Jewry suffered a reversal of fate during the High Middle Ages that can only be compared to the destruction of Jerusalem 1,000 years before and the oppression by Nazis 1,000 years after. The turning point in the Middle Ages can be located in the pogroms carried out in May 1096 by gangs and mobs en route to the First Crusade. These events signaled that the stability that Jews enjoyed under Western Christendom during the first millennium was about to end.
There were telltale signs that things were about to change in the century before the First Crusade. Jews were accused of colluding with the Muslims to destroy the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, undertaken in fact by the mad Caliph Hakim in 1009.
For another thing, a pre-crusade campaign to cast out the Saracens from Spain in 1063 revealed that Jews did not take up the fight alongside of the Christian soldiers. In fact, Jews had prospered and integrated well under the Umayyads of Spain.
When Pope Urban II issued the summons to fight for the Holy Land, the first to respond in France and Germany were paupers and peasants who had been stirred up by monks and preachers. The church hierarchy did not effectively counter a populist piety that the killing of Jews expiated sins and atoned for the crucifixion of Christ. Mobs also felt that Jews were legitimate targets because they lived within Christendom and constituted an immediate threat, whereas the Muslims were far away.
The first pogroms broke out in Rouen in French Lorraine. Jews were forced into baptism or slaughtered. Though warnings were sent out from France to beware the onslaught of the mobs, the German Jews dismissed them and trusted in their fellow countrymen. When Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless led their forces there, their brutal intentions were quickly made known.
Though many bishops and priests tried to protect them, it is estimated that up to 10,000 Jews who lived in settlements around the Rhine and Danube Rivers perished. Cities affected included Treves, Meuss, Ratisbon, and Prague. The more disciplined crusader armies took anti-Semitism with them into the Holy Land when they finally arrived and burned Jews in their synagogues.
Later crusades did not witness the same degree of bloodshed against Jews in Europe. Nonetheless, the earlier massacres unleashed bitterness and tension between the two religious groups, especially evident among the intellectuals and hierarchy, for the next few centuries.
When the Second Crusade was proclaimed, Pope Eugenius III (1145–53) suggested that Jewish moneylenders cancel the debts of Christian crusaders. Influential abbot Peter of Cluny wrote Louis IX of France that European Jews finance the war effort. A French monk named Radulph traveled around Germany— without his monastery’s approval—preaching that the Jews were the enemies of God.
At the risk of his life, the saintly and respected Bernard of Clairvaux confronted and condemned Radulph but still urged that Jews not collect interest on crusaders’ debts. Since Jews could not count on the protection of the church, they were forced to accept a special legal status in the eyes of the civil government.
This new identity meant that Jews now were quarantined in ghettos, bound to wear badges or unique clothing, and even kept from reading the Talmud. By the end of the Middle Ages, western European Jewry was in ruins, and Jews fled eastward to Poland and Russia.