In the first millennium of the common era, Christianity had seemed unstoppable. Spreading outward from the Levant across the Mediterranean and Africa, covering the continent of Europe and the island nations of the North Sea. But the rise of Islam had claimed and conquered lands from the Arabian peninsula and Indian subcontinent, across northern African and up to the Iberian peninsula of Spain. By the late 11th century, the Eastern Roman empire no longer held any Italian territory and the language of the people had changed from Latin to Greek. Historians call this latter, eastern half of the formerly unified Roman Empire the Byzantine Empire instead for these reasons. Turko-Persian warriors for the Seljuk Empire threatened Byzantium’s already shrunken borders.
The Seljuks (also spelled Seljuq) were Sunni Muslims, descended from former residents of the Göktürk Khaganate. In 1025 CE, about 40,000 Seljuk families moved from the Khazar region to Caucasian Albania, on the eastern border of Byzantium. There they established the independent Seljuk Empire in 1037, a place of Persian language and culture, patronized and encouraged by a Turkish ruling class. The Turks’ nomadic Steppes ancestors had lived in yurts as herders, with long distance kinship based societies held together by regular trade events and family celebrations. In Anatolia, Syria, and Azerbaijan this blended with Persian architectural influence in the construction of caravanserai, walled permanent market centers to protect merchant caravans. They could be used as overnight stops and were often guarded. Over a hundred caravanserai have been found in Seljuk lands
Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos petitioned Pope Urban II (1042-1099) for aid in reclaiming his lost Christian territories and beating back the Seljuk Turks. This was immediately reinterpreted as an invitation to go claim the Holy City of Jerusalem for Christians, but not necessarily for Byzantium. The Pope called for a Crusade or “war of the Cross” to depart from Rome on August 15, 1096. However, months before preparations were completed and royal armies were assembled, peasant “armies” of mostly unskilled fighters set out from across western Europe. Medieval depictions of Saracens – a collective term for Muslims, Arabs, Berbers, Bedouins, Egyptians, and more – were based on rumors and wild tales. While a few Muslims did live in some of the larger cities, most European Christians had never met one. Jews were the familiar “nonbelievers”; Saracens were exotic.
The People’s Crusade was led at first by Peter the Hermit (it’s all in the name) and a priest named Folkmore. Their troops included a few minor knights, a lot of farmers, women, and children. They were a zealous lot, more bent on conversion than attack. Marching in Germany in May of 1096 this ragtag missionary force fell upon eleven Jews in the village of Speyer, and slayed them when they wouldn’t denounce their faith and proclaim Jesus as Messiah. The Bishop secured the larger remainder of the Jewish population in his villa, after securing payment in precious gems and metals. The crusaders moved on to Worms next, where again the majority of Jews were able to buy safety.
At the end of May a Christian horde of 10,000 men, women, and children mauraders led by Count Emicho reached the cultural epicenter of Ashkenizi Jewry in Mainz, Germany, sometimes called “the Jerusalem of Europe”. Some of the crusaders believed a Holy War could not be won unless the Jews were forced to convert. In addition to their religious zeal, the peasant crusaders were probably motivated by more earthly desires. This was not a professional army with a quartermaster. Many had gone into debt to Jews in their homelands to buy arms, and by the time they’d reached Mainz, their original provisions had run out and they were starving and stealing from Jewish farms. The largest Jewish community in Europe crowded into the hall of the Archbishop of Mainz, after bringing him all their riches to pay Count Emicho.
Emicho took the gold, then invaded anyway. The archbishopric gates did not hold, and the People’s Crusade stormed through. The Christians showed no mercy, killing young and old, men and women alike. A Jewess mother Rachel killed her own four children and then herself rather than let them be slaughtered by such avaricious cross-bearers. The halakist Kalonymus ben Meshullam and countless others took his own life to deprive crusaders the satisfaction. At least 1,100 Jewish people of every age died on May 27, 1096 in the single city of Mainz. Various medievalists estimate Christians murdered between 4,000 and 10,000 Jews in the first six months of that year in these Rhineland massacres.
“Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art” by Debra Higgs Strickland, Google Books
Albert of Aix and Ekkehard of Aura: Emico and the Slaughter of the Rhineland Jews, Medieval Sourcebook
Solomon bar Sampson: The Crusaders in Mainz, Medieval Sourcebook