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27 Jul

Jews in the Middle Ages

Persecution and dispersion of the Jews from the Land of Israel increased in the period following the Jewish revolts against the Romans in the 1st and the 2nd centuries. Judaism was legally never forbidden but being a Jew eventually became very difficult especially after the victory of Christianity in the Roman Empire in 396. About the same time occurred the perception that the Jews were responsible for the death of the Jesus which resulted in the deep hatred towards the Jews among the adherents of Christianity.

Jewish settlements from the Late Antiquity managed to survive until the Early Middle Ages only in Northern Italian cities, while Jewish settlements elsewhere in Europe were newly-founded. The Jews in Palestine became oppressed when latter fell under Byzantine authority but the living conditions of the Jews in the Middle East generally improved after the Muslim Conquest of Africa, Levant and the Iberian Peninsula in the 7th and 8th centuries. Many Jews settled in the Iberian Peninsula where they gained great influence and became the strongest Jewish Diaspora in Europe by the Late Middle Ages. The Jews of the Iberian Peninsula also known as the Sephardi Jews developed their own religious ceremonies and a special Hebrew-Spanish language called Ladino.

Jewish settlement elsewhere in Europe, especially in the Holy Roman Empire depended on the agreement between the authorities and Northern Italian Jewish communities. The oldest Jewish settlements in the Holy Roman Empire were founded in the Rhineland, Magdeburg, Regensburg and Prague. The medieval Jewish communities in the Holy Roman Empire eventually developed distinct customs, special Germanic Jewish language – Yiddish and came to be known as the Ashkenazi Jews. Jewish settlements in France existed already before the 9th century, while first Jews moved to England in the 11th century. At the same time Jewish settlements also emerged in Eastern Slavic countries (Poland and Russia) as well as in the Balkan Peninsula and Byzantine Empire.

The Jews in Medieval Europe were considered a foreign, unchristian element and lived under different conditions than the rest of the Christian population. The Jews were not allowed to posses land and could not became members of peasantry nor of nobility. Thus the Jews were engaged in trade which was considered dishonorable by the nobles. Due to their flexibility, great knowledge of mathematics, distinct way of living and close connection between the Jewish communities throughout Europe the Jews eventually gained great wealth.

Medieval trade was completely dominated by the Jews (in some documents Jew is a synonym for merchant) until the Crusades when the Italian and German merchants gained control over the trade which was one of the main reasons for the Jews emerging as money lenders after the 11th century. The banking and credit business was completely new and the Jews had no competition because the Church forbade lending money for interests. Thus the “infidel” Jews took over the banking and gained great wealth by charging (often usurious) interests for their service. The borrowers often could not or did want to return the loan according to the contract and the lender (the Jew) could confiscate the borrowers estate. However, the legal status of the Jews was very complicated and in major cases the final judgement was delivered by the authorities whose decision often depended on their personal relationship with the borrower or his social status. The leading classes of the medieval society (rulers, nobles and clergy) were relatively tolerant towards the Jews as long as they had befits from them – borrowing money themselves. However, when the Church’s point of view started to be ignored and money could have been borrowed from the Italians, Flanders, Frenchmen, Germans and others as well the Jews became useless to the medieval social elites.

Living conditions of the non-Christian population, in first place of the Jews in Medieval Europe greatly changed after the First Crusade and conquest of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099. The departure to the Holy Land was accompanied by organized violence against the Jewish communities. The call of Pope Urban II to the First Crusade was massively responded by poor population which could not afford the trip to the Holy Land. Rise of anti-Semitism inspired by the preaching to the First Crusade and lack of money of wide population to depart to the Holy Land resulted in the series of pogroms against the Jews which are by some historians considered as the First Holocaust. The hatred and persecutions of the Jews in Europe afterwards greatly increased and the living conditions of the Jews in Europe became very harsh.

The Jews continued to establish new communities by the 13th century and revitalized communities which were decimated by the pogroms. However, series of pogroms against the Jews broke out again after the 13th century throughout Europe. They were expelled from England in 1290, Jewish communities in southern Italy were almost exterminated in years 1290-1293, while many Jews were forced to convert to Christianity. The Jews were also expelled from France in 1306. The greatest and the worst pogroms against the Jews in Medieval Europe took place during the period of the Black Plague in the middle of the 14th century when many Jews, especially in France were slaughtered for supposedly intentionally poisoning the wells to cause the plague which was of course not true. The persecution of the Jews in the Iberian Peninsula reached its hight at the end of the Middle Ages. Many virtually converted to Christianity, while numerous Jews emigrated, mostly to the Balkan Peninsula. The Jews in the Iberian Peninsula were faced with an ultimatum in year 1492 – either to covert to Christianity or exile. Thus many Jews of Iberian Peninsula emigrated to Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania. Elsewhere in Europe they were allowed to return after the pogroms in the middle of the 14th century. However, strong financial market in the Holy Roman Empire and indebtedness of numerous influential people at the Jewish bankers resulted in the expulsion of the Jews from the Holy Roman Empire at the end of the 15th century. The expulsion of the Jews from the Holy Roman Empire started with the Emperors decree on January 1, 1497, and was completed within few decades.

Jewish settlements in the medieval cities became limited on a certain area or a street which came to be known as ghetto by the 12th century. The Jews in ghettos lived according to the Jewish rules and laws which were supervised by the leader of the Jewish community, the rabbi who also took care for religious matters. In an average Jewish house usually lived several families. The spiritual center of the ghetto was the synagogue where took place praying, singing, reading, debating and learning. The religious ceremony was not led by a rabbi but by the cantor. The Jewish cemetery was according to the Tanach forbidden within the ghetto and for that reason it was placed outside the surrounding walls of the city. Many Jews also possessed small amount of land or vineyards outside the city. The legal matters of the Jews with other (Christian) residents of the city were regulated by a special council presided by a Christian judge, while other members of the council consisted of representatives of both religions.

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