Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Medieval Holocaust: The Church’s Role in Jewish Persecution

By Rosanne E. Lortz

Josephus estimates that the people from all of Judea who at the time of the Passover thronged into Jerusalem, as if to a prison, numbered three million. It was indeed appropriate that in the very days on which they perpetrated the Savior’s passion they should be shut inside a prison, as it were, and receive the destruction meted out by divine justice. Omitting their disasters by sword and other means, I shall relate only their sufferings from starvation, so that readers may learn how quickly God’s punishment followed their crime against Christ…. 
When the fourth century historian Eusebius described the gruesome destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, he considered it divine retribution against the Jews for the part they had played in Jesus’ death. It was a view that would continue into the Middle Ages and color the treatment that many Christians afforded the Jewish population that had dispersed across Europe. While some thought that the destruction of Jerusalem was a sufficient one-time punishment for the Jewish race, others considered all subsequent evils befalling the Jews as their “just deserts.”

The Crusades are remembered as a time of particular cruelty to the Jews. In the late eleventh century, the People’s Crusade, part of the northern branch of the First Crusade, attacked the Jews in the major cities along the Rhine River. Hundreds of Jews perished, many by their own hands so they would not be “defiled” by the swords of the Crusaders.

Crusaders killing Jews during the First Crusade (manuscript c. 1250)

Elizabeth Hallam, in Chronicles of the Crusades, notes three reasons for the Crusaders’ attacks: greed, real need for supplies, and vengeance for the Crucifixion of Christ. Interestingly, however, this desire for “vengeance” on the Jews, while it might have been the popular theology of the day, was not at all the official theology of the Church.

Two decades before the People’s Crusade, Pope Alexander II had called a crusade against the Moors in Spain. In his Case for the Crusades, Rodney Stark says:
It is worth noting that the pope was very concerned that the knights setting out to fight the Muslims not attack Jews along the way. Having directed that the Jews be protected, he subsequently wrote that he was glad to learn "that you protect the Jews who live among you, so that they may not be killed by those setting out for Spain against the Saracens...for the situation of the Jews is greatly different from that of the Saracens. One may justly fight against those [Saracens because they] persecute Christians."
In the massacres in the Rhineland, the medieval chroniclers noted that when the Crusader army drew near, the Jews turned to the Christian bishops of the cities for help. In Speyer, when the Crusaders attacked the Jews in their synagogue, Bishop John gathered a horse troop and drove off the murderers, cutting off the hands of all the burghers who had aided them.

Although the bishops in other cities did not don armor to protect the Jews as Bishop John had done, they did allow the Jews to take refuge in their churches or their homes. In Mainz, the archbishop was bold enough to give the Jews shelter, but when the walls of the city were breached by the Crusaders, his courage left him. He himself fled, and seven hundred Jews were left to their fate.

Count Emico, one of the leaders of the attacks, claimed that, “Whoever killed a Jew would receive remission of sins.” But once again, this “popular theology” was at odds with the official teachings of the Church. Hallam writes:
The massacres did not reflect any official policy of the Church. Forced conversion, for instance, was contrary to canon law, and, although the bishops of the cities involved may have been unwilling to risk their lives for the Jews, this does not mean that any of them favoured their persecution. Contemporary western sources almost invariably condemn the crusaders’ actions.
The violence against the Jews which was sparked by the crusading movement did not reach England until a century later, in the years preceding the Third Crusade. Part of the reason for this is that there were very few Jews in England when the First Crusade was called by Pope Urban in 1095.

Primary sources seem to indicate that there were no Jews residing in England during the Anglo-Saxon period. One chronicler tells us that William the Conqueror first introduced Jews to the country, bringing them over from the city of Rouen after the Conquest in 1066. Henry I, the Conqueror’s son, is recorded to have drafted a “Charter” of liberties for the Jews, and more charters were issued during the reigns of the Plantagenet kings.

In the latter part of the twelfth century, the Jewish population in England increased, and the anti-Semitism of the English population increased as well. Stories began to circulate of the Jews ritually murdering young boys. At King Richard I’s coronation on 3 September 1189, several Jews tried to attend the coronation banquet but were refused entrance. Richard Barrie Dobson, in The Jewish Communities of Medieval England, writes that: “A fracas at the gate led to a full-scale anti-Jewish riot which eventually resulted in the burning of the London Jewry and the loss of at least thirty lives.”

This was only the beginning. In the early part of the following year (1190), several Jewish communities throughout England were assaulted. Up until this time, the English had only participated marginally in the Crusades, but now, King Richard was making preparations to go on the Third Crusade. Dobson notes that in England as well as on the continent, “there was a direct correlation between crusading propaganda against the external Moslem pagan and active hostility to the internal Jewish ‘infidel’.”

Things came to a head in the city of York, and on the night of 16 March 1190, we read about what Dobson calls “the single most famous incident in the history of the medieval English Jewry.”

A riot arose against the Jews and they took refuge in the castle. Afraid that the custodian of the castle would betray them, the Jews barred his own gates against him. This only incited the mob further and convinced them that their attack on the Jews would have royal approval. Dobson writes that: “The Jews were able to defend themselves successfully for several days, a tribute not only to the courage they found in desperation but also to the impregnability of the late twelfth-century English castle.” 

When the attackers constructed siege engines and it was clear that they would soon breach the castle’s defenses, the majority of the Jews took their own lives, setting fire to the castle at the same time. The few Jews who were left appealed for mercy and agreed to be baptized as Christians, but the promises of the victors proved false, and they massacred all the Jews as soon as they exited the castle.

William of Newburgh, one of the contemporary chroniclers, roundly condemns these “cruel butchers” who had slaughtered in cold blood “men seeking Christian grace.” His manuscript makes it clear that not all medievals were as intent on this holocaust as was the mob at York.

When word reached Richard of the massacre, he was angry beyond measure. Not only had the Jews been attacked without his orders, but their deaths had resulted in a significant blow to his tax revenue. He sent his Chancellor to investigate the matter, but sorting out who was to blame in a mob action that had involved a great many of the citizens proved impossible. A fine was imposed on the citizens, weighted more heavily towards those with a greater share of wealth (not necessarily a greater share of guilt).

Interestingly, the Chancellor also took a hundred hostages from the city of York, to assure the city's future good behavior and so that they might stand trial in the court of the king concerning the death of the Jews. It seems, however, that no trial ever took place, and one can only assume that the hostages were eventually released to return to their homes.

Just as during the People’s Crusade, the mob used a religious pretext for the attack and it is recorded that several members of the lower clergy participated in the riot. But despite this, the Church at large considered the murder and mayhem in York to be utterly reprehensible. Dobson mentions that Christian attitudes toward the Jews had shifted somewhat (the Third Lateran Council in 1179 had warned Christians not to associate with Jews), but at the same time, the teaching that the life and property of Jews were to be respected had in no way been rescinded by the Church.

Bernard of Clairvaux
Although one can undoubtedly find scattered incidents where persecution of medieval Jews was encouraged by Church leaders, on the whole, we see that the Church condemned these acts of violence. On the one hand we see demagogues urging frenzied mobs to avenge the Crucifixion of Christ; on the other hand we see bishops standing against the action, holding to these words spoken by Bernard of Clairvaux:
The Jews must not be persecuted, slaughtered, nor even driven out…. They are living signs to us, representing the Lord's passion…. [T]he...Psalm, says, "Scatter them by thy power; and bring them down, O Lord, our shield." So has it been. They have been dispersed, cast down. They undergo a hard captivity under Christian princes. Yet they shall be converted at even time, and remembrance of them shall be made in due season. Finally, when the multitude of the Gentiles shall have entered in, then, "all Israel shall be saved," saith the apostle.
Just as there was a "popular theology" in the Middle Ages which diverged from the Church's actual position on Jewish persecution, so nowadays there is a "popular history" of the Crusades which does not exactly accord with actual events. As a historical novelist, it can be tempting to oversimplify and paint a lurid picture of Christians indiscriminately killing Jews, egged on by greedy bishops and power-hungry popes. But an examination of the sources will show that Church leadership not only condemned attacks on the Jews but also, in cases like Bishop John of Speyer, exercised force to halt the violence.

The medieval bishop as hero? I can't remember the last time I've seen that in a novel. Maybe it's time for that story to be written....


Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

Rosanne's latest work is The Splintered Oak: A Short Story of the First Crusade which details the difficult choice Archbishop Rothard must make when a crowd of Crusaders come clamoring to kill the Jews in Mainz.



Bernard of Clairvaux. "Letter to Eastern France and Bavaria Promoting the Second Crusade, 1146." Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations. (Accessed July 7, 2014).

Dobson, Richard Barrie. The Jewish Communities of Medieval England: The Collected Essays of R.B. Dobson. Edited by Helen Birkett. York, UK: Borthwick Publications, 2010.

Eusebius. The Church History: A New Translation with Commentary. Edited and translated by Paul L. Maier. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999.

Hallam, Elizabeth, ed. Chronicles of the Crusades: Eye-Witness Accounts of the Wars between Christianity and Islam. New York: Salamander Books/Welcome Rain, 2000.

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