The Jews in the Medieval Period

By David Wachtel

“Wishing to make the village of Speyer into a city, I thought to increase its glory a thousand fold by bringing in the Jews.” 
                                        — Rudiger Huozmann, Prince-Bishop of Speyer, 1084 CE

Detail of Darmstadt Haggadah, Scribe, Israel b. Meir of Heidelberg, Germany.  Courtesy of Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Darmstad (Cod. or 8, fol. 37v).

A fter the destruction of the Temple and the failure of the Great Revolt, Jewish life no longer had a single central locus. Though some Jews remained in the Land of Israel, major centers were now found in Babylonia and Egypt, and many Jews followed in the footsteps of the great medieval empires, reasoning that newly conquered frontiers might be more hospitable to the members of a landless and peripatetic people. To the west, Jewish individuals set off from the imperial hubs of Rome and Constantinople to outlying provinces, reaching Egypt, North Africa, Spain, and England. To the east, the Jews fell under the successive rule of Romans, Parthians, and Sassanians, with settlements and communities ranging across Persia, Arabia, and Western Asia. The bulk of world Jewry now found itself stretched across a diaspora that reached across most of the known world.

Where Judaism had been relatively tolerated in the polytheistic societies of antiquity, the monotheistic faiths of the early medieval period, Christianity and Islam, more assiduously guarded their monopolies in matters of religion. In the Christian world, the Jews occupied a particularly challenging theological niche. In the face of Christianity’s own origins as a messianic Jewish cult, Jews were officially relegated to a subservient status of tolerated inferiority. Frequently, however, tolerance gave way to popular discrimination, official persecution, and instances of physical violence and death.

Jews nevertheless played an extraordinarily important role in the development of medieval European society. Significant advances in agrarian techniques and the resulting agricultural surplus led to the rise of cities and increased urban populations. This in turn paved the way for the opening of international trade routes and the creation of wealth on a scale not seen since the heyday of the Roman Empire. Jewish merchants occupied a critical segment of this international trade, facilitated by the far-flung networks of friends and family connections inherent in the broad geographic distribution of Jews in the Diaspora. The earliest Jewish trading routes extended from France in the west to the Pacific shores of China in the east. These Jewish merchants primarily carried commodities that combined small bulk and high demand, including spices, perfumes, jewelry, and silk. Their success was in no small part due to the enmity between Christianity and Islam. Since the Islamic states of the Middle East and North Africa and the Christian kingdoms of Europe often banned each other's merchants from entering their territories, the Jewish merchants and traders functioned as neutral intermediaries, keeping open the lines of communication and trade between the lands of the old Roman Empire and the Far East.

Interior of the Alte Neue Synagogue, Prague, Completed in 1270.

In some parts of Christian Europe, Jews were excluded by legal restriction from entering into certain occupations. In addition to this social discrimination, as a people without a land of their own and subject to frequent expulsion, the Jews migrated to the more “portable” professions, chiefly in areas of commercial and economic endeavors. Jews, especially city-dwellers, became active in the formation of the burgeoning credit markets. They were particularly sought after as moneylenders because a loan between a Jew and a Christian conveniently avoided the prohibition that both faiths maintained against the lending of money at interest to one’s coreligionist but permitted to a “stranger.”

Some Christian rulers sought to attract Jews to their territory by means of a formal charter that granted them specific rights, and effectively placed them on a par with the burghers of the town. This was the case in 1084 CE, when Bishop Rudiger invited Jews to settle in Speyer. From his perspective, the Jews were seen as desirable and necessary elements in the formation of European society as it emerged from an era frequently termed “The Dark Ages.” Only a few years later however, the frenzied massacres carried out against the Jewries of Speyer and other Rhineland communities at the hands of rampaging Crusaders showed another facet of the Jewish-Christian relationship, one of mutual distrust, xenophobia, hatred, and fear. These paradoxical and contradictory facets made for a fragile existence for the Jewish People under Christendom.

Map of Cologne, Hartmann Schedel, Liber Chronicarum, Cologne, A. Koberger, 1493.

Under Islam, the Jews usually fared only slightly better, based upon their designation by the Qur’an as a “People of the Book,” that is to say, a people with a divinely inspired scripture. As a result, Jews were generally allowed to practice their faith and live according to the laws and scriptures of their community. During most of the tenth and eleventh centuries, a period known as the “Golden Age,” Jews flourished in Islamic Spain. Spanish Jews, called Sephardim, achieved hitherto unknown heights in fields as diverse as poetry, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, and linguistics. Under mostly benevolent Muslim rulers, some Jews even served in prominent governmental and military positions. Nevertheless, their explicitly subordinate status in the worldview of Islam eventually resulted in similar kinds of maltreatment to those experienced by their Ashkenazic (Central and Northern European) brethren. As the Iberian Peninsula inexorably returned to Christian hegemony, the fortunes of the Jews of Spain progressively deteriorated. In 1391 a massive yearlong pogrom resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews and the forced conversion of an equal number. The ensuing century saw a steady deterioration of Jewish life that culminated in the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.

The travails of the medieval period had compelled the Jewish People to develop a new strategy for self-preservation. Turning inwards to the very traditions and customs that had sustained them throughout antiquity, they expanded those teachings into a literary corpus that gave new meaning and substance to Jewish life. These included remarkable advances in Jewish literature and jurisprudence, in commerce and education, and in the coalescing of rabbinic authority and literary creativity. The Talmud, and its innumerable rabbinic commentaries, exegeses, novellae, and responsa, became an all-embracing and comprehensive means by which Jews could relate to both the internal world of Judaism and the external demands of a broader society. Only a very few material objects have survived from this tumultuous period when Judaism was forged in the crucible of the Middle Ages, tempered by adversity in the furnace of persecution, but steeled by an inner strength born of faith and nurtured by tradition.

This essay has been excerpted from the catalogue to A Treasured Legacy: The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection, an auction taking place at Sotheby’s New York on 29 April. To view objects from the Medieval Period included in the sale go to lots 51-54.

Next essay: The Jews in the Italian Renaissance

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