The Reality of Jewish Persecution and Expulsion in Europe, 1050-1330

The relationship between Jews and Christians in medieval Europe has long been established as a hostile one in which Roman Christendom perpetrated vicious ideological and political attacks on Jewish religion and the community. However, a focus on persecution and expulsion could create a limited assessment of Jewish-Christian relations in medieval Europe as it fails to take into account other facets of the Jewish History.

Moreover it is patent that any history which is fixed on portraying a particular view is naturally unable to give a balanced thesis and illustrates only a narrow picture. That the Jews suffered persecution and expulsion at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church is evident. To assume that this fact represents a coherent history of Jewish-Christian relations might indeed be to misrepresent reality. The Jewish history in medieval Europe is a complex issue in which more should be considered than acts of Catholic persecution. It is essential not to disregard the extent to which Jewish communities were able to flourish as they proved invaluable to economy and academia. The argument outlining religious intolerance and persecution also does not take into account the many instances of Jewish communities, such as in Rome, being under papal and secular protection. Furthermore hostility and rejection between the communities was sometimes ‘mutual’. It would, however, be naive to ignore the history of persecution and over-emphasise positive aspects of Jewish-Christian relations. The many repeated ideological battles launched against the Jews and everyday ‘instinctive anti-semitism’ does give validation to an analysis of persecution. Therefore in this essay I consider the Jewish History in a broader context than just that of ‘a vale of tears narrative’, and propose the theory that whilst there is evidence for some semi-cordial Jewish-Christian relations, persecution and expulsion is in fact an undeniably salient feature of Jewish history in medieval Europe.

Historians such as J. A. Watt have emphasised the ideological nature of persecution, the religious intolerance diffused by Roman Catholic and secular authorities. However intolerance was not a consistent thread of religious thought throughout the Middle Ages. Indeed in many cases it was quite the contrary. Jews were often placed under papal protection: Pope Alexander II condemned physical violence, murder, religious coercion or legal infringement of the Jews. The Church at times took a theological stance of tolerance towards the Jews, an ‘Augustinian vision’ based on the gospel tenet of loving one’s enemy. Moreover there was a strong theological debate on the necessity of protecting the Jews as the gauge for the signs of the coming of end times and as potential converts to Christianity. It could be argued that this and the belief that the ultimate reward and blessing for the Jews would be the ‘divine bounty’ granted on the acceptance of Christianity over Judaism prevented the elimination and excessive persecution of the Jews. If Jews were eventually as ‘God’s first love’ to be brought into the faith of Christianity, then persecution would be counter-productive as it would impede this end. The fact that Jewish communities were allowed freedom to worship in synagogues also belies the theory that Jews faced constant religious intolerance and persecution: far from condoning persecutory activity, Pope Alexander II resolutely forbad ‘baptism by force and denial of Jewish freedom of worship by attacks on synagogues’. An attitude of distrust towards the Jews as religious aliens was not always present: many Popes employed Jewish doctors as their own personal physicians, a role which requires a certain amount of confidence and trust which would not be given had the Jews been regarded as wholly ‘other’. 

If persecution is defined as the ruthless victimisation and attempted extermination of a particular group of people, then how is it possible that the Jewish community were able to survive, and indeed in some cases grow in number, throughout Western Europe during the Middle Ages? The inconsistent nature of anti-Jewish sentiment goes some way to shed light on the conflicting evidence about Jewish persecution. Analysing the Jewish history of the European Middle Ages as one purely of persecution and expulsion could be considered a somewhat misguided approach as it applies a general theme to a period and geography that was in a state of constant change. Elukin proposes the theory that scholarship and general opinion is too often apt to approach the issue on the assumption that anti-Jewish acts were performed as part of a ‘common culture of anti-Jewish sentiment’ rather than how they should be regarded: as an ‘unfolding of uncertain, contingent, and separate events that did not necessarily reflect the sentiment of most Christians.’ Limor develops this view by explaining that our dependence on records and accounts of Jewish persecution means that there is naturally more weight on the ‘vale of tears’ view as ‘records normally dwell on descriptions of calamities, adversity and deviations from normality, silently passing over routine days of peace and quiet’. Moreover, expanding on the theme of available materials with which to study persecution, the vituperative nature of polemical literature from both sides may deceive our understanding as it might create a more antagonistic image of the relationship between the communities than was really the case. Both sides were writing this literature for a specific agenda to prevent people from their own faith from converting. This suggests two interesting points for reflection: first, that the material was exaggerated in its attempts to demonise the actions of its opponents; second, that the necessity for this kind of writing suggests that there was already an integration and conversion to new ideas on both sides during a process of acculturation, which authorities and intellectual figures felt compelled to prevent. 

The Jewish community’s ability to endure and proliferate in medieval Europe despite persecution is perhaps the strongest challenge to the traditional view of them as a perpetually persecuted group. Chazan attributes this survival to prosperity, stating that ‘economic success was the key to the well-being of the Jews’. Jews often enjoyed considerable economic and cultural achievements: John Mundy propounds that Jews ‘flourished as never before’ in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. Furthermore Jews were often seen as a benefit to the Christian community in an economic capacity. In Speyer, for example, they were welcomed by the Bishop as an asset to the city and granted a ‘better legal position than any other Jewish community in any city of the German Kingdom’. They prospered in trade, banking and usury, and as, especially in the case of usury, they provided economic functions which Christians were unable to perform, they contributed profitably to the working of the city. 

The argument that Jewish-Christian relations fluctuated over time, and were not in a constant state of hostility only lends credence to the view that the Jewish position was a ‘precarious’ one. Times of economic, social and legal stability for the Jews were never secure, and the very state of this uncertainty suggests that the Jewish history of Europe was suffused with the constant threat of persecution. Moore’s argument that among Jewish communities there was an ‘increasing vulnerability in everyday life to the casual obloquy and abuse of the faithful’ supports the view the history of Jewish Communities in medieval Europe is largely marked by the shadow of persecution and expulsion. A community that is in a state of constant apprehension of an attack on their way of life, and needing protection from authorities to survive is surely the definition of a community victimised at the hands of a persecuting society. The necessity of drawing attention to more prosperous aspects of the Jewish narrative by historians merely testifies to the fact that persecution is its most prominent feature. 

The Jewish community’s ability to become an integral part of economic life in medieval cities, and the fact that they were often actively encouraged to settle there by the authorities, appears to refute the concept of perpetual Jewish persecution and expulsion. To say that the Jews faced expulsion in medieval Europe seems to be a paradox when taken with numerous accounts of Jewish communities being welcomed and protected as an economic benefit in numerous cities. However, it could be argued that this treatment to some extent was in fact exploitative: Jewish communities were more or less obliged to confine to certain areas of trade necessary for the well-being of the economy, but seen as dishonourable professions. Chazan describes how the Roman Catholic’s disapproval of usury being practised by Christians led to the Jewish community being forced into the profession and other similarly un-sympathetic ones of banking and finance as they were needed to fill the gap in secular economy. Thus the very pretext on which Jews were invited to cities provided fuel for anti-Judaism and persecution as these professions were always, no matter who practised them, viewed with antipathy by the populace. The stigma of usury became inter-linked with the general image of the Jewish community which developed, via this role in society, into a myth of the ritual murderer, avaricious and perfidious Jew. Furthermore, whilst Jewish communities were accepted into medieval cities, they were segregated and kept from being involved in society in a form ‘internal expulsion’. When Jewish communities no longer served a purpose in the city, their function being attacked – most commonly by travelling friars of certain religious orders – and replaced by a Christian run charity or organisation, they were then often summarily expelled exposing the sometimes exploitative and hypocritical nature of cordial overtures by city rulers. Thus even seemingly positive aspects of the Jewish-Christian relationship were tainted with the consistent reminders of the otherness of the Jews; proof that hostility based on prejudice was an ever-present reality. 

Robert Moore gives an apt summary of the dilemma of analysing Jewish-Christian relations in medieval Europe by declaring that it is ‘impossible to strike a true balance of the general situation of European Jews’. It would appear that the complexity of the nature of the relationship does not allow for any one broad description of the Jewish state in medieval Europe. However it does not follow that the historiography of Jewish persecution is a misrepresentation. Whilst Jewish life was not one continual experience of alienation and animosity, it would be an overstatement to assert that persecution and expulsion was not a conspicuous feature of the Jewish experience. Elukin argues rightly that to focus only on evidence of Jewish alienation would be to distort historical experience. Nevertheless, as long as a history of the Jews in medieval Europe includes the consideration of positive aspects of Jewish-Christian relations and admits the existence of paradoxes, persecution and expulsion is a natural area of study in this period as it is the logical outcome of abundant historical evidence for it. A history of the Jews which focuses on persecution and expulsion does not misrepresent reality as it was an unavoidable everyday truth for the majority of Jewish communities in Europe throughout the medieval period.

Image: Allan Barton

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