The Jews and the Crusades: Thoughts on Susan Jacoby’s NYT column

Yesterday I was very interested to read Susan Jacoby’s column in The New York Times, “The First Victims of the First Crusade.” Interested, both because the massacres in the Rhineland cannot be left out of any discussion of the First Crusade, and because, with The Seven Myths of the Crusades (ed. Alfred Andrea and Andrew Holt) coming out in September, I have a personal interest in tracking my chapter’s theme in the national news. So, I was curious to see what kind of treatment the topic would get in one of our country’s leading newspapers.

On the whole, I thought it was technically well done.  The simple fact that these massacres took place, and must be discussed in any evaluation of crusading, comes across clearly. If one does not wish to get into the torturous arguments about the accuracy and chronology of the Hebrew chronicles, Albert of Aachen’s brief summary isn’t a bad source to use, and, as Jacoby in fact does, can be used for multiple purposes. I’m not sure where the figure of “100,000” comes from–we don’t have reliable figures for these armies, so far as I know, but most historians are agreed that, for a number of reasons, that kind of figure is way too high. It does give the impression of unstoppable hoards, however, so that may be the point, which leads to my next point.

However–yes, there is an “however,” and it’s important–the “punch line” argument essentially invalidates the rest of the piece. After giving a few lines on ISIL’s treatment of the non-Muslim in Mosul and asking if it sounds familiar (which it would to anyone who studies atrocities anywhere), Jacoby concludes:

Thomas Asbridge, director of the Center for the Study of Islam and the West at the University of London, commented in this newspaper that “we have to be very careful about judging behavior in medieval times by current standards.”

This issue is better judged from the other side of the looking glass. What we actually see today is a standard of medieval behavior upheld by modern fanatics who, like the crusaders, seek both religious and political power through violent means. They offer a ghastly and ghostly reminder of what the Western world might look like had there never been religious reformations, the Enlightenment and, above all, the separation of church and state.


So, religious reformations, the Enlightenment [sic], and separation of church and state saved us from violence, intolerance, massacre, persecution, oppression, genocide, mass exile, and “ethnic cleansing”? That’s what Susan Jacoby is saying–which should come as no surprise, given that her work is dedicated to the secular society. That’s fine, I have no issue with that. But as a reading of history, it’s utter nonsense, and betrays a different kind of arrogance from that against which President Obama was warning people last week. It is the arrogance that sees past generations as fundamentally inferior in thought, belief, and rationality, and that somehow has created a make-believe world where “enlightened” people don’t behave as “medieval” people did. That’s the whole point of Asbridge’s caution, that Jacoby rejects–you tend to follow your times’ standard of “enlightened” and “rational.”

And in my opinion, it is as dangerous as religious arrogance, and a good deal more pernicious, since it is harder to pin down and is a dangerous basis for policy decisions (I blogged about that a while back, when the blog was a quieter place.). Do we really need to go into all the injustices and atrocities visited upon the world in this glorious post-reformation, post-enlightenment world that Jacoby seems to think exists in the past? I’ll simply point out that Voltaire was notoriously anti-Semitic, and that Anti-Semitism was a creation of the modern world. Oh, and that the greatest atrocities in history were committed by regimes that were post-reformation and post-enlightenment, and that, in the case of the Nazis, may have co-opted religion, but were certainly not simply “offshoots” of religion. [See Katz’s The Holocaust in Historical Context, below, for starters. In exhaustive detail, he basically demolishes the idea that the Shoah was some amped-up version of medieval persecutions.]

The response to all this, however, is that of course modern people have exhibited medieval behaviors–that simply shows that the project of reason and enlightenment still has work to do. And that’s a very clever argument, but one that confuses the workings of rationality with reason, emotion, influence and power. Read Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men if you think that the modern world reflects Jacoby’s view. Of the many quotable bits in that volume, perhaps the “Afterward,” on  page 233, expresses my feelings best:

I fear that we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce “ordinary men” to become their “willing executioners.”

The point of Jacoby’s article isn’t the horrible persecutions of medieval Jewry–that is simply a cherry-picked example for a self-congratulatory, ahistorical plug for the imagined glories of a supposedly better world. Nostalgia in reverse, so to speak. Express horror at medieval atrocities–I’ll join you. But please, can we stop using the word “medieval” to promote this kind of ahistorical nonsense, and instead face up to the fact that human beings continued to inflict horrible atrocities on each other long after we supposedly became “enlightened.” What that means for the future, I’m not sure, but an abuse of the historical past isn’t going to help.

Recommended Reading:

Note: a) Particularly important works are in bold-face. b) Robert Chazan’s European Jewry also has an edition of the Hebrew Chronicles. c) The authority on the Hebrew chronicles is Eva Haverkamp, whose Hebräische Berichte is a masterpiece of detective work.

Benjamin of Tudela, The World of Benjamin of Tudela: A Medieval Mediterranean Travelogue, ed. and trans. Sandra Benjamin (London: Associated University Presses, 1995).

Shlomo Eidelberg, ed. and trans., The Jews and the Crusaders: The Hebrew Chronicles of the First and Second Crusades (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977).

Eva Haverkamp, Hebräische Berichte über die Judenverfolgungen während des Ersten Kreuzzugs (Hebrew Accounts of the Jewish Persecutions during the First Crusade) (Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 2005).

Robert Chazan, European Jewry and the First Crusade (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

Robert Chazan, “Frederick I, the Third Crusade, and the Jews,” Viator 8 (1977): 83-93.

Robert Chazan, God, Humanity, and History: The Hebrew First Crusade Narratives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

Robert Chazan, “‘Let Not a Residue or a Remnant Escape’: Millenarian Enthusiasm in the First Crusade,” Speculum 84 (2009): 289-313.

Robert Chazan, Reassessing Jewish Life in Medieval Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Jeremy Cohen, Sanctifying the Name of God: Jewish martyrs and Jewish Memories of the First Crusade (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

Rudolf Hiestand, “Juden und Christen in der Kreuzzugspropaganda und bei den Kreuzzugspredigern,” [Jews and Christians in Crusade Propaganda and Crusade Preaching], in Juden und Christen zur Zeit der Kreuzzüge (Jews and Christians at the Time of the Crusades), ed. Alfred Haverkamp (Sigmaringen: Jan Thorbecke, 1999).

Matthew Gabriele, “Against the Enemies of Christ: The Role of Count Emicho in the Anti-Jewish Violence of the First Crusade,” in Christian Attitudes Toward the Jews in the Middle Ages: A Casebook, ed. Michael Frassetto (New York: Routledge, 2007).

Leonard B. Glick, Abraham’s Heirs: Jews and Christians in Medieval Europe (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999).

Solomon Grazel, “The Papal Bull Sicut Judeis,” in Studies and Essays in Honor of Abraham A. Neuman, ed. Meir Ben-Horin et. al. (Leiden, 1962), 243-280, reprinted in Essential Papers on Judaism and Christianity in Conflict: From Late Antiquity to the Reformation, ed. Jeremy Cohen (New York: New York University Press, 1991), 231-259.

Eva Haverkamp, “Jews in Christian Europe: Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages,” in The Wiley-Blackwell History of Jews and Judaism, ed. Alan T. Levenson (London: Blackwell, 2012), 169-206.

Eva Haverkamp, “What Did the Christians Know? Latin Reports on the Persecution of Jews in 1096,”  Crusades 7 (2008): 59-86.

Steven T. Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, vol. 1 The Holocaust and Mass Death Before the Modern Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

Benjamin Z. Kedar, “Crusade Historians and the Massacres of 1096,” Jewish History  12 (1998): 11-31.

Conor Kostick, “Iuvenes and the First Crusade (1096-1099): Knights in Search of Glory?”  The Journal of Military History 73 (2009): 369-392.

Daniel J. Lasker, “The Impact of the Crusades on the Jewish-Christian Debate,” Jewish History 13 (1999).

Amnon Linder, ed. The Jews in the Legal Sources of the Early Middle Ages (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997).

David Malkiel, “Destruction or Conversion: Intention and Reaction, Crusaders and Jews, in 1096,”  Jewish History 15 (2001): 257-280.

Bernard McGinn, “Iter sancti Sepulchri: The Piety of the First Crusaders,” in The Walter Prescott Webb Memorial Lectures: Essays on Medieval Civilization, ed. Bede Karl Lackner and Kenneth Roy Philip (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978).

Gerd Mentgen, “Kreuzzugsmentalität bei antijüdischen Aktionen nach 1190,” (“Crusade Mentality in Anti-Jewish Actions after 1190”) in Juden und Christen zur Zeit der Kreuzzüge (Jews and Christians at the Time of the Crusades), ed. Alfred Haverkamp (Sigmaringen: Jan Thorbecke, 1999),  287-326

David Nirenberg, “The Rhineland Massacres of Jews in the First Crusades: Memories Medieval and Modern,” in Medieval Concepts of the Past: Ritual, Memory, Historiography, ed. Gerd Althoff, Johannes Fried, and Patrick J. Geary (Washington and Cambridge: German Historical Institute and Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Jay Rubenstein, Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for the Apocalypse (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

Michael Toch’s article “The Formation of a Diaspora: The Settlement of Jews in the Medieval German Reich,” originally published in  Aschkenas 7 (1997): 55-78, reprinted in Peasants and Jews in Medieval Germany: Studies in Cultural, Social, and Economic History (Aldershot: Ashgate/Variorum, 2003).

Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth, “The Medieval Origins of 20th Century Anti-Semitism in Germany,”

Monika Winiarczyk’s post, “The Fallen Woman: Shifting Perceptions of Synagoga,” on, October 28, 2012.

Israel Jacob Yuval, Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).


2 Replies to “The Jews and the Crusades: Thoughts on Susan Jacoby’s NYT column”

  1. Good point. I googled for comments about her piece, expecting to see attacks coming from apologists for the Crusades,but you hit on the one point of her piece that really irritated me –the fatuous and delusional secular self-congratulation at the end.

    You should try writing a letter to the editor, if you can squeeze your point into a paragaph or two.

  2. Great article! I read her NYT piece a few days ago, and I thought it was pretty questionable (especially when she simply left that “100,000” number entirely un-discussed). I am glad to have found your blog, and it seems to me that I’ve stumbled upon a very good one (you can thank Twitter page for that).

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