A Youthful Venture


The Staronová Synagoga, Europe’s Oldest Active Synagogue. Josefov, Prague. Completed c. 1270

Whoever goes on the journey to free the Church of God in Jerusalem out of devotion alone, and not for the gaining of glory or money, can substitute the journey for all penance and sin.

Pope Urban II’s Privilege to the Pilgrims.

Describing the mass movement of people that took place during the First Crusade one chronicler stated pithily, ‘the Scot gives up his fleas, the Norge his raw fish …’ and given the fairly awful situation for the lower people of European society at the end of the eleventh century with corvée obligations to lords that tied families to unproductive land and the ravages of civil wars, perhaps migration to ‘anywhere but here’ might have been an attractive proposition.

Things would have seemed unlikely to improve, and indeed in 1120 Bernard of Clairvaux was still recording how serfs were inventoried along with other possessions such as villas and farms. France was also suffering at this time a spate of epidemics and bad harvests, whilst man-made cruelties came in the form of the ‘judiciary’, the seigneurs justiciers, who dealt out arbitrary baronial rulings over the peasantry but did nothing to control the anarchy wrought upon society by their vassal knights.


So, to paraphrase Hobbes, life was ‘poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ and added to this was the enticement of a tabula rasa as far as mortal sin went. A charismatic preacher such as Peter the Hermit, through promises that extended both to this world and the next, was soon enough able to gather a following so large that it has been conveniently titled ‘the People’s Crusade’. The moniker is, however, somewhat misleading. There was a considerable body of knights among the Hermit’s followers and though he may have led up to 15,000 people across Europe and down through the Balkans to Constantinople, there was surprisingly little trouble from his followers.

The religious fervour that led to pogroms and slaughter of the Jewish communities in Cologne seems in fact to have started among the local Christians of the city, but the bloodlust spread quickly and was certainly encouraged by other preachers and leaders of spontaneous Crusading armies. The followers of Count Emicho continued the murder of Jews in Mainz and Prague.


That the Jews were equated as enemies of Christ along with the Muslims seems evident, even Albert of Aachen who gives us a second motive for the Crusaders’ murders – simple greed – and who describes almost sympathetically how:

They killed the Jews, about seven hundred in number, who in vain resisted the force and attack of so many thousands. They killed the women, also and with their swords pierced tender children of whatever age and sex. The Jews, seeing that their Christian enemies were attacking them and their children, and that they were sparing no age, likewise fell upon one another, brother, children, wives, and sisters, and thus they perished at one another’s hands …

closes his account with the conclusion that though the massacre was wrong, the Jews had indeed stood against Christ. He also seems to find the murderous sins of the Crusaders of Emicho to be only as detestable as those of another group who followed as pilgrims a goose and a goat that had apparently been inspired by the Holy Spirit.

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