The Beginning of the First Crusade
26 Kislev 4855 (November 27, 1095) was a chilly day in Clermont-Ferrand, a small city in central France. A refreshing late-autumn breeze rushed through the streets, disrupting the crisp, unpolluted air. A long-dormant chain of volcanoes overlooked the bustling town. Beneath this veneer of cool tranquility lurked a boiling, churning pool of political and religious instability — a pool that had spread from the east and grown to encompass all of Europe. On this day, that pool would erupt, and the destructive flame of religious fervor would soon consume Europe — along with the lives of many of its Jews.
Eight months earlier, at a council in northern Italy, a group of ambassadors sent by Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus brought an urgent request to Pope Urban II. The Byzantine Empire, once an unstoppable force that controlled southern Italy, the Balkans, and Anatolia, had lost much of its territory in Turkey to the Seljuk Turks. Despite somewhat cold relations with the papacy following the East-West Schism in 1054, Alexius turned to Pope Urban II for assistance, emphasizing the suffering that Christians were enduring under Muslim rule.
On the fateful day in Kislev, as the Council of Clermont came to a close, Urban II made a speech that would change the course of history. Though no concurrent transcriptions of the speech still survive, it is apparent that Pope Urban II declared a crusade, or Christian holy war, to assist the Byzantine Empire with reclaiming lost land. A departure date was set — August 15, 1096. However, not everyone was willing to wait this long.
A few months later, in early 1096, energized by the Pope’s speech, one Catholic clergyman took it upon himself to raise an army. Peter the Hermit, a priest in the northern French city of Amiens, began making impassioned speeches in public. He, along with many other Christians, viewed Jews as an enemy — they believed that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. Peter’s call to arms spread like wildfire, reaching many people before the Pope’s declaration. Tens of thousands of peasants took up whatever weapons they could find, and they set off on the campaign known today as the People’s Crusade. For European Christians, the spring and summer of 1096 would be filled with pious fervor. For German Jews, they would be filled with blood.
During the Rhineland Massacres of 1096, also known as the Gezeirot Tatn”o (Edicts of 4856), German participants in the People’s Crusade committed an unprecedented series of mass murders of Jews. Led mainly by Count Emicho of Leiningen, who was inspired by Peter the Hermit, the crusaders attacked Jewish communities in city after city — despite Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV ordering the protection of Jewish communities.
After the crusaders murdered several Jews in Metz, John, Bishop of Speyer, granted shelter to Jewish residents. Even so, Emicho and his army of about 10,000 men killed twelve Jews who lived there.
In Worms, the situation was even worse. Although Adalbert, Bishop of Worms, sheltered the large Jewish community in his palace, a group of Emicho’s crusaders, assisted by local residents, broke into the palace. The Jews sheltered there were in the middle of davening Hallel for Rosh Chodesh Sivan. In total, nearly 1,000 Jews were massacred in Worms.
The bloodiest event took place in Mainz. Like in Speyer and Worms, Bishop Ruthard offered Jewish residents protection in his palace, and he even prevented Emicho from entering the city. When a large group of crusaders nevertheless managed to enter the city on May 27, they were met with fierce resistance. The Bishop’s militia, together with many members of the Christian business class, fought against the crusaders to protect the Jewish community. However, the crusader force kept growing, forcing Bishop Ruthard and his militia to flee the city. Some Christian residents joined with the crusaders, assisting in the slaughter of more than 1,100 defenseless Jews.
Today, many historians consider the events of 1096 to be the first pogroms. Many also view them as the first in a long sequence of antisemitic massacres in central Europe — a sequence ending with the Holocaust. Looking back on that quaint, late-autumn day in Kislev in central France, it is easy to forget about the bloodshed that would soon come. Pope Urban II’s speech on that otherwise mundane day serves as a haunting reminder that even seemingly minor events can have drastic consequences.