Who can see it and not cry?
As the child is slaughtered, the father recites the Shema.
Has such been seen or heard before?
– Amarti She’u Minni by Kalonymus ben Yehudah, Kinah for Tisha B’Av
Nearly a thousand years later, we are still crying over the tragic events of the Crusades, when thousands of Jews were slaughtered, and several holy communities destroyed—and still trying to understand their impact on the subsequent history of Ashkenazic Jewry.
It was a Wednesday, the 20th of Sivan, May 26, 1171, according to the secular calendar. Some 30 Jews living in Blois, France, many of them women and children, had been falsely accused of killing a Christian child and using his blood to make their Pesach matzos. After they were sentenced to death, they were locked inside a house and burned alive.
According to the account recorded by Reb Ephraim ben Yaakov of Bonn, in his A Book of Historical Records, “… as the flames mounted high, the martyrs began to sing in unison a melody that began softly but ended with a full voice. The Christian people came and asked us, ‘What kind of a song is this, for we have never heard such a sweet melody?’ We knew it well for it was the song: ‘It is incumbent upon us to praise the Lord of all.’”
Reb Ephraim didn’t witness the martyrdom of the Blois kehillah himself, but there were a few Jews from neighboring towns who were present; it is from them that we have the tradition that these victims of continental Europe’s first blood libel went to their deaths singing Aleinu.
Aleinu. Av Harachamim. Yizkor. Several kinot for Tisha B’Av.
Memories of the Crusades permeate our prayer services, whether we are aware of it or not. Aleinu, which was originally recited only during the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf service, began to be recited at the conclusion of the daily prayers during this time. Av Harachamim, a prayer that we recite on most Shabbosim, was written around 1096, in response to the First Crusade. Yizkor, too, which was initially a personal family prayer for the departed, first became a communal prayer recited in shul during the era of the Crusades.
Why, though, was our remembrance not confined to the Kinot of Tisha B’Av, when we recall other tragedies? What was unique about the Crusades?
Nearly a thousand years later, historians are still debating the question.
Turning Point or Wave?
In physics, there is much discussion about light: Is it a particle, a localized object? Or is it a wave, something that transports energy from one point to another? Or is it both? (Answer, for those who are interested: Both.) The same discussion can be applied to the study of history. Are there some localized events that come out of the blue and disappear just as quickly, yet create a clear break between what came before, rapidly changing communities and even countries forever? Or are even these events, upon deeper examination, really part of a gradual continuum of change spread over decades or even centuries?
In other words, were the Crusades a dramatic out-of-the-blue turning point in the relations between Northern Europe’s Jews and their Christian neighbors? Or were they only part of a downward spiral that was already occurring and would continue its course due to changes in the political, economic, and social structure of medieval society?
Jewish historians writing in the late 1800s usually took the first view: The Crusades were like an earthquake for the Jews of Northern Europe. And like an earthquake spewing hot lava, the Crusades unleashed a slew of evils – blood libels, massacres, expulsions, inquisitions – from which Northern European Jewry never recovered.
A century later, historians began to take a more nuanced approach. Yes, the First Crusade, which was the first outbreak of widespread violence against the Jews in medieval Christian Europe, was an unprecedented event: The number of people who signed up – somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 – was astonishing for that era. But after the First Crusade, the destroyed Jewish communities of the Rhineland were quickly rebuilt, and Jews from other places continued to settle in Northern Europe, attracted by the economic opportunities the area offered. Jews also continued to receive protection from Church leaders and royal patrons, although that protection wasn’t always effective.
In other words, daily life returned to normal. We therefore can’t say that Northern Europe’s Jews were transformed overnight from wealthy and protected international traders and bankers to the impoverished, harassed, and ghetto-confined figure that became prevalent in the late medieval period. Instead, the transition was gradual and at least partially due to forces that had nothing to do with the Crusades, such as the Black Death, the plague that devastated Europe during the mid-1300s.
Thus, the Crusades were both a localized event that shook the world when they burst upon the scene in 1096 and part of a wave of gradual change. And by the time of the ninth and last Crusade, which ended in 1272, Northern Europe had changed – in ways that were tragic for the Jews.
The capture of Jerusalem in 1099 created a spirit of euphoria in the Christian world. Although their rule over the Holy City lasted for only 90 years, the Crusaders maintained a presence in the Holy Land for two centuries, keeping alive the certainty that their religion was right and Christians were the rightful masters of the world.
As religious zeal increased, so too did anti-Jewish sentiment. True, the Church had traditionally insisted that Jews had a role to play in the world, if only as witnesses to the ascendance of Christianity, and should, therefore, not be killed or forced to convert. But as the Middle Ages progressed, Jews were increasingly viewed not as passive onlookers who would one day realize their “error,” but as active enemies of the Christian faith. Jews were accused of poisoning wells, murdering Christian children, and desecrating the host – the consecrated wafer used in Catholic ritual – and thousands of innocent Jews were killed as a result.
While the religious zeal unleashed by the Crusades was one reason for the increased enmity, there were economic reasons as well. The Crusades ended the Jews’ role as the dominant player in trade between Northern Europe and the East, a role transferred to Italian city-states during the late thirteenth century. During the wars, Italy had helped the Crusaders in several ways, including providing safe transportation for the troops and participating in some of the battles. In return, they received concessions after the Crusaders captured Jerusalem, which helped them create a trade network similar to the one established by Jews: They were granted residential and commercial residences in Eastern ports and exemption from some customs fees, among other privileges. Italy also became a center of international banking, further eroding the standing of Jews in Northern Europe.
As their role in international trade declined, more Jews became moneylenders, which was profitable but could be dangerous. In general, it was a despised profession that only added to the already negative picture that most Christians had of Jews. Historian Joseph Patrick Byrne, author of The Black Death, quotes Jacob Twinger of Konigshofen, a 14th-century priest, to show just how despised and dangerous money lending could be: “Money was the reason the Jews were killed,” writes Twinger, referring to the pogroms that occurred during the years the Black Death raged in Europe, “for had they been poor, and had not the lords of the land been indebted to them, they would not have been killed.”
But as Byrne goes on to point out: “The ‘lords’ were not the only debtors: the working class and underclass apparently owed a great deal, and these violent pogroms gave them the opportunity to destroy records of debt as well as the creditors themselves.”
Northern Europe’s Jews didn’t fare much better during the 1400s, which also had its share of repressive decrees, pogroms, and expulsions. While there were still many Jewish communities in Northern Europe, many of the region’s Jews began to look elsewhere. Thus, in the early 1500s there was only one Jewish family living in Mainz. No Jews lived in Speyer. In contrast, it’s estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 Jews were living in Poland by the year 1500. By the end of the century, there were more than 150,000.
Even though many Northern European Jews chose to leave their homes and settle in Poland or other Eastern European lands, this didn’t mean that the martyrs of the Crusades were forgotten.
One reason is because of the books and piyutim written by chroniclers such as Reb Ephraim ben Yaakov of Bonn, Kalonymus ben Yehudah, and the author of Mainz Anonymous. These well-written, albeit painful, accounts have preserved the memory of the Rhineland Jews who chose to die al kiddush Hashem, rather than submit to forced conversion or a tortuous death at the hands of their tormentors.
Their memory has also been preserved in the Ashkenazic prayer book, where tefillos such as Av Harachamim and Yizkor have become vessels to recall not only the martyrs of the Crusades but also later victims of persecution who died al kiddush Hashem.
Even as we weep on Tisha B’Av, as we remember the tragic scenes of slaughter, we continue to be inspired by the example of these precious Jews, who so courageously and obstinately clung to Hashem until their last breath. And we are comforted by the words of Av Harachamim:
The Father of mercy who dwells on high, in His great mercy will remember with compassion the pious, upright and blameless ones; the holy communities, who laid down their lives for the sanctification of His Name.
“Crusades, Martyrdoms, and the Jews of Norman England, 1096-1190,” Robert Stacey, Juden und Cristen zur Zeit der Kreuzzige, pp. 233-51.
European Jewry and the First Crusade, Robert Chazan, University of California Press, 1996.
“Life Under the Church,” and “The Bloody Crusades,” Yosef Eisen, Chabad.org.
“Mehabevin et ha-tsarot: Crusade Memories and Modern Jewish Martyrologies,” David N. Myers, Jewish History, Fall 1999.
The Black Death, Joseph Patrick Byrne, Greenwood Guides to Historic Events of the Medieval World, Greenwood Press.
“The Crusades,” Jewish Virtual Library.
“Remembering the Crusades,” Rabbi Berel Wein, RabbiWein.com.