The Crusades

The quest to recapture the Holy Land

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While the Crusades were a holy war against Muslims, the term “crusade” is also used more generally to mean a campaign against those who did not believe in the Christianity of the Church. While the following article outlines the origins and consequences of the Crusades to recapture the Holy Land for Christianity, it is important to recognize that the Church also conducted crusades against heretics, or groups of Christians that did not agree with official church doctrine.

 For example, in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III launched a crusade to destroy the Albigensians, a group judged heretical for their dualist theology. The crusade was “successful” after 50 years of bloodshed. The legacy of this crusade includes the Inquisition, a mobile tribunal that judged heretics based on information obtained through torture and secret testimony.  The Inquisition would play a central role in Jewish history when it was established in fifteenth century Spain as a means of dealing with the crypto-Jewish population there.Crusades

The Crusade for the Holy Land: The First Crusade of 1096

The origins of the Christian Crusade to liberate the Holy Land are found in the spread of a warrior Asiatic tribe. In 1071, the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert, thereby occupying all of Asia Minor, including Palestine. As stories of atrocities committed against Christian pilgrims filtered back to Europe, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus appealed for help against the Seljuks. Pope Urban II called for a crusade against the Muslims in 1095. The stated goal of this crusade was to recapture the Holy Land and ensure safety for Christian pilgrims visiting sacred sites. However, many of the crusaders saw it as the perfect opportunity to serve God and simultaneously make a fortune in looting and ransom. 

By 1096, a large army (25,000-30,000 men) was prepared for battle. They marched from southern France to Constantinople, where friction immediately arose between the Byzantines, who were unprepared for such an army, and the crusaders. In 1097, the crusaders left Constantinople and marched towards Jerusalem, which fell in 1099. The goal of the Crusade had been achieved. In celebration, the crusaders ruthlessly slaughtered all of the Muslim inhabitants of the city. The Jewish community in Palestine was forced to surrender to the new rulers, or face execution.

The Crusades Devastated the Jewish Rhineland

The events of 1096 temporarily stopped the intellectual and social activity of Ashkenazic Jewry. Urban II’s call for the Crusade did more than arouse interest in the armies that went to Jerusalem. Two other groups formed, both of which harmed the Jews: itinerant preachers and bands of German peasants. For the most part, the itinerant preachers were only interested in exploiting the Jews financially, demanding money for provisions. The peasant groups were much more dangerous. These bands coalesced around a charismatic leader and engaged in spontaneous violence against Jews. 

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Joshua Levy is a doctoral candidate in the department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, studying medieval Jewish history. His dissertation, "Sefer Milhamot Hashem, Chapter Eleven: The Earliest Jewish Critique of the New Testament," is an examination of medieval Jewish criticisms of the Gospel of Matthew.