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Overview: Jewish Responses to Material Challenges

medieval-jewsHaving described the context within which Jewish life in medieval western Christendom developed—the diverse forces that encouraged, limited, and opposed the Jews, we must now proceed to examine the Jewish experience from within, to identify the challenges presented to the Jews in western Christendom on both the material and spiritual planes, their responses to these challenges, and the legacy they left to their successors.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Jewish life during our period was the growing mobility of the Jews and the adventurous spirit that moved some of them to seek new areas in which to settle.

While the roots of southern European Jewry were old, during our period some Jews broke the prior boundaries of prior Jewish settlement and ventured forth into previously unsettled areas of northern Europe. The process of moving in search of new opportunities continued all through the medieval centuries. The Jews of northern France were willing to respond to the overtures of the Norman duke turned English king and to venture westward into England. Jews of the German lands were enticed into settling further eastward, at the behest of rulers like the dukes and kings of Poland and Hungary. To be sure, eventually some of the mobility of the Jews of medieval Europe was forced upon them, as a result of the banishments already noted. However, even those Jews who suffered expulsion benefited from the initiative of prior Jews who had opened up new territories for Jewish settlement.

Jewish mobility involved more than simply moving from domain to domain. Even within particular domains, Jews tended to fan out in search of economic opportunity. Where Jews specialized economically, especially in northern Europe, there were normally limitations to the number of merchants or moneylenders that any given town could absorb. Thus, the relatively abundant evidence for twelfth- and thirteenth-century English and northern-French Jewry shows steady movement from initial centers of Jewish settlement, usually in major towns, out into lesser
and outlying towns. This is a reflection of the ongoing Jewish quest for new markets in which to ply their limited business affairs.

As noted, the great horizontal divide in Europe had major implications for its Jews, especially in the sphere of economic activity. The Jews of the south, long-time residents of the Italian peninsula, southern France, and the Iberian peninsula, show considerable diversity in their economic outlets. This is particularly true for the Jews who had lived under Muslim rule in the southern parts of the Italian and Iberian peninsulas and were eventually absorbed into the Christian sphere through conquest. Under Muslim rule, these Jews had occupied almost every rung on the economic ladder, from the lowest to the highest. At the top of the ladder stood Jewish physicians
and bankers—economically well-off and often connected closely to the ruling court. As these Jewish communities passed from Muslim to Christian rule, change was slow to take place, although excessive Jewish political influence regularly elicited ecclesiastical condemnation.

With the changes in the European economy during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Jews of southern Europe began to specialize in money-lending, as had happened already among their northern co-religionists. While the level of specialization in the south never reached the same proportions as in the north, money-lending increasingly became the mainstay of Jewish economic activity across southern Europe as well. The phenomenon of well-placed Jews at the royal courts was maintained to an extent, despite constant ecclesiastical pressures. Even down to the end of Jewish life in Christian Spain, Jewish courtiers continued on the scene, making final and futile efforts to turn back the tide running against themselves and their fellow-Jews.

In northern Europe, the economic situation was quite different. Jews came into the north to fill limited economic niches and were never successful in diversifying into a broader range of economic activities. Initially, the northern European Jews came as merchants involved in trade, both long range and more circumscribed. With the passage of time, these Jews moved into money-lending, to fill the vacuum created by the rapidly expanding European economy coupled with the Church’s assault on Christian usury. Given the early Jewish specialization in trade, including
occasionally selling on credit, it is not surprising that Jews should have been well prepared to move into the money-lending business. As noted already, money-lending was carried on at a variety of levels, from the paltriest to the most extensive and profitable.

Evidence for the centrality of money-lending in the Jewish economy of northern Europe abounds. The extensive royal French legislation of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries—when it addresses Jewish economic issues—deals exclusively with money-lending. Indeed, the mid-twelfth-century defender of the Jews during the Second Crusade, Bernard of Clairvaux, used the term judaizare (to behave like a Jew) for Christians engaged in money-lending, suggesting that in the eyes of many Jews and money-lending were synonymous. We have already noted the extent to which Jewish money-lending dominates the German charters of the mid-thirteenth century. Finally, we have also seen that the justifications for the expulsions of late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries revolved around Jewish money-lending, the evils that allegedly flowed from it, and the inability of the authorities to halt these purportedly harmful Jewish practices. To be sure, there is no reason to assume that all northern-European Jews were involved initially in trade and then subsequently in money-lending. Jews undoubtedly made their living in alternative ways. What does seem likely is that the economic backbone of the community—the avenue pursued by the
majority of Jews and the avenue to economic success for the magnates of the community—lay first in trade and then in banking.

In the north, the southern pattern of well-placed Jews—a legacy of the period of Muslim rule—never developed. Individuals Jews of great wealth, generated by success in the banking arena, did have contact with and a measure of influence over the authorities, but they were never integrated into court life as happened in the south. Perhaps the best known of the wealthy Jews of northern Europe was Aaron of Lincoln, who amassed an extraordinary fortune through his wide-ranging business operations. Aaron dealt with the broadest possible variety of clients, ranging
through the many levels of the Church and the nobility and up to the monarchy itself. At the time of his death, his vast holdings were confiscated by the king, with a special bureau of the royal exchequer established to deal solely with Aaron’s estate.

Jewish life in medieval western Christendom was grounded in economic activities that were perceived as useful by the ruling class and were at the same time profitable to the Jews themselves. For Jewish life to be maintained in areas of old settlement and to take root in areas of new settlement, effective Jewish communal organization was vital as well. The Jews of medieval western Christendom had to create the mechanisms through which relations with the rulers who were the mainstay of Jewish support could be properly channeled. The Jewish communal structure also had to include the necessary apparatus for support of group and individual life internally within the Jewish community.

As noted, the rulers of medieval western Christendom were committed to Jewish settlement out of broad concern for the economy of their domains and out of narrower concern for their own coffers. Actualizing revenue from the Jews devolved heavily—albeit not exclusively—upon the Jewish communal organizations. Thus, the first responsibility of the Jewish self-governing apparatus involved negotiating—to the extent possible—tax levies and then allocating the tax burden within the Jewish community. Each of these activities was significant and fraught with difficulties. The Jews of medieval western Christendom were of course concerned with minimizing their tax burden. The responsibility for carrying on negotiations with the governing authorities fell to the leadership of the Jewish community. The second function was equally important. The Jewish community as a whole was concerned to minimize its tax burden; individual Jewish families were moved by the same desire, the wish to make their own family and personal burdens as light as possible. The leadership of the Jewish community had to devise tax apportionment arrangements that would be simultaneously effective and fair.

The leaders of the Jewish community played an important role in mitigating the burdens imposed by the authorities and then fulfilling the demands imposed by these authorities. At the same time, they bore responsibility for representing Jewish concerns well beyond tax levies. The authorities of both state and church were key to Jewish safety, and the communal leadership had to arouse these authorities to fulfillment of their responsibilities. Maintaining good relations with the rulers of Europe and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and turning to these two sets of authorities in times of peril was a major responsibility of the Jewish leadership.

Numerous instances of Jewish intervention with the governing authorities are available, some successful and some unsuccessful. As the crisis of 1096 developed, with early assaults in Speyer and Worms, the leadership of the Jewish community of Mainz negotiated effectively with the archbishop and his courtiers, who made the following suggestion- “Bring all your moneys into our treasury and into the treasury of the archbishop. Then you and your wives and your children and all your retinue bring into the courtyard of the bishop. Thus will you be able to be saved from the crusaders.” The Jewish chronicler of these negotiations is unsure as to the seriousness of the Christian side to these negotiations. He first suggests that this was actually a ploy to deliver the Jews to the crusaders; he then indicates that the Christian intentions were in fact serious, but that the defenders proved incapable. The new allegation of Jewish murder in the French town of Blois in 1171, which we have earlier noted, elicited immediate and effective Jewish intervention in many directions, culminating in a successful meeting with the king of France himself. The king is described in the surviving Jewish letter as moved by the Jewish pleas and angered by the arbitrary anti-Jewish actions of the Count of Blois; he reassured the frightened Jews that the charge backed by the count of Blois would never be accepted in his domain.

Jewish leaders likewise intervened with the leadership of the Church on numerous occasions. A curious narrative—of questionable veracity—tells of an effort at forced conversion in early-eleventh-century northern France, which moved a leader of that community to make his way to the papal court in Rome. Purportedly aided by the Jews of Rome, this Jew supposedly obtained an audience with the pope and elicited a document of protection that included basic stipulation of the later Constitutio pro Judeis. Far better documented are later Jewish interventions with the
papacy in the face of the new anti-Jewish allegations and in the wake of the French condemnation and prohibition of the Talmud. As we have seen, the Jewish negotiations produced papal insistence on return of the Talmud to the Jews, with offending materials deleted. Such interventions with the officials of church and state were critical to Jewish well-being in medieval Europe.

The leadership of the Jewish communities bore heavy responsibility for life within the Jewish community as well. The role of government in medieval Europe was minimal, confined to protection from outside assault, maintenance of peace and order internally, and dispensing of justice. While protection from assault was a responsibility the lay authorities of medieval western Christendom bore with respect to their Jewish clients, maintenance of peace and order within the Jewish community and dispensing justice was normally delegated to the leadership of the Jewish
community. For many reasons, medieval Jews welcomed these burdens.

Key to maintenance of internal order within the Jewish communities of medieval western Christendom was the Jewish court system. With roots in biblical and talmudic traditions, the medieval Jewish court system was well grounded and deeply respected. Jews were often formally accorded the right to have their internal quarrels litigated by the Jewish courts, operating of course on the principles of talmudic law. Such privileges were deeply appreciated Seeking to undermine in any way the power of the Jewish court system was a heinous offense in medieval Jewish
communal life. Since there were those who occasionally had independent connections to non-Jewish rulers, exploiting those connections to the detriment of the organized Jewish community constituted a major danger, was deeply resented, and was heavily criticized.

Social needs, educational needs, and of course religious needs fell into the province of the Church for the Christian majority. For the small Jewish minority, these responsibilities too fell upon the Jewish communal apparatus. To be sure, the Jews welcomed these responsibilities as well, again out of the sense that they were in fact mandated by Jewish tradition. The Jewish community organizations of medieval western Christendom had to provide a network of social services. Jewish communities all across Europe created a variety of modalities for support of wayfarers, the poor, the aged, and the infirm. These agencies operated as constituent elements within the Jewish communal structure and as separate charitable operations funded through private donations. Again, in the polemical give-and-take in which Christians and Jews sought to identify aspects of superiority, Jews regularly cited the largesse of Jewish care for those in need, contrasting Jewish successes with what was perceived as Christian callousness in dealing with those in need.

Jewish educational needs likewise had to be addressed by the organized Jewish community. Here,there were major differences between larger and smaller Jewish communities, with the former able to create more formal schooling structures and the latter forced to deal more informally with educational needs. Schooling was for males only, with instruction focused on Hebrew and Bible for younger students and then proceeding to rabbinic literature for more advanced students. In the early stages of the development of northern-European Jewry, advanced schools seem to have developed around the figures of especially revered scholars. Interestingly, in the wake of the crisis that struck
Iberian Jewry at the end of the fourteenth and the early years of the fifteenth century, major communal reform focused considerably on strengthening the educational system, reflecting awareness of the importance of schooling for the well-being of the community and the maintenance of Jewish identity.

The religious needs of the community were of course paramount. The demands of Jewish law created the need for a wide range of facilities—synagogues, cemeteries, kosher butcher shops, and a ritual bathhouse among others. In many instances, these needs were even recognized by the non-Jewish authorities. We recall the grant by the bishop of Speyer of land for a Jewish cemetery, as part of his generous charter of invitation to new Jewish settlers. Beyond facilities, there was a parallel need for professional communal personnel—rabbis, teachers, ritual slaughterers, and
scribes. As was true for facilities, so too support of these professionals was an obligation of the organized Jewish community. In some instances, these professionals—especially the rabbis—were highly esteemed; in other instances, they were not.

Who exercised authority within the organized Jewish community? There were basically two avenues to authority within the Jewish fold. The first was socio-economic power, and the second was the religious authority of the rabbis. Wealthy Jews—as in all eras of Jewish and general history—exercised considerable power. Wealth meant the likelihood of some connection to the majority power structure; it also meant bearing a heavy portion of the Jewish community’s tax burden; finally, it meant serving as employer or patron to many Jews within the community. The
nature of Jewish religious life propelled the rabbis into a position of power as well. Since the Jews of our period were deeply committed to living life in consonance with the dictates of Jewish law, expertise in that law was the key to religious authority. Generally the two leadership groups lived comfortably with one another; on occasion, friction could and did develop.

By and large, the Jewish community structures were effective throughout our period, both in terms of relating to the non-Jewish authorities and in providing for the internal communal needs of the Jews of medieval western Christendom. There is a last achievement that slips over into the realm of Jewish spiritual life and that is exceedingly difficult to document. As we shall see shortly, the Jews of medieval western Christendom were under constant religious pressure exerted by the aggressive Christian majority. Maintenance of Jewish identity was no simple matter, and we shall examine the diverse ways in which the religious and intellectual elite of European Jewry met this challenge. By and large, Jewish identity was successful maintained. While we cannot trace the ways in which the cohesive Jewish community structure contributed to the maintenance of Jewish identity, we are justified in assuming that Jews wrestling with the pressures of Christian society found profound support in family and community.

Contrary to popular imagery, fostered by Renaissance and Enlightenment rejection of the medieval order, the period between 1000 was characterized by rapid change and growth. For the Jews of medieval western Christendom, this meant above all else the need for constant adaptation. The large Jewish settlements in southern Europe had to make a difficult transition from Muslim rule and civilization to Christian domination and civilization. The smaller Jewish settlements of the south, already living under Christian rule, had to adjust to the ever-changing circumstances forced
upon them by rapid development in their home areas. Perhaps the most radical adaptation was faced by the Jews who made their way northward into areas of entirely new Jewish settlement, leaving behind the known and the familiar. In fact, the adaptations necessary for these Jews was yet more demanding, involving initially transition to an entirely new environment and then ongoing adaptation to the rapidly changing circumstances of northern-European society.

The Jews of medieval western Christendom showed remarkable adaptability in meeting their ever-shifting circumstances. To be sure, all did not work out well. The directions that sectors—the most advanced sectors in fact—of medieval western Christendom took entailed rejection of the Jews once warmly welcomed. However, these failures need not be laid at the doorsteps of the Jews themselves. Adaptability has its limitations, and adaptable humans can sometimes be overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control.

This leads to the final question to be raised at this point. Were the Jews who opted to remain in place as their home areas fell under Christian rule and those who opted to make their way into western Christendom ultimately misguided? Did they make a monumental error of judgment? Would they have better served their own interests and the interests of Jewish history by opting for the Islamic sector of the medieval world? These kinds of questions normally fall outside the boundaries of historical inquiry. Nonetheless, two observations are in order. First, it is problematic to judge individuals and communities through hindsight. With considerable humility, we should
accord genuine respect to actors on the historical stage. The Jews who opted for western Christendom can hardly be judged as fools, despite some of the untoward developments that overtook them and their community. The case for western Christendom was obviously compelling to them, and we must respect that judgment.

Beyond this respectful stance, we can also conclude that the Jews who opted for western Christendom out of admiration for its vitality and dynamism were hardly proved wrong. Medieval western Christendom in fact made its way to the apex of Western civilization, dominating the Western world from the late Middle Ages down to the present. Thus, the decision made in favor of western Christendom—despite the many negative developments of the late Middle Ages and the modern period as well—looks in retrospect reasonable. Put differently, the major achievement of the Jews of medieval western Christendom was to effect the transition from the declining Islamic
milieu to the ascendant Christian orbit. Difficulties notwithstanding, transferring the center of world Jewish population to western Christendom placed the medieval Jews and their modern successors at the heart of the most advanced sectors of the globe. Without any possibility of understanding the eventual ramifications of their individual decisions, the Jews who opted for the Christian sphere made a vital contribution to the future of the Jewish people.

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