Marcus Introduction] In the year 1095 the Catholic Church, aroused by the Muslim encroachments in Palestine, proclaimed a crusade against the Saracens to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulcher. The following year, in the spring of 1096, bands of zealous crusaders led by Monks and soldiers set out for the Holy Land. Many of the crusaders were pious; but there can be no question that many also were runaway serfs, ambitious business men, adventurers, and criminals. As they passed through Germany on their way to Jerusalem this motley crew killed thousands of “infidel” Jews in the larger cities such as Speyer, Worms, Mayence [Mainz], and Cologne.
In May, 1096 a band of crusaders led by Emico, a German noble, forced its way into the city of Mayence and finally into the archiepiscopal palace where the Jews had taken refuge. The slaughter and suicide of the Jews in this palace with all the attendant horror and hysteria are graphically described in the following two selections taken from a Hebrew historical account by Solomon bar Samson – of whom we know very little – who wrote about 1140.
It was on the third of Siwan…. at noon [Tuesday, May 73], that Emico the wicked, the enemy of the Jews, came with his whole army against the city gate, and the citizens opened it up for him. Emico a German noble, led a band of plundering German and French crusaders. l Then the enemies of the Lord said to each other: ‘look! They have opened up the gate for us. Now let us avenge the blood of ‘the hanged one’ [Jesus].”
The children of the holy covenant who were there, martyrs who feared the Most High, although they saw the great multitude, an army numerous as the sand on the shore of the sea, still clung to their Creator. Then young and old donned their armor and girded on their weapons and at their head was Rabbi Kalonymus ben Meshullam, the chief of the community. Yet because of the many troubles and the fasts which they had observed they had no strength to stand up against the enemy. [They had fasted to avert the impending evils] Then came gangs and bands, sweeping through like a flood until Mayence was filled from end to end.
The foe Emico proclaimed in the hearing of the community that the enemy be driven from the city and be put to flight. Panic was great in the town. Each Jew in the inner court of the bishop girded on his weapons, and all moved towards the palace gate to fight the crusaders and the citizens. They fought each other up to the very gate, but the sins of the Jews brought it about that the enemy over. came them and took the gate.
The hand of the Lord was heavy against His people. All the Gentiles were gathered together against the Jews in the courtyard t blot out their name, and the strength of our people weakened when they saw the wicked Edomites overpowering them. [The Edomites were the traditional foes of the Jews; here, Christians are meant.] The bishop’s men, who had promised to help them, were the very first to flee, thus delivering the Jews into the hands of the enemy. They were indeed a poor support; even the bishop himself fled from his church for it was thought to kill him also because he had spoken good things of the Jews…. [Archbishop Ruthard had been paid to remain and defend the Jews. He was later accused of having received some of the plunder taken from them.]
When the children of the covenant saw that the heavenly decree of death had been issued and that the enemy had conquered them and had entered the courtyard, then all of them-old men and young, virgins and children, servants and maids-cried ,out together to their Father in heaven and, weeping for themselves and for their lives, accepted as just the sentence of God. One to another they said: “Let us be strong and let us bear the yoke of the holy religion, for only in this world can the enemy kill us-and the easiest of the four deaths is by the sword. But we, our souls in paradise, shall continue to live eternally, in the great shining reflection [of the divine glory].” [In Jewish law the four death penalties were: stoning, burning, beheading, strangulation.]
With a whole heart and with a willing soul they when spoke: “After all it is not right to criticize the acts of God-blessed be He and blessed be His name-who has given to us His Torah and a command to put ourselves to death, to kill ourselves for the unity of His holy name. Happy are we if we do His w. ill. Happy is anyone who is killed or slaughtered, who dies for the unity of His name so that he is ready to enter the World to Come, to dwell in the heavenly camp with the righteous-with Rabbi Akiba and his companions, the pillars of the universe, who were killed for His names sake. [The Romans martyred Akiba during the Bar Kokba revolt, about 135 CE] Not only this; but he exchanges the world of darkness for the world of light, the world of trouble for the world of joy, and the world that passes away for the world that lasts for all eternity. Then all of them, to a man, cried out with a loud voice: “Now we must delay no longer for the enemy are already upon us. Let us hasten and offer ourselves as a sacrifice to the Lord. Let him who has a knife examine it that it not be nicked, and let him come and slaughter us for the sanctification of the Only One, the Everlasting and then let him cut his own throat or plunge the knife into his own body.” [A nick in the slaughterer’s knife would make it ritually unfit.]
As soon as the enemy came into the courtyard they found some of the very pious there with our brilliant master, Isaac ben Moses. He stretched out his neck, and his head they cut off first. The others, wrapped by their fringed prayingshawls, sat by themselves in the courtyard, eager to do the will of their Creator. They did not care to flee into the chamber to save themselves for this temporal life, but out of love they received upon themselves the sentence of God. The enemy showered stones and arrows upon them, but they did not care to flee, and [Esther 9:5] “with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter, and destruction” the foe killed all of those whom they found there. When those in the chambers saw the deed of these righteous ones, how the enemy had already come upon them, they then cried out, all of them: “There is nothing better than for us to offer our lives as a sacrifice.” [The outnumbered Jews had no chance to win: Emico is reported to have had about 12,000 men.]
The women there girded their loins with strength and slew their sons and their daughters and then themselves. Many men, too, plucked up courage and killed their wives, their sons, their infants. The tender and delicate mother slaughtered the babe she had played with, all of them, men and women arose and slaughtered one another. The maidens and the young brides and grooms looked out of the Windows and in a loud voice cried: “Look and see, O our God, what w e do for the sanctification of Thy great name in order not to exchange you for a hanged and crucified one….”
Thus were the precious children of Zion, the Jews of Mayence, tried with ten trials like Abraham, our father, and like Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah [who were thrown into a fiery furnace, Daniel 3:21]. They tied their sons as Abraham tied Isaac his son, and they received upon themselves with a willing soul the yoke of the fear of God, the King of the Kings of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, rather than deny and exchange the religion of our King [Isaiah l4: 19] “an abhorred offshoot [Jesus]….’ [Christians al Jews of those days often spoke contemptuously of each others religion.] They stretched out their necks to the slaughter and they, delivered their pure souls to their Father in heaven. Righteous and pious women bared their throats to each other, offering to be sacrificed for the unity of the Name. A father turning to his son or brother, a brother to his sister, a woman to her son or daughter neighbor to a neighbor or a friend, a groom to a bride, a fiancé to fiancee, would kill and would be killed, and blood touched blood, The blood of the men mingled with their wives’, the blood of the fathers with their children’s, the blood of the brothers with the sisters, the blood of the teachers with their disciples’, the blood z the grooms with their brides’, the blood of the leaders with the cantors’, the blood of the judges with their scribes’, and the blood of infants and sucklings with their mothers’. For the unity of d honored and aweinspiring Name were they killed and slaughtered.
The ears of him who hears these things will tingle, for who h ever heard anything like this? Inquire now and look about, was there ever such an abundant sacrifice as this since the days of the primeval Adam? Were there ever eleven hundred offerings on one day, each one of them like the sacrifice of Isaac, the son of Abraham?
For the sake of Isaac who was ready to be sacrificed on Mount Moriah, the world shook, as it is said [Isaiah 33:7]: “Behold their valiant ones cry without; [the angels of peace weep bitterly]” and [Jeremiah 4.28] “the heavens grow dark.” Yet see what these martyrs did! Why did the heavens not grow dark and the stars not withdraw their brightness? Why did not the moon and the sun grow dark in their heavens when on one day, on the third of Siwan, on a Tuesday eleven hundred souls were killed and slaughtered, among them g many infants and sucklings who had not transgressed nor sinned, g many poor, innocent souls?
Wilt Thou, despite this, still restrain Thyself, O Lord? For thy sake it was that these numberless souls were killed. Avenge quickly the blood of Thy servants which was spilt in our days and in our sight. Amen.
II. Rachel and Her Children
Now I shall recount and tell of the most unusual deeds that were done on that day [May 27, 1096] by these righteous ones…. Who has ever seen anything like this? Who has ever heard of a deed like that which was performed by this righteous and pious woman, the young Rachel, the daughter of Rabbi Isaac ben Asher, the wife of rabbi Judah? For she said to her friends: “I have four children. Do not spare even them, lest the Christians come, take them alive, and bring them up in their false religion. Through them, too, sanctify the name of the Holy God.”
So one of her companions came and picked up a knife to slaughter her son. But when the mother of the children saw the knife, she let out a loud and bitter lament and she beat her face and breast, crying: Where are Thy mercies, O God?” In the bitterness of her soul she said to her friend: “Do not slay Isaac in the presence of his brother Aaron lest Aaron see his brother’s death and run away.” The woman then took the lad Isaac, who w as small and very pretty, and she slaughtered him while the mother spread out her sleeves to receive the blood, catching it in her garment instead of a basin. When the child Aaron saw that his brother Isaac was slain, he screamed again and again: “Mother, mother, do not butcher me,” and ran and hid under a chest.
She had two daughters also who still lived at home, Bella and Matrona, beautiful young girls, the children of her husband Rabbi Judah. The girls took the knife and sharpened it themselves that it should not be nicked. Then the woman bared their necks and sacrificed them to the Lord God of Hosts who has commanded us not to change His pure religion but to be perfect with Him, as it is written [Deuteronomy 18:13]: “Perfect shall you be with the Lord your God.”
When this righteous woman had made an end of sacrificing her three children to their Creator, she then raised her voice and called out to her son Aaron: “Aaron, where are you? You also I will not spare nor will I have any mercy.” Then she dragged him out by his foot from under the chest where he had hidden himself, and she sacrificed him before God, the high and exalted. She put her children next to her body, two on each side, covering them with her two sleeves, and there they lay struggling in the agony of death. When the enemy seized the room they found her sitting and wailing over them “Show us the money that is under your sleeves,” they said to her. But when it was the slaughtered children they saw, they Struck her and killed her, upon her children, and her spirit flew away and her soul found peace at last. To her applied the Biblical verse [Hosea 10:14]: “The mother was dashed in pieces with her children.” . . .
When the father saw the death of his four beautiful, lovely children, he cried aloud, weeping and wailing, and threw him upon the sword in his hand so that his bowels came out, and wallowed in blood on the road together with the dying who were convulsed, rolling in their life’s blood. The enemy killed all that who were left in the room and then stripped them naked; [Lamentations 1: 11] “See, O Lord, and behold, how abject I am become.” Then the crusaders began to give thanks in the name of “the hanged one” because they had done what they wanted with all those in the room of the bishop so that not a soul escaped. [The crusaders now held a thanksgiving service in the archbishop’s palace where the massacre took place.]
REFERENCES TO TEXTBOOKS
Elbogen, pp. 102ff.; Roth, pp. 180 188; Sachar, pp. 186192.
READINGS FOR ADVANCED STUDENTS
Graetz, 111, pp. 297310; GraetzRhine, III, pp. 166229; Margolis and Marx, pp. 356 373
Abbott, G. F., Israel in Europe, pp. 83104.
The Chronicles of Rabbi Joseph ben Joshua ben Meir, the Sephardi, tr. by Bialloblotzky, contains materials on the Crusades which this sixteenth century Jewish historian drew from older and contemporary sources: I, pp. 29ff.
Lowenthal, M., The Jews of Germany, pp. 36ff.
Milman, H. H., The History of the Jews, 11, Book xxiv.
Zunz, L., The Sufferings of the Jews during the Middle Ages. This short work chronicles the major (and many of the minor) persecutions of the Jews throughout the Middle Ages in many lands. This survey was written to explain and to justify the bitterness that characterizes many medieval Jewish liturgical writings.
JE, “Crusades, The”; “Mayence.”
ADDITIONAL SOURCE MATERIALS IN ENGLISH .
Halper, B., PostBiblical Hebrew Literature, “The Crusaders Massacre the Jews at Meurs,” II, pp. 235239. This is a description of a massacre during the first Crusade, 1096, by the same Joseph ben Joshua.
Ludwig Lewisohn in The Island Within, pp. 327339, reproduces a Jewish i chronicle of the first crusade. Although his translation is made from a i rather bold reconstruction of a German translation of the original Hebrew chronicle, it is still close enough to the original to give a good picture of some aspects of the crusade as it affected the Jews.
SOURCE: Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), 115-120.
Later printings of this text (e.g. by Atheneum, 1969, 1972, 1978) do not indicate that the copyright was renewed)
This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.
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© Paul Halsall October 1997