Jews in the Middle Ages

Jews in the Middle Ages

The history of Jews in the Middle Ages spans the timeframe of approximately 500 CE to 1750 CE. This article covers the medieval history of Jews in the Christian-dominated European region. The other two themes that comprise the history of Jews in the Middle Ages include Jewish history in Muslim Arab lands, mainly Islamic Spain, and the Jewish history in North Africa, covered in the Islam and Judaism and Golden age of Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula articles.


From the Fall of Rome to the Late Middle Ages (500-1500)

Church Laws in the Early Middle Ages

By the 10th century most of Europe was under the rule of Christian monarchs who made Christianity the religion of their realms. (The Roman Empire had been an officially Christian state during its decline.) This, however, left a privileged niche for Jews in the new order. The Catholic Church forbade Christians from charging interest to fellow Christians; therefore the only source of loans were non-Christians such as Jews. While this status did not always lead to peaceful conditions for the Jewish people, they were the most compatible non-Christians for the position due to their shared devotion to the same Abrahamic God that the Christians worshiped.[citation needed] While many Jews rose to prominence in these times, Judaism was mostly practiced in private to avoid persecution. Sadly, this period was mostly one of insecurity and brutality against the Jewish people. The descendants of the survivors of this period, the Ashkenasi Jews, still commemorate some of the more memorable tragedies of this period in their liturgy, for example.

Their fate in each particular country depended on the changing political conditions. In Italy (see History of the Jews in Italy) they experienced dark days during the endless wars waged by the Heruli, Rugii, Ostrogoths, and Lombards. The severe laws of the Roman emperors were, in general, more mildly administered than elsewhere; the Arian confession, of which the Germanic conquerors of Italy were adherents, was characterized by its tolerance.

On the Iberian peninsula, Jews lived under the governments of first the Romans and subsequently the Germanic Visigoths where they at first thrived, being treated much the same as their non-Jewish neighbors. This status under the Visigoths came to a sudden after the Visigothic king Reccared embraced Catholicism and his successors attempted to convert their subjects. Many Jews yielded to these forced conversions in secret hope that the severe measures would be of short duration. But they soon bitterly repented this hasty step; Visigothic legislation insisted with inexorable severity that those who had been baptized by force must remain true to the Christian faith. Consequently the Jews eagerly welcomed the Islamic forces when the latter conquered the peninsula in 711 (see Islam and Judaism).

In other parts of western Europe, Jews who wished to remain true to the faith of their fathers were protected by the Church itself from compulsory conversion. There was no change in this policy even later, when the pope called for the support of the Carolingians in protecting his ideal kingdom with their temporal power. Charlemagne, moreover, was glad to use the Church for the purpose of welding together the loosely connected elements of his kingdom when he transformed part of the old Roman empire into a new Christian one, and united under the imperial crown all the German races at that time firmly settled (see History of the Jews in Germany). After his death in 843, his empire fell apart, and the rulers of Italy, France, and Germany were more attentive to the Church's desires in the making of laws dealing with the Jews.

Sicut Judaeis

Sicut Judaeis (the "Constitution for the Jews") was the official position of the papacy regarding Jews throughout the Middle Ages and later. The first bill was issued in about 1120 by Calixtus II, intended to protect Jews who suffered during the First Crusade, and was reaffirmed by many popes, even until the 15th century.

The bill forbade, besides other things, Christians from forcing Jews to convert, or to harm them, or to take their property, or to disturb the celebration of their festivals, or to interfere with their cemeteries, on pain of excommunication.

The Crusades

The trials the Jews periodically endured in the various Christian West kingdoms echoed the catastrophes that occurred during Crusades. In the First Crusade (1096) flourishing communities on the Rhine and the Danube were utterly destroyed; see German Crusade, 1096. In the Second Crusade (1147) the Jews in France suffered especially. Philip Augustus treated them with exceptional severity. In his days the Third Crusade took place (1188); and the preparations for it proved to be momentous for the English Jews. After being the victim of increasing oppression that made living all but impossible, Jews were banished from England in 1290; and 365 years passed before they were allowed to settle again in the British Isles (see History of the Jews in England). The Jews were also subjected to attacks by the Shepherds' Crusades of 1251 and 1320.

Accusations of ritual murder, blood libel and Host desecration

Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews were frequently accused of ritual murder and of using human blood (allegedly, the blood of Christian children was especially coveted) in Jewish services. In many cases, such libels served as the basis for cults, in which the alleged victims of human sacrifice were elevated to the status of martyr. In over 20 cases, the Catholic Church canonized these alleged ritually murdered children as Saints, as it was in the cases of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln (d. 1255) or Simon of Trent (d. 1475). Although the first known instance of blood libel is found in the writings of Apion, who claimed that the Jews sacrificed Greeks in the Temple of Jerusalem, no further incidents are recorded until the 12th century, when blood libels began to proliferate.

In some cases, the authorities spoke against the accusations, for example Pope Innocent III wrote in 1199:

No Christian shall do the Jews any personal injury, except in executing the judgments of a judge, or deprive them of their possessions, or change the rights and privileges which they have been accustomed to have. During the celebration of their festivals, no one shall disturb them by beating them with clubs or by throwing stones at them. No one shall compel them to render any services except those which they have been accustomed to render. And to prevent the baseness and avarice of wicked men we forbid anyone to deface or damage their cemeteries or to extort money from them by threatening to exhume the bodies of their dead.[1]

The charge was circulated that they wished to dishonor the Host, which Catholics believe is the body of Jesus Christ.

Black Death

When the Black Death raged through Europe, the charge was given that the Jews had poisoned the wells.[2] The only court of appeal that regarded itself as their appointed protector, according to historical conceptions, was the "Holy Roman Emperor." The emperor, as legal successor to Titus, who had acquired the Jews for his special property through the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, claimed the rights of possession and protection over all the Jews in the former Roman empire.


The Jews, who were driven out of England in 1290, out of France in 1394, and out of numerous districts of Germany, Italy, and the Balkan peninsula between 1350 and 1450, were scattered in all directions, and fled preferably to the new Slavic kingdoms, where for the time being other confessions were still tolerated. Here they found a sure refuge under benevolent rulers and acquired a certain prosperity, in the enjoyment of which the study of the Talmud was followed with renewed vigor. Together with their faith, they took with them the German language and customs, which they have cultivated in a Slavic environment with unexampled faithfulness for centuries.

As in Slavic countries, so also under Muslim rule the persecuted Jews often found a humane reception, especially from the eighth century onward on the Iberian peninsula. But even as early as the thirteenth century the Arabs could no longer offer a real resistance to the advancing force of Christian kings; and with the fall of political power Arabic culture declined, after having been transmitted to the Occident at about the same period, chiefly through the Jews in the north of Spain and in the south of France. At that time there was no field of learning the Spanish Jews did not cultivate. They studied the secular sciences with the same zeal as the Bible and Talmud.

But the growing influence of the Church gradually crowded them out of this advantageous position. At first the attempt was made to win them to Christianity through writings and religious disputations; and when these attempts failed they were ever more and more restricted in the exercise of their civil rights. Soon they were obliged to live in separate quarters of the cities and to wear humiliating badges on their clothing. Thereby they were made a prey to the scorn and hatred of their fellow citizens. In 1391, when a fanatical mob killed four thousand Jews in Seville alone, many in their fright sought refuge in baptism. And although they often continued to observe in secret the laws of their fathers the Inquisition soon rooted out these pretended Christians or Marranos. Thousands were thrown into prison, tortured, and burned, until a project was formed to sweep all Spain clean of unbelievers. The plan matured when in 1492 the last Moorish fortress fell into the hands of the Christians. Queen Isabella of Spain issued an edict banishing all Jews from Spain for acts of, "a serious a detestable crime," a reference to the ritual murder of the infant Christopher of La Guardia, Spain, which was tried in court in 1491, and who was later made into a Saint (see above). Many of the Jews fled to the Balkan peninsula, where a few decades before the Crescent had won a victory over the Cross through the Ottoman Turks. Sultan Bayazid II of the Ottoman Empire, learning about the expulsion of Jews from Spain, dispatched the Ottoman Navy to bring the Jews safely to Ottoman lands, mainly to the cities of Salonica (currently in Greece) and Smyrna (currently in Turkey). Judeo-Spanish (a form of medieval Spanish influenced by Hebrew) was widely spoken by the Jewish communities of the Turkish Empire into the 20th century.

Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance

The late fifteenth century saw the death of the Byzantine empire (the last remnant of the Roman Empire) and the full conquest of all Greek lands by the Turks. That time period also saw two Spanish royals sponsoring the expulsion of Jews from Spain and the voyage of Columbus, which reached the Americas. The Protestant Reformation, a Christian schism/ revolution, expanded, affecting attitudes towards both the papacy and the Jews. It was an age of inventions and discoveries that brought about an immense change in ideas. It appears that many Jews migrated east, towards the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe. They had to seek refuge in the realms of the Slavs and the Turks. Their external circumstances were not at first unfavorable. They even attained to high positions in the state, at least in The Ottoman Empire (serving several internal political objectives of the Sultan-mainly balancing the gaining influence of the Greek and Armenian traders over the Ottoman economy). Don Joseph Nasi was made Duke of Naxos; and Solomon Ashkenazi was ambassador of the Porte to the republic of Venice.

In Poland the Jews were a link between the nobility and the peasants by working in trade and industry. But there were trials brought upon the Polish and Lithuanian Jews through the Cossack hetman Chmielnicki (1648) and by the Swedish wars (1655). Hundreds of thousands of Jews are said to have been killed in these few years.

In 1648, a youth from Smyrna, Sabbatai Ẓevi, claimed to be the Messiah based on the prophecies of the Zohar, a popular Jewish text at the time. His rapid rise in popularity reflected the desperation of the Jews thorughout Europe at the time. Brutal persecutions, murder, seizure of property and forced conversions were rampant. Thousands of Jews sold their properties and followed Sabbatai Zevi to Turkey. He converted to Islam in 1666 rather than face execution at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish Sultan. Thousands of his European Jewish followers became crypto-Jews, called dönme living in Turkey to this day.

Fugitives from Spain and Germany had come also to Italy, and founded new communities beside Greeks who had fled hither from Constantinople-bringing the treasures of classical antiquity with them—became the leaders and guides of the humanists to the source of Jewish antiquity. The Italian Jews taught Hebrew, and learned Latin and Greek.

The inclination to study esoteric doctrines spread at that time even among the Jews who had founded new communities in the Protestant states on the shores of the North Sea under Dutch and English protection. This new mysticism strongly influenced the German Jews. The elector Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg allowed them to settle in Berlin, and protected them with a strong hand from injury and slander.


The Middle Ages ended, according to most scholars, c. 1500-1550. They gave way to the Early Modern Era, c. 1550-1780. Ideas of the European Enlightenment began to affect some Jews in Western Europe (particularly in France and Germany) c. 1780. This marks the end of the Early Modern Era, and the dawn of the Modern Era. The Jewish Enlightenment Haskalah, gradually influenced many Jews across the European continent, reaching to Eastern Europe by the mid- to late-19th century.

See also


  1. ^ Thatcher, Oliver J.; Edgar Holmes McNeal (1905). A Source Book for Medieval History. New York: Scribner's. pp. 212–213. 
  2. ^ Jean de Venette, prior of a Carmelite convent in Paris in the 14th century, wrote:

    As a result of this theory of infected water and air as the source of the plague the Jews were suddenly and violently charged with infecting wells and water and corrupting the air. The whole world rose up against them cruelly on this account. In Germany and other parts of the world where Jews lived, they were massacred and slaughtered by Christians, and many thousands were burned everywhere, indiscriminately.

    Newhall, Richard A.; Jean Birdsall (1953). The Chronicle of Jean de Venette. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 48–51. 

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