Jewish History Blog

The Nightmare of the Knights

The crusaders murdered 25,000 Jews from the great Jewish communities of Speyers, Worms and Mainz on their way to liberate the Holy Land.

Generally, the population in Europe during the Middle Ages was divided into castes, or as it was called inFrance, “estates.” The first estate was knighthood, the noblemen. The second estate was the clergy. The third estate was the commoners, and then there were the peasants or serfs who were not even an estate.

The knights were trained for war. Therefore, they could not exist in a time of peace. They were completely non-productive unless they were fighting. Consequently,Europewas in a constant state of war. These wars had nothing to do with the public good, logic or even money. The phenomenon of ever-warring knights had become an industry with a life of its own. Besides needing war, every knight needed horses, servants, pages, squires… and had to throw a banquet virtually every night. It was its own self-perpetuating industry.

The constant wars sunkEuropeinto the throes of virtual chaos. Bands of knights roamed the European countryside. They were nothing more than gangsters traveling from town to town. If the town had money, it bought off the knights, hoping they would take the money and leave. If they tried to defend themselves and lost the ensuing carnage was unspeakable in its brutality. The men were killed, the women were raped, the children were sold into slavery and all the plunder that could be taken was taken.

This was everyday life in medievalFrance.

That is one of the reasons that a Crusade was such a good idea. The Pope wanted to get the knights out ofEurope. It was essential to move them away somewhere. Anywhere. The Crusades was a perfect answer. It solved so many needs in one shot.

Even as the crusaders headed out they thought to themselves that if they were going on a religious crusade against the non-believers why wait untilTurkey orPalestine? There were non-believers in their midst: the Jews, who killed Jesus, and who refused to adopt Christianity and whose beliefs.

The French knights despoiled the great Jewish communities of Speyers,WormsandMainz. Those communities were destroyed between Passover and Shavous of 1096. Thousands of Jews were killed and other thousands were forcibly converted.

All told, there were perhaps 25,000 Jews killed. In our time, it may not seem like a lot.Auschwitz, at its height, could do that in two or three days. But you need to remember that everyone had to be killed by hand in the Middle Ages. After a while one’s arm gets tired. There is a physical limit to how many people one can kill, unlike the modern world. We have unlimited possibilities because of technology.

The First Crusade was the major watershed of Jewish history in the medieval world. It changed all of Jewish life inEurope. It changed the attitude of Christians towards Jews and Jews toward Christians… and even Jews towards Jews.

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Posted in:
Medieval Jewish History
by
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • August 7, 2011

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