The Crusades

Crash Course in Jewish History Part 45: The Crusades  The Crusaders came to liberate the Holy Land from the “infidels” and woe to any Jews who stood in their way.

As long as the Byzantine (Eastern) Empire, with its seat in Constantinople, dominated the Christian Church, it maintained the balance of power between the bishop of Constantinople and the bishop of Rome. But when it began to crumble, Rome began to assert itself.

As we will see, the Crusades originated with Rome. However, before we can discuss the Crusades and how they impacted the Jews, we must first set the stage and go back in history.

Ever since the 4th century, the Western (Rome-based) Empire had been shrinking considerably, thanks to the Goths and Franks. It finally disappeared altogether in 476. The resulting vacuum in the economic, legal and administrative infrastructure led to a state of chaos. The Church, aligning itself with the Franks, stepped in to restore order.

Consciously modeling its bureaucratic framework on the model of the old, the Church created titles and administrative positions which people were used to. It’s not by accident that the pope (from the Latin papa or “father”) was called pontiff (from pontifex maximus or “chief priest”)—a title previously reserved for the Roman emperor.

Today we remember the period of time when the Church ruled Western Europe with an iron hand as the “Dark Ages,” although more charitable historians will call it the “Middle Ages.”


With its well-organized bureaucracy, the Church found itself assuming a position of paramount importance in the evolution of feudalism in European society.

Feudalism has its roots in all the warring that was going on in this period of time. To support the cavalry, the kings gave their soldiers estates of land farmed by dependent laborers. It was a huge pyramid with the majority of the population at the bottom, working as serfs or virtual slaves for somebody else.

Feudal serfs worked at backbreaking labor, dawn to dusk. They usually lived in absolute filth and squalor. It is impossible for us to imagine today the conditions and the deprivations of this time period.

The Church’s role in the feudal system was quite ironic. Not only didn’t the Church fight this injustice, the Church helped to create it, and profited handsomely from it.

The Church supported the inequality of the feudal system through its various dogmatic formulations, which strongly implied that God Himself wants things this way, that poverty has great spiritual value, and that the king is a divinely ordained human being whose authority cannot be questioned.

Why? Because the Church was “a major player” in the feudal game. Early in its history, the Church started to acquire land. At first, the Church took over the properties of pagan temples and temple priests. But it continued to expand it holdings, until it became by far the biggest landowner in Europe, collecting huge amounts of taxes from the hapless peasants.

Oxford scholar Henry Phelps-Brown in Egalitarianism and the Generation of Inequality (p. 33) suggests that the Church, while it embodied monotheism, had yet to rid itself of the old Hellenistic pagan tendencies:

“Thus Christianity itself, and the views on wealth and power that came down from it, did not challenge the inequality of the secular world. They rather upheld it ... In this way they followed the main drift of the pagan philosophies. The inequality of human capacity was obvious, the need for subordination inescapable.”

As the Church’s empire grew in size so did its need for more money to support it. While the Crusades were launched in part to curb the growth of the Islam Empire, a key motivation was to gain new lands and wealth for the growing population of Europe(1). They offered an outlet for the ambitions of land-hungry knights and noblemen.

The ostensible reason given at the time, however, was the reclamation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem from the Muslims and saving the Eastern Christian Empire of Byzantium from the Seljuk Turks. This church had been originally built on the site identified in the 4th century by Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine, as the site where Jesus was buried following his crucifixion.

(This church still stands today, after being rebuilt by the Crusaders; it is a focal point of Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem although Protestant Christian denominations contend that it is not the site of Jesus’ burial.)


To our Western minds, reared on the Hollywood version of so much history, the Crusades mean noble knights rescuing damsels in distress. Oy vey—is that ever a lie.

Now, it’s true that there were knights, and there were kings(2), and there was a chivalric ideal. And that King Richard the Lionhearted, a Crusade leader, (who was incidentally one of the worst kings England ever had) was definitely a macho warrior. But that’s pretty much where it ends.

The Crusades turned into campaigns of slaughter, rape, and pillage, and woe to the poor Jews in the way. Indeed, the Crusades mark the first large-scale European mob violence directed against Jews which is going to become, unfortunately, the pattern for the next hundreds of years. The later pogroms are just going to be a repeat of this idea.

The Jews were not the only—and in fact, not the primary—victims of the Crusaders. Muslims were. All the brutality directed toward them devastated the Arab peoples economically, pushed the Islamic world to be more reactionary and closed, and contributed to Arab hatred of the West.

(Why do Arabs paint the doors of their houses blue to this day? To ward off the evil eye. Why blue? One explanation is that it was the color of the blue-eyed northern Europeans that came to slay them.)

There were altogether ten Crusades covering a swath of time between the 11th through the 13th centuries:

  • The First Crusade, 1095-1099, saw the taking of Jerusalem from the Muslims, the slaughter of both the Muslim and Jewish populations of the city, and the establishment of the Crusader-run Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (which lasted only until 1187).
  • The Second Crusade, 1147-1149, was organized to help the Christians to recover lands which they lost to the Turks, but it ended in dismal failure.
  • The Third Crusade 1189-1192 was organized after Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt, recaptured Jerusalem. This is the Crusade in which King Richard the Lionhearted figured. It was a failure.
  • The Fourth Crusade, 1202-1204, saw the capture of Constantinople, which at the time was occupied by Greek-speaking Eastern Orthodox Christians, who did not recognize the authority of the Roman Pope.
  • The Children’s Crusade, 1212, sent thousands of children for the Holy Land, where they were captured by Muslims only to be sold as slaves or to die of hunger or disease.
  • The Fifth Crusade, 1217-21, was aimed at Egypt, but failed.
  • Four more Crusades mounted in the 13th century failed to reverse the Muslim gains. In 1291 the last Crusader stronghold at Acco fell.

That’s the picture in a nutshell. Now we can look in greater detail at the aspects of the Crusades which most impacted on the Jews.

(For anyone interested in knowing more about specific Crusades, the authoritative source is a book by H.E. Mayer, called The Crusades, published Oxford University Press.)


Pope Urban II mounted the first campaign, in part in response to a plea for help from Christians in Constantinople who were besieged by the Muslims. Its aim was to beat back the “infidels” (as Christians called their fellow monotheists) and to recapture the Holy Land. In his sermon the Pope declared:

“...A grave report has come has come from the lands of Jerusalem and from the city of Constantinople that a people from the kingdom of the Persians, a foreign race, a race absolutely alien to God…has invaded the land of those Christians [and] has reduced the people with sword, rapine and fire…

  Let those who in the past have been accustom to spread private war so vilely among the faithful advance against the infidels…Let those who were formally brigands now become soldiers of Christ; those who once waged war against their brothers…fight lawfully against barbarians; those who until now have been mercenaries for a few coins achieve eternal rewards.”(3)

To sweeten the pie, the Pope promised those that signed up that there would be plenty of booty, not to mention the spiritual benefit of having all your sins forgiven by God.

The Pope received an enthusiastic response. An armed force of 15,000—including 5,000 knights and the rest infantry—set off wearing a large red cross on their outer garments (hence their name Crusaders from the Latin word meaning “cross,” though they called themselves “pilgrims”).

A peasant force also joined in. As these peasants started marching through Europe (in advance of the knights and their army), they needed to eat, and eat they did by pillaging the countryside. As they were marching along they got the idea that they might as well get rid of the infidels in their midst—namely the Jews.

Here is one eyewitness account of an attack on the Jewry of Mainz in May of 1096. This comes from The First Crusade by August Krey, and it is a letter written by a Jew who survived:

“The Jews of the city, knowing of the slaughter of their brethren fled in hope of safety to the Bishop of Ruthard. They put an infinite treasure in his guard and trust having much faith in his protection. He placed the Jews in a very spacious hall in his own house that they might remain safe and sound in a very secure and strong place.

  “But ... the band held council, and after sunrise attacked the Jews in the hall with arrows and lances, breaking down the bolts in the doors. They killed the Jews, about 700 in number who in vain resisted the force of an attack of so many thousands. They killed the women also and with their sword pierced tender children whatever age and sex…”

This is how about 30%-50% of the Jewish community of Europe met its end. Some 10,000 Jews of an estimated population of about 20,000-30,000 were slaughtered by Crusaders mobs.


After conquering Antioch in Turkey, the Crusaders got to Jerusalem, many of their number gone due to the heavy fighting along the way.

At the gates of Jerusalem, fighting in the blistering sun heating up their heavy impregnable armor, many more of the knights died.

In Part 44, in our discussion of Rashi, we mentioned the French nobleman Godfrey du Bouillon. Godfrey—plus Raymond of Guilles, Raymond of Flanders, and Robert of Normandy—besieged the gates of Jerusalem which at that time had a significant population of Jews. Their forces breached the walls and poured into the city.

(Incidentally, the Crusader cry of “Hep! Hep!” originated at this time. It was an acronym for the Latin of “Jerusalem Has Fallen.” With time it became “Hip, Hip, Hooray!”—a cheer that Jews never use.)

What happened after the Crusaders entered the city?

We have one account from Ibn Al Kalanisi, the Moslem chronicler, describing hair-raising behavior of unnecessary brutality-Thousand of Muslim men, women and children were slaughtered. The poor Jews had all huddled together in a synagogue and this is where the Crusaders found them, set the place on fire, and burned them alive. One of the Crusaders, Raymond of Aguilers joyfully recounted:

“With the fall of Jerusalem and its towers one could see marvelous work. Some of the pagans were mercifully beheaded, others pierced by arrows plunged from towers, and yet others, tortured for a long time, were burned to death in searing flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet lay in the houses and streets, and men and knights were sunning to and fro over corpses.” (4)

The Crusaders, once they conquered Jerusalem, embarked on a vast building effort all over Israel. The ruins of the many fortresses and churches they built can be visited today. (Most of these were destroyed by the Muslims once they reclaimed their earlier holdings, in fear that the Crusaders would return.)

The Crusaders established special orders of military monks to look after this kingdom. Those that interest us in particular are the Knights Templars and the Knights Hospitalers.

The Knights Templars were stationed on the Temple Mount (hence their name). Interestingly, Knights Templars did not destroy the Dome of the Rock (though the Crusaders did destroy all the mosques that they did not turn into churches). Why? They thought it was the “Temple of Solomon,” and that the nearby Al Aksa mosque was the “Palace of Solomon.” (See Jerusalem: An Archeological Biography by Hershel Shanks, p. 238-239.)

So what did they do? They removed the crescent from the top of the Dome of the Rock, replaced it with a cross, and called the place Templum Domini, “Temple of God.” They turned the El Aksa mosque, as well as the vaulted space below the mosque, into a monastery. Consistent with their other errors, they called this space, which had been built by Herod—“Solomon’s Stables.”

(These so-called stables have been recently been renovated by the Muslim Wakf (Muslim religious authority) and transformed into another mosque amid enormous archeological devastation, which the government of Israel felt powerless to stop.)

The Knights Hospitalers were supposed to provide hospitality to the large numbers of Christian pilgrims who would come down and visit the Christian holy sites, and to care for the sick among them. (Thus we see the word for hospitality became synonymous with a place of care for the sick—hospice or hospital.)

The Knights Hospitalers built their main complex near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a logical place for it. Another complex—consisting of church, hospice and hospital—was built in what is today the heart of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City Jerusalem near the main staircase going down to the Western Wall. This ruin has been preserved and is a tourist attraction. Nearby Crusader buildings have been renovated and are in use as apartments, schools and shops. (See Jerusalem Architecture by David Kroyanker, p. 37-43.)

Needless to say, the Knights Hospitalers did not provide hospitality to Jews. In fact, they brought in Christian Arab tribes to help populate the city with Christians.

But Jews always yearned to be part of the holy city. One such Jew, who braved the Crusader occupation of the Holy Land, was none other than the famed poet and writer Judah HaLevi (whose work The Kuzari we discussed in Part 44).

Judah HaLevi managed to reach the city, but was trampled to death by a Christian Arab horseman just outside one of the city gates. As he lay dying, he is said to have recited one of his own poems: “Zion, shall I see you ... I shall cherish your stones and kiss them, and your earth will be sweeter than honey to my taste.” (See Martin Gilbert, Jerusalem: An Illustrated Atlas, p. 21.)


The reign of the Crusaders over the Holy Land was short lived. In less than one hundred years, in fact in 1187, the Crusaders are conquered by Sultan Saladin of Egypt (whose family, by-the-way was employing Maimonides as their physician as we saw in Part 44).

Sultan Saladin beat the Crusaders at what was one of the most important battles in the medieval history of the Middle East—at the Horns of Hattin, which is northwest of the Sea of Galilee. There Saladin very skillfully managed to lure the Crusaders out into the open. In the middle of the summer and burning heat, they found themselves vastly outmaneuvered and outnumbered, and this is how Saladin destroyed them.

Even though they lost Jerusalem, the Crusaders didn’t give up. They mounted campaign after campaign to recoup the Holy Land. They never did get Jerusalem back, (although the Moslems did grant them access to Christian holy sites there). Finally, in 1291, the last Crusader stronghold—in Acco (also known as Acre)—fell.(5)

Today we have amazing ruins from the Crusader period all over Israel. Some of the most massive and impressive are in Caesarea, Acco, Tiberias and in Belvoir (near the battle site of Hattin). If you should happen to visit any of these sites, keep in mind while admiring them, what the Crusaders did to the Jews.

1) It is a mistake to view contemporary Muslim hostility to the West as a by-product of the Crusades and Christian Europe’s invasion of the Middle East. It is important to remember that the Muslim world initiated the conflict with its invasion of Spain in 711, their attempt to conquer France in 732 (The Battle of Tours) and it’s numerous attempt to conquer Constantinople-These Islamic military campaigns drew their legitimacy from the Islamic concept of Jihad -the Islamic imperative to place the whole world under Moslem sovereignty make the whole world dhar al-Islam-The World of Islam (see Part 42 ). For a good overview of a history of the spread of Islam see: Efraim Karsh, Islamic Imperialism .(New Haven: Yale University Press), 2006
2) No European Kings participated in the First Crusade, but it did attract the cream of the nobility of Western Europe: France, Germany and Italy, most of whom were of Norman extraction.
3) From the contemporary accounts of Robert the Monk and Fulcher of Chartres as quoted in The First Crusade-A New History, by Thomas Asbridge, Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 33-36.
4)Thomas Asbridge, The First Crusade-A New History, (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 316.
5) It’s interesting to note that following the Crusades successive Muslim dynasties left much of the coastal plain of Israel (between Jaffa and Haifa) desolate out of a lingering fear that the Crusaders might one day return. This turned out to be a blessing for the early Zionist movement in the late 19th and 20th centuries as they were able to purchase large tracts of land and settle the coastal plain. Today this coastal paln contains cities such as Tel Aviv, Petach Tikva, Herzelia, Kfar Saba, Raanana, Netanya , Hadera, Pardes Hanna and Zikron Yaacov

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by  Ken Spiro
Posted in: Jewish History