In 1096, many of Germany’s Jews were massacred by the minor knights and paupers gathering for “pilgrimage.” When we look back from the 21st century, the event doesn’t seem surprising because we know the end of the story. But that’s not the best way to read history; we have to look for the beginning of the story as well. A one-word answer, like “Anti-Semitism,” isn’t good enough to the question, “why?”
Cologne’s name came from Latin “Colonia.” Around the turn of the BC/AD timeline, Roman legions went up the Rhine River and established a fort among a friendly Germanic tribe, the Ubii. General Nero Claudius Germanicus and his wife had their first daughter, Agrippina, in the camp; she eventually became Emperor Claudius’ fourth wife, and in 50 AD he named her birthplace “Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis.” The new German territory attracted Jewish settlement, perhaps before the general Jewish diaspora in 70 AD, but certainly in the years after. Jews helped develop viticulture in the Rhine Valley.
By the time of the Frankish migration into Europe, the Jews of Cologne were well established in farming and trade. They were never viewed as immigrants. Why, then, did they suddenly face massacre? Six facts about 11th century Northern European society, combined together, seem to give us an answer:
1. Rise in Norman power; the Normans were against everything the Jews were best at: scholarship, diplomacy, finance and trade. Norman lords seemed to feel natural scorn for the humble, clever, internationally-connected Jewish merchants and were glad for an opportunity to show their scorn. As we’ve also seen, they were a very aggressive, militant culture even compared to their distant cousins, the Franks and Anglo-Saxons.
2. Association of Jews with the Holy Land, the Holy Land with Saracens, and the Saracens with destruction of churches. Word of mouth reports connected Jews to Caliph al-Hakim’s mad persecutions around 1009, then the tales had about 90 years to grow.
3. Illiterate theology was taught in sound-bites. In the popular version, the Jews killed Jesus. Although our literate culture can easily find the story segments and theological commentaries that balance and neutralize the simple “Jews killed Christ” version, their illiterate culture could not. Anti-Jewish theology had not been emphasized for a long time; but once people were blaming Jews for al-Hakim’s destruction, dormant anti-Jewish teaching came back.
4. The growth of towns, with more Jews located in the towns than in the countryside. In Colonia Claudia, Jews had been farmers; but in medieval Cologne/Koln, they were town-based traders. They had more cash on hand; some aristocrats legally robbed them by requiring loans. Certainly, lesser knights looked for chances to rob them too.
5. Europe’s level of violence was higher than it should be at this time; that’s part of why the Pope was encouraging them to go fight Turks. The knight-training apparatus had been operating since Charlemagne’s time; now many trained fighting men had no land. Some of them adopted bridges, charging tolls at spear-point. Some worked out “protection” rackets. Many flocked to civil wars among the aristocrats. They were unprincipled, violent men whose religion consisted of some ritual practice and a little superstition.
6. Millenialism makes people feel like the usual rules are suspended. We saw this in 1999 when sensible people appeared to believe that society was about to collapse. Same thing here—less concern about plausibility, probability, and long-term consequences.
Knights and paupers converging on Cologne attacked Jewish neighborhoods along the way, and some of them attacked more Jews as they headed for Hungary. Jewish homes and businesses were plundered by ragged mobs. Some of the devout paupers attempted to convert Jews in the process of pillaging their goods; some Jews committed suicide to escape. They came in disorganized waves, inspired by itinerant preachers, so some towns saw several groups of them pass through.
The organized Crusaders were less of a problem. Godfrey of Bouillon is said to have sworn to kill Jews (to “avenge” Christ) before setting out on his holy mission, but he did not impulsively attack without warning. A Jewish leader warned the Emperor, who forbade the attack; and the Jews of Mainz and Cologne paid 500 silver marks to persuade Godfrey to leave them alone.
We don’t know how many Jews died in northern France and Germany. At this time, paper was not readily available, so most people did not keep written records. The few written accounts tell of widespread killing and theft, suicide, and flight of refugees toward Poland. The Jews of Germany, previously the most secure Jewish community, never recovered from the trauma. Their Christian neighbors never again saw them as fully integrated. All crimes are more easily carried out a second time; the precedent is laid down.