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.

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