.
[15] See Shlomo Simonsohn, The Apostolic See and the Jews: Documents 492-1404, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto, 1988, passim.
[16] See below, in the body of the text.
[17] See Runciman, op. cit., p. 134.
[18] Most of the chronicles note that the Jews gave the bishop a gift in return for his protection [which proved to be ineffectual as it turned out]. But there is nothing in the documents to suggest that he would not have tried to help, had he not been given the gift. Runciman's statement that the bishop's 'sympathies were won by a handsome present' is uncalled for and prejudicial. See below note 24.
[19] Philip Hughes SJ, op. cit., p. 255.
[20] The First Cruaders, 1095-1131, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 18.
[21] ibid., p. 10.
[22] op. cit., p. 134. It was used in the production of LSD in the 60s.
[23] ibid., p. 16.
[24] Epistle ci, in Migne, Patres Latini, tome cxlvi; also epistles cii, ciii. See also Regesta Pomificum Romanorum, ed. Jaffe, 2nd ed. Leipsig, 1885 No. 4581 where the same Pope forbids baptism of Jews by force. Note that what I have translated as 'willing to be accommodating' [parati suot servire]. Runciman, op. cit., p. 135, betraying his bias, translates as 'ready to work for them'; presumably meaning by 'them' the Catholics. See above note 18.
[25] ibid., Epistola ci,: 'Quemdam, etiam episcopum, synagogam eorum destruere volentem prohibuit'.
[26] ibid., epist. cii.
[27] ibid., epist. ciii.
[28] Runciman, op. cit., p. 136 implies that Godfrey de Bouillon started the rumour, in order to frighten the Jews into offering him an incentive not to attack them. I can find no evidence of this evil intent in any of the sources. Even though he took the side of the emperor against the pope, de Bouillon was by all accounts a man of spotless character. See Daniel-Rops, op. cit., p. 439.

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