A terrible stain on the Crusades was the massacre of Jews around Europe.
The First Crusade saw motley bands of peasants, opportunists, criminals and the medieval equivalent of gangsters flock together and go on crusade in search of riches.
On the way to the Holy Land, they often targeted Jews in Europe treating them as if they were de facto Saracens – infidels in their midst.
Massacre of Jews in Mainz
A chronicler called Solomon bar Samson wrote of a massacre in 1096 in the German city of Mainz, which was clearly horrific even by the standards of the time. It was led by a noble called Emico who forced his way in to the city with armed men and sought out the Jewish population.
Terrified, the Jews of Mainz headed towards the Archbishop’s palace and took refuge, prepared to fight to the last against the thugs approaching them.
The bishop’s men, who had promised to help them, were the very first to flee, thus delivering the Jews into the hands of the enemy. They were indeed a poor support; even the bishop himself fled from his church for it was thought to kill him also because he had spoken good things of the Jews.
In spite of all their efforts, the Jews within the palace could not stop Emico breaking in and men, women and children faced up to the inevitable. They were going to die. They would either die at the hands of the crusader gang or at their own hand.
Then all of them, to a man, cried out with a loud voice: ‘Now we must delay no longer for the enemy are already upon us. Let us hasten and offer ourselves as a sacrifice to the Lord. Let him who has a knife examine it that it not be nicked, and let him come and slaughter us for the sanctification of the Only One, the Everlasting and then let him cut his own throat or plunge the knife into his own body.
As Emico and his men stormed the courtyard, the Jewish leader Isaac ben Moses stretched out his neck and one of the gang duly cut his head off.
The others, wrapped by their fringed praying shawls, sat by themselves in the courtyard, eager to do the will of their Creator. They did not care to flee into the chamber to save themselves for this temporal life, but out of love they received upon themselves the sentence of God. The enemy showered stones and arrows upon them, but they did not care to flee, and [Esther 9:5] with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter, and destruction the foe killed all of those whom they found there. When those in the chambers saw the deed of these righteous ones, how the enemy had already come upon them, they then cried out, all of them: There is nothing better than for us to offer our lives as a sacrifice.
Emico had arrived with 12,000 men and the Jews were hopelessly outnumbered and inadequately armed. The Jewish women killed their own sons and daughters and then themselves.
Many men, too, plucked up courage and killed their wives, their sons, their infants. The tender and delicate mother slaughtered the babe she had played with, all of them, men and women arose and slaughtered one another.
The tales of suicide and murder go on depressingly and unfortunately this kind of pogrom would be repeated several times over the next hundred years in northern Europe.