Book Review: God’s Battalions – Chapter 6: Going East

March 15, 2011

This is part of a multi-part review of God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark. The summary is here. You can use the table of contents found there.

Peter the Hermit was a key figure in the first Crusade. He gathered the peasants and led the ragamuffin force toward the promised land.

In chapter 5, Stark attempts to describe and define the force that departed for the Holy Land in 1086 and to explain some of the events that occurred along the way. The first Crusade took place in three waves: 1) the People’s Crusade (led by Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless and consisting of peasants as an army), 2) The German Crusade (led by Volkmar, Gottschalk and Emicho of Leisingen), 3) The Princes’ Crusade (ked by Hugh of Vermandois, Godfrey of Bouilon, Bohemond of Taranto, Raymond IV of Toulouse, and Robert the Duke of Normandy) . The first two waves were failures that ended in massacres.

Along the way, one of the German Crusade’s leaders, Emicho became set on killing a community of Jews. It is unclear if the motive was financial or religious (viewing them as enemies of Christ) but his aggression prompted other Christians to rise to the defense of the Jews. The Bishop of Speyer took the Jews under his protection in his palace. Undeterred Emicho broke down the gates adn killed about five hundred Jews. This pattern was followed in Mainz where the bishop attempted to shield the Jews only to be forced to flee for his life. Lest anyone blame this horrible moment in history on the Christian religion, Stark notes it is important to heed the words of a distinguished historian of Antisemitism named Leon Poliakov. “It is important to note that almost everywhere….bishops attempted, sometimes even at the peril of their own lives, to protect the Jews.”  After these two encounters with bishops, Emicho’s forces were careful only to attack Jews in towns without a resident bishop. Sadly, several thousand Jews were killed. Emicho was the worst offender but not the only one. Members of both the People’s Crusade and the German Crusades sporadically killed Jews in their journey. The pope condemned the attacks. The bishops condemned the attacks. The church was clear – attacks on Jews was inconsistent with the faith.

When the troops that had attacked the Jews reach Hungary, the Hungarian knights denied them passage. When they attempted to force their way through they were routed. Their defeat was viewed by the rest of the Crusaders as a just punishment for the murder of the Jews. Stark notes that this attitude of protection and tolerance toward the Jews was consistent throughout the rest of the Crusade (with one possible exception).

The Prince’ Crusade went forth with less trouble but when they reached Byzantium, they surprised Alexius, the Emperor, with their numbers. The Emperor of Byzantium had expected that his plea for help might be answered by some select groups of mercenaries and maybe some nobility. Instead, hordes of Western “barbarians” had come. Further, Alexius was unimpressed with the goal. He had called for help of his Empire but the “barbarians” had come to liberate Jerusalem which he viewed as nonstrategic.  He refused to go with them onward. This refusal to go with them is one of the many factors that led to the schism between the east and the west.

Stark concludes this chapter by noting the scale of the death inflicted upon the Crusaders. He estimates that “perhaps as many as 115,000 (or 88%)” of the crusaders were lost by the time Jerusalem was taken! He notes that despite these incredibly horrifying losses, European support for the Crusades remained strong.


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