What Effects Did the Crusades Have on Jewish People in Europe During the Late Middle Ages?

Pope Urban II launched not only the first crusade but also religious zeal that led to anti-Semitism.
... Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images

The crusades were a series of military campaigns undertaken by European Christians with the goal of conquering Jerusalem, which was held by the Muslims. While Muslims were the primary targets of the crusading armies, the religious zeal inspired by the crusades led to the slaughter of many Jewish populations, not only during the first crusade, but also during the subsequent crusades of the Late Middle Ages.

1 Background

In 1095, Byzantine Emperor Alexios I sought the assistance of Pope Urban II and the various armies of Western Europe to fight the Seljuk Turks, who had conquered Nicea, a city only miles from Constantinople. Urban II not only called for a crusade to assist the Byzantines, but also to conquer the Holy Land from the Muslims. The religious zeal awakened by Urban's call led many people, both princes and commoners, on the road to Jerusalem.

2 Rhineland Pogroms

This religious zeal, however, manifested as anti-Semitism. While on the road to Jerusalem, crusader mobs attacked Jewish villages and massacred entire populations, mostly in the German Rhineland but also in France. Other crusader princes seemed less interested in killing Jewish people and more interested in ransoming them for money, suggesting a more financial motivation. Not all crusader princes massacred Jews, and some rulers, such as Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, attempted to prohibit such massacres.

3 Sack of Jerusalem

Jewish populations in the Holy Land suffered no less than those in Europe. Before the crusader conquest, Jewish people had been living peacefully under the Muslim-ruled Jerusalem, and while they may not have been accorded the same rights as Muslims, they were accepted as a community. However, when the crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, they massacred the Jewish population along with the Muslims.

4 Later Crusades

During subsequent crusades during the Late Middle Ages, Jewish populations continued to suffer. The Shepherd's Crusade of 1320 specifically targeted Jewish populations throughout France: a young shepherd in Normandy led a crusade to liberate Spain from the Muslims. As he led the crusaders across France, however, he focused his energy on massacring Jewish populations, who the crusaders saw as a similar blight to France's Christian identity. As with the first crusade, the religious zeal to kill Muslims was quickly transplanted onto European Jews.

5 Later Anti-Semitism

Historians argue that the trajectory of European anti-Semitism began with the pogroms and massacres of the crusades and the religious zeal they inspired. As Europe adopted a more Christian identity, Jewish people came increasingly to be seen as outsiders, a sad trajectory that would lead to events such as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 at the culmination of the country's reconquest from the Muslim Moors, and of course the Holocaust.

  • 1 The First Crusade: A New History; Thomas Asbridge
  • 2 Introduction to Medieval Europe: 300 - 1550; Willem Pieter Blockmans, Wim Blockmans, Peter C. M. Hoppenbrouwers

Aatif Rashid writes on international politics and culture. His articles have appeared in magazines such as "The Oxonian Globalist" and online at Future Foreign Policy and ThinkPolitic. He holds Bachelor's degrees in English and history from U.C. Berkeley and a Masters degree from the University of Oxford.