An observer viewing world Jewry in the year 1000 would have readily discerned obvious Jewish demographic distribution and equally obvious configuration of Jewish creativity. The oldest, largest, and most creative Jewish communities were located in the Muslim sphere, stretching from Mesopotamia westward through the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean Sea, across North Africa, and over onto the Iberian peninsula. Somewhat smaller, but still sizeable and venerable were the Jewish communities of the eastern half of Christendom, the Byzantine Empire. Our putative observer might have noted, merely as an afterthought, the small Jewish settlements in western Christendom, huddled along the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea—in central and northern Italy, southern France, and northern Spain; reasonably enough, he might have not even bothered to mention them, for they would hardly have seemed worthy of serious attention.
Pressed to predict what the future might hold, our hypothetical observer in the year 1000 would have assumed that the known configuration of Jewish life would surely last into the indeterminate future. In general of course, most of us have great difficulty in imagining radically altered circumstances. Such a lack of imagination would have hardly been the only factor influencing our observer, however. He would probably have known that the demographic distribution of world Jewry encountered in the year 1000 had been stable for nearly eight hundred years. Such stability would have created an impression of permanency—a sense that this is the way things have always been and will always continue to be.
Moreover, there was nothing in the year 1000 to suggest that radical change on the broader world scene was in the offing. The constellation of world power appeared remarkably stable. Islam’s domination seemed to be challenged seriously by no one, neither the Greek Christians of the eastern sectors of the Mediterranean nor the weaker Latin Christians of the western sectors of Europe. Our observer of the year 1000 would surely have concluded that the contemporary power structure was unlikely to shift and that Jewish life would thus continue along the well-established lines currently discernible. Were our hypothetical observer of the year 1000 in a position to view world Jewry in the year 1250—halfway through our period—or in the year 1500, he would have been stunned by the altered circumstances of Jewish life. While the Jewries of the Muslim world remained in place in the years 1250 and 1500, they were well on their way to losing their position of demographic and creative eminence. They were in the process of being supplanted in their physical and cultural primacy by the diverse Jewish communities of western Christendom. The rise of Latin Christendom to its central role in the Western world, initiated from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, brought in its wake a parallel ascendancy of the Jewish communities it harbored and attracted—a development insufficiently noted but by no means surprising.
Periodically—but not all that often—new powers have erupted from fringe areas and radically altered the power structure of the Western world. Such an unanticipated eruption and restructuring took place during the seventh century, when the forces of Islam exploded unexpectedly out of the Arabian peninsula and overwhelmed both the Neo-Persians to the east and the Byzantines to the west, in the process carving out a vast empire that stretched from western India to the Atlantic Ocean. A more recent example of this restructuring has involved the rise of the United States to its central position in the West, usurping the hegemony long associated with such European powers as England, France, Germany, and Spain. It was between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries that these European powers—especially England, France, and Spain—emerged from their relatively backward state and began to dominate the Western world. The rapid and unexpected emergence of Roman Catholic Latin Christendom transformed the West and, in the process, realigned the prior patterns of world Jewish population, authority, and creativity. As a result of this seismic shift in world power structure, the Jews became and have remained ever since a European and eventually North Atlantic people, fully a part of the Christian West.
Herein lies the enormous significance of the period covered in this section of the COJS websites. This era of roughly five hundred years—approximately 1000 to 1500—saw the onset of an entirely new pattern of Jewish settlement and civilization. Prior to the year 1000, the Jews had been overwhelmingly a Near and Middle Eastern people. The languages, politics, and cultures of the Jews from their earliest days down through the year 1000—a period of some two millennia—had been shaped by the larger Near and Middle Eastern context in which Jewish life was concentrated. During the period between 1000 and 1500, the prior patterns of Jewish life began to shift, as western Christendom became home to an increasingly large and eventually dominant percentage of world Jewry. This new context for Jewish living was by no means simple or comfortable. Problems, pressures, and persecution abounded. Nonetheless, the displacement of the Jews from their earlier Near and Middle Eastern settings into their new European ambiance went on inexorably, as Jews were determined to carve out for themselves a place in the dynamic new centers of Western civilization. Difficulties notwithstanding, the result was the onset of a brilliant, albeit difficult new period in the long history of the Jewish people.
The Church and the Jews
The period between 1000 and 1500 was characterized, above all else, by the creation of a significant Jewish presence in medieval western Christendom, forcing both the Christian majority and the Jewish minority to new awareness of and interaction with one another. Rapidly developing western Christendom consisted of sprawling and diverse territories, housing a wide variety of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural communities. The major force that held the heterogeneous elements of Europe together was the Roman Catholic Church, and thus the Church played a dominant role in the fate of the emergent Jewish communities of medieval western Christendom.
To be sure, the history of Christian-Jewish relations did not begin in the year 1000. Christianity was, after all, born within the Jewish community of Palestine. Indeed, the complex evolution of Christianity out of a Jewish matrix fostered a highly charged and deeply ambivalent stance on the part of the subsequent Christian world towards Judaism and the Jews. On the one hand, Jews were respected by Christians as the first to acknowledge the one true God in the universe; at the same time, it was difficult for Christians to comprehend how the Jews could squander their original insight, how they could have failed to acknowledge the messianic figure promised in their own sacred writings. On the one hand, these Jewish sacred writings were respectfully made an integral part of Christian Scripture; on the other hand, Christians were convinced that Jews grossly misread these sacred writings. On the one hand, the Jews represented the biological descendants of the original Israel; on the other hand, they were viewed as superseded by the spiritual descendants of the original Israel, i.e. Christians and Christianity.
Jesus and his immediate circle have left us no writings of their own, making reconstruction of the earliest phase of Christian history difficult or perhaps impossible. While there is wide-ranging disagreement as to the activities and messages of Jesus, it is broadly agreed that he saw himself as a Jew, was seen by his contemporaries as a Jew, surrounded himself with Jewish followers, addressed primarily his fellow-Jews, and was feared and persecuted by the Romans as a danger to the stability of the Jewish community of Palestine.
Paul is the first figure in the Christian world to leave his own writings. He was not one of Jesus’ immediate disciples; in fact, he was not a Palestinian Jew at all. Rather, Paul brought to his belief in Jesus the differing perspective of a diaspora Jew. Despite the lack of knowledge of Jesus’ own message, there is broad agreement that Paul introduced new themes and emphases, reflective of his somewhat different background. Paul’s writings show a sense of mission to the gentiles and complex wrestling with the place of Judaism and the Jews in the cosmic order. On the one hand, Paul regularly castigates the Jews for their failure to recognize Jesus and his unique place in history; at the same time, he proclaims ongoing loyalty to the people from whom he came, with a firm conviction that God—despite his wrath with the Jews—would eventually accept them once more. Paul’s ambivalence set the tone for subsequent Christian thinking. The writers of the gospels post-dated Paul and introduced into their depictions of Jesus and his disciples themes that evolved subsequent to the completion of Jesus’ earthly mission. Despite Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the Romans, the gospel writers portray only one salient conflict during Jesus’ lifetime—the conflict between the messianic figure and the disbelieving leaders of the Jewish people. The Jews are pictured as guilty of two major offenses—first, failure to recognize Jesus as Messiah and then, more stunningly, responsibility for his crucifixion. The gospels’ portrait of the Jews in fact serves to erase some of the complex ambivalence of the Pauline view; there is little in the gospels that proclaims God’s ongoing love for the Jewish people. The depiction of Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus served to stigmatize the Jews over the centuries, to create potent anti-Jewish imagery associated with a core event in Christian sacred history.
Early Christian attitudes to Judaism and the Jews were rich with resentment over what was perceived as Jewish failure to perceive and acknowledge the truth of Jesus as Messiah. As Christianity developed rapidly across the Roman Empire, a new stance emerged, that of defensiveness. The Jewish foundations of much Christian thinking and the absorption of the Hebrew Bible into Christian Scripture created a concern that newly converted Christians might be susceptible to Jewish influence. These concerns led in two directions. On the spiritual plane, they led to heightened denigration of Judaism in an effort to emphasize the distinctions between Christian truth and Jewish error; on the more practical plane, they led to calls for segregating Jews from Christians so that there might be no harmful contact.
In the early fourth century, a decisive change took place in the status of Christianity within the Roman world. With Constantine, Christianity ceased to be a persecuted sect and evolved into the new foundation for imperial rule. With Christian accession to power, there was suddenly a need to define formally the place of Judaism and the Jews in Christian society. Constantine himself seems merely to have ratified the older status of the Jews as a legitimate religious tradition, to be limited in ways that would preclude any untoward Jewish impact on Christianity and Christians.
In the late fourth and early fifth century, it fell to the great theoretician of Christianity, Augustine of Hippo, to adumbrate a doctrine of Judaism that synthesized the various pre-existent elements and set the parameters for subsequent Christian policy vis-à-vis the Jews. Augustine established a recognized place for Jews in Christian society. Jewish presence was justified in a number of ways. In part, it was clearly God’s will, as Augustine reprised the Pauline sense of eventual reconciliation between God and the Jewish people. More immediately, the Jews served a number of useful functions for their Christian hosts. They proclaimed the truth of the Hebrew Bible, thus establishing a firm foundation for the Christian claims that Jesus fulfilled divinely revealed predictions of messianic advent. Moreover, Jewish sinfulness and immediate divine punishment served as a useful object lesson for all of humanity, proving beyond any doubt that God rewards righteousness and punishes sin.
The Augustinian doctrine of basic Jewish rights also set the parameters for subsequent Church policies. Jews were to comport themselves in ways that entailed no harm whatsoever to Christianity and Christians, and Christians were to be mindful always of their responsibility to preach Christian truth to their Jewish neighbors. Finally, Augustine also buttressed prior imagery of the Jews. Despite acknowledging the truth of the Hebrew Bible, Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries failed thoroughly in understanding the truths that God had revealed to them through the prophets, and later Jews compounded that initial error with their own obtuseness. Projecting punishment of the sinful Jews as a powerful object lesson—advanced by Augustine as one of the bases for Jewish rights in Christian society—strongly reinforced the gospel portrayal of Jewish wickedness and cemented that imagery in subsequent Christian consciousness.
So long as the overwhelming majority of world Jewry lived outside the orbit of Christian power, as has been described for the pre-1000 period, the Jewish issue was muted for the Christian authorities. Church leaders produced an extensive anti-Jewish literature during the first Christian millennium. Most of that literature, however, was defensive and intended for Christian audiences, focused on buttressing convictions as to the rejection of Old Israel (the Jews) and the election of a New Israel (the Christians). Genuine engagement with real Jews was limited. From the Jewish side, the lack of engagement with Christianity was yet more marked. Up until the year 1000 and well beyond, we possess not one single anti-Christian work composed by Jews living within western Christendom. Down through the end of the first millennium, the Jews of the world, concentrated in the realm of Islam, were by and large unconcerned with Christianity and Christians.
With the growth of Jewish population in western Christendom, serious engagement from both sides had to begin. Jews and Judaism penetrated the Christian consciousness in a far more immediate way than heretofore. This meant the augmentation of the negative elements in Church doctrine and the adumbration of more extensive policies for the Jewish minority living within western Christendom. For the Jewish minority, the changes were equally momentous. Jewish life was now constrained by new policies and new dangers; Jews were now regularly exposed to the blandishments of the majority Christian religious faith; Jewish leaders had to learn more about that majority faith and to fashion anti-Christian argumentation that would enable their Jewish followers to resist missionizing pressures and remain loyal to Judaism.
Medieval western Christendom was unified by broad commitment to Christianity and general acceptance of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The legacy bequeathed by antiquity to the medieval Church and its believers included doctrine and policy, both of which were expanded and developed during our period and profoundly influenced the Jews of medieval western Christendom. The historic ambivalence already highlighted remained prominent. For medieval Jews, this ambivalence was positive in that it included benign elements; it was problematic in that it included harmful elements; additionally, the ambivalence itself often proved dangerous, as popular thinking had great difficulty in maintaining the complicated balance that the Church demanded. For many in medieval European society, if the Jews had rejected Jesus and had forced his crucifixion, then they were legitimate objects of hostility and anger; the mitigations developed by the Church were often too complex for many among the masses to absorb. Church doctrine posited the dignity of Judaism and the Jews alongside their shortcomings. Jews were seen as the first to acknowledge God as ruler of the universe, the first bearers of the covenant with the one true God, and the first human community acknowledged by God as his chosen partners. In the Church view, the Jews had however, from the very beginning, shown signs of inability to live up to the demands of the covenantal relationship. The stories of Israelite rebelliousness against Moses and the strictures of the prophets against Israelite and Judean shortcomings reflect those early failures vividly. Eventually, Jewish sinfulness became unbearable, as Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries rejected the divinely appointed Messiah sent to redeem them. God had—according to the Church—no choice but to replace the Jews with a new covenant people, a new and true Israel. There were thus reasons to honor the Jews and to disdain them, reasons to welcome them and to reject them. The Pauline sense of an eventual return of the Jews to their senses and an eventual reconciliation with God further complicated matters. To the extent that this Pauline view was espoused seriously, it lent additional support to balancing the doctrinal scale. Despite the powerfully negative portrait of the Jews in the gospels, Jews were to be viewed benignly in terms of both their past and their ultimate future.
The basic directions of Church policy flowed directly from the fundamental doctrine just now indicated. Because of their past and future and their present theological usefulness, the medieval Roman Catholic Church insisted upon a legitimate place for Jews in Christian society. The basic rights of the Jews were proclaimed repeatedly by the leadership of the Church. Beginning in the twelfth century, popes promulgated regularly a Constitutio pro Judeis, a statement of basic Jewish rights, which included personal safety, protection of Jewish property, freedom from coerced conversion, and security for Jewish sacred space. Jews could not be assaulted or robbed, with the culprits maintaining that their actions were legitimate, because the victims were Jews. Jews were not to be brought to the baptismal fount by violence, and Jewish sacred space was to be inviolable. Beyond the formal statements, the leadership of the Church in fact recurrently demanded in practice recognition of these rights. Thus, for example, when anti-Jewish violence unexpectedly broke out in 1096, as part of the early stages of the First Crusade, Church leadership made note of the fact and, armed with this foreknowledge, made strenuous efforts to insure Jewish safety during the subsequent crusading ventures. These efforts were by and large successful, as the ecclesiastical leadership of the second and subsequent crusades insisted regularly that Jews were not to be harmed as part of the crusading enterprise. As increasingly irrational charges about Jews evolved during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Church leadership made similar efforts. These efforts, however, were somewhat less consistent. On the one hand, the mid-thirteenth-century allegation that Jews use Christian blood in their Passover rituals was decisively rejected by the papacy. On the other hand, when the charge of host desecration by Jews surfaced in Paris in 1290, the leadership of the Church proclaimed the sanctity of the site of an alleged host desecration and consequent miracle, in effect endorsing the dangerous new claim.
The issue of forced baptism was especially complex. On the one hand, the Church proclaimed unceasingly that force should not be used to win converts, that conversion was a matter of the heart and had to be undertaken with fullest understanding and commitment. The Church saw forced baptism as insincere and thus inappropriate to the spiritual life of the convert; indeed, it projected forced baptism as a danger to the Christian community, since the likelihood of backsliding and heresy among forced converts would be high. However, despite continued warnings against coerced
conversion, when force was in fact exercised in conversion, the status of the convert turned out to be problematic. In the wide-ranging riots on the Iberian peninsula in 1391, when large numbers of Jews converted under duress, many out of a sense that their conversion would be nullified when normalcy was re-established, the Church was unwilling to permit those forcibly converted to return to the Jewish fold, thereby creating a significant problem of insincere converts among the New Christians.
Jews had a right to secure existence in medieval Christian society, but that right was accompanied by clearly defined limitations. Jews were expected to comport themselves in ways that would entail no harm to the Christian faith and society that hosted them. This translated, first of all, into prohibition of any Jewish blasphemy of Christianity. Jews were utterly forbidden to utter any statement or engage in any behavior that might be disrespectful of the ruling faith. For this reason, free and equal religious discussion between Christians and Jews was unacceptable, since it might entail Jewish criticism of the Christian faith. As we shall see, Christian missionizing was carried out under very controlled circumstances, which afforded no opportunity for Jewish criticism of Christianity. It is worth noting the asymmetry in this regard. Christians were perfectly free to denigrate Judaism and did so regularly; Jews were, however, precluded from any criticism of Christianity. The governing structure of medieval western Christendom did not include equal treatment for all as a basic tenet; indeed, it rejected any such notions of equality.
A major crisis for Europe’s Jews was precipitated in the 1230’s and 1240’s, when an apostate from Judaism named Nicholas Donin appeared at the papal court and claimed that the Talmud, the cornerstone of Jewish religious life in medieval Europe, was replete with blasphemies, including attacks on Jesus and Mary. Pope Gregory IX and his court were deeply distressed over this allegation and empowered Donin to undertake fuller investigation and to initiate requisite actions if the allegations were proven true. The scene of Donin’s follow-up activities was Paris, the site of the court of the pious King Louis IX of France—eventually Saint Louis—and of the famed University of Paris. Donin and a team of apostates knowledgeable in Hebrew translated important sections of the Talmud and organized their translations into a set of accusations. Armed with these accusations, Donin engineered—with royal backing—a trial of the Talmud, in which Donin himself served as prosecutor and four leading French rabbis appeared as witnessesfor the defense. The Talmud was found guilty of blasphemy, and large quantities of rabbinic texts were burned in Paris in 1242, in a public display that sullied the Parisian populace’s perceptions of Judaism and the Jews and that sent the Jews of northern France into deep mourning.
The condemnation and burning of the Talmud had extensive aftermath. The Jews themselves argued that destruction and prohibition of the Talmud in effect contradicted the basic right of Jews to live as Jews in Christian society, for without the guidance of the Talmud Jewish life was impossible. Pope Gregory IX’s successor, Pope Innocent IV, was moved by the Jewish argument and sought a compromise whereby blasphemy would be eliminated, without robbing the Jews of their Talmud and thus of their basic religious rights. He urged the authorities in Paris, ecclesiastical and lay, to have the Talmud re-examined and to return to the Jews those portions that were free of blasphemy. In effect, this meant a policy of censoring the Talmud, which became the dominant stance for the rest of the Middle Ages in most areas of western Christendom. In the French kingdom, however, the conclusion of the re-trial of the Talmud was that its blasphemies were so pervasive and horrific as to preclude return of the books to the Jews. The Talmud remained outlawed throughout the rest of the stay of the Jews in the French kingdom.
Jews were prohibited from inflicting harm on Christianity and harm on Christians as well. The most obvious harm that Jews could inflict of Christians was to wean them away from their faith. Jews might under no circumstances entice Christians out of the Christian fold. One of the pre-medieval legacies of the Church was insistence that Jews be prohibited from positions of power over Christians, since power often translates into influence. With the passage of time, the concern with Jewish influence moved from power to contact. Increasingly, the Church began to enact ecclesiastical legislation that called for segregation of the Jews, so that they not enjoy the proximity to Christians that might engender religious influence. The Church demanded that Jews be forbidden from living in small villages, where Christian-Jewish contact would be inescapable, and that Jews be restricted to certain sectors of towns, again in an effort to diminish Christian-Jewish contact.
The most radical of these efforts at segregation came in 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, where the assembled leadership of the Church enacted a stipulation that Jews be readily distinguishable from Christian neighbors by virtue of their garb. Distinguishing garb eventually took many forms, the most common of which involved badges sewn on the outer garments of Jews and special Jewish hats. All these efforts at enhanced segregation of the Jews were ultimately dependent on the lay authorities for enforcement. Many of the lay authorities of medieval western Christendom were slow in supplying the requisite enforcement, but the pressure of the Church was unremitting and over time Jews of Europe were in fact increasingly segregated.
Jewish religious influence on Christian neighbors took an unusual turn in fifteen-century Spain, under the special circumstances already briefly noted. The persecutions of 1391 had led to massive Jewish conversion, in many instances based on the mistaken assumption that, when normalcy returned, the forced converts would be permitted to return to their ancestral faith. When such permission was not forthcoming, the New Christians had to make the best of matters. The result was that, by the 1470’s, evidence began mounting of massive insincerity within New Christian circles. Some voices in the Church urged that the problem be addressed in sympathetic terms, with warmth and a renewed commitment to educating the former Jews into their new Christian identity. Other voices viewed the problem as one of criminality and insisted on punishment of the malefactors through the office of the inquisition. For the latter group, the Jews played a major role in the heresy of the New Christians,through active or even inactive encouragement of a return to Judaism. Thus, in this view, only removal of the Jews altogether would aid in the solution of the problem of heresy among the New Christians. While the notion of Jewish harm inflicted on Christians was primarily an issue of the religious sphere of life, with the passage of time this notion could easily be expanded and in fact was. With the Jewish move into heavy concentration in money-lending during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, churchmen—who regarded themselves and were regarded by others as protectors of the Christian masses—began to call for limitations that would safeguard vulnerable Christians. The most prominent of these safeguards was demanded at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, already noted for its enactment of distinguishing Jewish garb. With respect to Jewish moneylending, the assembled leaders of the Roman Catholic Church legislated that Jews not lend money at exorbitant rates of interest, which were proving harmful to Christian borrowers. Jewish rights were carefully balanced against multiple restrictions upon Jewish behaviors. Transgressions on the part of individual Jews were a matter with which the lay authorities were expected to deal. Individual Jews who blasphemed against
Christianity or enticed Christians out of the fold were guilty of criminal behaviors and were liable to punishment. What then of purported transgressions on the part of the entire Jewish community? Such group transgressions could legitimately eventuate in banishment of such Jews. This was the formal basis for the spate of expulsions that began to afflict medieval European Jewry from the late twelfth century onward. In some instances, the banishments reflected secular concerns and interests, although Christian piety was always highlighted in the formal edicts. On the Iberian peninsula toward the end of the fifteenth century, the Church in fact took the lead in calling for expulsion of the Jews, on the grounds that Jewish presence and influence were at the root of the backsliding—i.e., heresy—of the large number of New Christians (whose complicated existence has just now been noted) in society.
Church policy of protection and limitation was complicated by yet one more element, and that involved the commitment to preaching Christian truth to the Jews. During the early part of our period, the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, the commitment to proselytizing was limited, and Christian anti-Jewish argumentation was intended largely to bolster internal Christian convictions. By the middle of the twelfth century, as western Christendom became increasingly strong and aggressive, genuine missionizing ardor developed. During the middle decades of the thirteenth century, the new commitment eventuated in a concerted and well-orchestrated campaign. The objective was no longer to reassure Christians; it was to win over Jews. In this more aggressive setting, the key issues for the Church involved finding the proper venues for delivering the Christian message and discovering lines of argumentation that might be effective with Jewish audiences.
Jewish circumstances in medieval western Christendom set the stage for effective delivery of Christian claims to Jewish audiences. Because of Jewish dependency upon the lay authorities of western Christendom, the political establishment could force Jews to present themselves to hear Christian claims. What was required was simply the willingness of the political leadership to enact such decrees, and many were quite willing to do so. Jews protested strenuously, arguing that forced exposure to Christian preaching and teaching contravened the basic right of Jews to live as Jews in Christian society. To this Jewish claim, Church and lay leadership responded that the only force exerted involved confrontation of Jews with Christian arguments. Such forced confrontation in no way diminished Jewish freedom of choice. Jews were free to hear Christian claims and reject them.
The most common format for forced confrontation with Christian claims was the compulsory sermon. Jews were ordered by the lay authorities to hear the sermons of preachers, often of the Dominican Order, which had been organized to combat heresy through rigorous argumentation and—subsequently—to utilize knowledge of religious truth and mechanisms of intellectual combat to preach the faith to non-Christians as well. To the extent that Jews could influence the venue of these forced sermons, they much preferred to have them take place in synagogues, where at least the Jewish audience felt a measure of familiarity and comfort. In the wake of such forced sermons, rabbis often gave counter-addresses, intended to rebut the Christian claims and to reinforce the audience’s sense of Jewish truth.
The so-called forced disputations were an offshoot of the forced sermon. The one liability, from the Christian perspective, of the forced sermon was the lack of overt Jewish response. Christian preachers had no way of assessing audience reaction—were their Jewish listeners reacting positively, negatively, or with total indifference? The forced disputation was intended to bring Christian preachers into contact with Jewish leaders, to engage the Jewish leaders with Christian arguments, and to force these Jewish leaders to respond publicly. These public disputations have often been misunderstood by moderns as open-ended discussions of religious truth, which they certainly were not. Again, under no circumstances were Jews to be allowed to criticize the ruling faith. These public disputations were carefully orchestrated engagements, in which the Christian side was empowered to advance its claims and the Jewish side was limited to parrying these claims. In some instances, such as the famed Barcelona disputation of 1263, there is no evidence of Christian success; in other cases, such as the equally well-known Tortosa disputation of 1412-1415, the protracted public disputation resulted in considerable Jewish conversion.
Engaging the Jews was only the first step. Equally important was creation of arguments that would resonate effectively with the coerced Jewish audience. Of course, the Christian-Jewish argument was, by our period, ancient, and lines of argumentation from both sides had long been articulated. Not surprisingly, the minority group—i.e., the Jews—was considerably more knowledgeable as to the claims of the majority, since they had to fend off these claims. As ecclesiastical leadership became seriously committed to the missionizing enterprise, it became increasingly aware of the existence of long-established Jewish lines of resistance. Effective Christian argumentation necessitated recognition and circumvention of these well-established Jewish counter-claims.
Thus, the first element in the new missionizing campaign involved fuller knowledge of the Jews, their well-established lines of anti-Christian argumentation, and their vulnerabilities. The key to all of this lay in the Hebrew language, the language of Jewish cultural tradition and Jewish creativity in medieval western Christendom. The Church amassed new knowledge of Hebrew in two ways, first through converts from Judaism to Christianity, who brought their Hebrew knowledge with them, and then through establishment of schools for the study of Hebrew—and Arabic as well. Slowly, a cadre of preachers knowledgeable in Hebrew and Jewish texts was created, and through them traditional Jewish rebuttals of traditional Christian claims became better known. Since this was a period of rapid advance in Christian—and Jewish—intellectual life, Church leaders committed to the new proselytizing felt a measure of confidence in these advances. They now knew that many of the traditional Christian claims based on traditional biblical prooftexts were familiar to Jews and had long ago elicited Jewish rebuttals. There was not much point in going over the same ground. On the other hand, major gains had been made in biblical studies, so there was some sense that the new lines of exegesis, especially the emphasis on grappling with the original Hebrew text of what Christians viewed as their Old Testament, might proved useful in exploring new avenues of biblically-grounded missionizing argumentation.
Yet more confidence was invested in the new developments in philosophy and theology. These advances gave many Christian the sense that Christianity was the only truly rational faith and that it might be proven directly and exclusively through a reliance on reason, with no recourse to revelation whatsoever. The great thirteenth-century Dominican philosopher-theologian of the University of Paris, Thomas Aquinas, went so far as to undertake an entirely rational case for the truth of Christianity. His Summa contra gentiles set out to show that any rational human, armed onlywith the tools of reasonable inquiry, could and would come to the conclusion that Christianity represented truth. These advances created a powerful sense of confidence in Christian circles. For the missionizing enterprise, however, philosophic argumentation proved only minimally useful. Philosophic argumentation was extremely complex and sophisticated. A synagogue audience of Jews would be utterly incapable of following such arcane argumentation.
Perhaps the most strikingly innovative line in Christian missionizing argumentation involved the claim that rabbinic literature, when read properly, supported Christian truth claims. By the middle decades of the thirteenth century, the Church was becoming increasingly familiar with the Talmud and the rest of the rabbinic corpus. As noted, one direction in which this awareness led was a focus on anti-Christian material in the Talmud and condemnation of rabbinic literature on grounds of blasphemy. This attack was—as noted—initiated in the 1230’s by an apostate named Nicholas Donin. Yet another apostate, Friar Paul Christian of the Dominican Order, exploited his knowledge of the Talmud in quite another direction. Beginning in the 1240’s, he began preaching to Jewish audiences that the rabbis of old had in fact recognized and acknowledged Christian truth. This could be clearly seen—he argued—in their comments on major biblical verses and in their free-standing dicta.
As an example of the former, we might note exegesis of Isaiah 52-13-53-12, the famous “Suffering Servant” pericope. Medieval Christians argued regularly that this passage refers to Jesus as Messiah; medieval Jews claimed argued with equal vehemence that the passage speaks only of the Jewish people, God’s truly suffering servants. Friar Paul adduced rabbinic statements to show that rabbis of old had in fact acknowledged that the “Suffering Servant” passage refers to the Messiah, thereby indicating an implicit acknowledgement of Jesus’ messianic role and Christian truth. As an example of free-standing rabbinic statements, Friar Paul often made reference to the widely repeated rabbinic notion that, on the day the Temple was destroyed, the Messiah was born. For Friar Paul, this well-known teaching indicated that authoritative rabbis recognized that the Messiah had in fact come. That Messiah could only have been Jesus of Nazareth. Friar Paul’s new line of argumentation won considerable backing in ecclesiastical circles and—by extension—among lay authorities as well. From the 1240’s on, Friar Paul preached widely in synagogues, using his new line of argumentation from rabbinic texts. In 1263, with the support of the Dominican leadership and King James the Conqueror of Aragon, he was able to coerce the outstanding rabbinic figure of the times, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman of Gerona, into a forced disputation in the capital city of Barcelona. The confrontation seems to have been rather dramatic, with a large audience of Christians and Jews in attendance.
So far as we can tell, there was no significant conversion in the wake of this engagement. However, Rabbi Moses’s claims of total victory over his Dominican foe seem exaggerated. The new approach was by no means derailed by the rabbi’s careful and clever efforts. By the end of the 1260’s, Friar Paul had won the backing of the pious king of France—the same Louis IX we have already encountered as supporter of the Donin assault on the Talmud—for a missionizing engagement with the rabbis of Paris. In the wake of both these encounters, another Dominican, Friar Raymond Martin, was moved to convene a research team to collect rabbinic material and construct a wide-ranging missionizing manual entitled the Pugio Fidei (Dagger of Faith), which adduced thousands of rabbinic sources and worked them into a systematic presentation of the key truths of Christianity.
Proselytizing among the Jews remained a high priority of the Church all through the remaining centuries of the Middle Ages. The record is mixed—little to no success in certain areas and certain periods and considerable success in other areas and epochs. During and after the violence of 1391 on the Iberian peninsula, the Church seems to have been especially successful in its protracted efforts to bring dispirited Jews to the baptismal fount.
Medieval Church doctrine and policy vis-à-vis Judaism and Jews were complex and nuanced, and they evolved as the contact between the Church and ever-expanding Jewish population of Europe intensified. The Church had yet one last avenue of influence on Jewish fate in medieval western Christendom, through the imagery it purveyed. Once again, this imagery was rooted in a prior legacy. With regard to imagery, however, the Church exercised far less control than it did over doctrine and policy. Imagery of Judaism and Jews was far more flexible, far more responsive to the evolving realities and anxieties of the medieval scene.
Popular Perceptions and Popular Violence
Popular perceptions of the Jews were heavily negative during our period. This negativity had numerous sources. Perhaps the simplest was the fact that the vitalization of western Christendom attracted Jews to areas of Europe in which Jews had not heretofore settled. Newcomers are rarely welcome, and resistance to immigrants in sedentary societies, such as medieval Europe, was especially intense. As we shall see, many of the rulers of medieval western Christendom saw in the Jews a valuable asset and encouraged their immigration. Such support had little impact on popular opinion; in fact to some extent the support of rulers only served to make the Jews more unpopular.
The medieval Islamic world was characterized by considerable diversity of population, which included a wide range of racial, ethnic, and religious groupings. While medieval Europe was ethnically and linguistically fragmented, it was unusually homogeneous in religious terms. This meant that, in medieval western Christendom, the Jews in almost all areas stood out as the lone legitimately dissenting element. Such conspicuousness can never be positive for a minority community. The uniqueness of the Jews in medieval Europe focused undue and dangerous attention on them.
Initial popular resistance to the Jews meant, among other things, serious limitations on the ways in which Jews might support themselves. Especially in the new areas of settlement, Jews tended to arrive in order to fill limited economic niches and never truly succeeded in diversifying their economic base. From the twelfth century on, the Jewish specialty became money-lending, which meant additional popular hostility, since money-lenders have never been beloved figures in most societies. While popular resistance was grounded in significant measure in the newness of Jews in many areas, in their status as the only legitimate dissenting group in most sectors of Europe, in their obvious alliance with the lay authorities, and in their economic specialization, clearly the most salient factor in negative popular perceptions of Judaism and Jews lay in the imagery regularly purveyed by the Church. As was true for doctrine and policy, see too the basic elements in imagery of Judaism and Jews were bequeathed to the medieval Church from the ancient period, although here too—as in the case of doctrine and policy—there was considerable room for medieval expansion of the prior legacy.
As noted recurrently, the legacy from antiquity included considerable ambivalence, both positive and negative elements. This can be gleaned graphically from the formal medieval representations of Synagoga (The Synagogue, i.e. Judaism) found outside many medieval churches, opposite the contrastive image of Ecclesia (The Church, i.e. Christianity). Synagoga is regularly portrayed as a beautiful and hence dangerous female figure. This figure is often shown with a crown slipping off her head, with a scepter falling out of her grasp, with tablets of the law dropping out of her hands, and with a blindfold across her eyes. The negatives are obvious, yet they are balanced to a degree by the beauty of the female figure and the recognition that she once possessed a crown of royalty, a staff of authority, and the tablets of the law—again evidence of a distinguished heritage, allegedly sullied by obtuseness and loss of that heritage. The Pauline legacy taught that the achievements of the past would result in eventual divine reconciliation with his recalcitrant former people.
Unfortunately for the Jews of medieval western Christendom, perhaps the most formative imagery bequeathed from the past came from the gospel accounts of Jesus’s ongoing struggle with his Jewish contemporaries. In these narratives, Jews function as the enemy—the dominant, indeed only oppositional force to Jesus’ ministry. This image was encountered regularly at every Easter season, one of the two high points of the annual Christian calendar. Recollection of the events that led up to the Crucifixion and of the Crucifixion itself served as preamble to the culminating drama of the Easter season, the Resurrection. Thus, in a highly influential and inflammatory way, Jews were introduced into the most important and moving rituals of the Christian calendar, always in the role of villains and enemy figures.
As western Christendom began to develop during the eleventh century, it almost immediately turned aggressive, engaging Muslims forces on the Italian and Iberian peninsulas. Already during the push on the Iberian peninsula, the battle with the Muslim foe activated the sense of Jews as historic enemies. Pope Alexander II wrote a striking letter to the bishops of Spain, praising them for their protection of Jews in the face of Christian violence that had been sparked by the war against the Muslims. The letter reflects the extent to which the new campaign against Islam sparked anti-Jewish sentiment.
This association—the contemporary Muslim foe and the historic Jewish enemy—was to lie at the core of the limited but intense violence that accompanied the launching of the First Crusade. When Pope Urban II preached the crusade in Clermont in late 1095, he surely never mentioned the Jews, nor did he anticipate any anti-Jewish implication in his message. In fact, the major baronial armies that formed the core of the crusading force and that secured the remarkable Christian victory in Jerusalem in 1099 show no sign of anti-Jewish animus and were not implicated in the anti-Jewish violence. However, the exhilarating papal call resonated widely in Christian society, energizing more than the military elites. Popular preachers absorbed the papal message and spread it among the lower classes. In the process, new themes and hues were added, not the least of which involved Jews. In this popular view, the careful distinctions of the Church leadership as to the target of the new undertaking and as to the proper Christian stance toward Judaism and the Jews were obscured. A simpler and more radical call was created, urging that—given a new engagement with enemies of Christendom—the Muslim far-off enemy was in fact less heinous than the nearby Jewish enemy. Whereas the former merely denied Jesus, the latter had been responsible for his crucifixion. This unwarranted, but potent extension of the crusading enterprise served as the foundation for the limited but radical assaults on Rhineland Jewry in 1096.
Church leadership, as it became aware of this distortion of its message, repudiated the unwarranted extension and reiterated its traditional stance of non-violence toward Jews. There was no major repetition of the bloodshed of 1096, although every new crusade evoked the anti-Jewish slogans and the danger of anti-Jewish attacks. The sloganeering and attendant dangers were minimal when the crusading venture was carefully planned and well organized; they became more pronounced in the spontaneous and populist crusading episodes.
During the twelfth century, the imagery of Jews as enemies—prominent in traditional Christian thinking and praxis and activated during the crusading period—took a dangerous new turn. While the traditional imagery highlighted the Jews as historic enemies, voices in western Christendom began to circulate the notion that twelfth-century Jews were in fact as profoundly hostile as their ancestors had been more than a millennium earlier. In a letter to King Louis VII of France, on the eve of the Second Crusade, the influential abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable, claimed that contemporary Jewish blasphemy was well known, revealing that twelfth-century Jews maintained the hostility of their first-century forebears. Eschewing violence against the Jews, Peter urged nonetheless that Jews be forced to defray crusading costs in recognition of their historic and contemporary enmity toward Christianity.
Peter’s claims were dangerous, but his voice was that of a major and learned Church leader, fully aware of the traditional safeguards to Jewish life promised by Christian tradition. In less learned circles, the balanced doctrines and policies of the Church were less well rooted and understood. In popular circles, the notion took hold that Jewish enmity went beyond blasphemy against Christianity, that Jews were intent upon bringing physical harm upon their Christian contemporaries. The notion of groundless Jewish murder took hold in public imagination in many areas of western Christendom, especially in northern Europe, where the Jewish presence was quite new. Discovery of a body, especially the corpse of a Christian youngster, would regularly elicit the claim that the Jews had committed murder, for no other reason than simply the Christian identity of the victim. Once again, the authorities of church and state rejected the allegations and by and large protected the Jews effectively, but the notion of groundless Jewish murder made dangerous inroads into folk thinking during the twelfth century.
The notion of groundless Jewish murder held the potential for embellishments of all kinds. During the middle decades of the twelfth century, the first of these embellishments suggested that the purported Jewish murders were carried out in a symbolic manner. Attempting to prove that a murdered Christian youngster, William of Norwich, had died a martyr’s death and hence deserved to be venerated as a saint, a Norwich clergyman named Thomas of Monmouth created the motif of Jewish ritual murder, claiming that the Jews of Norwich had in fact crucified the young lad in a repetition of their historic role in the crucifixion of Jesus. Here the sense of contemporary Jewish hatred of Christianity and Christians took even fuller shape. According to Thomas, not only was there ongoing and unabated Jewish hatred, even the format of killing hearkened back to ancient Jerusalem. Association of young William with Jesus as a fellow sufferer at the hands of the Jews made a powerful case for William as martyr, which was Thomas’s avowed goal; in the process he profoundly embellished the imagery of Jewish enmity to Christianity and Christians. In this incident, the authorities of church and state repudiated Thomas’s claim, but the notion of ritual murder penetrated the popular psyche deeply, obviously playing on deep-seated human fears for children.
By the middle of the thirteenth century, the embellishment of the claim of Jewish murderousness took yet another turn, into the allegation that the murders were rooted in Jewish ritual, that Jews required Christian blood for their Passover ceremonies. The combination of the new claim of Jewish murderousness with the centrality of blood in the biblical account of the exodus from Egypt fostered this new turn. The blood libel was destined for a long history, which stretches from the thirteenth century down into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, despite lengthy and carefully documented denials by major figures in church and lay hierarchies.
Mention has already been made of the host desecration allegation that first surfaced in Paris at the end of the thirteenth century. Here the core elements continued to involve alleged Jewish hatred of Christianity and Jesus. The sense of victims shifted, however, from contemporary Christians back to Jesus himself, transubstantiated into the host wafer. Jews were accused of attempting to harm Jesus once again, this time through maltreatment of the host via boiling, piercing, or mutilating. The reports of host desecration were regularly accompanied by tales of miracles accomplished by the maltreated host, exposing the purported Jewish hatred and cruelty. Church leadership was less vigorous in combating the allegations of host desecration than it was in challenging the ritual murder accusations and the blood libel.
Finally, when Europe suffered the disastrous catastrophe of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, the accumulated imagery of Jewish malevolence played into the desperate quest to identify the agents of the unmanageable calamity. In a Europe where death was everywhere and the normal human efforts to control plague seemed to achieve nothing, purported agents of the crisis like the devil and witches were sought out. Given the folklore of Jewish enmity and malevolence, the Jews were added to the catalogue of purveyors of the disease and were regularly subjected to violent persecution. Once again, the efforts of the established leadership groups to protect the Jews were sincere. However, given the level of societal disruption, these efforts were only minimally successful.
The potent anti-Jewish imagery set the stage for recurrent outbreaks of popular violence. In antiquity, the major instances of physical violence against Jews stemmed overwhelmingly from established authorities, e.g. the Assyrian destruction of the Israelite kingdom in the eighth pre-Christian century, the Babylonian assault on Jerusalem early in the sixth pre-Christian century, the Seleucid decrees against Judaism of the second pre-Christian century, Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the first century, and Roman persecution of the second century. In the Middle Ages, anti-Jewish violence came from a different direction, from mobs fired by anti-Jewish sentiment and freed from normal societal constraints by one or another crisis.
The first of these popular outbreaks took place in 1096, in association with the call to the First Crusade. As noted, Pope Urban II almost certainly made no mention of Jews and intended no anti-Jewish implications to his call to a holy war. The major militias that responded to the papal challenge and that successfully conquered Jerusalem in the summer of 1099 seem to have been immune to any anti-Jewish implications of their campaign. In the Rhineland, however, both crusaders and their burgher sympathizers translated the papal call into a justification for anti-Jewish violence, some of it extreme. A number of major Rhineland Jewish communities were destroyed in heir entirety. As noted, the Rhineland bloodbath was not repeated during the subsequent major crusades, as the ecclesiastical and lay leadership of Europe were fully prepared for anti-Jewish sentiment and were committed to insuring that it not eventuate in violence.
At the end of the thirteenth century, however, societal disintegration in the German lands coupled with the proliferating anti-Jewish imagery previously depicted set the stage for a massive outbreak of violence that gain cost thousands of Jewish lives. This violence was exceeded by the anti-Jewish assaults of 1348-49. The spread of the Black Plague disrupted normal societal life all through Europe. Unable to cope with the devastation of the plague, frantic Europeans sought all kinds of keys to the calamity, often focusing on alleged henchmen of the devil to explain what seemed inexplicable. Assaults on Jewish communities spread all across the continent, despite the efforts of the authorities to dampen the violence. Again, the proliferation of anti-Jewish imagery in conjunction with societal breakdown set the stage for massive violence.
The last major episode of anti-Jewish violence of our period took place on the Iberian peninsula in 1391. Again, the long-term cause was societal resentment and the spread of anti-Jewish calumnies; the immediate cause was a breakdown in royal authority all across the peninsula. The result was massive violence, with large numbers of Jews electing to convert, rather than forfeit their lives. In many cases, the conversion was insincere, based on the notion that forced conversion was in fact illegitimate and on the assumption that return to normalcy would eventuate in return to Judaism. The latter assumption proved in the event mistaken.
Thus, the medieval centuries saw considerable development of the prior legacy of ecclesiastical doctrine, policy, and imagery with respect to Judaism and the Jews. Doctrine and policy showed considerable evolution, but could be fairly well controlled by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. Not so with imagery of Judaism and the Jews. During the period between 1000 and 1500, this imagery was widely reinterpreted and expanded by the folk mentality of western Christendom, almost exclusively in negative directions. The result was a set of stereotypes that caused considerable harm to the Jews of Europe, serving as a key factor in the recurrent outbreak of severe anti-Jewish violence across Europe. Indeed, this medieval imagery continued to wreak havoc through the post-medieval centuries as well.
The State and the Jews
Given the considerable negativity of the Church’s doctrines, policies, and imageries and the lack of pre-1000 Jewish population in western Christendom, the obvious question is how a burgeoning European Jewish population developed in the period between 1000 and 1500. The answer lies in the fact that some—but by no means all—elements in European society were interested in fostering Jewish presence and that the Jews themselves were attracted to dynamically developing western Christendom. The most important of the majority elements committed to bringing Jews to western Christendom were the secular rulers of Europe, who saw in the Jews a valuable resource and potentially useful allies. The positive perspectives of the ruling class were not shared by other important sectors in society and were always mitigated by the complex doctrines and policies of the Roman Catholic Church and the deteriorating popular imagery of Judaism and Jews. Nonetheless, the interest of the rulers of Europe in the Jews and their power to create positive conditions for Jewish life constituted the key—from the majority side—to evolving Jewish circumstances in medieval western Christendom.
The Roman Catholic Church was concerned with the spiritual well-being of medieval western Christendom and was very much constrained by pre-existent doctrines and policies. The secular authorities of Europe were focused on the material circumstances of their realms and their own immediate interests; they were relatively unfettered by pre-existent doctrines and policies. This is not to say that there were no prior realities that impinged on these rulers. While the Church, by virtue of its focus on the spiritual, could be oblivious to the mundane differences that distinguished the various sectors of a highly heterogeneous European continent, the secular authorities were deeply affected by these differences. For comprehending the alternative fates of the diverse Jewish communities of medieval western Christendom, the regional differences that divided the various geographic areas of Europe must be fully recognized.
The fault lines in medieval Europe were both horizontal and vertical. Perhaps the most significant fault line lay in the distinction between the Mediterranean lands of southern Europe and the more remote lands of the north. The Mediterranean lands of the south had been fully absorbed into the Roman Empire and had been richly infused with Roman civilization and culture. Remnants of Roman civilization and culture were (and are) everywhere palpable across the southern tier of Europe; in contrast, the lands of northern Europe had been only brushed by contact with Rome and had preserved much of their Germanic heritage. In a general way, the southern sector of medieval western Christendom was far more advanced in the year 1000 than were the areas of the north. That situation, however, was to change rapidly and dramatically.
By virtue of its inclusion in the Roman world, the southern sectors of Europe had long been populated by Jews. Jewish communities were to be found all across the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. To be sure, the largest of these communities in the year 1000 were to be found in those areas of Europe that were under Muslim control, specifically the southern sectors of the Italian and Iberian peninsulas. As noted, the only Christian areas that harbored small Jewish enclaves were the central and northern regions of the Italian peninsula, southern France, and the northern regions of the Iberian peninsula. The reality of Jewish presence in some areas of Christian Europe in the year 1000 and the more imposing reality of sizeable Jewish communities in areas that would be conquered by Christian warriors beginning in the eleventh century created the backdrop to the growth of European Jewry in the southern tiers of the continent. The remarkable vitalization of western Christendom subsequent to the year 1000 took place most markedly in the heretofore backward north. By the year 1500, England and France had emerged as large and powerful monarchies on the Western scene, contesting the kingdoms of Spain for preeminence. Indeed, part of the French monarchy’s success lay in its absorption of previously independent southern territories into the expanded royal domain, centered in the north. Paris and London were the greatest cities of medieval western Christendom by the year 1500; strikingly, they had both been backward provincial towns five hundred years earlier. There is perhaps no more eloquent testimony to the centrality of northern Europe in the great awakening of medieval western Christendom that took place between 1000 and 1500.
Prior to the year 1000—unlike the situation in southern Europe—there were no old and well-established Jewish communities in northern Europe. Jews had traveled across and traded in the reaches of northern Europe, but had not chosen to settle there. The vitalization of these heretofore backward areas and the encouragement offered by its rulers stimulated Jewish immigration. Jews moved northward in increasingly large numbers and founded important and creative Jewish settlements. Not surprisingly, these Jews were regularly seen as dissidents—the only legitimate non-Christians in the area—and as newcomers, with all the resistances that dissidents and newcomers normally elicit.
There was a second major fault line as well, one that proceeds on a vertical axis, and that is the distinction—particularly noteworthy in the north—between western Europe, on the one hand, and central and eastern Europe on the other. In the year 1000, the most potent political authority in western Christendom seemed to be the German emperor. Rooted in imperial lore and tradition, the German throne seemed likely to remain the strongest political power among the emerging states of western Christendom. Such was not, however, to be the case. The far less imposing kings of France, England, and Iberia learned how to manipulate the feudal system to their advantage, slowly converting local rule and royal prerogative into large, stable, and increasingly puissant monarchies. Germany slipped behind its more westerly neighbors in economic development, political maturity, and cultural creativity. Further east, at the fringe of medieval western Christendom, such late-blooming kingdoms as Hungary and Poland slowly began to develop toward the end of our period. Finally, there is yet one more important geographic distinction, involving interior areas of western Christendom and those exposed to outside forces. On many levels, differences emerged between those lands generally insulated from outside aggression and with a relatively homogenous population (in which Jews were prominent as the only legitimate dissenters), on the one hand, and territories that bordered on other realms and in which populations were heterogeneous on the other.
The lands of the east—Italy in the south and Hungary and Poland in the north—were very much exposed to external intrusion, as was the Iberian peninsula in the southwest. There were salient differences between exposed and interior areas in terms of majority self-image and in terms of the populations with which the Christian majority (even in a few instances the Christian ruling minority) had to deal. We must remain fully aware of these geographic distinctions. They played a key role in the developments of well-rooted of Jewish life in the south, the establishment of important new Jewish communities in the rapidly developing north,the banishment of these new Jewish centers to the eastern peripheries of northern Europe toward the end of our period, and the eventual disappearance of almost all Jewish life from the more advanced western sectors of Europe by the year 1500.
While it is convenient to talk of the Jewry of medieval western Christendom, it is vital to keep firmly in mind that in fact we must think of the Jewries of medieval western Christendom, a set of Jewish communities whose circumstances and fates differed markedly from one another. The secular authorities were deeply concerned with economic issues, with improvement of the material circumstances of their realms; their approach to the Jews and the issues they presented was very much conditioned by this focus. The concentration of Jewish population in the Islamic world and to a lesser extent in the Byzantine Empire made the Jews attractive as potential conveyors of the material achievements of these more developed areas into a western Christendom struggling to challenge its more advanced competitors. The Jews as agents of material maturation is a theme recurrently encountered in the history of the various Jewish communities of medieval western Christendom.
In southern Europe, this special Jewish role took one form; in the north, it took a somewhat different tack. In the former case, especially in Sicily and Spain, Jews had become well integrated into Muslim societies. As rapidly maturing Christian military strength translated into conquest, the conquerors were faced with the problem of maintaining the level of achievement of the areas they were in the process of absorbing. Particularly urgent was maintenance of urban economy and culture. For the Christian conquerors, the well-integrated Jews were especially useful. The Jews had not been displaced from ruling authority and harbored no dreams of rebellion against the new rulers and return to the status quo ante. For the Jews of the newly conquered areas of southern Europe, the overriding issue was treatment. Favorable treatment would make them loyal adherents of the new order and the conquering Christian rulers.
From Spain during the central period of the reconquest of the peninsula, we have numerous charters addressed to the Jews of newly absorbed areas. These Jews were reassured as to their physical safety, were promised extensive commercial and industrial privileges, were often accorded tax advantages, and were sometimes given valuable land on which to build their public facilities and private homes. The desire of the conquering Christian rulers to win over these valued allies and to utilize their economic skills is palpable. Clearly, this positive view of the Jews was not necessarily shared by all elements in Christian society; it was, however, dominant among the rulers and was critical to the Jews.
The dynamic in the north was somewhat different. There, the circumstances did not involve conquest and a pre-existent Jewish community. In northern Europe—an area lagging in all respects, the critical issue was rapid development of the economy, in a way that would eventuate into military, political, and cultural power. As noted, the development of northern-European society and civilization was even more rapid than that of the south, transforming a backward area into a dominant sector of the West. For the rulers of northern Europe, most of them rather modest in the extent of their power during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Jewish immigrants offered—first and foremost—the potential for economic stimulation and growth. Jews were perceived as useful in bringing the business expertise of more sophisticated areas into backward northern Europe. We have a number of fleeting reflections of this positive perspective on the part of northern- European rulers. The fullest and most revealing of these sources comes from the founding of the Jewish community of Speyer in 1084. Happily, we have both the founding document itself and a later Jewish reflection on the process. The bishop of Speyer, in his charter of 1084, indicates clearly that economic advancement of his town lay at the root of his decision to invite Jews- “When I wished to make a town out of the village of Speyer, I, Rudiger, surnamed Huozmann, bishop of Speyer, thought that the glory of our town would be augmented a thousand-fold if I were to bring Jews.” Clearly, the contribution anticipated from these Jewish settlers was economic.
Bishop Rudiger proceeds to indicate the mechanism for attracting Jewish settlers. After detailing a number of boons conferred on these Jews—areas of the town designated for Jewish settlement, a wall to protect them from hostile burghers, land for a cemetery, trade rights, judicial autonomy, freedom from certain ecclesiastical infringements, he concludes- “In short, in order to achieve the heights of kindness, I have granted them a legal status more generous than any the Jewish people have in any city of the German kingdom.” Jews could be attracted by the terms offered them to settle. Bishop Rudiger ends his charter of invitation by providing signed and sealed authentication of the document as permanent testimony to the status of the Jewish community of Speyer. While a useful ending to the document from the Jewish point of view, such authentication could of course by no means guarantee positive treatment over the succeeding decades and centuries, as conditions might change and in fact did.
What more precisely were the economic benefits that Jews were expected to confer? Again, the situations in southern and northern areas differed. In the south, where Jewish settlement was well established and Jews were fairly well integrated into the economy, the anticipated Jewish contribution was diversified. In those areas in the process of conquest, the new Christian rulers hoped that Jews would stay and assist in maintenance of the prior economic order. A loyal and effective urban population in the newly conquered areas was key to further Christian successes. In the north, maintenance of a status quo ante was not the issue; rapid economic development was the major objective. In these lagging northern areas, the Jews were expected above all else to contribute their mercantile expertise. The charter of Bishop Rudiger of Speyer and similar late-eleventh and twelfth-century charters highlight trade rights, suggesting that the Jewish immigrants were concentrated in buying and selling.
During the twelfth century, new circumstances and needs in western Christendom produced new economic opportunities for its Jews and further incentives for governmental support of these Jews. The twelfth century saw an accelerating pattern of economic development, on the one hand, and an increasingly powerful Church demanding religious reforms on the other. Among the major targets of reforming ardor was the sin of Christian usury, of Christians taking interest on loans to other Christians. Given the combination of economic pressure for flow of capital created by the rapid maturation of western Christendom and the Church’s countervailing efforts to eradicate Christian usury, a new avenue of economic opportunity was created for Europe’s Jews. Since they were not bound by the prohibition of taking interest from Christians and since they were already heavily involved in business—especially in the north, Jews could move fairly quickly to fill an economic vacuum, and they in fact did so, again with the support of many of the political authorities of western Christendom.
If we compare the charter of Bishop Rudiger of Speyer to the influential charter given by Duke Frederick of Austria to his Jews in 1244, we can sense dramatically how thoroughly Jewish economic activity had shifted in the intervening century and a half. In 1084, the only clause that dealt with Jewish economic rights guaranteed the Jews of Speyer “the right of exchanging gold and silver and of buying and selling everything they use.” In striking contrast, the charter of 1244, which included thirty beneficial stipulations for the Jews of Austria, devoted fully ten of these stipulations to Jewish economic rights. Each of these ten stipulations addressed one or another aspect of Jewish money-lending. There can be little doubt that the economic backbone of the thirteenth-century Jews of Austria—and the Jews of Poland and Hungary whose charters were based on the Austrian model—was money-lending.
Jewish money-lending developed in two basic directions—the simpler and less lucrative pawn-broking reflected in the Austrian, Polish, and Hungarian charters and the more sophisticated government-backed lending that reached its zenith in twelfth- and thirteenth-century England and France. Pawn-broking represents a relatively primitive form of guaranteeing the return of the loan disbursed. The borrower leaves a pledge of value equal to or more than the obligation undertaken to the lender. Should the borrower subsequently default, the lender is already in possession of goods of equal or greater value. While this simple form of money-lending requires little governmental assistance, the Austrian, Polish, and Hungarian charters indicate that there were many complex issues that could emerge and in which the authorities could be most helpful to their Jewish money-lending subjects.
The more sophisticated and lucrative form of money-lending involved the extension of funds against land as collateral, which Jews could not of course take into their direct possession at the time of the loan. This kind of money-lending involved much larger sums and much higher profits; it could only take place, however, with the backing of powerful and effective governments. In case of default, it was the ruling authorities that would insure Jewish possession of the land put up as collateral. These larger and more lucrative loans thus deepened the bonds already cited between the Jews and their overlords. Now, in addition to providing requisite security, the authorities constituted the backbone of Jewish business as well.
The more sophisticated forms of money-lending that first developed in England and France required accurate record keeping and governments with the power to enforce obligations. Accurate governmental record keeping emerged first in England, then spread to France and subsequently the Spanish kingdoms. By the early thirteenth-century, loan documents in England were being written in three copies, with one going to the lender, one to the borrower, and the third deposited in a royal chest for safekeeping. The English monarchy and the French as well were by and large assiduous in enforcing the obligations increasingly well documented. As we shall see shortly, the full records proved to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they protected the money disbursed by the Jewish lenders; at the same time, they provided the authorities with extensive information on Jewish wealth, useful at points of heavy taxation.
Jewish money-lending provided a new form of economic grounding for the Jews first of northern Europe and subsequently of all of western Christendom. At the same time, it harbored a number of potential dangers, most of which in fact materialized. In the first place, excessive concentration in any sector of the economy is always precarious for individuals or communities. Jewish economic activity heavily grounded in money-lending always meant that, if—for one reason or another—that economic grounding were weakened, Jews would be highly vulnerable. In addition, money-lending and banking more generally have never generated popular approbation. Normally, borrowers are deeply appreciative at the time of the loan, but feel much differently at the time of repayment. Given the ecclesiastical condemnation of Christian usury, all usury was tainted with the odor of sinfulness, even if Jewish money-lending was ecclesiastically sanctioned.
In fact, with the passage of time, Church leadership became concerned with the new economic avenue it had opened for Jews. By the early thirteenth century, the Church was heavily involved in efforts to protect Christian society from what it perceived as evils associated with Jewish money-lending. The most famous initiative in that direction was the canon of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 prohibiting excessive rates of interest on Jewish loans. With the passage of time, many ecclesiastical leaders rethought the permissibility of Jewish lending at interest. While prohibition of Jewish usury altogether remained a minority view within the Church, it did enhance governmental and popular negativity to Jewish lending.
Finally, Jewish money-lending of the more sophisticated variety deepened the relationship between the Jews and their overlords in unhealthy ways. The secular authorities of western Christendom had fairly full information on Jewish business and wealth and could exploit that wealth rather effectively.
Money-lending contributed positively to the economic development of western Christendom during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It also enabled the Jews of western Christendom to support themselves; it in fact enabled a small number of Jews to achieve great wealth. Money-lending was, however, hardly an unmixed blessing; it entailed a number of significant liabilities. The rulers of western Christendom—in a number of different ways—saw in the Jews a valuable element in their incessant struggle for development of their realms. Jews were perceived as urban dwellers who might stimulate the economy of the areas in which they settled. To be sure, there was an additional and more immediate advantage that the Jews provided. The rulers of northern Europe were constrained by a conservative system of taxation, which allowed little leeway for tax innovation. As northern-European principalities matured, ever larger sums of money were required to pursue increasingly ambitious military and peaceful plans. The conservative tax system—essentially a system grounded in custom—served as a major constraint. New ways to
access the burgeoning wealth of rapidly developing principalities were required, and the Jews provided precisely such access. The safeguards offered by appeal to traditional taxation were hardly available to the Jews. Since they were so deeply dependent on the secular authorities for basic protection and—with the passage of time—for business support as well, Jews were hardly in a position to withstand governmental demands for increased taxes.
While there is no reliable way of ascertaining the level of Jewish contribution to governmental coffers during the Middle Ages, there is nonetheless broad consensus as to the reality of significant Jewish contribution to governmental income, especially in the more sophisticated principalities and monarchies of the western sectors of Europe. Indeed, there was always the danger of exploiting Jewish wealth to the point of destroying Jewish business capacity. Robert Stacey has documented this danger in England of the 1240’s, arguing that the heavy taxation levied by King Henry III in fact destroyed the economic base of English Jewry.
We have seen in prior sections that ecclesiastical policy toward the Jews of western Christendom and popular perceptions of these Jews deteriorated during the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Not surprisingly, the same is true for the posture of the governing authorities as well. The key protectors of Jewish interests turned increasingly negative, again especially in the most advanced, westerly areas of northern Europe. The factors influencing the diminution of governmental support—indeed in many cases the fostering of governmental hostility—were many and diverse.
The new and more limiting stance of the Church certainly played a role. Especially the ecclesiastical assault on Jewish money-lending posed serious threats to governmental support for this mainstay of Jewish economic activity. The legislation of the Capetian kings of France during the first half of the thirteenth century shows a pattern of steady withdrawal of governmental support for the officially sanctioned and supported money-lending, which had for nearly a century stimulated the French economy and enriched some of the French Jews. By the middle of the thirteenth century, the pious Louis IX, who had absorbed the extreme ecclesiastical position that denied the Jewish right to take interest altogether, ordered his Jews to desist from usury or to leave his realm. The impact of the new and more limiting stance of the Church can be discerned on King Edward I of England as well.
At the same time, the accelerating popular hostility toward the Jews—grounded in traditional Church imagery but exacerbated by the newness of the Jews in northern Europe, by their pioneering economic activities, by their close alliance with the secular authorities, by the competitive envy of the rising urban class, and by the high level of anxiety in western Christendom generally—took a toll as well. Medieval monarchs and barons were hardly democratic in their thinking and behavior; nonetheless, the will of the populace could not be totally dismissed. Minimally, anti-Jewish actions taken by rulers might well be greeted by popular approbation, and many rulers were well aware of this opportunity to curry popular favor.
Governmental actions harmful to Jewish interests took a number of different forms. The first was acceptance of the increasingly injurious dictates of the Church. As noted, the mid- thirteenth century Capetian monarchy of France was especially accepting of the new ecclesiastical demands for limitation of Jewish money-lending. Throughout western Christendom, the innovative ecclesiastical insistence on Jews wearing identifying garb—initially resisted by many of the rulers of western Christendom—began to be enforced by a growing number of rulers. In addition, the Church’s new campaign to win over Jews through forced sermons and disputations also found increasing governmental backing.
A second thrust of governmental activity deleterious to the Jews was enhanced taxation. As noted, the rulers of western Christendom—always under financial pressure and strain—saw in the Jews ready access to funds otherwise closed to them. Good sense dictated measured taxation, which would maximize profit while enabling the Jews to maintain their business activities, grounded in the give-and-take of capital. Unduly heavy taxation ran the risk of destroying the foundations of Jewish economic activity. However, good sense did not always win out. Chafing under heavy burdens and aware of popular resentment of the Jews, some rulers opted to tax beyond reason. Ready access to money-lending records fueled this kind of cupidity. In both England and France, recurrent heavy taxation of the Jews weakened the Jewish communities to the point where they could no longer produce the revenues they once had.
On occasion, rulers could be affected by the deteriorating imagery of the Jews, accepting anti-Jewish allegations judicially or—in rare cases-even assaulting Jewish communities in support of popular grievance. Thus, for example, in a fairly well-documented incident, The important Count Theobald of Blois upheld the claim of Jewish malicious murder of a Christian youngster—even in the face of lack of a cadaver. This move was, to be sure, repudiated energetically by Theobald’s overlord, King Louis VII of France, but it was an injurious precedent. Curiously, King Louis’s own son, King Philip Augustus, attacked a Jewish community in a neighboring barony in support of the claim that the Jews of that town had been responsible for the death of Christian there.
The final step that might be taken by governmental authorities was banishment of the Jews entirely from given domains. It will be recalled that the Church took the position that Jewish presence was legitimate in Christian society. When individual Jews broke the laws—religious or secular—that constrained them, they were of course subject to the courts and to appropriate punishment. When the Jewish community as a whole seemed to be guilty of major offenses, then expulsion of such Jewish communities was deemed permissible. In the spate of significant expulsions that began to afflict European Jewry toward the end of the thirteenth century and continued to the end of our period, rulers who chose to banish their Jews always grounded their edicts of banishment in some alleged misdeeds of the Jews that could not be corrected except thorough removal of the offending Jews. During the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, the purportedly incorrigible Jewish behavior revolved around money-lending. The unwillingness of the Jews to abandon their nefarious money-lending was the supposed reason for the decision to remove them. While there were often other more mundane factors at work as well, such as the desire for revenue or the need to placate one or another element in society, every expulsion had to be grounded in Jewish misdeed. The final expulsions of our period, from the Spanish kingdoms in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, were portrayed as the result of the deleterious Jewish impact on the large number of New Christians on the Iberian peninsula. So long as Jews remained—it was claimed—the grievous problem of backsliding into Judaism on the part of these New Christians could not be solved.
Local expulsions began in northern France in the later twelfth century. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, the new tendency accelerated. In 1290, Jews were expelled from England, and in 1306 the same fate befell the Jews of royal France. Expulsion became a feature of Jewish life throughout western Christendom during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with Jews expelled recurrently from diverse domains. In some instances, these Jews were recalled; in other instances the banishment became permanent. The culminating expulsions of our period took place on the Iberian peninsula in 1492 and 1497. The Jewish communities expelled at this point were among the very oldest in western Christendom and were deemed by many immune from expulsion. That even these oldest of European Jewish communities might be banished reflected the extent to which the new and negative governmental stance became the norm, at least in the most westerly and advanced areas of western Christendom.
Enhanced Jewish settlement in western Christendom, begun so promisingly at the turn of the millennium, seemed to end on a distinctly negative note. The secular authorities—the major sponsors of Jewish presence in Europe—had turned their backs on the Jews whom they had earlier cultivated so assiduously. Over the five centuries between 1000 and 1500, however, the support of the authorities had resulted in the strengthening of old Jewish communities and the establishment of new Jewish settlements. The Jews of western Christendom—with the encouragement of the secular authorities—had enriched the areas in which they settled, had created new centers of Jewish life, and had embellished the legacy bequeathed by their predecessors. In the process, they had laid the foundations for modern Jewish life in the Christian West.
Jewish Responses to Material Challenges
Having 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.
Jewish Responses to Spiritual Challenges
Meeting material challenges in a rapidly changing environment constituted the first priority for the Jews of medieval western Christendom, one they accomplished by and large effectively. At the same time, these Jews encountered major challenges in the cultural and spiritual spheres, again in a rapidly changing and creative majority ambiance. For the Jews of medieval western Christendom, the intellectual and spiritual threats were every bit as significant as the material. Maintenance of Jewish identity in the face of ongoing majority pressures toward conversion hinged on establishment of a creative Jewish minority culture that could comfortably compete with majority achievement. Medieval Jewish polemical denigration of Christian majority culture should not obscure Jewish awareness of the vitality of medieval Christian civilization. It must be remembered that this vitality convinced Jews to remain in their home territories when these passed into Christian hands and—more strikingly—to migrate into Christian lands, some entirely new to Jewish settlement.
Jewish cultural and religious creativity in medieval western Christendom was stimulated from two directions. The first of these sources of stimulation was internal. The needs of Jewish life and the dynamic of Jewish religious obligation required ongoing engagement with the rich legacy of the past. That legacy had to revisited and adapted to ever-evolving circumstances. At the same time, Jewish communities over the ages have benefited from the stimulation of surrounding societies. Despite the negative impressions fostered by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and by Jewish polemical devaluation, medieval European society was richly creative in a wide range of cultural domains, and the Jewish minority was stimulated by this majority creativity.
While such external stimulation is a constant of Jewish experience, in medieval western Christendom external stimulation took an unusually intense form. The Christian majority was—as already noted—aggressive and deeply committed to ongoing missionizing among the Jewish minority. This majority aggressiveness created special stresses for the Jews of Europe. While Jews readily acknowledged the greater numbers and material power of Christian society, they could ill afford to acknowledge Christian advantage on the cultural and spiritual plane. Thus, the vigorous creativity of medieval Europe stimulated its Jews for competitive purposes to create at as high a
level as possible, at a level that would enable the small Jewish minority to maintain requisite self-respect.
Language conditions constitute a core aspect of human experience for both individuals and groups. Exchanging the Muslim milieu for Christendom meant a difficult and complex change of language milieu. The change of environment necessitated new language skills for even material success. This change of language had at the same time wide-ranging implications for cultural creativity and achievement.
On the simplest level, Jews had to master new languages for everyday living, and they did so, seemingly rather rapidly. Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, the great eleventh-century exegete known to the Jewish world as Rashi, attempts to clarify for his Jewish readers difficult biblical and talmudic terms by translating them into the colloquial French of his environment, suggesting that at an early point in their history the Jews of northern France had quickly assimilated to their new language environment. The Jews of northern France were no exception. All across Europe, Jews accommodated to their new language circumstances, adopting the spoken language of their environment as their own. There is only one exception to this general pattern, and it is a major one.
As the Jews moved from German lands into the late-developing areas of eastern Europe toward the end of our period, they maintained their Germanic language heritage, transforming it into the Jewish language of Yiddish. This unusual persistence in maintaining a prior language seems to reflect the sense of profound cultural superiority these Germanic Jews brought with them into eastern Europe. The language milieus of western Christendom differed markedly from that of the Islamic-Arabic sphere. In the Muslim world, Arabic was both the spoken and written language. This meant that the Jews of the Muslim world mastered simultaneously oral and written communication—they were readily conversant with the cultural products of their creative environment. A giant figure like Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides)—distinguished scientist, philosopher, and rabbinic authority—was supported in his scientific and philosophic creativity by intimate familiarity with the creative figures of his environment and their ongoing productivity.
The language situation in the Christian world was radically different; western Christendom was a dual language world, with Latin serving as the written language—at least for many centuries—and a variety of Romance and Germanic dialects serving as the spoken vernaculars. This dual language situation had two major implications for the European Jews. In the first place, it meant that Jews did not develop the easy access they had previously enjoyed to the cultural riches of majority society. The social distance between the Christian majority and the Jewish minority—
already considerable—was augmented by a written language barrier. At the same time, the result of this distance was the elevation of Hebrew to the written language of the Jews of Europe. Whereas most of the creativity of the Jews in the Muslim world was couched in Arabic, the Jews of Europe created almost exclusively in Hebrew, enriching that historic language in multiple ways.
Given the splendid creativity of the Jews in the Muslim world—especially during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Jews of western Christendom had to commit themselves to a major translation effort, in order to insure that the riches created in the Islamic-Arabic milieu would remain alive and accessible in the new non-Arabic environment. This translation effort from Arabic to Hebrew took place in the southern tier of Europe, led by families with roots in the Muslim world. The most famous and prolific of these families was the ibn Tibbon family, which over a number of generations excelled in the translation enterprise. The translation effort was a distinct success, enabling Europe’s Jews to enjoy the fruits of Jewish creativity in the Islamic world.
The Jewish translation effort took place against a broader background of cultural transitions. The medieval Muslims had made the riches of Greco-Roman culture available through translation into Arabic. As western Christendom matured, its intellectual leadership recognized the need for yet a second stage of translation, from Arabic to Latin. In this way, masterpieces like the scientific oeuvre of antiquity and the philosophic works of Aristotle became available to the creative thinkers of western Christendom. Given their broad language abilities, many Jews of southern Europe went beyond the Jewish translation effort and lent their talents to the broader Arabic to Latin transition inthe larger society around them.
For medieval Jews, the cornerstone of Jewish communal existence was adherence to the dictates of Jewish law, thus transforming knowledge of the law into the basis for religious authority, as we have seen, and into a central intellectual concern of the community. Knowledge of Jewish law developed in three major ways—through a lively responsa literature, that is through engagement with the ever-changing realities of everyday life; through engagement with the classical text of Jewish law, that is the Babylonian Talmud; and through the compilation of new codes, which would make expanding Jewish law—developed through the proliferation of responsa and talmudic commentaries—readily accessible in manual format.
In the medieval Muslim world, central institutions for the study of Jewish law had developed already in late antiquity. Among the functions of these academies was serving as a resource of last appeal for questions that local religious authorities could not answer. Early in our period, the Jews of Europe had occasional recourse to these great academies. With the passage of time, however, this connection was severed, and the Jews of Europe achieved independence from the academies of Mesopotamia. They did not, however, produce the same kind of central academies. Rather, authority to answer the most difficult religious questions of the age devolved upon individual teachers, renowned for their mastery of the Talmud and for their impressive reasoning abilities. The responsa written by these distinguished authorities enabled adaptation to ever-evolving circumstances, were carefully preserved, and formed an important element in the expanding corpus of Jewish law.
Study of the Talmud text formed the core curriculum of the advanced Jewish schools of medieval western Christendom. The comments of especially gifted teachers were written down and disseminated. These commentaries were produced all across Europe, but the most revered and influential were composed in the relatively young Jewish communities of northern France. Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes (Rashi) was the author of a massive commentary on the Babylonian Talmud. This commentary addressed the needs of students at all levels, offering diverse forms of clarification of the difficult talmudic text. Rashi’s comments begin with clarification of the precise wording of the text. Repeatedly, he begins his comments with the indication- “This is the proper reading.” At the next level, Rashi clarifies difficult terms, explaining them through recourse to the spoken French dialect of his day. He proceeds beyond this rather elementary assistance to lead the student through the intricacies of the talmudic argument, usually via an elaborate paraphrase of the text. Rashi’s commentary achieved influence throughout Europe and subsequently throughout the medieval Jewishworld. Eventually—from the Middle Ages to the present, to study the Babylonian Talmud meant in effect to study it with the commentary of Rashi.
Northern-French Jewish study of the Talmud proceeded beyond Rashi, during the twelfth century, to a more advanced level. The initial leaders of this new movement in Talmud study, called the Tosafists, were in fact biological descendants of Rashi, his grandsons. Building upon the prior contribution of Rashi, the Tosafists undertook the daunting task of establishing concord between seemingly contradictory passages in the vastness of the Talmud. Interestingly, the effort at resolution of ostensibly divergent views was the central preoccupation of the students of Church law and Church theology at precisely the same time. Whether there was a causal relationship among these concurrent efforts remains an unresolved issue. In any case, the commentaries of the Tosafists too, while aimed at more advanced students of the text, won widespread admiration throughout western Christendom and introduced a new style of talmudic study that remained in vogue all through the Middle Ages and down to the present.
Given the richness of the response literature and the vistas opened by the new-style Talmud study, the details of Jewish law expanded exponentially during our period, necessitating recurrent efforts at compilation of new compendia of Jewish law. The most influential European compendium was composed on the Iberian peninsula by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, a pan-European master of Jewish law. Jacob’s father, Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel, was a distinguished master of northern-European talmudic traditions and methodologies. In the early fourteenth century, the accelerating difficulties of Jewish life in the German lands moved Asher ben Yehiel and his family to make their way southward onto the Iberian peninsula, where the paterfamilias quickly assumed a leadership role. Thus, Jacob ben Asher was equipped with wide-ranging knowledge of the customs and commentaries of both north and south, making his compendium of Jewish law—the Arba`ah Turim (Four Towers)—especially comprehensive. It won admiration and authority across most of the Jewish world.
The centrality of Talmud knowledge and study is widely reflected in medieval Jewish life—in the school curriculum, in the oeuvre of innumerable creative thinkers, and in Christian awareness as well. We recall how the thirteenth-century Church slowly became cognizant of the Talmud and its centrality to Jewish life, how it then attempted to vilify the Talmud and have it prohibited, and almost concurrently how it attempted to exploit the Talmud in its missionizing argumentation. It is also worth remembering the case made by the rabbis of northern Europe that, without the Talmud, Jewish life was unsustainable, meaning that the Talmud could not be prohibited without undermining the basis toleration of Judaism that was the cornerstone of Church doctrine and policy. That Pope Innocent IV accepted this Jewish argument is yet further testimony to majority awareness of the centrality of the Talmud and Jewish law to medieval Jewish life.
The importance of the Talmud to medieval Jewish life should not, however, obscure the centrality of the Hebrew Bible on the medieval Jewish scene. The Bible, in different ways, formed the second pillar of Jewish life in medieval western Christendom. It was firmly planted at the heart of Jewish liturgy, bringing every Jew into constant contact with it; it was the grounding for the sermons that served as the central form of life-long Jewish education; it supplied the major symbols that oriented Jewish living in normal times and during periods of persecution and stress; it absorbed the creative energies of leading figures in the Jewish communities of both south and north; it served as the foundation upon which innovative thinkers in the realms of Jewish mysticism and philosophy built their systems; it was the major bone of contention in the historical and ongoing Christian-Jewish debate.
Study of the Bible was part and parcel of the school curriculum, especially in its earliest phases. In a sense, Bible study continued all through a Jew’s life, via engagement with Jewish liturgy in both the synagogue the home. The daily and holiday liturgy was (and is) replete with numerous biblical passages and images, and the major Jewish festivals of the year were (and are) rich in recollection of biblical happenings and symbols. Thus, every Jew attending synagogue or celebrating a Passover seder at home was in fact fully engaged with the Bible at one or another level. This basic engagement was deepened by the sermons regularly delivered by the rabbis, which were based on biblical verses and incidents. Through these sermons, biblical perspectives, themes, and symbols were regularly reinforced. Not infrequently, the rabbis engaged Christian use of shared biblical perspectives and imagery, arguing vigorously to their congregants that Christians in fundamental ways misread and misused the sacred text.
We recall the unanticipated and unprecedented assaults of 1096, which cost many Jewish lives in the Rhineland area and which unleashed a passionate and radical martyrological response on the part of the beleaguered Jews. The reports of these Jewish counter-crusade reactions suggest that—like the attackers, who were deeply influenced by biblical paradigms and symbols—the Jews of 1096 were similarly moved by their own reading of biblical paradigms and symbols. The Jews of 1096 seemingly modeled their behaviors on that of biblical figures like Abraham and Daniel and were stimulated by radical interpretation of biblical symbols like Jerusalem and its sacrificial cult. It did not, however, take extreme circumstances for medieval Jews to see their world through the prism of biblical paradigms and symbols—this is precisely the way medieval Jews read their everyday existence.
Bible commentary absorbed the energies of many of the most important intellectual figures in the Jewish communities of the entirety of Europe. Once again, Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes emerged as a dominant figure, both in terms of his own writings and his stimulation of followers. Rashi’s commentary on the Bible has been—if anything—even more popular than his Talmud commentary. It was read widely throughout the Middle Ages and continues to be studied in traditional Jewish schools down to the present. Once again, Rashi begins on the simplest level, explaining the meaning of obscure words and phrases. He then proceeds to seek the direct and straightforward meaning of the text. In addition, Rashi regularly connects the Bible—the Written Torah—to the various strata of the Oral Torah tradition, suggesting that the two are intimately linked as dual forms of divine revelation. There is some scholarly disagreement as to the extent that Rashi engages in his commentaries Christian readings of the Bible.
Once again, Rashi’s work—especially his pursuit of the straightforward meaning of the biblical text—set in motion a following. Across northern France during the twelfth century, a group of Jewish scholars, once more led by one of his grandsons, developed this direction of Rashi’s exegesis brilliantly, writing a series of commentaries in search of the plain and direct meaning of the biblical text. Here again, the Jewish interest—this time in straightforward exegesis—ran parallel to Christian proclivities of the time. A series of Christian exegetes in twelfth-century northern France likewise devoted themselves to the direct meaning of the Bible. In fact, a number of these Christian exegetes mention specifically consulting Jewish scholars for their expertise in Hebrew or quote and engage overtly the writings of Rashi.
The Jews of southern Europe drew on the legacy of their Iberian predecessors, especially their advances in the scientific study of the Hebrew language. Lexicography, grammar, and syntax had all been explored by Jews living in the Muslim world, and that heritage was maintained by the Jews who were absorbed or migrated into the Christian sphere. Perhaps the most widely read and admired of the twelfth-century southern exegetes was David Kimhi (Radak), whose father had brought the family out of Spain and over to Narbonne in southern France. Kimhi’s commentary is rich in penetrating philological observations. In addition, Kimhi—profoundly committed to rationalism—sought to explain biblical materials contextually, always with a commitment to portrayal of biblical thought and imagery as thoroughly compatible with reason. With David Kimhi, there can be no question as to his concern with Christian readings of Scripture. He regularly cites what he sees as Christian misreadings and rebuts them at considerable length.
The towering thirteenth-century Jewish Bible exegete was Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (Ramban)—a major communal figure in Iberian Jewry, the Jewish interlocutor in the important proselytizing disputation held in Barcelona in 1263, a brilliant expositor of Jewish law, a leader in the newly emerging tendencies toward mysticism, and a biblical exegete with profound literary sensitivities. The Ramban’s commentaries are rich in literary awareness and insight. He plumbs deep levels of the biblical narrative and biblical characters. Occasionally, he hints at the yet deeper
mystical meanings of the biblical text, although he is fully committed to maintaining mystical insight as the preserve of a limited and cautious minority of his community, not to be shared with the broad Jewish populace.
The search for the deeper meaning of received texts and traditions is a constant of religious communities, and the Christian majority and Jewish minority of medieval western Christendom were no exceptions. Within the Christian majority, numerous mystical and pietistic groups emerged. To an extent, the Roman Catholic Church was successful in absorbing many of these groups into its fold; some of these groups, however, seemed to cross the boundary into heterodoxy, giving rise to the perceived proliferation of heresy and the elaboration of repressive mechanisms for
dealing with what was viewed as a dangerous threat. The same creative forces are evident in the Jewish world as well, where new interpretations of the biblical and rabbinic texts and traditions abounded as well.
In northern Europe, the most potent of these new tendencies was to be found in the Rhineland area, in a twelfth-century movement dubbed by modern scholarship Hasidei Ashkenaz (The German Pietists). This loose movement was headed by some of the most venerable and illustrious rabbinic families in the area. These thinkers advanced novel understandings of traditional biblical imagery, and their heretofore-unpublished writings are slowly being edited and analyzed. The pietistic teachings of this group have been far better known. The major repository of
these teachings is the well-known Sefer Hasidim, a compilation of many literary forms, perhaps most prominently didactic tales with moral and ethical directives. These teachings generally take a radically negative view of surrounding Christian society, urging upon the pious believer extremes of self-abnegation.
Mystical speculation was somewhat broader and more diversified across the southern areas of Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These diverse mystical movements advanced alternative methods for plumbing the deep secrets of the universe, involving a variety of reinterpretations of traditional Jewish teachings and behaviors. With the passage of time, one mystical stream became increasingly prominent, that called loosely theosophic Kabbalah. This version of medieval Jewish mysticism posited a multi-faceted divinity, whose various sefirot or
sectors interacted dynamically with one another and with the lower levels of the universe as well. As this tendency matured and achieved preeminence, its adherents produced the classic work of medieval Jewish mysticism, the Zohar.
The Zohar is a sprawling and dense work, composed of many independent sections, most in Aramaic and some in Hebrew. The Aramaic of the Zohar is part of an effort to project the work as a composition of late antiquity, with the second-century Rabbi Simon Bar Yohai as the purported author. Much of the material in the Zohar takes the form of mystical commentary on biblical passages, often supplemented by lengthy homilies. A circle of adepts stands at the center of much of the material. Modern scholarship has posited a late-thirteenth-century Castilian Jewish mystic,
Moses de-Leon, as author of the Zohar, suggesting that the views in the book represent the mystical system developed by Jews of thirteenth-century Castile. The work won wide authority and emerged as the classical work of medieval Jewish esotericism.
The diverse mystical Jewish tendencies that sprang up all across medieval western Christendom inevitably aroused a variety of responses, some positive and some negative. They did not, however, elicit strong perceptions of heterodoxy; by and large they were comfortably accommodated within the Jewish community. The fact that many of these mystical tendencies were supported by distinguished rabbinic authorities contributed to the broad sense that the innovative mystical thinking did not cross over into heresy and did not have to be formally challenged and
repudiated. Jewish philosophic thinking was quite different in this regard. While many distinguished rabbinic authorities lent their prestige to the philosophic enterprise, significant numbers of Jews were convinced that philosophy was an unwelcome intruder in Jewish life and that it would lead eventually to negation of fundamental Jewish principles and values.
Jewish philosophic speculation represented yet another effort to reach a deeper understanding of Jewish texts and traditions. Unlike mystical speculation, philosophic speculation began with a distinct external challenge. As the fruits of Greek and Roman scientific and philosophic thought began to surface, first in the Muslim world and eventually in western Christendom, some Muslim, Christian, and Jewish thinkers became convinced that there was truth in the Greco-Roman thinking and that the traditional thinking of their own communities was fully consonant with that truth. Proving the compatibility of philosophic truth with traditional Muslim, Christian, and Jewish teachings became an obsession for some; for others, these efforts threatened the very fabric of traditional religious life. The battle was intense and protracted, often leading into political controversy. The books of Thomas Aquinas were burned in Christian majority society; the views of Maimonides and his followers were banned in the Jewish minority community.
The initial step in setting philosophic speculation on its course in medieval western Christendom was part and parcel of the translation efforts noted earlier. Many philosophic texts in Arabic were translated, but none was more significant than the ibn Tibbon translation of Maimonides’s philosophic magnum opus, his Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides was one of the great masters of the rabbinic corpus; his code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, was a masterpiece and was widely acclaimed. Yet some of his rabbinic teachings, framed in ways that would make them fully compatible with the dictates of philosophic reason, aroused opposition; his philosophic masterpiece was yet more inflammatory.
By the 1230’s, barely a quarter century after the death of Maimonides, the Jewish communities of southern France were embroiled in a wide-ranging dispute over Maimonidean teachings. One camp saw in these teachings an undermining of Jewish law and the beginning of the unraveling of the entirety of Jewish tradition and religious life. The other camp saw Maimonidean teachings as utterly correct and—even more important—critical to the maintenance of Jewish tradition. Without Maimonides and his teachings, the latter camp argued,the Jewish world would be held up to the ridicule of the intelligentsia both non-Jewish and Jewish. Jewish survival necessitated recognition of the importance and accuracy of the Maimonidean formulations.
This dispute—intense and bitter—ranged all through the European Middle Ages. When crises developed, for example the massive conversions that accompanied the physical violence of 1391 on the Iberian peninsula, each side blamed the other for what had gone wrong. For the anti-Maimunists, philosophic thinking had undermined traditional Jewish faith and had sapped the energies of a once vibrant community. For the Maimunists, too little—rather than too much—philosophy lay at the heart of what was perceived as a debacle. Interestingly, the dispute has in a
sense not died down yet, as modern students of the Jewish past continue to disagree over these matters.
The Jews of medieval western Christendom created in many other ways as well—they fashioned rich works of art, wrote fascinating poetry and prose, and composed striking historical narratives detailing both the ancient Jewish past and contemporary or near-contemporary events. While much of this further creativity cannot be discussed here, one more area of Jewish intellectual and spiritual endeavor demands acknowledgement, and that is Jewish polemical literature. As noted recurrently, medieval western Christendom was aggressively committed to missionizing among its Jews. This aggressive posture began to manifest itself by the twelfth century, and by the thirteenth century it had generated a well-organized campaign to force Jews into confrontation with a range of new arguments. In the face of this aggressiveness, Jewish leaders had to provide guidance to their followers, and they did so. Once again, the style of argumentation varied widely in the different sets of Jewish communities.
Common to Jewish argumentation in all sectors of Europe was a focus on the Hebrew Bible, with identification of major Christian arguments grounded in biblical verses and repudiation of these Christian arguments. There were a number of broad Jewish methodological positions that undermined in general ways Christian readings of Scripture. They included insistence that Christian views were misled by erroneous translation of the Hebrew text and that Christian exegesis was regularly decontextualized, obscuring the simple and straightforward meaning of the biblical
text. Beyond these broad stances, Jewish polemicists challenged the particulars of Christian readings on hundreds of verses. These challenges are sometimes found in the general commentaries of such luminaries as David Kimhi; sometimes entire works of polemically-oriented biblical commentary were composed.
While Christian missionizing argumentation and Jewish rebuttal was grounded in divergent understandings of the Hebrew Bible, both extended into other arenas as well. With the growing place of philosophic thinking within both communities, Christians advanced arguments for the philosophic truth of Christianity, while Jews vigorously denounced such key Christian doctrines as Incarnation and Trinity as obviously irrational. Another basis of disagreement involved the moral stances of the two communities. Christians pointed to heavy Jewish involvement in money-lending as evidence of lower moral standards; Jews attacked many facets of Christian behavior, focusing
heavily on the bellicosity of medieval Christian society and what Jews perceived as sexual licentiousness.
Both the philosophic argumentation and cases made from comparative moral achievement constituted lines of polemical argumentation with which the Jews of medieval western Christendom felt relatively comfortable. The most uncomfortable Christian attacks were those that focused on the disparity in material circumstances of the two faith communities. Jewish polemical works regularly portray Christian thrusts drawn from the successes of the Christian world and the debased circumstances of the Jews. This disparity is taken to reflect divine favor of the Christian camp and divine abandonment of the Jews. Hearing Christians advance this line of polemical argumentation was difficult for medieval Jews, but their leaders pondered the issue deeply and provided lines of response. Interestingly, Jews did not deny the realityof superior Christian material circumstances. They did, however, argue that Christian successes did not meet the criteria of messianic redemption, suggesting that Jesus was in fact not the promised Messiah. With the passage of time, as the early successes of the crusades dimmed, and Muslim resistance stiffened, Jews sometimes argued in more relative terms that—if material circumstances were taken as reflecting divine favor—then God obviously prefers Muslims to Christians.
These attacks on Christian achievement were useful, but they still left the issues of Jewish dispersion, small Jewish numbers, and Jewish political subjugation unanswered. Jewish polemicists all across Europe denied that Jewish suffering was a sign of abandonment by God; they claimed, rather, that the tribulations suffered by the Jews were a divinely imposed test. Steadfastness in the face of a divinely imposed test had won rich promises by God to the patriarch Abraham; subsequent Jewish steadfastness would win similar rewards for his descendants. In the face of the early assaults of 1096, the Jewish chroniclers of these bloody attacks portray sympathetic Christian onlookers
urging their Jewish neighbors to acknowledge divine abandonment and convert. In reply, the chroniclers make the case that the assaults were a test, that the Jews of 1096 had responded in exemplary fashion, and that the result of this Jewish heroism would be immediate individual reward for the martyrs in the next world and eventual reward for their descendants in this world.
The Jews of medieval western Christendom faced serious material obstacles and overcame them to create an enduring Jewish presence in this emergent center of the Western world. They likewise encountered major spiritual challenges and overcame them as well. The Christian majority was deeply committed to winning over these Jews and made major efforts—informal and formal—in that direction. Conversion of Jews was a reality all through our period, although the numbers were generally not significant, with the exception of the crisis period on the Iberian peninsula
during the closing decade of the fourteenth century and opening decades of the fifteenth century. The Jewish successes in creating effective Jewish communal structures and in fashioning a competitive Jewish culture in general and Jewish polemical counter-arguments in particular were as important to the successful implanting of Jews in medieval western Christendom as the material successes.