Steven Katz on Jewish Life in Medieval Europe


The Steve Katz Series Continues…

Professor Steve Katz of Boston University spoke to us about Jews under Islam and about Jewish life at the same time period in Christian Europe.

Jews lived in Christian Europe since classical times. After the rise of Christianity, their lives were influenced by two forces—Christianity and the particular regions in which they lived. It would be a mistake to consider Europe as one place. Different forces were at work in Italy, Spain, and the Byzantine Empire; we need to examine regional influences as well as the affect of the Church.

There were essentially no Jews in Eastern Europe in the period leading up to 1200. The movement to Eastern Europe took place in the later middle ages. Jews arrived in Poland in serious numbers in the 16th century. There were no Jews in Scandinavia until the 18th century when some Jews arrived for economic reasons. In contrast to our image of Scandinavia as tolerant, until the late eighteenth century Jews were treated in Scandinavia as the Czars treated them in Russia–pollution not to be allowed.

Katz began with a remark about interpretation. As he had deflated our idea of Jewish life under Islam as a “golden age”, he sought to inflate our image of

Jewish life in the Christian countries. Most of us were taught that the Church and the Jews were not good together. Often we conceived of Jews in Christian Europe as a series of bloodbaths and disasters.

The story is dark, Katz said, but not as dark as we might think. He asked us to open our minds to the possibility that Jews lived with Christians in many different circumstances. There were often 50 or 100-year periods of relative calm before a new round of violence erupted.

He also noted that many people today might assume that the most anti-Jewish country was Germany, but German Jewish life had high points while other countries had expulsions. The story is complicated.

The Beginnings of the Era

The Church came to power in the middle of the 4th century. Until the conversion of Constantine, Jews and Christians were both persecuted minorities. Even though there was antipathy towards Jews in the New Testament, it was something of a family squabble. Initially the Jews had more power including the power to put heretics out of the synagogue.

Once Constantine converted, the Church had the power to enforce its anti-Jewish rhetoric. Yet there were limits to what Christians felt they could do to Jews. The Church felt that Jews could be persecuted but not murdered. Many Christian thinkers wrote treatises negative towards Jews. Indeed, as Erasmus later wrote: “If hating Jews is to be a good Christian, then we are all Christians.”

The most important early writer was Augustine. The Jews were the brothers of Christ, he said, but like Cain, they murdered their brother (Christ). Like Cain, they must wander. In the classic position of the church, the Jews had to wander. The Jew could never have permanence, never be at home, and never be satisfied. However, the Jew’s life could not be ended. In the end of time, the Jews will return and be converted. This set a limit to the circumstance of the Jewish-Christian encounter.

Common Themes

Katz noted a number of themes that were common to the Jews in this era. First, Jews were overwhelmingly city dwellers. This had serious implications. In a world where 95% of the people were farmers, Jews were an anomaly. Second was the status of Jews in a feudal society. In such a society, everything was based on ownership of land. In theory, the king owned the land and gave out parcels. Everything was organized down to the level of the serfs and everyone’s identity, except for that of clerics, came through their relationship to the land. In these circumstances, Jews who were not allowed to own land were a strange commodity and no one knew how to deal with them.

It took about 500 years, but a relationship was finally worked out. The agreement was that Jews belonged to the King and were called Serfs of the Chamber. Therefore, the King could do what he wanted with them. He could take their property, could kick them out, and could decide if Jews could have slaves. The King had all the rights, the Jews had only those which they managed to bargain for with the King.

In these circumstances, Jews defined themselves, and the Christians identified Jews, as a nation in exile. Both Jews and Christians bought into the idea that Jews were a sinful nation and God had sent them into exile. For the church, we were the “witness of unbelief”. We proved the truth of Christianity. We were guilty of killing the Messiah and therefore God destroyed the Temple and the Jewish commonwealth and sent the Jews into exile. Jews as Jews, therefore, were forever to be apostate and reprobate and the only way out of the situation is to come back into the bosom of God through the church.

The Jews had a parallel story in the same general vein. In the Jewish story, we were sinners and had been rejected from our land. If we look at the special Musaf for Rosh Hodesh, for example, it still says we were exiled because of our sins. Because of this punishment, Jews felt that, wherever they were, they were always in the wrong place.

Customs grew up around the idea that we were in exile. For example, there was Halachah about Jews not owning property outside the land of Israel. When a home is painted, a portion should always be left unpainted to show we are in transition and not in a permanent home. Invitations to special events would be sent saying to come unless the Messiah comes first. People, in fact, kept bags packed just in case the Messiah did come.

In order to understand medieval Jewish life fully, Katz noted, we had to understand that the Jewish people knew they were in a precarious situation.

The Role of Halacha

Halacha, itself, that gave the Jews what they needed. It was a source of comfort and organization in the precarious world. Katz likened Halacha to an RV. It could be parked anywhere, in Spain, or Italy, for example, and life would go on as before. Wherever they went, Jews were granted the right to have their own courts. That is the way they maintained communal authority. In fact, in the 17th century, Spinoza was excommunicated because he had gone to a secular court to settle a dispute with another Jew over trade.


In this situation, Jews did many things to survive. The most important was their role as traders. Before 1500, there was a Christian world north of the Mediterranean and a Muslim world south. Unlike during the Roman Empire, where people could travel and trade anywhere easily, the conquest by the Muslims meant that these two worlds were divided. Jews were the bridge. The Christians could not go south and feel safe; the Muslims could not go to Europe without the threat of enslavement or persecution. The Jews, however, had a special kind of passage and were acceptable in both communities.

Therefore, the fundamental economic activity, especially in the early middle ages, went through the Jews. There were states that welcomed the Jews, including the Carolingian empire of Charlemagne. Jews could also go to the Far East, to the source of the most precious commodities things in medieval trade—slaves, spices and silk. Slaves came from areas around the Black Sea. Romania, for example, was a major source of slaves. Jews could also go to India and China and bring back silks and spices. Silk, in particular, was enormously profitable. Spices, in a world without refrigeration, were crucial. Jews, in fact, were exploring the trade routes before Marco Polo.

Jews in the Middle

Jews living in the cities became the crucial middleman in various trades. Food production would take place on farms, but the crops had to be sold and processed. Again, this was an era where no one drank water. People drank ale and wines, but to do that they had to turn grapes or grain into spirits. Jews from early times were important in buying the crops and processing and distributing the product. In Europe, this was an important endeavor.

In addition, the Jews became usurers, a complicated situation, particularly in England. A Jew in England named Aaron of Lincoln accumulated the greatest fortune. When he died, he left such a large inheritance that the king confiscated it and made a special office in the exchequer to deal with it. It took 16 years to sort out the estate and then only half the debts were collected. As Katz noted, Jewish law forbids usury. Yet historically, as a necessary consequence of difficult circumstances, it happened. From the Christian perspective, usury was forbidden, but it was a necessary function. Since the Jews were already Christ killers, pushing them into the role of usurers was not unreasonable.

Whatever the basis, Jews became usurers, operating from a low level, where people pawned pots or pans or a robe, all the way up to serving the wealthy. Jews, in fact, financed the great monasteries, including the shrine of St. Augustine. In doing so, the Jews performed a valuable economic activity. It is important to note that usury was not the original cause of anti-Semitism. Instead, it was the other way round, anti-Semitism caused the Jews to be forced into playing the role of usurers and this re-enforced the anti-Semitism that already existed. It was a dangerous business. People do not like usurers and this creates a lot of cultural baggage.

Before the 1200s, the cities were relatively open places and Jews were able do many types of economic activities besides usury including trading in commodities. For the Christians in the trade guilds work and position were much more secure. The guilds provided security. For example, if a guild member died, the guild would take care of the family, possibly making the child an apprentice.

No Centralized Jewish Leadership

The third thing we need to know about European Jews in this period is that, unlike in the Muslim countries, there was no centralized leadership. Earlier, in Babylonia, there was the Exilarch, appointed by the Babylonian court to be head of the Jewish community. In Egypt, there was the Nagid, a role eventually taken by the family of Maimonides. There were similar roles in Spain and North Africa. There was also the dominance force of the Babylonian yeshivot.

In Christian Europe, however, there was diversity. There was no king of the Jews. Instead, every community worked out different relations and authority. An institution known as the Shtadlan, the intercessor, developed. This might be akin to an influential person today who goes to Washington on behalf of the community. The term, however, became pejorative, as someone who would take community money for their own gain.

Because there was no central leadership, people of diverse sorts became leaders. In contrast, in Iraq, if you were the head of the academy in Sura or Pumbeditha, you were a star. Rashi, for example, was a vintner, but because he was so brilliant, he became “the commentator”. Similarly, Rabbi Gershom in

Germany, called “the light of the exile”, held no official position, but his intellect was so powerful that people listened. It is due to R. Gershom, in fact, that Jews today are monogamous. Muslim law allowed up to four wives and many concubines. Jewish law did not forbid multiple wives or concubines. Rabbi Gershom said no, the Christians do not allow it and that is a good idea, so he issued a Takana, an enactment. (A Takana is a rabbinic ordinance called for by the times in which people live.) He said that it was a good idea to have only one wife, but as a Takana his ruling had a time limit, so he said for a thousand years. Recently, the thousand years ran out.

The Jews of Germany developed a different Jewish culture than the Jews of Spain. And what happened when those Jews went into Eastern Europe was very different than what happened in Babylonia. Sephardim and Ashkenazim developed real distinctions. The Sephardim were more a part of a unified culture, where the Ashkenazim were different from place to place. German Jewry, said Katz, was very conservative and very ascetic. It produced ascetics and mystics; in contrast to the worldly and sophisticated pursuits of the Arab cultures.

At the same time, Jews were a much smaller percentage of the total population in Christian Europe than they were in the Muslim countries. Although, in the absence of an official census, no one knows exact numbers, estimates are that in all of Western Europe by the late middle ages there may have been 250,000 Jews in a general community of 10-15 million people. After 1200 more and more Jews left the Muslim world, which was on the decline, and slowly the European Jewish population grew in countries such as Italy, France, Germany, England (up to 1290), Portugal, Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean.

Greece and Italy

The oldest Jewish communities in Europe were in Greece and Italy, the former even dating to pre-classical Greece. Sadly, the Jewish community in Athens and Salonica were largely wiped out in World War II. Jews have been in Rome since before Augustus. In a sense, the only real Italians are Jews. The slow decline of Rome hit the bottom in the 5th century, when the Goths and Huns and Vandals came down from Germany and sacked the city twice, destroying its culture and political life. Justinian, the Byzantine Emperor, in the sixth century, was an anti-Semite of the first order. We remember him, in fact, every Shabbat in the Musaf when we repeat the Amidah (the silent prayer) and say the Shma together. Justinian, who thought the Jews were mocking the Trinity with the Shma, forbade its recital. He sent spies to the synagogues, but they only stayed until the time when the Shma should have been said. The Jews, however, inserted it later in the service so it was pronounced after the spies left. The Code of Justinian, which was produced in 534, said there would be no new synagogues and no circumcisions. This difficult period only lasted only a relatively short time.

In Italy – as compared to Byzantium — at the beginning of the 6th century, the King of the Ostrogoths became the King of Rome and he realized the value of the Jews. The Goth Kingdom was composed of Aryans who were sympathetic to the Jews. In the early medieval period, though there were yeshivas in Vernosa and Rome, neither of them had the stature of the Babylonian or Jerusalem academies. However, they followed the pattern set in the land of Israel–biblical study, biblical commentary, liturgical matters, poems and creations for synagogues, and the study of mysticism. As for the latter, there were mystical traditions, some associated with Rabbi Akiva, from the 2nd century on. The period from 500-1000 was a dark period. Much of what we might call rabbinic mysticism from the Talmudic era was lost and a new school of mystical thought was created. In Italy, we find original mystical works and people collecting and putting together anthologies of mystical material.

The first Jew we know by name who created such a work was Abraham Donnollo (913-982). Living until the 1050s, he has left us a commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the mystical book that tells how God created the world from the numbers 1-10 and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

There was also a man whose pen name was Josephon, after Josephus. He is the most famous source of Jewish history of the period.

Nathan Ben Yehiel of Rome, a great linguist, left a book that tells the meaning of words and where they appear. This is important because Jews based their lives on old books and meanings change over time. His work was based not only on philology but also on traditions he had learned. He knew an enormous amount about literature and was able to translate between languages old and new. His was the most important Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of its era.

In sum, it is important to understand that the Italian community was a famous Jewish community in the early medieval era.


The Spanish Jewish community is ancient and goes back to the period of the Roman Empire. Wherever the Roman Empire extended Jews came to trade. We find Jews in ancient Romania and a Jewish community in Cologne as early as 321 CE. In Spain, things declined when Spain became Christian. Initially, the Aryan Christians took over. However, by the 5th century, the Visigoths became the dominant Catholic force in Spain and they wanted to emulate Catholics all over Europe. That is, they did not want an abyss between doctrine and social reality. If the doctrine said that the Jews were a deicidal people that fact needed to be reflected in the nature of society. So, a whole series of anti-Jewish doctrines were passed which become the model for Christian legislation from the 7th to the 17th centuries.

The Spanish kings also introduced forced conversion. The early Christian church said that you couldn’t force someone to convert, but in Spain that doctrine changed.

About 620, there was a Spanish king, Sisibut, who forcibly converted the Jews or made them leave. Another king, Egica (687-701), said that, by definition, Jews were slaves in perpetuity in a Christian society. Therefore, they had no rights. During his reign, Jews were forced to convert, expelled from their homes, and resettled. All Jewish children above the age of seven were taken from their homes to be converted. After 700, however, the Muslims conquered most of Spain and Jewish life began again.

As we came down through the ninth, 10th and 11th centuries economic opportunities improved in Spain and Jews begin to migrate there. They lived voluntarily in what we call ghettos. They would come to a city or region when the local overlord agreed that they could live there under certain conditions. They would protect themselves by building a walled, fort like place. In Spain, we also find records of Jews fighting bravely with force of arms, including stories of Jews training with swords.

In Muslim Spain, Jews became prominent as court Jews, particularly under Alphonso the 7th. The Jews were valuable as they knew Arabic and Hebrew and had friends in the negotiating Christian lands.


In Portugal, we know about a small Jewish community that existed from around 900 C.E. A document from that date is still in existence. This first Jewish-Portuguese document referred to the Jews owning vineyards. This Portuguese Jewish community prospered until 1496, when the Jews were expelled as they were in Spain in 1492. The King of Portugal at that point sent Jewish children to Madeira in the Azores to be raised as Christians.

France and Germany

In the early Middle Ages, France and Germany were one geo-political area populated by Huns and Vandals and Goths. The Jews of France and Germany were one community, originally outposts of the Roman Empire, which later became parts of new international empires. The first of these empires, the Merovingan Empire, began around 500, led by Clovis. The Jews settled there; he gave the Jews privileges, and his initial successors looked favorably on the Jews.

By the mid-6th century, however, with the Catholic Church in power, the anti-Jewish pattern repeated and violence erupted. The synagogue in Clermont was burnt in 576 and. Jews were then given a choice of conversion or exile in the 580 and 590s. The situation remained bad through the 8th century but improveeds under the kings of the Carolingian Empire, which got its name from Charlemagne. Pepin, the father of Charlemagne, invited the Jews to settle in his state. Charlemagne, himself, was quite enlightened. In what is considered the 8th century renaissance encouraged by Pepin and Charlemagne, there was an increased production of books and other forms of culture.

Charlemagne gave the Jews “privileges”. Jews could not just come and settle somewhere. They needed permission, which meant negotiating with the powers that were in a particular place, be they kings or bishops or others. The resulting documents were known as “privileges”. At that time, no one thought in terms of rights. They thought in terms of privileges, which had to be granted by whoever had the power.

In the agreement the Jews signed with the Carolingians, the Jews gained the ability to settle and trade. In return, they agreed to pay Charlemagne handsomely. He also allowed the Jews to set up synagogues, to have Jewish courts and to carry on their communal and religious traditions. We have records of at least one valued Jew named Isaac. The Jews of the Empire were able to send an emissary to Harun Harashid in the Muslim world and they were able to bring back treasures. A Jew from Babylonia was invited to set up an academy. This person eventually ended up in France. In addition, there had been a fight in Babylonia. The man who had been the Exilarch came to the Carolingian Empire and his family stayed for hundreds of years.

Today we think of the central and northern regions when we think of France. However, in this era the crucial sites of Jewish life were in the south, in Provence. One of the greatest areas of Jewish life was Narbonne from which great scholarship emerged. Provence was also an area of intense rabbinic scholarship and academies. Famous mystical authors hailed from this region and it was a center of the debate over the words of Maimonides. When

Maimonides published his “Guide to the Perplexed”, there was intense opposition from the sages in this region. For centuries, European Jews fought over his writings and some of the greatest scholars came from this area of France.

The privileges continued under Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pius. Under Louis, there was even a right of appeal to the Royal Court and a stiff penalty for killing Jews. To show how significant this was we can turn to the rantings of a local anti-Semite, a famous churchman named Agobard, the Archbishop of Lyon, who was the most important cleric of his day. He railed that the Jews were living in stone houses and that their wives dressed like members of the royal court. This gives a window to observe the success of the Jews at that time. There was a church deacon named Bodo who was an official of the court. A well placed Christian; he nonetheless decided that Christianity was degenerate and converted to Judaism. The Jews smuggled him out to Muslim areas. This became one of the most talked about events of the time and encouraged Agobard’s anti-Semitism. If you are kind to the Jews, converts will result, he warned. Although there was tension, this was a mostly peaceful time until the end of the Carolingian empire. When the empire dissolved at the end of the 9th century, two independent areas emerged France and Germany.

An empire’s dissolution suggests a weak king, which meant that others asserted themselves. We saw the presence of a new force. Burghers arose in Arles, Limoges, Marseilles and other places. The burghers were the business competitors of the Jews and wanted to do the Jews harm. The Jews were weak and lacked the protection of a strong king so the burghers succeeded. In France, the Church took the position that Jews should be obligated to hear the Christian message in the synagogues and so we were got forced sermons and forced theological disputations in which rabbis had to defend Judaism in public places. Often, the opponents in these disputations were apostates who know about Judaism and the Talmud, and who fostered the idea that the Talmud was anti-Christian and demonic. It was no coincidence that the first burning of Talmud took place in Paris in the 12th century.

Under Philip Augustus the Jews were expelled from England in 1290. Between 1182 and 1486 Jews were expelled from all the Christian countries of Europe except Germany. Thus, a pattern was unfolding. The kings or other powers manifest anti-Jewish feelings, but they did not murder the Jews. They had a Christian solution: expulsion; in France in 1290, in England in 1306 and other times, in Spain in 1492, in Portugal in 1496 and in the Papal States of Italy in the mid 16th century.

In Germany, we had Jewish communities, particularly in the south. In Cologne, we have literature from before 321 and there were communities in Worms, Speyer and Mainz. Compared to France, where the kings went in the direction of anti Judaism after Charlemagne and his son, the German kings defended the Jews. They agreed that the best way for their kingdoms to benefit was to follow the pattern of the Carolingians. That is why the Jews came to Germany in increasing numbers.

We have a document from the Bishop of Speyer who writes how he knew the Jews would do great things for Speyer in the 10th and 11th centuries. Unfortunately, however, all of this became chaotic with the Crusader massacres in the Rhineland during the First Crusade. The Crusader violence is particularly interesting because the kings did not lead it. The kings, in fact, tried to stop the violence, as did the Church and its Bishops. The Crusader violence came from the bottom of society.

In 1096, the Jews in many places run into the cathedrals for safety. They knew Christian law said that the Church had to protect the Jews and in a number of places, they did. However, in other places, the Bishops could not protect Jews or they lost their nerve. In any case, the bishops did not have an army. The people who killed the Jews were the rabble, roused by the local clerics who were jealous of the Jews. That made Germany very interesting. Today we think of Germany as the place of the Holocaust and Martin Luther, but at that time, the leadership of Germany – though not the common people — was quite sympathetic to the Jews even after the Crusader violence and the upset of the Black Death in 1348-49.


England is interesting as there were no Jews in England until the Norman Conquest in 1066. William the Conqueror brought Jews from Normandy with him for his own self-interest. He knew that the Jews would bring capital and be moneylenders that would benefit the economy.

In England, in particular, Jews were famous for money lending and the kings looked favorably on them. Enormous wealth flowed to the Jews and the Kings liked it. Aaron of Lincoln became richest man in Europe. He built 17 nunneries and Christian shrines. However, the wealth of the Jews created antipathy and in 1144, we have the first blood libel in England. In Norwich, a young boy, William of Norwich was found dead and his mother claimed that the Jews killed him. There are similar instances in Gloucester and Bury St. Edmunds. Wherever there was a blood libel, there was violence. Synagogues were made into churches and houses of the Jewish residents were destroyed.

During the third crusade, in 1188 the Jews were tithed 25% of their total property. Remarkably, this meant that 2400 Jews raised 60,000 pounds while the other 99% of the people in England raised 70,000. Jews controlled much of the liquid wealth in England about 250,000 pounds at a time when the total liquid wealth was about 900,000 lbs. By 1290, so many people were in debt to the King that the King was able to make a deal with Parliament: he would expel the Jews and cancel the debts owed to the Jews if Parliament would agree to new taxes. Parliament agreed and the King ordered the expulsion of the Jews. So after 1290 there were no more Jews in England. Nonetheless, England was a location of great economic success for two centuries. However, there were never Yeshivahs in England and no great Jewish cultural achievements.

The Twelfth Century Renaissance

After 1100, the Muslims declined. The Christians re-conquered Spain. This marked a new vitality in Christian Europe in the 12th Century. During the 12th century Renaissance, Jews were translators and the conduits of high culture. They spoke Arabic and became the crucial transmitters of classical books. Books would go from Arabic to Hebrew and then to Latin for use in Christian Europe. Europe began a new cultural life with classical learning, Aquinas, Dante and more. The Jews were useful, but their wealth still created anti-Semitism.

By 1200, there were several hundred thousand Jews in the Christian world compared with about a million in the Muslim world. It was not until 1500 that there were more Jews in the Christian countries than in Muslim ones.

Rising Myths

On one level, in certain places and times, life was relatively “normal”. On another level, however, destructive myths arose. For example, Jews had a special relation to the devil, Jews were connected to the anti-Christ, the anti-Christ was the child of the devil and a Jewish woman, Jews had horns and cloven hooves, Jewish men menstruated, the image of the wandering Jew and that there was a special Jewish stink that could only be wiped away by baptism. All of these were signs that the Jews were, despite appearances, not like normal people.

England becomes a hotbed of anti-Semitic literature. In 1590, when Shakespeare wrote “The Merchant of Venice” Jews had not been there since 1290. Yet myths about them circulated freely and widely. In Spain, after 1492 there were no Jews, though of course there were crypto-Jews and New Christians but there were anti-Jewish plays. These images continued to fester into modern times. This mythic image is a profoundly important theme that will surface in future eras.

Transcribed by Neesa Sweet

Steve Katz Book Recommendations

A History of the Jewish People

by Ben, Haim H. Ben-Sasson,et. al.

Mark Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages

Yitzchak Baer, A History of Jews in Christian Spain,

2 vols.

Kenneth Stow, Alienated Minority: The Jews in

Medieval Latin Europe

Shlomo Gortein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Genizah, 6 vols.