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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part One   Leave a comment

Part One – ‘The Holy Youth’ of Niklashausen, the Bundschuh and the growth of German Nationalism to 1517:

Below: Europe in 1466: The Age of the New Monarchies

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During the second half of the fifteenth century, Central and Eastern Europe experienced a time of particular turmoil, with the ever-present threat of Ottoman forces diverting much-needed resources to the defence of Christendom.  Setbacks experienced by the advancing Ottomans, such as their failure to overcome Albania, defended resolutely by George Castriota (Skandenberg) from 1443 to 1468, meant that it was more difficult for them to tolerate the independence of Byzantine territory to their rear. In 1453, Mehmet II finally captured Constantinople, causing great consternation in the West. His army laid siege to Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár) in 1456, but the siege was raised by the brilliant Hungarian commander (and regent), János Hunyádi (below). By 1460, the remaining Byzantine strongholds in the Morea had fallen with the capture of Trebizond on the Black Sea in 1461, the last remnant of Byzantium was finally extinguished. In 1457, the Bohemians elected the Hussite George Podebrady as their king. Pope Paul II preached a crusade against him, which led to an unsuccessful Hungarian invasion in 1468.

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The prestige of the Holy Roman Emperor sank particularly low, The dignity and authority of the imperial office continued to dwindle as Germany continued to disintegrate into a jumble of principalities. Frederick III had, at first, largely because of his name, been the focus of the wildest millennial expectations; but in the course of a reign which lasted from 1452 to 1493, he proved a singularly ineffective monarch. His deposition was prevented only by the lack of any suitable rival and latterly his very existence was almost forgotten by his subjects. The vacuum at the centre of the state produced a chronic and widespread anxiety, which found its expression in the folklore of the future Frederick but which could also vent itself in sudden waves of eschatological enthusiasm. Amongst its commonest manifestations were mass pilgrimages, reminiscent of the popular crusades and the flagellant processions of earlier times, and no less liable to escape from ecclesiastical control.

The situation was particularly explosive in the territories of the Prince-Bishop of Würzberg. During the early part of the fifteenth century, the bishops had been wildly extravagant and were unable to pay their debts except by levying even heavier taxes. By 1474 the taxes had become so burdensome that one of the Bishop’s officials, comparing the local peasantry to a team of horses drawing a heavy wagon, remarked that if a single egg were added to that wagon, the horses would no longer be able to pull it. To a laity which had learnt from generations of heterodox preachers that the clergy ought to live in total poverty, this heavy burden of taxation was bound to appear particularly monstrous. In the city and diocese of Würzberg, it was no longer acceptable for the bishop, whatever his personal qualities, to be regarded by the laity and especially by the poor as an exploiter.

In 1476, the small of Niklashausen in the Tauber valley, not far from Würzberg, was the backdrop for a movement which could almost be seen as a new People’s Crusade. Much that had occurred during the earlier crusades in France, the Low Countries and the Rhine valley was now repeated in southern Germany, but this time messianic Kingdom was no Heavenly Jerusalem but the State of Nature, as it had been pictured by John Ball in England and the Táborites in Bohemia. The Messiah was a young man called Hans Böhm, a name which suggests that he was either of Bohemian descent or else that in the popular mind he was associated with Hussite teachings. He was a shepherd and, in his spare time, a popular entertainer, drumming and piping in hostelries and in the market-place. Hence the nickname, by which he is still known, of the Drummer (or Piper) of Niklashausen. He had heard the tale of an Italian Franciscan, Giovanni di Capistrano, from a generation earlier, who had through Germany preaching repentance, urging his audience to put away their fine clothes and to burn all dice and playing cards. Shortly afterwards, in the middle of Lent, the shepherd burnt his drum before the parish church of Niklashausen and began to preach to the people.

Exactly like the shepherd lad who is said to have launched the Shepherds’ Crusade of 1320, Böhm declared that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him surrounded by a heavenly radiance and had given him a message of prodigious importance. In the parish church of Niklashausen there stood a statue of the Virgin to which miraculous powers were attributed, long attracting pilgrims. Now, he claimed, this spot had become the salvation of the world. God had intended to punish mankind, but the Virgin had interceded and God had agreed to withhold punishment if people came to Niklashausen in their multitudes, otherwise, the punishment would, after all, descend upon the world. From the village alone, the Virgin would bestow her blessings upon all lands, since divine grace was to be found in the Tauber valley alone. Whoever made the pilgrimage would be absolved of all their sins and whoever died there would not suffer purgatory, but go straight to heaven.

This former shepherd was a simple man, but now he was suddenly able to command astonishing eloquence. On Sundays and feast days crowds streamed to hear him. At first, he merely preached repentance: women were to throw away their gold and jewellery, men were to wear less colourful costumes. Before long, however, the shepherd was claiming miraculous powers for himself. That God had not sent a frost to kill off all corn and vines was due to his prayers alone, he proclaimed. He also swore that he could lead any soul out of hell with his own hand.

Although Böhm had begun to preach with the consent of the parish priest, it was to be expected that he would eventually turn against the clergy. He voiced the traditional accusations of ‘Avarice’ and ‘Luxury’. It would be easier, he asserted, to make a Christian out of a Jew than out of a priest. God had been outraged by the behaviour of the clergy; now he would tolerate it no longer. The day of reckoning was at hand when the clergy would be happy to cover up their tonsures to escape from their pursuers, for to kill a cleric would then be seen as a most meritorious act. God had withdrawn his strength from them, and there would soon be no priests or monks left on earth. If they burnt him as a heretic, he threatened, a fearful punishment awaited them. He also called upon the people to stop paying taxes and tithes. Priests should be made to give up their many benefices and live from meal to meal on what their parishioners chose to give them. The celebrated Abbot of Sponheim commented:

What would the laymen like better than to see clergy and priesthood robbed of all their privileges and rights, their tithes and revenues? For the common people is by nature hungry for novelties and ever eager to shake off its master’s yoke.

The Primate of Germany, the Archbishop of Mainz, also saw in the propheta of Niklashausen a force which might inflict irreparable damage on the Church. In the end, Böhm also revealed himself as a social revolutionary, proclaiming the imminence of the egalitarian Millennium based on Natural Law.  In the coming Kingdom, the use of wood, water and pasturage, the right to fish and hunt would be freely enjoyed by all, as they had been in ‘olden times’. Tributes of all kinds would be abolished forever. No rent or services would be owed to any lord, no taxes or duties to any prince. Distinctions of rank and status would cease to exist and nobody would have authority over anybody else. All would live together as brothers, everyone enjoying the same liberties and doing the same amount of work as everyone else, from the poorest peasant to local lords and princes to the Emperor:

Princes, ecclesiastical and secular alike, and counts and knights should only possess as much as common folk, then everyone would have enough. The time will have to come when princes and lords will work for their daily bread… The Emperor is a scoundrel and the Pope is useless. It is the Emperor who gives the princes and counts and knights the right to levy taxes on the common people. Alas, poor devils that you are!

The demand for the overthrow of all rulers, great and small, probably appealed particularly to the urban poor; we know that townsfolk came to Niklashausen from all over southern and central Germany. On the other hand in demanding that all basic resources and activities should be free for all men, Böhm’s teaching was appealing to the peasants. The German peasants believed that these rights had, in fact, been theirs in ‘olden time’, until usurped by the nobility; this was one of the wrongs that they were always expecting the future ‘Emperor Frederick’ to undo. But above all it was the prestige of the preacher himself, a miraculous being sent by God, which drew tens of thousands to the Tauber Valley. The common people, peasants and artisans alike, saw in him a supernatural protector and leader, a saviour who could bestow on them the fulness of divine grace and who would lead them collectively into an earthly Paradise.

News of the wonderful happenings at Niklashausen passed rapidly from village to village in the neighbourhood and was carried further afield by messengers who went out in all directions. Soon vast hordes of the common folk of all ages and both sexes, including whole families, were streaming towards Niklashausen. Not only the surrounding country but all parts of southern and central Germany were in commotion, from the Alps to the Rhineland and on to Thuringia. Artisans deserted their workshops and peasants their fields, shepherds and shepherdesses abandoned their flocks and hastened to hear and adore him who was now known as ‘the Holy Youth’. What the plebs pauperum had believed of Jerusalem these people believed of Nikashausen. There Paradise had literally descended upon the earth and infinite riches were lying ready to be gathered by the faithful, who would share them out amongst themselves in brotherly love. The hordes advanced in long columns, bearing banners and singing songs of their own composition. One became particularly popular:

To God in Heaven we complain

Kyrie eleison

That the priests cannot be slain

Kyrie eleison.  

As the pilgrims arrived at Niklashausen they placed offerings before the statue of the Virgin, but an even more intense devotion was given to the propheta himself. They dropped to their knees before him, crying, O Man of God, sent from Heaven, take pity on us! It was reported that by laying-on of hands, he had cured people who had been blind or dumb from birth, that he had raised the dead and that he had made a spring gush from a rock. Chroniclers talk of as many as seventy thousand gathered together on a single day, and though this figure is absurd, the assemblies must have been very sizeable. A vast camp grew up around the little village; tents were set up in which tradesmen, artisans and cooks catered for the travellers’ needs. From time to time, Böhm would mount a tub, or appear at an upper window, to preach his revolutionary doctrine to the crowds (see the woodcut below).

The pilgrimages began towards the end of March 1474 and by June the authorities, both ecclesiastical and secular, had decided that Böhm’s propaganda was a serious menace to the social order which must be dealt with. The Town Council of Nuremberg forbade their citizens from going on pilgrimage to Niklashausen and Würzberg soon followed suit. Perturbed at the number of strangers who were pouring through the town, the Council closed as many of its gates as possible, bade its citizens to arm themselves and did what it could to put a stop to wild talk. In the end, the Prince-Bishop set about breaking the power of the propheta. He summoned a Diet at which it was decided that Böhm should be arrested.

According to his enemies, Böhm now tried to organise a revolt, telling his audience in a sermon on 7 July to come armed, without women or children, on the next Sunday. On the night before, a squad of horsemen sent by the Bishop descended on Niklashausen, seizing Böhm and carrying him off to Würzburg. The next day thousands of the assembled pilgrims marched, with only a few weapons but many giant candles taken from the shrine, to the castle at Würzburg where Böhm was imprisoned, arriving at dawn beneath the castle walls. The Bishop and the Town Council sent an emissary to reason with the pilgrims, but he was driven off with stones. A second emissary was more successful in persuading those pilgrims who were subjects of the Bishop to return to their homes. The rest stood firm, insisting on the release of the Holy Youth. A few cannon-shots were fired over their heads, but when no-one was hurt, the pilgrims were convinced that the Virgin was protecting them. As a result, they then tried to storm the town. This time the shots were directed at them and were followed by a cavalry-charge in which some forty of them were killed, the rest fleeing in panic.

Support for Böhm was so strong that even after this overwhelming victory the Bishop and Town Council could not feel secure. The burghers of Würzburg were warned to expect a second and more formidable attack. It was also feared that there were many within the city who might join forces with the pilgrims. The Bishop sent out a request to the neighbouring lords to hold themselves ready to come to his assistance if needed. Before any fresh disturbances could occur, however, Böhm had been tried by an ecclesiastical court and found guilty of heresy and sorcery. Two of his peasant disciples were beheaded and the Holy Youth himself was burnt at the stake, the common people hoping in vain for a miracle from Heaven which would save him. His ashes were thrown into the river so they could not become relics.

Everything possible was done to eradicate all trace of Böhm and his works. The offerings left at the church of Niklashausen were confiscated and shared between the Archbishop of Mainz, the Bishop of Würzburg and the count in whose territory the church stood. In all the affected areas of Germany, bishops, princes and town councils joined in forbidding any further pilgrimages to the village shrine. Nevertheless, pilgrims continued to arrive even after they were threatened with excommunication and the church had been closed and placed under an interdict. In the end, at the beginning of 1477, the church was demolished by order of the Archbishop.

Undoubtedly, the Holy Youth of Niklashausen had been exploited by men far shrewder than he was. Certain local lords made use of the popular excitement to weaken their overlord, the Bishop of Würzburg, with whom they had been in conflict for some years. These men headed the nocturnal march on the city; one of them had later, by way of penance, to hand over much of his land to the cathedral chapter. Like many previous propheta, Böhm was a simple shepherd-boy; we are told that from earliest youth he had appeared as half-witted, that until he began to preach he had never been able to form a coherent sentence, and that he was even unable to repeat the Lord’s Prayer. He was able to throw vast areas of Germany into commotion due to the backing he received. The parish priest of Niklashausen was quick to realise that a few miracles could attract huge offerings to his hitherto obscure shrine; he later admitted inventing miracles and attributing them to Böhm. The major part, however, was played by a hermit who had for some time been living in a nearby cave and who had acquired a great reputation for holiness. He seems to exercised a total domination over Böhm, both intimidating him and inspiring him. When Böhm addressed the crowds from a window the hermit stood behind him and prompted him, as he is shown to be doing in the woodcut from Schedel’s Chronicle below:

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Even if this part of the popular narrative is fanciful propaganda, it probably indicates the true relationship between the two men. The hermit fled when the Holy Youth was arrested, but was caught soon afterwards. The ecclesiastical records name him as Beghard, a native of Bohemia and a Hussite. Although the evidence cannot be called conclusive, it seems reasonably certain that it was the hermit who turned a religious pilgrimage into a revolutionary movement. In the quiet and picturesque Tauber Valley, he must have seen the future centre of a millennial kingdom in which the primal egalitarian order was to be restored.

Egalitarian millenarianism had now effectively penetrated Germany. The forgotten manuscript, the Reformation of Sigismund, after existing for some forty years, appeared for the first time as a printed book within a couple of years of Böhm’s burning and was reprinted in 1480, 1484, 1490 and 1494. The original manuscript was written just after the collapse of Táborite power in Bohemia and was an example of the attraction of the movement’s ideals. Despite its relatively moderate programme, which I have written about in earlier posts on this site, it too summoned the poor to take up the sword and enforce their rights under the leadership of the priest-king Frederick. In a far more violent form, the same theme reappears in the Book of a Hundred Chapters which was produced by an anonymous publicist who lived in Upper Alsace or the Breisgau and who is generally known as the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine. This elderly fanatic was thoroughly familiar with the enormous mass of medieval apocalyptic literature and drew freely upon it in order to write his treatise, in German in the opening years of the sixteenth century, the last and most comprehensive expression of the popular eschatology of the Middle Ages.

What that strange prophet foretells at enormous length is, after all, precisely what had been so simply articulated by John Ball, the Lollards and the Táborites. After one bloody struggle against the hosts of Antichrist perfect justice would be re-established on earth and all men would be equals and brothers, perhaps even holding all things in common. These fantasies were not confined to books; also in the neighbourhood of the Upper Rhine there appeared conspiratorial movements which were dedicated to translating them into reality. These were the movements which were known collectively as the Bundschuh, a term meaning a peasant’s clog and having the same significance as the term sansculotte during the French Revolution.

In one respect this ‘revolutionary’ was truly original – nobody before him had combined devotion to the principal of communal or public ownership with megalomaniac nationalism. This man was convinced that in the remote past the Germans had in reality ‘lived together like brothers on earth’, holding all things in common. The destruction of that happy order had been the work first of the Romans and then of the Church of Rome, through the imposition of a Canon Law which had introduced the idea of private property and thereby undermined the value of fraternity, opening the way to envy and hate.

Behind this curious interpretation of early Church history, lay a whole different and distorted philosophy of history. The Old Testament was dismissed as valueless; for from the time of the Creation onwards it was not the Jews but the Germans who were the Chosen People. Adam and all his descendants down to Japhet, including all the Patriarchs, were German-speaking Germans; other languages, including Hebrew, came into existence only at the Tower of Babel. It was Japhet and his kin who first came to Europe, bringing their language with them. They had chosen to settle in Alsace, the heart of Europe, and the capital of the Empire which they founded was at Trier. This ancient German Empire was so vast, covering the whole of Europe, that Alexander the Great could be claimed as a German national hero. It had been the most perfect of empires, a true earthly paradise, for it was governed according to a legal code, known as the Statutes of Trier, in which the principles of fraternity, equality and communal ownership were enshrined. It was in these Statutes, and not in the ‘Decalogue’ invented by Moses, that God had expressed his commandments to mankind. The Revolutionary appended a copy of these to his work.

The time was at hand, he claimed, when the power of evil epitomised by the Latin peoples and their Church was to be broken forever. When the great leader from the Black Forest seized power as Emperor Frederick he would not only cleanse Germany from the Latin corruption and bring back the ‘Golden Age’ based on the Statutes of Trier but would also restore Germany to the position of supremacy which God intended for her. ‘Daniel’s Dream’, that old apocalypse which had brought such inspiration to the Jews during the Maccabean revolt, was subjected by the ‘Revolutionary’ to yet another reinterpretation. The four successive Empires – Assyria, Babylon, Syria and Greece – now turned into France, England, Spain and Italy. Enraged by the overwhelming pride of these nations the Emperor would conquer them all and establish the German Empire as the fifth and greatest Empire, which shall not pass away. Next, returning from his western campaigns, the Emperor would utterly defeat the Turks. Pressing east at the head of a vast army drawn from many peoples he would carry out the task traditionally assigned to the Last Emperor. The Holy Land would be conquered for Christendom and the society of Mohammedans would be utterly overthrown. The infidel will be baptised and those that will not accept baptism are no Christians nor people of the Holy Scriptures, so they are to be killed, then they will be baptised in their blood. After all this the Emperor will reign supreme over the whole world, receiving homage and tribute from thirty-two kings.

According to ‘the Revolutionary’, the teachings of the historical Christ were directed only to the Jews, not the Germans, for whom the proper religion was still that which had prevailed in ‘the Golden Age’ of Trier and which Emperor Frederick would reinstate. When that happened the spiritual centre of the world would not be Rome but Mainz, where a patriarch would preside in place of the vanquished pope. But it would be the Emperor – ‘the Revolutionary’ himself, triumphant and glorified, who would stand at the centre of the future religion as the ‘supreme priest’, recognised as ‘an earthly God’.  The future Empire was thus to be no less than a quasi-religious community or theocracy, united in adoration and dread of a messiah who would be the embodiment of the German spirit. This was what ‘the Revolutionary’ had in mind when he cried, jubilantly, that the Germans once held the whole world in their hands and will do so again, and with more power than ever.

In this fantasy, the crude nationalism of a half-educated intellectual erupted into the tradition of popular eschatology. The result was uncannily similar to the quasi-religious folk fantasies which were the core of the National-Socialist ‘ideology’ of interwar Germany five centuries later. We only have to turn back to the tracts produced by Rosenberg and Darré, among others, to be struck by the resemblance. There is the same belief in a primitive German culture in which the divine will was once revealed and was the source of all good down the centuries until it was undermined by a conspiracy of capitalists, inferior non-German people and the Church of Rome. This ‘true German’ culture would now be restored by a new aristocracy, of humble but ‘truly German’ stock, under a God-sent saviour who is it once an emperor and a messiah. The whole history of the Third Reich is foreshadowed, the offensives in the West and the East, the Terror wielded as an instrument of policy and for its own sake, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of non-German peoples and the biggest massacres in human history. All that is missing is the final consummation of the world-empire, the welt-Reich, which, in Adolf Hitler’s words, was to last a thousand years, like the earthly kingdom of the returning Messiah in the earlier Judao-Christian prophecies.

The Book of a Hundred Chapters was not printed at the time, nor has it ever been, in contrast to the Reformation of Sigismund, and there is nothing to suggest that the anonymous ‘Revolutionary’ played any significant part in the social movements of his day. The importance of the text lies in its recognisable influences in the apocalyptic literature of the Middle Ages. In particular, there can be little doubt that the prophecy of a future Frederick, a ‘Sleeping Emperor’ who would be the messiah of the poor, continued to fascinate and excite the common people of Germany, peasants and artisans alike, until well into the sixteenth century. In one emperor after another, from Sigismund to Charles V, the people contrived to see a reincarnation of Frederick II. When these monarchs failed to play the eschatological role expected of them, the collective imagination of the people continued to dwell on a mythological parallel emperor ‘of lowly descent’, who would rise up from among the poor, to oust the actual monarch and reign in his stead. The ‘Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine’, writing in 1510 had predicted the apocalyptic year for 1515. When a Bundschuh rising broke out in the same area in 1513 its declared aim was to help righteousness and get rid of blasphemers and finally to recover the Holy Sepulchre.

The leader of the Bundschuh was a peasant called Joss Fritz and many of the rank-and-file were also peasants. This was not the first rising he had organised. Like the outbreak at Niklashausen, the rising which occurred in the diocese of Speyer in 1502 was provoked in a general sense by the failure of the latest attempt to restore the disintegrating structure of the Empire, and by the excessive taxes levied by an insolvent Prince-Bishop, but its object was nothing less than a social revolution of the most thorough-going kind.  Not only the peasantry but also the urban poor, disbanded mercenaries, beggars and the like are known to have played a large part in the movement, giving it its peculiar character. For there were many other peasant risings in southern Germany at that time, and they all aimed merely at limited reforms of the feudal system. Only the Bundschuh aimed at achieving the Millennium. All authority was to be overthrown, all dues and taxes abolished, all ecclesiastical property distributed amongst the people, all woods, waters and pastures were to become communal property.

The flag of the movement showed Christ crucified with on one side a praying peasant, on the other the peasant clog, above it the slogan: Nothing but God’s Justice! It was planned to capture the town of Bruschal, where the Bishop’s palace was located; from there the movement was to spread throughout Germany, bringing freedom to the peasants and town-dwellers who supported it, but death to everyone else. Although this plot was betrayed and the movement crushed, Joss Fritz survived to organise similar risings in 1513 and 1517, in which there were similar mixes of fantasies: on the one hand exterminating all the rich and powerful and establishing an egalitarian order and on the other, a determination to get rid of blasphemers, of being led by the Emperor and of recovering the Holy Sepulchre. Indeed, the image of the Bundschuh came to possess such prodigious significance that it was a popular belief that the original capture of Jerusalem had been achieved by peasants fighting under that banner.

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Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and certainly by the end of the fifteenth century, national boundaries were hardened and the concept of “statehood” was emergent, becoming politically more important than that of the “nation”, in its original meaning of a people of common descent. This development is most marked in the development of England, Scotland, France and Spain. The growth of national consciousness was not, however, dependent on the authority of a unitary state. The strong consciousness of Germanness and German nationhood evolved in a very different political context from that of the western European states.

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Above: Central-Eastern Europe in the Later Middle Ages (circa 1493).

Meanwhile, in a different part of Germany – Thuringia, a territory fertile in millenarian myths and movements –  a radical reformer, Thomas Müntzer, was embarking on a stormy career which was to end by turning him too into a prophet of the egalitarian Millennium.

(to be continued…)

Crusader Christendom, Jerusalem & The Massacres of Muslims and Jews, 1095-1146.   Leave a comment

 

Popes, Princes and Pauperes:

When Pope Urban II summoned the chivalry of Christendom to the Crusade, he released in the masses hopes and hatreds which were to express themselves in ways quite alien to the aims of the papal policy. The pauperes, as they were called by the chroniclers, were not greatly interested in assisting the Christians of Byzantium, but they were passionately concerned to reach, capture and occupy Jerusalem. The city which was the holiest city in the world for Christians had been in the hands of Muslims for some four and a half centuries by 1095. Although the possibility of recapturing it seems to have played little part in Urban’s original plan, it was this prospect that intoxicated the masses of the poor. In their eyes, the Crusade was an armed and militant pilgrimage, the greatest and most sublime of all pilgrimages.

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For centuries a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre had been regarded as a singularly efficacious form of penance and during the eleventh century, such pilgrimages had been undertaken collectively: penitents tended to travel no longer singly or in small groups but in bands organised hierarchically under a leader. Sometimes, most notably in 1033 and 1064, mass pilgrimages had taken place, involving many thousands of people. In 1033 at least, the first to go had been the poor and amongst them had been some who went with the intention of staying in Jerusalem for the rest of their lives. In the Crusade, as well, many of the poor had no intention of ever returning to their homes: they meant to take Jerusalem from the infidel and, by settling in it, turn it into a Christian city. Everyone who took part in the Crusade wore a cross sewn onto their outer garment, the first badge worn by an army in post-Classical times and the first step towards modern military uniforms; but whereas for the Knights this cross was a symbol of Christian victory in a military expedition of limited duration, the poor thought rather of the commandment, Take up the Cross and Follow me! For them, the Crusade was a collective imitato Christi, a mass sacrifice which was to be rewarded by a mass apotheosis at Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem which obsessed their imagination was no mere earthly city but rather the symbol of religious hope. It had ever been so since the messianic hope of the Hebrews had first begun to take shape in the eighth century BC and as the prophet Isaiah had bidden them:

Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her… That ye may suck and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations; that ye may milk out, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory… Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river… then shall ye suck, ye shall be borne upon her sides, and be dangled upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

In the prophecies of the post-exilic period and in the apocalypses the messianic kingdom is imagined as centred on a future Jerusalem which has been rebuilt in great magnificence. These ancient Jewish mythologies all went to reinforce the great emotional significance which Jerusalem possessed for medieval Christians. When, a generation after the event, a monk composed the appeal which he imagined Urban to have made at Clermont, he made the Pope speak of the Holy City not simply as the place made forever illustrious by the Advent, Passion and Ascension of Christ, but also as the navel of the world, the land fruitful above all others, like another paradise of delights… the royal city placed in the centre of the world, now held captive, demanding help, yearning for liberation. Even for theologians, Jerusalem was a ‘figure’ of the heavenly city like unto a stone most precious, which, according to the Book of Revelation, was to replace it at the end of time. In the midst of simple folk, however, the idea of the earthly Jerusalem became confused with and transfused by that of the Heavenly Jerusalem, so that the Palestinian city seemed a miraculous realm, abounding both in spiritual and material blessings. When the masses of the poor set off on their long pilgrimage, the children cried out at every town and castle: Is that Jerusalem?

A ‘Vagabond’ Army:

A large part, if not the larger part, of the People’s Crusade, perished on its journey across Europe; but enough survived to survive in Syria and Palestine a corps of vagabonds, which is what the curious word ‘Tafur’ seems to have meant. Barefoot, shaggy, clad in ragged sackcloth, covered with sores and filth, living on roots and grass and also at times the roasted corpses of their enemies, the Tafurs were so ferocious a band that any country they passed through was utterly devastated. They wielded clubs weighted with lead, pointed sticks, knives, hatchets, shovels, hoes and catapults. When they rushed into battle they gnashed their teeth as though they wanted to eat their enemies alive as well as dead. Though the Muslims faced the crusading barons fearlessly, were terrified of the Tafurs, whom they called no Franks, but living devils. The Christian chroniclers themselves, clerics or knights whose main interest was in the acts of the princes, while admitting the effectiveness of the Tafurs in battle clearly regarded them with misgiving and embarrassment. Yet one vernacular epic written from the standpoint of the poor portrays the Tafurs as a Holy People and ‘worth far more than the knights’.

The Tafurs had a king of their own, le roi Tafur, a Norman knight who had discarded his horse, arms and armour in favour of sackcloth and a scythe. It was precisely because of their poverty that the Tafurs believed themselves destined to take the Holy City:

The poorest shall take it: this is a sign to show clearly that the Lord God does not care for presumptions and faithless men.

Yet the Tafurs were not averse to parading their booty captured from the infidel, which they claimed was a sign of divine favour. After a successful skirmish outside Antioch, the Provencal poor galloped amongst the tents to show their companions how their poverty was at an end. Some of them dressed in silken garments and praised God as the bestower of victory and of gifts. As King Tafur led the final assault on Jerusalem he was alleged to have cried:

Where are the poor folk who want property? Let them come with me!… For today with God’s help I shall win enough to load many a mule! 

Later, when the Turks carried their treasures around the walls of the captured city in an attempt to lure the Crusaders out into the open, the Tafur King was unable to hold back:

Are we in prison? They bring treasure and we dare not take it!… What do I care if I die, since I am doing what I want to do?

Calling on ‘St Lazarus’ of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, of whom the poor in the middle ages made their patron saint, he is said to have led his horde out of the city into catastrophe. In each city the Crusaders captured, the Tafurs looted everything they could lay hands on. They raped the Muslim women and carried out indiscriminate massacres. The official leaders of the Crusade had no authority over them at all. When the Emir of Antioch protested about the cannibalism of the Tafurs, the princes could only admit, all of us together cannot tame King Tafur. On the other hand, when we read the sources which tell the story from the standpoint of the poor we find the Tafur King being treated with humility and reverence by the princes and barons. We also find him urging on the hesitant barons to attack Jerusalem:

My lords, what are we doing? We are delaying overlong our assault on this city and this evil race. We are behaving like false pilgrims. If it rested with me and with the poor alone, the pagans would find us the worst neighbours they ever had!

The princes were so impressed with this that they asked him to lead the first attack; and when, covered with wounds, he was carried from the battlefield, they gathered anxiously around him. When, in the story edited for the poor, Godfrey de Bouillon became King of Jerusalem, the barons chose King Tafur as the highest one to perform the coronation. He did so by giving Godfrey a branch of thorns and Godfrey responded by swearing to hold Jerusalem as a fief from King Tafur and God alone. And when the barons hastened back to their domains, King Tafur pledged himself to stay in Jerusalem with his army of the poor, to defend its new king and his kingdom. In these mythological incidents, the beggar-king became the symbol of the immense, unreasoning hope which had carried the pauperes through unspeakable hardships to the Holy City.

The Attempted Annihilation of ‘the Race of Cain’:

The realisation of that hope demanded human sacrifice on a vast scale, not only in the self-immolation of the crusaders but also in the massacres of the ‘infidels’. Although the Pope and the princes intended a campaign with limited objectives, in reality, the Crusade constantly became what the common people wanted it to be: a war to exterminate the sons of whores, or the race of Cain, as King Tafur called the Muslims. It was not unknown for crusaders to seize all the peasants of a certain area and offer them the choice of being either immediately converted to Christianity or immediately killed, having achieved which, our Franks returned full of joy. The fall of Jerusalem was followed by a great massacre in which every Muslim man, woman and child was killed. Only the governor and his bodyguard managed to buy their lives and were escorted from the city. In and around the remains of the Temple…

the horses waded in blood up to their knees, nay up to the bridle. It was a just and wonderful judgement of God that the same place should receive the blood of those whose blasphemies it had so long carried up to God.

As for the Jews of Jerusalem, when they took refuge in their chief synagogue the building was set on fire and they were all burnt alive. Weeping with joy and singing songs of praise the crusaders marched in procession to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

O new day, new day and exultation, new and everlasting gladness… That day, famed through all centuries to come, turned all our sufferings and hardships into joy and exultation; that day, the confirmation of Christianity, the annihilation of paganism, the renewal of our faith! 

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A handful of the infidel still survived: they had taken refuge on the roof of the al-Aqsa Mosque.  Promised their lives by the celebrated crusader Tancred in exchange for a heavy ransom, and given his banner as a safe-conduct, they were beheaded by common soldiers who had scaled the walls during the negotiation. No man or woman escaped, except for those who threw themselves off the roof to their death.

Millenarian Monks and the Massacres of European Jewry:

Bearing these events in mind, it is not surprising that the first great massacre of European Jews also occurred during the First Crusade. The official crusading army, consisting of the barons and their retainers, had no part in this massacre, which was carried out entirely by the hordes who followed in the wake of the prophetae. As the Crusade came into being, one chronicler wrote that peace was established very firmly on all sides and the Jews were at once attacked in the towns where they lived. At the very beginning of the crusading agitation, Jewish communities in Rouen and other French towns were given the choice of between conversion and massacre. But it was the episcopal cities along the Rhine that the most violent attacks took place. Here, as along all the trade routes of Europe, Jewish merchants had been settled for centuries, and because of their economic usefulness, they had always enjoyed the special favour and protection of the archbishops. But by the end of the eleventh century in all these cities tension between the townspeople and their ecclesiastical lords was already giving rise to a general social turbulence.

At the beginning of May 1096, crusaders camping outside Speyer planned to attack the Jews in their synagogue on the Sabbath. They were foiled in carrying out this plan and were only able to kill a dozen Jews in the streets. The Bishop lodged the rest in his castle and had some of the murderers punished. At Worms, the Jews did not escape so ‘lightly’. Here too they turned for help to the Bishop and the well-to-do-burghers, but these were unable to protect them when men from the People’s Crusade arrived and led the townsfolk in an attack on the Jewish quarter. The synagogue was sacked, houses were looted and all their adult occupants who refused baptism were killed. As for the children, some were killed, others were taken away to be baptised and brought up by Christians. Some Jews had taken shelter in the Bishop’s castle and when that too was attacked the Bishop offered to baptise them and to save their lives, but the entire community preferred to commit suicide. In all, some eight hundred Jews are said to have perished at Worms.

At Mainz, home to the largest Jewish community in Germany, events took a similar course. The Jews were at first protected by the Archbishop who was also the chief lay lord in the area, together with the richer burghers. Despite their resistance, the Crusaders, supported by the poorer townsfolk,  forced the Jews to choose between baptism and death. The Archbishop and all his staff fled in fear of their own lives, and more than a thousand Jews perished, either at the hands of the crusaders or by suicide. From the Rhine cities, a band of crusaders moved on to Trier. There the Archbishop preached a sermon demanding that the Jews be spared; as a result, he himself had to flee from the church. Although some of the Jews accepted baptism, the vast majority perished. The crusaders then moved on to Metz, where they killed more Jews. In mid-June, they returned to Cologne where the Jewish community had gone into hiding in neighbouring villages; but they were discovered by the crusaders and massacred in their hundreds. Meanwhile, other bands of crusaders, making their way eastwards, had imposed baptism by force on the Jewish communities of Prague and Regensburg. In all the number of Jews who perished in May-June 1096 has been estimated at between four and eight thousand.

It was the beginning of a tragic tradition. When in 1146 the Second Crusade was being prepared by Louis VII and the French nobility, the populace of Normandy and Picardy killed Jews. Meanwhile, a renegade monk called Rudolph made his way from Hainaut to the Rhine, where he summoned the masses to join him in a People’s Crusade and to make a start by killing the Jews. As at the time of the First Crusade, the common people were being driven to desperation by famine. Like every successful propheta, Rudolph was believed to perform miracles and to be favoured with divine revelations; and hungry crowds flocked to him. Again, it was the episcopal cities of Cologne, Mainz, Worms, Speyer, together this time with Strasbourg and Wurzberg, which, with their bitter internal conflicts, proved the most fertile ground for anti-Jewish agitation. From them, anti-Semitism spread to many other towns in Germany and France. The Jews continued to turn for protection to the bishops and prosperous burghers, who continued to do what they could to help, but the pauperes continued to be undeterred. In many towns, the populace was on the verge of open insurrection so that it seemed that another overwhelming catastrophe was about to descend on the Jews. At that point, St Bernard intervened with the full weight of his prestige and insisted that the massacres must stop.

Even St Bernard, with all his extraordinary reputation as a holy man, was scarcely able to check the popular fury. When he confronted Rudolph at Mainz and, as an abbot, ordered him back to his monastery, the common people threatened to take up arms. Thereafter, the massacre of Jews was to remain a feature of popular crusades (as distinct from knightly ones), and it is clear enough why. Although the pauperes looted freely from the Jews they killed, as they did from Muslims in Syria and Palestine, booty was not their main object. It is a Hebrew Chronicle that records how during the Second Crusade the crusaders appealed to the Jews:

Come to us, so that we become one single people.

There seems to be no doubt that a Jew could always save both life and property by accepting baptism. On the other hand, it was common doctrine, however heretical, that whoever killed a Jew who refused baptism had all his sins forgiven him; and there were those who felt unworthy to start on a crusade at all until they had killed at least one. Some of the crusaders’ own comments have been preserved:

We have set out to march a long way to fight the enemies of God in the East and behold, before our very eyes are his worst foes, the Jews. They must be dealt with first.

You are the descendents of those who killed and hanged our God. Moreover, God himself said: “The day will yet dawn when my children will come and avenge my blood.” We are his children and it is our task to carry out his vengeance upon you, for you showed yourselves obstinate and blasphemous towards him… (God) has abandoned you and has turned his radiance upon us and has made us his own.

It is therefore evident that the mass movements of the pauperes attempted to turn the Crusades into an annihilation of both Muslims and Jews. Their prophetae, mostly renegade, itinerant monks, drew on their limited understanding of the apocalyptic literature of the Bible, which they interpreted literally, to preach intolerance and hatred of the infidel, be he Muslim or Jew. In their terms, the people of these faiths could therefore only be spared from divine retribution at the End of Days if they converted to Christianity. The popular crusaders saw themselves as instruments of that retribution as part of the restoration of  Jerusalem both in heaven and upon earth. The fact that most of these crusaders were drawn from the masses of the poor, and that anti-Semitism was a key element in their radicalism, is perhaps another warning from history which should continue to resonate in collective popular consciousness.

Source:

Norman Cohn (1970), The Pursuit of the Millenium. St Alban’s: Granada.    

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