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The history of Jews in the Middle Ages spans the timeframe of approximately 500 CE to 1750 CE. This article covers the medieval history of Jews in the Christian-dominated Western European region. See the History of the Jews in the Byzantine Empire for Eastern Europe. The other two themes that comprise the history of Jews during the Middle Ages include Jewish history in Muslim Arab lands, mainly Islamic Spain, and the Jewish history in North Africa.
- 1 From the fall of Rome to the Late Middle Ages (500-1500)
- 2 Church laws in the Early Middle Ages
- 3 Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance
- 4 Enlightenment
- 5 See also
- 6 External links
- 7 References
From the fall of Rome to the Late Middle Ages (500-1500)
Historically, Jews are believed to have originated from the Israelite tribes of the Land of Israel. Their first migration to Europe began when large amounts of them moved to Italy, France, and Germany in the early 4th century. Afterwards, due to various pogroms that took place during the early Middle Ages, they fled mostly to Poland and Lithuania, and from there spread over the rest of Eastern Europe. These European Jews later came to be known as Ashkenazi Jews.
In 610, Visigothic ruler Sesbut prohibited Judaism after several anti-Jewish edicts were ignored, exiling Jews to return to Byzantine Spain under Sesbut's successor. In Swintilla, Persian General Romizanes captured Jerusalem, allowing Jews to run the city. At this time, approximately 150,000 Jews were living in 43 settlements in the Land of Israel. Although Chintilla decreed that only Catholics were permitted to live in Visigoth, Spain, many Jews continued to live there. In 638, the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem took place, and King Erwig oppressed the Jews by making it illegal to practice any Jewish rites and pressing for the conversion or emigration of the remaining Jews.
In 691 there was the first account of Jews in England, and a few years later Jews helped Muslim invaders capture Spain, ending Visigoth's rule and beginning a 150-year period of relative peace, in which they were free to study and practice religion as they wished. In the wake of a narrow military defeat over Muslim forces, Leo III of Constantinople decided his nation's weakness lay in its heterogeneous population and began the forcible conversion of the Jews, as well as the New Christians. However, some were able to secretly continue their Jewish practices. In 1040, Rashi was born, and in the wake of the Norman conquest of England, Jews left Normandy to settle in London and other cities such as York, Norwich, Oxford, Bristol and Lincoln, where Pope Gregory VII prohibited Jews from holding offices in Christendom. Iban Iashufin, the King of the Almoravides, captured Granada and destroyed the Jewish community, as the survivors fled to Toledo. In 1095, Henry IV of Germany granted the Jews favorable conditions and issued a charter to the Jews and a decree against forced baptism. In 1171, after the birth of Rambam, Jews were falsely accused of committing ritual murder and blood libel in the town of Blois. The adult Jews of the city were arrested and most were executed after refusing to convert. In 1210, a group of 300 French and English rabbis made aliyah and settled in Israel.
In the following years, the Church's Fourth Lateran Council decreed that Jews be differentiated from others by their type of clothing to avoid intercourse between Jews and Christians. Jews were sometimes required to wear a badge or a pointed hat. Christian theologians began calling for the slavery of all Jews in Saint Thomas Aquinas. In 1229 King Henry III of England forced Jews to pay half the value of their property in taxes, following burning of the Talmud in Paris and the Tartars' capture of Jerusalem. During the Fatimid period, many Jewish officials served in the regime. King Henry III of England ordered Jewish worship in synagogue to be held quietly so that Christians passing by wouldn't have to hear it, giving an order that Jews may not employ Christian nurses or maids, nor may any Jew prevent another from converting to Christianity. A few years later, French King Louis IX expelled the Jews from France, ending the Tosaphists period. Most Jews went to Germany and further east.
Immigration to Germany
In 1267, the Vienna city council forced Jews to wear the Pileum cornutum in addition to the badge Jews were forced to wear. Later in the century, a blood libel in Munich resulted in the deaths of 68 Jews, and an additional 180 Jews were burned alive at the synagogue, following another mob in Oberwesel, Germany. In 1290, owing political pressure, English King Edward I expelled the Jews from England. They were only allowed to take what they could carry and most went to France, paying for their passage only to be robbed and cast overboard by the ship captains. Philip IV ordered all Jews expelled from France, with their property to be sold at public auction, and some 125,000 Jews are forced to leave. Similar to accusations made during the Black Plague, Jews were accused of encouraging lepers to poison Christian wells in France. An estimated five thousand Jews were killed before the king, Philip the Tall, admitted the Jews were innocent. Then, Charles IV expelled all French Jews without the one year period he had promised them, as much of Europe blamed the Black Plague on the Jews and tortured them so they would confess that they poisoned the wells. Despite the pleas of innocence of Pope Clement VI, the accusations resulted in the destruction of over 60 large and 150 small Jewish communities.
In 1348, hundreds of Jews were burned and many were baptized in Basel. The city's Christian residents converted the synagogue into a church and destroyed the Jewish cemetery there. Pope Clement VI issued an edict repudiating the libel against Jews, saying that they too were suffering from the Plague. In 1385, German Emperor Wenceslaus arrested Jews living in the Swabian League, a group of free cities in Germany, and confiscated their books. Later, he expelled the Jews of Strassburg after a community debate. 1391, Ferrand Martinez, archdeacon of Ecija, began a campaign against Spanish Jewry, killing over 10,000 and destroying the Jewish quarter in Barcelona. The campaign quickly spreads throughout Spain, except for Granada, and destroyed Jewish communities in Valencia and Palma De Majorca. King Pedro I ordered Spain not to harm the remaining Jews and that synagogues not be converted into churches. He then announced his compliance with the Bull of Pope Boniface IX, protecting Jews from baptism. He extended this edict to Spanish Jewish refugees. Benedict XIII banned the study of the Talmud in any form, as institutes forced Christian sermons and tried to restrict Jewish life completely, and a few years later Pope Martin V favorably reinstated old privileges of the Jews. After more Jews were expelled from France, some remained in Provence until 1500. In 1422, Pope Martin V issued a bull reminding Christians that Christianity was derived from Judaism and warned the Friars not to incite against the Jews, but the Bull was withdrawn the following year. By the end of the 15th Century, the Inquisition was established in Spain. Around 1500, Jews found relative security and a renewal of prosperity in present-day Poland.
Church laws in the Early Middle Ages
By the 10th century most of Europe was under the rule of Christian monarchs who made Christianity the religion of their realms. In the by then seriously diminished Roman or Byzantine Empire it had been the state church since the 380 Edict of Thessalonica. This, however, left a privileged niche for Jews in the new order. The Church forbade Christians from charging interest to fellow Christians; therefore the only source of loans were non-Christians such as Jews. While this status did not always lead to peaceful conditions for the Jewish people, they were the most compatible non-Christians for the position due to their shared devotion to the same Abrahamic God that the Christians worshiped. While many Jews rose to prominence in these times, Judaism was mostly practiced in private to avoid persecution. This period was mostly one of insecurity and brutality against the Jewish people. The descendants of the survivors of this period, the Ashkenazi Jews, still commemorate some of the more memorable tragedies of this period in their liturgy, for example.
Their fate in each particular country depended on the changing political conditions. In Italy (see History of the Jews in Italy) they experienced dark days during the wars waged by the Heruli, Rugii, Ostrogoths, and Lombards. The severe laws of the Roman emperors were, in general, more mildly administered than elsewhere; the Arian confession, of which the Germanic conquerors of Italy were adherents, was characterized by its tolerance.
On the Iberian peninsula, Jews lived under the governments of first the Romans and subsequently the Germanic Visigoths where they at first thrived, being treated much the same as their non-Jewish neighbors. This status under the Visigoths came to a sudden end after the Visigothic king Reccared embraced Catholicism and his successors attempted to convert their subjects. Many Jews yielded to these forced conversions in secret hope that the severe measures would be of short duration. But they soon bitterly repented this hasty step; Visigothic legislation insisted with inexorable severity that those who had been baptized by force must remain true to the Christian faith. Consequently the Jews eagerly welcomed the Islamic forces when the latter conquered the peninsula in 711 (see Islam and Judaism).
In other parts of western Europe, Jews who wished to remain true to the faith of their fathers were protected by the Church itself from compulsory conversion. There was no change in this policy even later, when the Pope called for the support of the Carolingians in protecting his ideal kingdom with their temporal power. Charlemagne, moreover, was glad to use the Church for the purpose of welding together the loosely connected elements of his kingdom when he transformed part of the old Roman empire into a new Christian one, and united under the imperial crown all the German races at that time firmly settled (see History of the Jews in Germany). Years after his death, in 843, his empire fell apart, and the rulers of Italy, France, and Germany were more attentive to the Church's desires in the making of laws dealing with the Jews.
Sicut Judaeis (the "Constitution for the Jews") was the official position of the papacy regarding Jews throughout the Middle Ages and later. The first bill was issued in about 1120 by Calixtus II, intended to protect Jews who suffered during the First Crusade, and was reaffirmed by many popes, even until the 15th century. The bill forbade, besides other things, Christians from forcing Jews to convert, or to harm them, or to take their property, or to disturb the celebration of their festivals, or to interfere with their cemeteries, on pain of excommunication.
The trials the Jews periodically endured in the various Christian West kingdoms echoed the catastrophes that occurred during Crusades. In the First Crusade (1096) flourishing communities on the Rhine and the Danube were utterly destroyed; see German Crusade, 1096.Furthermore, there were also attacks on the Jews that lived in cities along the Rhine. Prior to these attacks many Jews were seen as integral members of society despite religious differences. Many Jews worked in the money lending trade. Their services allowed for societies to function financially. In one case Jewish moneylenders were responsible for financially maintaining a monastery. Without these loans the monastery would have been unable to survive. However, this fiscal responsibility that the Jews carried might have caused tensions amongst the middle and upper class. These sects of society would not have approved of the power that the Jewish communities held. At this point there were no strictly Jewish communities. Jews were not concentrated in one area, rather their presence was spread over a larger geographical region. Oftentimes a few families lived immersed in a predominantly Christian settlement. The Jewish families were comfortable in this setting and functioned successfully. In some circumstances Christians both accepted and welcomed the Jews. When violence against the Jewish people began to occur some Christians attempted to protect their fellow neighbors. In the town of Cologne, Jews fled to the homes of their Christian neighbors where they were given shelter. Christians discussed the topic of conversion with the Jews. There existed a theory that if the Jews were to convert to Christianity then they would no longer be the target of such violence. There were discussions regarding conversion to Christianity. Religious leaders including Bishops and Archbishops alike tried to spare the Jews from violence. One Archbishop from Mainz went so far as to offer monetary bribes to protect Jewish families. These Jews did not want relief from the exile that occurred hundreds of years prior, moreover they saw the towns in which they had immigrated to as their homes. They were well received members of the community. In the Second Crusade (1147) the Jews in France suffered especially under Louis VII. Philip Augustus treated them with exceptional severity. In his days the Third Crusade took place (1188); and the preparations for it proved to be momentous for the English Jews. After being the victims of increasing oppression Jews were banished from England in 1290; and 365 years passed before they were allowed to settle again in the British Isles (see History of the Jews in England). The Jews were also subjected to attacks by the Shepherds' Crusades of 1251 and 1320.
Protection attempts by Christians during the First Crusade
During the First Crusade of 1096, there are documented accounts of Christian attempts to protect Jews from their violent attackers. The first of such attempts was carried out by the archbishop of Mainz, located in the Rhineland of Germany, in response to local Jews who had organized a bribe in return for the archbishop's protection. Although the archbishop at first accepted the bribe, community leaders persuaded him to protect the Jews' money instead of taking it, while still offering them refuge in his quarters. Ultimately, the archbishop’s rescue attempt was unsuccessful. Crusaders, aided by some townspeople, eventually stormed the archbishop's chamber and slaughtered the Jews hiding there. However, the fact remains that this was an attempt at Jewish protection by a member of the Christian clergy.
In another instance, the bishop of Trier offered to keep Jews safe from Crusaders in his palace; however, local intimidation eventually forced him to abandon those whom he had previously aided. Because the bishop had no ancestry or allies in Trier, he felt that he could not muster the political power needed to carry out a successful resistance without the support of the townspeople. Instead, he offered the Jews an ultimatum: convert to Christianity or leave the palace. When doing so, he remarked, “You cannot be saved—Your God does not wish to save you now as he did in earlier days.” 
In Cologne, Jews were protected by local gentiles after violence had broken out at the beginning of Shavuot, a Jewish holiday. During the two days of Shavuot, one Jewish woman was killed by Crusaders while venturing to the safety of a Christian neighbor's home, where her husband was waiting for her. While the woman's death may be perceived as tragic, the vast majority of Jews in Cologne survived Shavuot because local Christians had reached out and offered their homes as a means of asylum from the Crusaders.
Recent years have seen a debate between historians on the character of Jewish-Christian relations in medieval Europe. Traditionally, historians focused on the trials Jews had to endure in this period. Christian violence towards Jews was rife, as were ritual murder accusations, expulsions, and extortion. However, recently historians have begun to show evidence of other relationships between Jews and Christians, suggesting Jews were more embedded into Christian society than was previously thought.
Jonathan Elukin is just one historian who does this, in his book Living Together, Living Apart. He shows that during the Crusades, some Jews were hidden and protected from their attackers by Christians. Some Jews worked in Christian villages. There were also several cases of conversion to Judaism as well as interfaith marriages.
One such case would be Jacob ben Sullam, a Christian looking to become a part of Jewish society. He chose to “slaughter [himself]” of his Christian identity in the hopes of being accepted as a Jew in the Jewish community.
As Christians sought conversion to Judaism, a number of Jews similarly wanted to switch to Christianity. This could be seen though Herman, a Jew who adopted Christianity to the point that his family worried that he would reject his Jewish heritage completely. Herman’s conversion startled the rabbis and caused them fear of losing Jews to Christianity.
The close bonds between Jewish and Christian neighbors led to Jewish communities thriving in Christian cities. Jews experienced economic security and prosperity in their communities even through constant threats of violence. Through strict constraints placed on Jews in the thirteenth century by the French monarchy, Jews continued to experience a stable living situation. Although the French monarchy prohibited the creation of Jewish religious centers, friendly relations with Christians provided the Jews with the support they needed to build a synagogue in Béziers in 1278. After being expelled from certain areas in Europe, Jews regularly returned to where they had previously experienced a prosperous life.
During times of persecution against the Jews, chronicles show that Christian relations provided them aid and shelter. A chronicler tells a story of a Jewish woman who is given food and shelter for two days from a gentile acquaintance during a time of violence against the Jews during Shavuot. This gentile acquaintance is believed to be Christian. Also, the chronicles show that some Christians converted to Judaism during these times. Converts even sacrificed themselves in order to show loyalty to the Jewish community. This suggests that Christians were drawn to the Jewish community.
In England, many Jews worked and lived in small towns mostly made up of Christians. Historians see this as Jews feeling comfortable living and working in places surrounded by Christians. Another example some historians use to show Jewish attachment to their place in Western Christendom is the Jewish expulsion in France. After they were expelled in 1182, they returned in 1198. This can be used as evidence to show how comfortable the Jews must’ve felt in French society.
Even after multiple expulsions and persecutions, Jews still returned to their hometown. Once returning to their hometown they prospered. In spite of royal restrictions attempting to limit their success, Jews were building new synagogues and gaining wealth. This was possible through the easy transition the multiple countries provided them upon their return.
All of these examples are used by some historians to shine light on a more positive relationship between the two religious groups and on the Jew's ability to prosper. These historians believe that these stories of aid, neighborliness, and prosperity are much more notable and significant than the expulsions and persecutions.
Accusations of ritual murder, blood libel and Host desecration
Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews were frequently accused of ritual murder and of using human blood (allegedly, the blood of Christian children was especially coveted) in Jewish services. In many cases, such libels served as the basis for cults, in which the alleged victims of human sacrifice were elevated to the status of martyr. In over 20 cases, the Catholic Church canonized these alleged ritually murdered children as Saints, as it was in the cases of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln (d. 1255) or Simon of Trent (d. 1475). Although the first known instance of blood libel is found in the writings of Apion, who claimed that the Jews sacrificed Greeks in the Temple of Jerusalem, no further incidents are recorded until the 12th century, when blood libels began to proliferate.
One example of Christian hostility towards Jews is the Accusation of Ritual Murder at Blois. The story follows a Jewish man and a Christian servant watering their horses at the same bend in a river. The Jewish man accidentally scared the Christian’s horse with the white corner of his undershirt and the servant rode away, upset about the frightened beast, and told his master he saw the Jew throw a child in the river. The Christian master, who hated Jews, took this opportunity and had the Jew unlawfully accused of murder. The Christians took the man, along with the Jews who had tried to free him, beating and torturing them in the effort that they would abandon their religion. To no avail, the Jews were burned alive.
In some cases, the authorities spoke against the accusations, for example Pope Innocent III wrote in 1199:
No Christian shall do the Jews any personal injury, except in executing the judgments of a judge, or deprive them of their possessions, or change the rights and privileges which they have been accustomed to have. During the celebration of their festivals, no one shall disturb them by beating them with clubs or by throwing stones at them. No one shall compel them to render any services except those which they have been accustomed to render. And to prevent the baseness and avarice of wicked men we forbid anyone to deface or damage their cemeteries or to extort money from them by threatening to exhume the bodies of their dead.
The charge was circulated that they wished to dishonor the Host, which Roman Catholics believe is the body of Jesus Christ.
However, through this desecration and mistreatment of Jews there is evidence through recorded accounts of history that Jews were prosperous despite the religious intolerance imparted upon them. For example, the ownership of horses, which were costly at the time and by means of a trial in front of a jury, regardless of its biased inconsistency.
When the Black Death raged through Europe (1346–53), the charge was given that the Jews had poisoned the wells. The only court of appeal that regarded itself as their appointed protector, according to historical conceptions, was the "Holy Roman Emperor." The emperor, as legal successor to Titus, who had acquired the Jews for his special property through the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, claimed the rights of possession and protection over all the Jews in the former Roman empire.
The Jews, who were driven out of England in 1290, out of France in 1394, and out of numerous districts of Germany, Italy, and the Balkan peninsula between 1350 and 1450, were scattered in all directions, and fled preferably to the new Slavic kingdoms, where for the time being other confessions were still tolerated. Here they found a sure refuge under benevolent rulers and acquired a certain prosperity, in the enjoyment of which the study of the Talmud was followed with renewed vigor. Together with their faith, they took with them the German language and customs, which they have cultivated in a Slavic environment with unexampled faithfulness for centuries.
As in Slavic countries, so also under Muslim rule the persecuted Jews often found a humane reception, especially from the eighth century onward on the Iberian peninsula. But even as early as the thirteenth century the Arabs could no longer offer a real resistance to the advancing force of Christian kings; and with the fall of political power Arabic culture declined, after having been transmitted to the Occident at about the same period, chiefly through the Jews in the north of Spain and in the south of France. At that time there was no field of learning the Spanish Jews did not cultivate. They studied the secular sciences with the same zeal as the Bible and Talmud.
But the growing influence of the Church gradually crowded them out of this advantageous position. At first the attempt was made to win them to Christianity through writings and religious disputations; and when these attempts failed they were ever more and more restricted in the exercise of their civil rights. Soon they were obliged to live in separate quarters of the cities and to wear humiliating badges on their clothing. Thereby they were made a prey to the scorn and hatred of their fellow citizens. In 1391, when a fanatical mob killed four thousand Jews in Seville alone, many in their fright sought refuge in baptism. And although they often continued to observe in secret the laws of their fathers the Inquisition soon rooted out these pretended Christians or Marranos. Thousands were thrown into prison, tortured, and burned, until a project was formed to sweep all Spain clean of unbelievers. The plan matured when in 1492 the last Moorish fortress fell into the hands of the Christians. Queen Isabella of Spain issued an edict banishing all Jews from Spain for acts of, ‘a serious a detestable crime,’ a reference to the purported ritual murder of the infant Christopher of La Guardia, which was tried in court in 1491, and who was later made into a Saint. Many of the Jews fled to the Balkan peninsula, where a few decades before the Crescent had won a victory over the Cross through the Ottoman Turks. Sultan Bayazid II of the Ottoman Empire, learning about the expulsion of Jews from Spain, dispatched the Ottoman Navy to bring the Jews safely to Ottoman lands, mainly to the cities of Salonica (currently in Greece) and Smyrna (currently in Turkey). Judeo-Spanish also known as Ladino (a form of medieval Spanish influenced by Hebrew) was widely spoken some the Jewish communities in Europe since the 15th century.
Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance
The late fifteenth century saw the death of the Byzantine empire (the last remnant of the Roman Empire) and the full conquest of all Greek lands by the Turks. That time period also saw two Spanish royals sponsoring the expulsion of Jews from Spain and the voyage of Columbus, which reached the Americas. The Protestant Reformation, a Christian schism/ revolution, expanded, affecting attitudes towards both the papacy and the Jews. It was an age of inventions and discoveries that brought about an immense change in ideas. It appears that many Jews migrated east, towards the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe. They had to seek refuge in the realms of the Slavs and the Turks. Their external circumstances were not at first unfavorable. They even attained to high positions in the state, at least in The Ottoman Empire (serving several internal political objectives of the Sultan-mainly balancing the gaining influence of the Greek and Armenian traders over the Ottoman economy). Don Joseph Nasi was made Duke of Naxos; and Solomon Ashkenazi was ambassador of the Porte to the republic of Venice.
In Poland the Jews were a link between the nobility and the peasants by working in trade and industry. But there were trials brought upon the Polish and Lithuanian Jews through the Cossack hetman Chmielnicki (1648) and by the Swedish wars (1655). Hundreds of thousands of Jews are said to have been killed in these few years.
In 1648, a youth from Smyrna, Sabbatai Ẓevi, claimed to be the Messiah based on the prophecies of the Zohar, a popular Jewish text at the time. His rapid rise in popularity reflected the desperation of the Jews throughout Europe at the time. Brutal persecutions, murder, seizure of property and forced conversions were rampant. Thousands of Jews sold their properties and followed Sabbatai Zevi to Turkey. He converted to Islam in 1666 rather than face execution at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish Sultan. Thousands of his European Jewish followers became crypto-Jews, called dönme living in Turkey to this day.
Fugitives from Spain and Germany had come also to Italy, and founded new communities beside Greeks who had fled hither from Constantinople-bringing the treasures of classical antiquity with them—became the leaders and guides of the humanists to the source of Jewish antiquity. The Italian Jews taught Hebrew, and learned Latin and Greek.
The inclination to study esoteric doctrines spread at that time even among the Jews who had founded new communities in the Protestant states on the shores of the North Sea under Dutch and English protection. This new mysticism strongly influenced the German Jews. The elector Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg allowed them to settle in Berlin, and protected them with a strong hand from injury and slander.
The Middle Ages ended, according to most scholars, c. 1500-1550. They gave way to the Early Modern Era, c. 1550-1780. Ideas of the European Enlightenment began to affect some Jews in Western Europe (particularly in France and Germany) c. 1780. This marks the end of the Early Modern Era, and the dawn of the Modern Era. The Jewish Enlightenment Haskalah, gradually influenced many Jews across the European continent, reaching to Eastern Europe by the mid- to late-19th century.
- Golden age of Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula
- Jews in the Italian Middle Ages
- Jews in the French Middle Ages
- Jews in the German Middle Ages
- History of the Jews in England (1066–1200)
- History of anti-Semitism
- Islam and Judaism
- History of the Jews in the Roman Empire
- Church And The Jews In The Middle Ages
- Medieval Jewish History - Jews living under Islamic and Christian rule
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