The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words (1000BCE–1492CE) by Simon Schama is published by Bodley Head.
In a gripping extract from his new book, Simon Schama relates the terrible events of 1096, one of the bloodiest chapters in the story of the Jews – and the moment that placed their religion firmly in the heart of catastrophe.
Such beautiful names, such terrible ends. Doulcea, the sweet one, cut to pieces on the streets of Worms in 1196, trying to summon help while her daughters Hannah and Bellette lay dying inside the house; Licoricia, tough as nails, twice-widowed, moneybags loaded, who survived three spells in the Tower of London, only to be murdered in her Winchester house along with her Christian maidservant in 1277; Zipporah of Worms, the bird caught in a suicide trap, in the spring of 1096, Crusader bands shouting for the blood of the Christ-killers, imploring her husband to kill her first so she might be spared the sight of her son slaughtered by his father’s knife; Sarit of Cologne, the comely bride, sliced up the middle, groin to throat, by her father-in-law Judah the Levite, her nuptials turned into a blood wedding; the women on the bridge, two from Cologne, two from Trier, watching their sisters dragged mercilessly to the baptismal font, resolving on a defiant counter-baptism, jumping to a drowning death in the dark waters of the Mosel; the nameless convert who had married Rabbi David Todros of Narbonne, pursued by her outraged family, finding sheltering obscurity in Monieux until a crusading gang killed Rabbi David, seized two of their children for captive conversions, leaving the widowed proselyte destitute with her infant boy.
And then there was Poulceline, whom everyone would hear about, fair Poulceline, close – very close, according to Ephraim of Bonn – to Thibaut, Count of Blois, seneschal of France, the king’s brother-in-law, none of which was any help when the Jews of Blois were being burned alive on a pyre in 1171, Poulceline included. What had she done? What had any of the beautiful names done? As usual, nothing except to be born Jews. What they were said to have done, though, was kill children, especially Christian children. No actual body was needed for the accusation to become credible.
No one in Blois ever found a body, nor was any child missing, but in May a serving man happened to be watering his horse by the Loire when he saw something small and pale slip from the grasp of a Jew beside the river. What that Jew had been holding was, in fact, a batch of untanned hides, but when one splashed into the water, the servant reported to his master, his horse shied and refused to drink, a sure sign that something foul had been committed to the river. A skin was a skin.
The incident was reported to Count Thibaut, who judged it serious enough for the man to be subjected to the water ordeal to test if his word was true or false. He survived; and the 30 or so Jews of Blois were arrested and imprisoned, shackled to each other and to the floor in the usual style of the time. Poulceline alone was spared the incarceration, much to the fury of Countess Alix, whose enemy she had become. But such was the power it was feared the Jewish woman might have over the count that Poulceline was prevented from speaking to him. Like so many women in the Ashkenazi world of northern Europe, Poulceline was a woman of substance, a money lender to poor and rich, Jew and Christian alike, and as such she had been useful enough to the count to enjoy his esteem and perhaps more. Every so often she remonstrated with him over the injustices inflicted on her co-religionists.
This may have made things worse, for whether it was her cash or her body or both that had recommended Poulceline to Thibaut, she had become a figure of intense unpopularity in the town. Before long she joined the rest of the Jews in prison and on May 26 died with them in the flames of the market square. Perhaps the tale of the child dumped in the Loire had been concocted just to bring Poulceline down.
Reported in letters sent by Jews in Orleans and Loches, the judicial massacre was sufficiently horrifying to embolden a deputation by the Jews of Paris to King Louis VII. A letter reporting the royal response announced the good news that the king had “benevolently inclined his heart towards us”. Surprisingly, Louis warned that if Thibaut had acted unjustly he would be punished.
“Now, you Jews of my land, you have no cause for alarm over what the persecutor has done in his domain. People levelled the same accusation at the Jews of Pontoise and Joinville and when the charges were brought before me they were found to be false… be assured, Jews in my land, I harbour no such suspicion. Even if a body were discovered in the city or in the countryside I should say nothing to the Jews in that regard.”
The hand-wringing came too late. Jewish Blois had been wiped out in a single day as the result of a baseless accusation, though by some miracle (probably involving money), the books and scrolls of the community were saved. It had taken little more than a horse allegedly refusing to drink river water for an entire community to be indicted as slayers of Christian children.
The popular paranoia about what Jews did to children, including their own, went back to antiquity. Medieval Christians may well have been familiar with the horrifying (rather than ghoulish) story, known from the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, of the Jewish mother who, during the Greek campaign to wipe out Judaism, sacrificed her seven sons to the sword rather than have them submit to pork-eating and other defilements. The story ends with the mother throwing herself from the ramparts to her own death.
By the late 12th century it was supposed, by those Christians who were ready to believe this kind of thing, that Jewish mothers and fathers were capable of killing their own children rather than see them brought to the light of the gospel truth. But the animus of horror was focused most intensely on murderous Jewish mothers who appeared in Christian lore as a demonic counterpart to the purity and maternal love of the Virgin. Both had made sacrifices of their sons, but while the loving parents of Christian theology, God the Father and Mary the vessel of the incarnation, had made their sacrifice as an act of compassion for the salvation of mankind, the Jewish mother, perhaps under diabolical influence, had killed her children in sin and incomprehensible butchery.
The Jewish version of those same events was precisely the opposite. By the time Crusaders came to inflict massacre, Jews would have had available the Hebrew version of Josephus, written in 10th-century Italy, in whose pages the mother of the seven sons appeared not as a heartless fanatic but as someone who had robbed tyrants of their victory; had asserted godliness over profanity. Likewise, the embrace of a distinctively Jewish martyrdom, even to the point of parents killing their children to avoid death at the hands of Gentiles, was presented as a victory over the Christian ideals of martyrdom which were everywhere in their culture at exactly this time.
We shall never know whether the three Hebrew chronicles that relate those stories (often in unbearably gory detail) record what actually happened in the Rhineland in 1096, because other than allusions to some of the events that show up in Christian narratives, there are no independent sources to verify them. Equally, however, there is nothing to say that in their core or even in their details they are not true histories. And what is indisputable is that the self-destruction of Jewish families to escape other kinds of demise – by baptism or massacre – is the way these early Jewish histories chose to remember the place their religion had in the heart of catastrophe.
In any event, there is no question that, in 1096, 75 years before the incident at Blois, something unimaginably terrible did indeed happen to Jewish mothers and their children, something that shadowed Jewish memory ever after. Not long after Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in November 1095 had called for a crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the unclean custody of the Saracens, it occurred to popular preachers in France and the Rhineland that this work of cleansing need not wait for Christian swords to reach Palestine. Were there not enemies of Christ dwelling in their very midst, in the cities and towns of the Rhineland – Speyer and Mainz, Worms and Cologne? When those who had taken the cross were about to spend blood and money on their holy cause, “why should we let them [the Jews] live and tolerate their dwelling among us? Let us use our swords against them first and then proceed on our way.”
The blood of the Saviour could be avenged as a sanguinary baptism at the start of the sacred war, and the ill-gotten gains of the Jews would be put to proper use. It was so very tidy. The miserable, impenitent, bloodsucking Jews would continue to pay for their crime by subsidising the armies that would deliver Jerusalem back to Christ.
This was ominous. The Jews of France and the Rhineland, like everywhere else in Christian Europe, had lived under St Augustine’s dispensation that they had been punished for killing the Saviour by the destruction of the Temple, their banishment from Jerusalem, and their scattering about the world. This was said to be a penance so severe that it was “a life worse than death”. And in such a miserable dispersion they were to be preserved as a people who, in their entirety, bore the mark of Cain, living witnesses to the contrasting triumph of Christian salvation. Hence the need, according to this view, of their preservation. Wiping them out would have the unfortunate effect of precluding the great conversion that had been set as the precondition for Christ’s Second Coming. In the late 11th century Pope Alexander II expressly reminded the flock that killing the Jews was tantamount to a blasphemous defiance of God’s own mercy. So while they were to be reminded constantly of the deplorable nature of their life outside of Christ, and prevented from defaming or defiling the works and memory of the Saviour, it was the responsibility of the Church and of obedient, godly princes to protect the Jews, not persecute, much less harm them, so that they might eventually be brought to the light.
Besides, they were economically useful. Since Christians were forbidden by canon law to lend money at interest, the Jews had become a major (though not exclusive) source of the hefty capital needed to maintain and enlarge the glories of Christendom. Notwithstanding the prohibitions, there were, in fact, Christian moneylenders – Cahorsins and Lombards – but their interest rates were more exorbitant than the Jews’. As medieval rulers became more expansively ambitious, laying down the marks of their power in abbeys, cathedrals, palaces and armies, so the need for ready cash became more urgent.
Hence the Jews were treated hospitably enough under the terms of a charter originally issued to them by the Frankish ruler, Louis the Pious, to encourage them to settle in his realms. They were allowed to travel freely, build synagogues, were exempt from certain taxes and tolls and granted the rights of self-government for their own communities. They were excluded from the professions (other than medicine, for Christians could no more do without Jewish doctors than Muslims) and the many occupations requiring membership of a trade guild. This seemed good enough when life in the Latin south, the Greek east and in the decreasingly tolerant Islamic world was becoming more difficult.
But before long it became apparent that Urban II’s crusading call unloosed passions that were out of the control of bishops and kings. The Latin chronicler Albert of Aachen wrote of those days in the early part of 1096 that “people burned with fire and the love of God… but along the way wild goings-on started and knew no limit… would-be Christians failed to keep their distance from deceitful men, sinners and criminals, and sinned disgracefully, speaking of a goose as though it had the spirit of God on it and they said the same of a goat. Then the spirit of cruelty came on them.”
Peasant armies led by violently menacing preachers and hitherto obscure counts, like Emicho of Flonheim, had every interest in plundering as they moved through the countryside, and the Jews were the plainest target. Why not kill them while they were at it? Whether they would get the opportunity depended crucially on how determined lay and clerical powers were to stop the unruly bands in their tracks for the sake of “their” Jews.
Typically, Jewish quarters and the synagogues at their centre were built close to a cathedral and the bishop’s palace, precisely with these frightening eventualities in mind. But a willingness to put themselves in the way of trouble varied from diocese to diocese. At Trier the well-intentioned Bishop Engilbert, despairing of persuading the Jews to convert and save themselves, also discovered that – as an odious Jew-lover – his own life was threatened; he beat a swift retreat, leaving the worst to happen. In Speyer, on the other hand, Bishop John and the leader of the community, Yekutiel ben Moses, took pre-emptive action, bringing all the Jews of the city inside a heavily fortified court of the episcopal palace – later shepherding them to an even safer stronghold outside the city. Those who threatened the Jews had hands chopped off.
In Worms, matters did not go so well. Even before Emicho’s exterminating army, complete with its sacred goose, appeared before its walls, Worms had been worked into a lather of hatred by rumours that Jews had boiled a Christian alive, buried him, given the remains a good stir and then dumped the slurry into the city wells to poison the population. Despite the sinister implications of this lunacy, not all Jews availed themselves of the opportunity to move into the bishop’s palace, and it’s not hard to understand their reluctance. They believed in the reliability of their protectors and they refused to believe their neighbours would turn murderous. For all their mutual suspicions, Jews and Christians who dealt with each other every day in a town like Worms did not live in a state of perpetual hatred. They walked the same streets, dressed mostly the same way (there were not yet the obligatory outward marks of difference on their costume), could understand each other’s language, shared the same habits. Let peasants and rabble foam and rave; the townsmen and women of Worms would not behave badly. But they would be disabused of their optimism.
Townsmen in some numbers did indeed join the haters and baiters, and those Jews who had stayed put were the first to be massacred. Even those who did take the opportunity of sheltering inside the bishop’s walls became victims of a siege as burghers, artisans and peasants joined forces with Emicho’s men. The memorial book of Worms’s martyrdom claims that 800 perished in two major attacks in May 1096, but the eventual figure of the murdered may have been closer to 1,000 – virtually the entire community.
It was in Mainz, one of the oldest and most flourishing centres of Judaism, that the greatest horror ensued. A threatened extermination was made the more credible as the horde of Crusaders had swollen into a real army, some 12,000 strong by the time they reached the city gates. The nervous Bishop Ruthard did what he could, bringing the terrified Jews into the sanctum of the cathedral and palace compound. As elsewhere, the abandoned Jewish quarter was plundered and set alight. For two days, the armed mob was held at bay, but in the end the force of numbers told. The gates were broken through and the soldiers of Christ swarmed into the palace grounds shrieking for Jewish blood.
Three Hebrew narratives – one compiled from disparate reports written close to the time, known as Anonymous of Mainz; another, the longest, the 12th-century account of Solomon bar Samson; a third, that of Rabbi Eleazar bar Nathan – all supply the unspeakable details of what followed. Faced with the choice between conversion and death, many of the Jews, though emphatically not all, chose the latter. Self-killing is expressly forbidden by the Torah, but the wars of the Maccabees, the collective suicide at Masada in the first century narrated in Josephus, and what had passed into memory as the exemplary martyrdoms of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Hananiah at the time of the persecutions of Hadrian, had generated a body of rabbinic literature debating whether death, self-slaughter in particular, was preferable to forced transgression.
Some of those opinions had insisted that forced transgression in private was acceptable, unless Jews were being coerced into acts of incest or murder. But if forced to commit iniquities in public, the acceptance of death was the holier option. Such deaths, moreover, were described as victories for God, indeed ordained by Him over the powers of evil and thus an act of glorification: kiddush hashem, the Sanctification of the Name, uttered in the last extremity. The reward (just as it was promised to Crusaders) was instant admission to Paradise for the slaughtered.
The deeds seem, however, no less horrific for being acts of desperation at the last extremity, and the narratives describe a terrible febrile enthusiasm in setting about the fatal work. The stately daughters of “Mistress Rachel” in Mainz sharpen the knives that will cut their own throats, to make sure there are no nicks or dullness of the edge, as if preparing for the slaughter of sacrificial animals, which is exactly what they become.
“The courageous women” hurl rocks and stones at the besiegers, who throw them back, cutting and bruising their faces and bodies. Mistress Rachel, who seems to act like a soul possessed, all maternal feelings suspended, becomes once more a distraught mother when a companion hands her a sharpened knife. At which point the chronicler says: “When she saw the knife she let out a great and bitter cry, smiting her face and crying. 'Where is your loving kindness Lord?’”
In one version Rachel is so given over to horror-stricken grief that the companion has to kill the girls. The mother then hardens herself, and kills Isaac, the younger of her two sons. At which point something remarkable happens in the story, and in startling contrast to Christian martyrological literature in which the blessed accept their fate with the same kind of holy resignation as Christ’s sacrifice. In one of the most unbearable scenes of all, the older of the two sons, Aaron, cries out in terror: “Mother, mother, do not butcher me,” and hides under a chest. But the mother’s fanatical purpose will not be deflected, as she tells him while tugging him out from his hiding place by one leg. After completing his death, Rachel seats herself, stretching out the long sleeves of her gown to form a basin that fills with the blood of her children. When the Crusaders burst in and find her they demand to see what “treasures” she has hidden under her sleeves. She shows them and they kill her. The last scene of the calamity unfolds when her husband arrives, witnesses the horror, and falls on his own sword, eviscerating himself then dying while sitting in the road with his entrails falling out of his body.
Whether the unspeakably gruesome details of these stories are true or not (and there is no prima facie reason to disbelieve them), the striking character of the Jewish martyrologies is the credible narration of actual human terror, resistance, revulsion and even tormented indecision at the heart of so many of them. It is what gives this terrible chapter of the Jewish story the stamp of truth – whether the truth of the mind or that of the actual body.
We will never know how many other Jews, most of them doubtless devout, who could not stomach the “Sanctification of the Name” either for themselves or those they loved, especially their children, accepted conversion instead. Some did so only after they were tortured and beaten within an inch of their death; others reverted, as soon as they could, sometimes even before the Crusaders had departed, and paid the price.
The enormity of what had been inflicted on the Jews in the spring of 1096 sobered some of the courts of Christian Europe. Most remarkably, the German emperor Henry IV issued an edict one year later, in 1097, allowing forcibly converted Jews to return to their faith. Henry IV’s son and successor, Henry V, maintained his father’s watchful benevolence and even eased some of the restraints on Jews as an encouragement to resettle in towns stained by mass murder. In France, as we have seen, Louis VII appears to have been a caustic critic of the more paranoid strains of Judeophobia. The result was that Jews did, indeed, return to Worms and Cologne and Rouen, resumed their old lives of trade and prayer, Torah and Talmud study and charity.
For some time now historians of medieval Jewish life have been at pains to insist on the uniqueness and exceptionalism of the horrors of 1096. In fact, the Crusaders marched through much of Europe leaving Jews unscathed; successive Crusades did not trigger massacres on the scale of that first annihilation. Life for the Jews was not all convulsion and expulsion.
Up to a point. The usual scholarly pendulum may have overswung. For every sobered-up Christian ruler there were successors who reverted to paranoid type. The response of Louis VII’s son, Philip Augustus, to news that a Christian had been executed for murdering a Jew in the town of Bray was to order the killing of the entire community.
So a chronic sense of insecurity on the part of Jews in the Ashkenazi world was not a figment of their imagination, not least because it was impossible to know how resolute both Church and state would be in containing the worst impulses of the Judeophobic mobs. Even when churchmen went out of their way to forbid and deplore violent assaults on the Jews, they made sure at the same time to refer to them as the most despicable of all races. And for their part, even though they knew that not every day would be a day of murder, what had happened in 1096, and what every so often continued to happen in this time of Christian excitement, entered the historical self-consciousness of Jews, and would not easily depart.
In Christian England, there was an old obsession that would have a long run: the conviction that Jews were in the habit of abducting Christian boys around the time of Easter and Passover, and subjecting them to the torture of a mock crucifixion – a devilish parody of the Passion. In 1144, the body of a 12-year-old apprentice skinner (hides and skins play a recurring part in these fantasies), one William, had been found in the woods of Mousehold Heath outside Norwich.
The Jews who had only come to the town a few years before were immediately suspected of the crime. One convert, Theobald, swore that William had been lured to his doom by a Jew and that his murder had been planned by a secret conclave of Jews from all over the country who would meet to enact the mock crucifixion with the unfortunate lad on the second day of Passover. An immense hue and cry broke out; the boy’s body was brought to Norwich Cathedral for solemn burial close to the high altar. Although the sheriff was appalled at the superstition, brought the Jews within the security of his castle, and resisted any attempts to bring them to trial, the tomb continued to be a site of veneration from which miracles were said to abound.
After that, a rash of boy-saints victimised by the Jews broke out. No self-respecting abbey or cathedral could be without its boy martyr. Winchester – which in 1190 unaccountably spared what the chronicler Richard of Devizes calls its “worms” or “vermin” – boasted no fewer than three child-murder accusations, in 1192, 1225 and 1232; and there was yet another in London in 1244 in which a child’s body, found in St Benet’s churchyard, was said to have had a mysterious Hebrew inscription cut into the flesh proving the boy had been abducted for sinister ritual purposes by the malevolent, murdering Jews. The corpse was carried by the canons of St Paul’s to their church and buried with all solemnities by the high altar where, as usual, it was said to have instantly begun delivering wonders and miracles.
The most serious of all took place 11 years later in Lincoln where a nine-year-old, Hugh, was discovered in a cesspool. The child had been missing for three weeks, but because of the well-established assumption that conventions of Jews were held each year, the wedding party of Belaset, daughter to one of the wealthiest Jews of Lincoln, to which guests from all over England had been invited, suddenly assumed sinister significance.
King Henry III just happened to be nearby, and demanded a guilty party. One was duly produced. After brutal torture, one of Lincoln’s Jews, Copin or Jopin, made a “confession”, was dragged over the cobblestone streets, tied to the tail of a horse and what was left of his shredded body was hanged at the gallows. But this was deemed to be a collective crime. Virtually all of Lincoln’s Jews were rounded up and taken to London for trial. Eighteen of them insisted that they should be judged by a mixed jury of Jews and Christians, a demand that was taken as a confession of guilt, and instead of being granted their due process they were summarily hanged. The remainder were imprisoned for a while and eventually released through the intervention of Richard, Duke of Cornwall, who, like the king, had many dealings with the Jews, but unlike him had some elementary sense of justice.
At Lincoln, “Little Hugh” was buried in a magnificent shrine in the cathedral that had been built mostly from Jewish money lent by the great magnate, Aaron of Lincoln. Canonised as a martyr, Hugh was venerated over the centuries and immortalised in stained glass and in The Canterbury Tales, where Geoffrey Chaucer recycled all the most disgusting infamies and libels in The Prioress’s Tale. It took 700 years for the myth to be explicitly repudiated by the Church of England and a statement of regret posted at the site of the tomb, including the commendably fraternal interfaith greeting: Shalom!