Tolerance of the Jews

We must never forget that the history of European Jewry culminates in the horrors of the mid-20th century. The precursors to the industrialized slaughter of the Holocaust can be seen in the vicious and unprovoked pogroms as far back as the first crusade. When Urban II in 1095 preached liberation of the Holy Land, many in Germany took the opportunity the very next year to launch attacks on the wealthy Jewish populations of the Rhine valley. Several thousand perished.

But attitudes were not always so antagonistic. Jews in the eighth century were certainly tolerated, if not embraced. The overarching policy was ‘live and let live.’ The proof is in the laws, some stories, and a few tantalizing hints of acceptance at the highest levels of society.

One of the most striking finds when looking for a Jewish presence in the early medieval period is their absence. Their is only one mention in Fredegar, one in the Royal Annals, none in Boniface, and only one in the entire Liber Pontificalis (for the eighth century popes). Some of the law books mention Jews, while some omit them entirely. The Ecloga, published in 725 in Constantinople, does not outlaw Jewry, but it severely circumscribes it. “Jews cannot hold posts or honour nor exercise the duties of magistrates, nor be engaged in public service.”1.Manual of Roman Law, bk.IV, ch.6, p.130. The law was also strict and detailed on the possibility of Jews holding sway over Christians. “Samaritans or Jews who tempt anyone to renounce the faith of Christians shall have their property confiscated and be decapitated.”2.bk.IV, ch.24, p.132. “A Jew shall not, on any pretext, possess a Christian slave or a slave of any other heretical nationality. If he does and circumcizes him the State shall emancipate the slave and the owner shall suffer capital punishment.”3.bk.VI, ch.26, p.137. “We impose confiscation of property and perpetual banishment on Jews who are found to have circumcized a Christian or command any other person to do so.”4.bk.VI, ch.28, p.138.

Note that Jews owning non-Christian slaves is allowed, and the law forbids nothing economic. Jews were tolerated, as long as they didn’t attempt to interfere in the Christian and political sphere. The Burgundian code forbade the Jews nothing except physical contact with a Christian. “If any Jew presumes to raise a hand against a Christian with fist, shoe, club, whip, or stone, or has seized his hair, let him be condemned to the loss of a hand.”5.Burgundian Laws, ch.CII, p.86. Doing any of that to a priest warranted death and property forfeiture.

In contrast, the laws of the Salian Franks, Alamans, and Bavarians, don’t mention Jews at all. We should also note that the ban on attempted conversions was strictly one way. Christians were free to attempt to convert their Jewish neighbors.

There are several stories of Jews in the sources, where they are usually presented as ‘others’ with wicked intent. In the life of St. Willibald the saint relates a story from biblical times, in which Jews tried to prevent Mary’s body from leaving Jerusalem, until a miracle struck them motionless until the prayers of the apostles released them.6.Soldiers of Christ, St. Willibald, p.156. There is no biblical foundation for the story. In the Life of Leo III, the pope who crowned Charlemagne emperor, the author writes of the ambush of the pope in 799, after he was accused of various crimes. “The ambushers and evil-doers, just like Jews, with no respect for God or man or for his office, seized him like animals and threw him to the ground.”7.Liber Pontificalis, Leo III, 98, ch.12, p.185. Not that Jews were involved, you understand, just that the attackers were compared to Jews.

Fredegar tells a story from the Eastern Emperor Heraclius (reigned 610 – 641), who discovered through his astrological studies “that his empire would be laid waste by circumcised races.” The emperor promptly requested that the Frankish king Dagobert to carry out a mass conversion in his kingdom, which, according to Fredegar, “Dagobert promptly carried out.”8.Fredegar, ch.65, pp.53-54. Wallace-Hedrill notes that this story has no corroboration.

In the life of St. Caesarius there is a story set during the siege of the city of Arles by Goths in 508. One night a scared young priest let himself over the walls and into the Goth camp, ostensibly to sue for peace. The next day, “the crowd of Jews immoderately shouting and clamoring that the bishop had sent his fellow citizen by night to deliver the city to the enemy. No thought was given to faith or proof or to a clean conscience, the Jews and [Arian Gothic] heretics shouting at him without any reverence or moderation.” In circumstances that appear suspiciously convenient to me, the very next day a Jew was implicated in a similar offense.

While, the devil rejoicing, this was going on to the joy of the Jews, who were giving out everywhere, without any fear of perfidy, disgraceful charges against the faithful, one night one of the Jewish band threw a letter, tied to a stone, at the enemy, as if to strike them, from the place on the city wall which the Jews were guarding. In this letter, mentioning his name and sect, he invited them to place their scaling ladders at night in the place the Jews guarded, provided that, in return for this help, no Jew within Arles should be captured or plundered. But in the morning, when the enemy had withdrawn a little from the wall, some [of the besieged] going outside the advance breastwork, among the ruined buildings … found the letter, brought it back, and published its contents to all men in the forum. Soon its author was found, convicted, and punished. Then indeed the savage cruelty of the Jews to God and man appeared openly.9.Christianity and Paganism, St. Caesarius of Arles, ch.29 and ch.31, pp.37-38.

A close reading of this story reveal a couple of points that help to illuminate the social standing of Jews in that time and that place. First, the Jews were numerous and organized enough to be given a particular section of the wall to defend. This certainly implies that the Jewish community was able to maintain a military bearing that enabled the city fathers to repose their trust in the Jews to protect the city as a whole. Second, while the circumstances of the Jewish offence certainly appear far too convenient, happening immediately after a Christian was accused of the same crime, punishment was meted out to only the offender, and not the Jewish community at large. There was no ‘collective punishment’, as would become more common in later centuries.

When mentioned in the sources Jews are commonly referenced as traders, and Jews were known for their cosmopolitan outlook, a kind of ‘citizen of the world.’ Notker tells of Charlemagne sitting on the shore, when the locals see ships coming over the horizon, and mistake them for Northmen. Charles, however, immediately recognizes them as Jewish trading ships. Notker also recounts the tale of the stuffed mouse. Charles instructed a Jewish merchant, who traded in “many rare and wonderful objects,” to take advantage of a vain and pompous bishop who gave nothing to the poor. The merchant took an ordinary mouse, painted it and stuffed it full of spices. He went to the bishop, “telling him that he had brought this most costly and never before seen animal from Judea.” After much humorous haggling he sold it to the bishop for more than twenty pounds of silver. The Jew then gave the silver to Charles, who used the silver and the story to publicly admonish the bishop.10.Notker, Life of Charlemagne, ch.16, p.108.

The sole mention of the Jews in the Royal Annals occurs in 801. Charles had a meeting with Saracen emissaries, who “reported that Isaac the Jew, whom the emperor had sent to the rex of the Persians with Lantfrid and Sigimund four years before, was on his way back with great gifts, but that Lantfrid and Sigimund were both dead.”11.Royal Frankish Annals, year 801, p.82. Charles, as a man who appreciated talent wherever he found it, had no issue with appointing a Jew as his special representative to the Muslim king.

Jewish scholars are also briefly mentioned. Alcuin of York, the British monk who came to Francia to serve in the court of the Emperor Charles, wrote of a debate, at which he assisted, between the Christian Peter of Pavia and a Jew named Lullus.12.Bachrach, Charlemagne’s Early Campaigns, n.53, p.325.

What can we say life was like for a Jew in early medieval Europe? On balance, probably not too bad. While certainly eyed with suspicion by many Christians, a smart and enterprising Jewish man could rise to some of the highest social circles of the realm. As long as there was no perception of spiritual infiltration or coercion, the Christian majority were content to use and benefit from Jewish trading acumen, in an atmosphere of mutual acceptance but watchfulness.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Manual of Roman Law, bk.IV, ch.6, p.130.
2. bk.IV, ch.24, p.132.
3. bk.VI, ch.26, p.137.
4. bk.VI, ch.28, p.138.
5. Burgundian Laws, ch.CII, p.86.
6. Soldiers of Christ, St. Willibald, p.156. There is no biblical foundation for the story.
7. Liber Pontificalis, Leo III, 98, ch.12, p.185.
8. Fredegar, ch.65, pp.53-54.
9. Christianity and Paganism, St. Caesarius of Arles, ch.29 and ch.31, pp.37-38.
10. Notker, Life of Charlemagne, ch.16, p.108.
11. Royal Frankish Annals, year 801, p.82.
12. Bachrach, Charlemagne’s Early Campaigns, n.53, p.325.

Dorestad, crossroads of the north

Dorestad was the largest of what are (and were then) called emporia. An emporium was founded by a king or high ruler with the express purpose of facilitating the trade and production of high-status goods. Emporia were always located on large rivers or harbors, in order to enable wares from the interior to be exported, and provide an exceptional port for merchandise to come from abroad. They were very much working class towns, and in general the nobility and the religious avoided making the towns centers of non-economic activity.

Dorestad was located at the junction of the Rhine and Lek rivers, in what is today the Netherlands, and what was then called Frisia. In addition to the obvious advantages that a port on the Rhine provided, there was an old Roman fortress near the site that probably contributed some feeling of security. One disadvantage of Dorestad was that it was located very close to the undefined but fiercely contested border between Frisia and Austrasia. As a result the town changed rulers fairly frequently after its founding in the early seventh century.

The Frisians were minting a large number of coins at Dorestad in the middle of the seventh century. The Franks had once controlled the area, and Pippin, the mayor of the palace, decided to move against the Frisians once the time was ripe, sometime around 695. “Pippin and that pagan Radbod, duke of the Frisians, went to war and had a battle at the stronghold of Duurstede. Pippin, the victor, returned with much spoil and booty, while Duke Radbod fled the field…”1.Chronicle of Fredegar, Continuations, ch.6, p.86. Dominion over the emporia was financially rewarding. “Control of the emporium at Durstede brought with it access to the lucrative taxes and tolls collected there.”2.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.13. The customs duty has been estimated at 10% of the value of all the goods at the site,3.Stephane Lebecq, Routes of change: production and distribution in the west, pp.75-76, in Transformation of the Roman World. which would be considerable. Dorestad became a big town.

The town changed hands a couple of times in the early eighth century. Radbod recaptured it from the Franks sometime before 716, and then Charles Martel grabbed it for good in 717. Radbod died soon after.4.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, pp.20-21. The town prospered and grew for the next 120 years, until it was viewed as a fat, ripe plum by the Northmen. In 834 they struck. “Meanwhile a fleet of Danes came to Frisia and laid waste a part of it. From there, they came by way of Utrecht to the emporium called Dorestad and destroyed everything. They slaughtered some people, took others away captive, and burned the surrounding region.”5.Annals of St. Bertin, year 834, p.30. Evidently “destroyed everything” was a bit of hyperbole, because the same source records the Vikings raiding Dorestad every year for the next four years. The wording for 837 is odd, “The Northmen at this time fell on Frisia with their usual surprise attack.”6.Ibid, p.37.

Dorestad was indeed a prize worth the risk. At its greatest extent the harbor and town covered about 150 acres, with a population of several thousand. The basic form was a series of long wharves jutting into the Rhine, topped with wooden walkways that extended back onto the shore. Longhouses, for storage, industry, and living, lined the walkways. You can see from this illustration that the wharves extended a considerable distance along the river. Over the decades this branch of the Rhine shifted, as river deltas often do, and the wharves were extended to maintain contact with the water. No obvious town center has been found, and although there was at least one small church, Dorestad was never a bishopric. The business of Dorestad was business.

[I]nhabitants included peasants, but also a wide range of artisans: wood-workers (including for houses, streets, and ships), boneworkers, weavers, leatherworkers, and smiths. It is unclear whether such artisanal production was primarily intended for fellow residents or was exported; what is clear, however, is that although this activity was substantial, it was dwarfed by the large quantities of imports on the site. Eighty per cent of the ceramics were imports, mostly from the Rhineland… There were also basalt querns from the Eifel, wine in barrels from the middle Rhine (the barrels were reused as wells), glass, metalwork, weapons, and amber (some of which was worked on site).7.Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp.683-684.

Trade was extensive. “From the mid-seventh until the later eighth century the North Sea basic was largely isolated from the Mediterranean world.”8.Hodges, Dark Age Economics, p.39. Because of this isolation from the traditional (classical) trade of the Mare Nostrum, northern Europe developed their own trading patterns. “From northern Europe came amber, furs, honey, soapstone vessels, and beeswax. From the Rhineland to the south and west came glassware, grindstones hewn from basalt, ornate metal jewelry, pottery, and wine. Textiles came from the lands around the mouth of the Rhine.”9.Wells, Barbarians to Angels, p.129. And what did the lands over the seas provide? “…the Franks must have been importing something from England and Denmark, but this was not, probably, manufactured goods. Slaves, fish, and raw materials such as amber and maybe wool and metal are the best bets…”10.Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p.687.

You can begin to get a picture of the workmanlike nature of Dorestad. It was not a religious center, nor a political one. Plenty of forges and workshops, lots of activity, but no real ceremony. Just traders, artisans, and sailors. Lots of sailors, and lots of ships. During later campaigns against the Frisians, it was important to Charles to control “the emporium of Durstede, where many scores of not hundreds of ships of the type Charles needed likely could have been found at any time during the sailing season.”11.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.252.

If towns like Poitiers were the spiritual heart of the realm, and Aachen the political center, Dorestad was one of the economic hubs of the empire. And if it was anything like port cities the world over, probably one of the most fun places to visit as well.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Chronicle of Fredegar, Continuations, ch.6, p.86.
2. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.13.
3. Stephane Lebecq, Routes of change: production and distribution in the west, pp.75-76, in Transformation of the Roman World.
4. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, pp.20-21.
5. Annals of St. Bertin, year 834, p.30.
6. Ibid, p.37.
7. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp.683-684.
8. Hodges, Dark Age Economics, p.39.
9. Wells, Barbarians to Angels, p.129.
10. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p.687.
11. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.252.

Charlemagne’s tail gets twisted… off

For when what could be done in Spain had been carried out and they were returning after a successful campaign a misfortune was met with and certain of the rear-guard of the royal column were killed in those same mountains. Since their names are widely known, I have neglected to give them.1.Astronomer, Life of Louis, ch.2, in King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.168.

He had more than thirty years of wars ahead of him, but the ambush at Roncesvalle was the greatest defeat Charlemagne ever knew. It was, perhaps, a fitting end to an ill-fated enterprise.

The army that Charlemagne led north over the pass of Roncesvalles in August was hot, tired, frustrated, and disappointed. Don’t be fooled by the Astonomer’s characterization; Charles had been enticed out of Francia with the promise to reign in Spain2.Did you see what I did just there? north of the Ebro. The summer turned out to be an exercise in nothing more than physical endurance and political patience, while Charles’ erstwhile allies ended up killing one another.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Astronomer, Life of Louis, ch.2, in King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.168.
2. Did you see what I did just there?

Charlemagne gets played

In the spring of 777 a group of Arab emissaries from northern Spain arrived at Paderborn, Germany to meet with the Frankish King Charles. They had traveled more than a thousand miles, but it was worth it, for they had a proposal of continental scope to put forth. If Charles would raise his armies and march to Spain, he would be granted dominion over all of the lands from the Pyrenees to the Ebro river, if he could defend them against the depredations of the last of the Umayyad emirs, the merciless ‘Abd al-Rahman of Cordova. For a variety of reasons, thoughts of an easy conquest uppermost, Charles agreed. The word went forth throughout the realm to prepare for war.1.All of this is detailed more fully in my previous post.

No details reach us concerning the specific preparations that were undertaken for this particular expedition. The groundwork must have been immense, for the Spanish expedition was one of the larger armies Charles organized. “How big was it?” is, of course, the obvious question, and one to which much thought has been given. To no satisfactory result, it must be said. The sources give ridiculous numbers, in the hundreds of thousands, and must be taken as the rhetorical equivalent of “larger than you can imagine.”

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. All of this is detailed more fully in my previous post.

Charlemagne gets suckered

Spain in the second half of the eighth century was a place of splintered kingdoms, divided loyalties, and conflicting religions. Charlemagne, dreaming of easy conquests and religious glory, stepped right into the steaming pile of it, and ended up leaving his boot behind when he tried to scrape it clean.

Before we get into the details, let’s do a little scene-setting. As you may remember, Islam spread out of the Arabian peninsula with amazing rapidity, arrived in Spain around 711, and by 732 the Arab armies rapped at the very gates of Western Christendom. Charlemagne’s grandfather Charles Martel knocked them back across the Pyrenees, and his father Pepin had further cleansed the Narbonnaise, but to date the Franks had looked no further south. The Pippinids contented themselves with conquering Saxons and fellow Christians.

This balance of forces probably would have continued were it not for a coup in Syria around 750. The ruler of the Umayyad caliphate was murdered, and his family hunted down and killed. The new ruler, founder of the Abbasid caliphate, was determined to leave no root from which an Umayyad seedling might sprout. He got them all, but one. ‘Abd al-Rahman traveled first to Africa, then in 756 landed in Spain. Conditions were ripe for upheaval, as the ruler at that time was cruel, and a drought had caused much hardship.1.Collins, Early Medieval Spain, p.169-170.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Collins, Early Medieval Spain, p.169-170.