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.

Oh! the iron!

Then came in sight that man of iron, Charlemagne, topped with his iron helm, his fists in iron gloves, his iron chest and his Platonic shoulders clad in an iron cuirass… All those who rode before him, those who kept him company on either flank, those who followed after, wore the same armour, and their gear was as close a copy of his own as it is possible to imagine. Iron filled the fields and all the open spaces. … This race of men harder than iron did homage to the very hardness of iron. … ‘Oh! the iron! alas for the iron!’

Thus did the late ninth century monk Notker the Stammerer relate the reaction of the Lombard king Desiderius as Charles and his army came into view, waiting in a tower in Pavia for the storm to break. Soon after, according to Notker, one witness literally fainted at the sight of the mighty horde.1.Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, bk.II, s.17, pp.163-164.

Where did all this iron come from? Of the many miracles related in dozens of saint’s lives from this period, none mention swords falling from the sky. All of the weapons, armor, and, for that matter tools, farm implements, and horseshoes had to be crafted by hand, using iron ore taken from the earth, and then smelted in villages, manors, and abbeys all through the realm. Let’s take a look at this industry, “of the utmost importance in the Carolingian Empire”.2.Butt, Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne, p.89.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, bk.II, s.17, pp.163-164.
2. Butt, Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne, p.89.

All the pope’s men

The papal bureaucracy of the eighth century was the most advanced and ‘modern’ government in all Europe. Unlike the hereditary kingdoms that surrounded the papal lands, the papacy was (and, for that matter, still is) ruled by an elected absolute monarch, albeit via a somewhat constricted electorate.

But no man is an island, and the pope required just as much help to run his kingdom as any other king or duke. He needed able men to assist in the performance of the papal duties, both secular and spiritual, and those men in turn required administrative staff to carry out the papal will. There were seven positions that were considered key in the papal government. Let’s take a look at the seven men who supported the pope.

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Black smoke, white smoke – red blood

In my last post Pope Constantine II won a contentious papal election, in a revolt of the ‘aristocratic party’ against the ‘clerical party’ for control of the Duchy of Italy (the nascent Papal States). But the clerical party, in a daring move, enlisted the help of the despised Lombard King Desiderius to regain the papacy. Desiderius, eager for the chance to have the pope deeply in his debt, ordered the Lombard priest Waldipert to assist papal clericists Christopher and his son Sergius, and sent them all to Spoleto to gather Lombard forces for the counter-revolution.

In Spoleto the clerics gathered a force of soldiery and marched on Rome.1.Liber Pontificalis, n.96, ch.7, p.91. As I mentioned in the previous post, virtually the only source for these events is the vita of Stephen III from the Book of the Popes. I won’t cite this source every time, but you can go read chapters 1 – 22. On 28 July 778, a little more than a year after Constantine’s consecration, the combined Lombard and clerical forces took possession of the Salarian gate. A fair question to ask is, what had the clerical party been doing for the past year? Aside from the plot that brought them to see Desiderius, no one knows. Biding their time, hoping for a miracle, and hatching schemes that never came to fruition are probably fair guesses. But now, in heat of a Roman summer, they were poised to turn the tide, and had yet another trick up their robes.

While the Lombard forces waited on a hill outside the Roman walls, Toto, leader of the aristocratic party that had put Constantine on the throne, launched an attack on these forces of restoration (as he must have seen them), but he was killed in the fighting. Constantine, hearing the news of the death of his patron and protector, and brother, let us not forget, fled the Lateran palace to the sanctuary of a local church. The Roman militia arrived, however, and placed him in custody.

Waldipert, probably acting on standing orders from Desiderius, found a local priest named Philip and quickly had him voted and consecrated pope! His pontificate didn’t last long (it must be one of the shortest on record), but he got a good meal out of it.

And following custom they took him into the Savior’s basilica. There the prayer was said by a bishop in pursuance of ancient custom, and he gave the Peace to everyone and they brought him into the Lateran patriarchate. There too, sitting on the pontifical throne, he again gave the customer Peace; he went aloft and as pontiffs normally do he held a banquet, with some of the church’s chief men and the militia’s chief officers sitting with him.

Christopher, seeing defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory, took a bold and risky step, and publicly proclaimed that he would never again enter the gates of Rome unless Philip was removed. No doubt Christopher knew that Desiderius had some kind of plan in mind for Lombard aggrandizement, but counted on his popularity with the Roman people to seize control of the situation. Philip, probably an unwilling participant from the beginning, scurried back to his monastery, and was never heard from again.

As a side note, Christopher must rank with the greatest schemers of this era, if not all of history. He extracted a (later broken) promise from Toto not to interfere in the papal election, made his own promise (later broken) to the pope to retire to a monastery, evidently pledged some kind of quid pro quo (also broken later) to the Lombard king, made a daring public and undefended stand to force the withdrawal of yet another pope, until finally his party emerged triumphant. Well played, sir, well played.

In Rome the way forward was clear. Christopher gathered together everyone in Rome who mattered, and opened a conclave of sorts to select a new pope. “They deliberated and with absolute and total unanimity they all agreed on holy Stephen.” Stephen was solid member of the clerical party, and with his election the right order of things had been restored. Punishment and cleansing were the next tasks of the day. Unfortunately for Constantine and those who followed him, the mob ruled the streets. That, at least, is what the author of Stephen’s life would like history to believe. The author mentions “plague-ridden instigators of evil” who egged on those “perverted individuals” actually responsible for the violence.

The first victims were Theodore, one of Constantine’s leading counselors, and Passibus, Constantine’s other brother. Both had their eyes gouged out and tongues cut off. Theodore was thrown into a dungeon and later died of thirst. Constantine, however, required public humiliation. “[H]e was brought out into the open; they fixed a huge weight to his feet and made him sit on a horse in a saddle designed for a woman.” The day before Stephen’s consecration Constantine was officially deposed. “Maurianus the subdeacon came forward, removed the stole from his neck, threw it at his feet, and then cut off his papal shoes.”

The mob’s blood lust had not been sated. Forces from Rome, Tuscany, and Campania mustered and marched on the town of Alatri, where they extracted a follower of Toto named Gracilis, brought him to Rome, and then “gouged out his eyes and removed his tongue.” After that the force “went to the Cella Nova monastery where Constantine the intruder into the apostolic see was confined; they forced him out of the monastery, gouged out his eyes and then left him blind in the street.” One more victim remained. Waldipert, despite taking refuge in “God’s mother the ever-virgin St Mary’s church called ad martyres,” and while “he was holding the image of God’s mother,” was taken to “the foul prison called Ferrata.” A few days later they put out his eyes and cut out his tongue, and sent him to a monastery, where he soon died.

While the mob dispensed victor’s justice, Stephen worked to solidify his rule. He sent word to Pepin of his election, and also requested that the king send a dozen bishops to a synod in Rome to discuss the happenings of the last year. By this time Pepin had died, but Charles and Carloman received the papal envoy warmly, and nominated the bishops as requested.

Once everyone was in Rome the synod was convened, and it was time to enact the final, formal denouement to Constantine’s time as pope. The first act of the synod was to put him on trial. Somewhat surprisingly, given his position and physical state (“now eyeless”, as the vita notes), Constantine mounted a vigorous defense.

He professed in front of everyone that he had been pressurized by the people, elected by force and taken under compulsion into the Lateran Patriarchate, owing to those burdens and grievances that lord pope Paul had caused the Roman people. Falling to the ground, with his arms stretched out on the pavement, he wept that he was guilty and had sinned more times than there were sands in the sea, and implored pardon and mercy from that sacerdotal council. They had him lifted up from the ground and that day passed no sentence against him.

The next day, however, Constantine pushed his luck a little too far. The synod did not appreciate his references to previous examples of layman being consecrated to high clerical office, and “they had him buffeted on the neck and ejected him from that church.” Next the bishops turned their attention to reversing all of Constantine’s acts, and demoted all priests and bishops whom he had elevated. After that the council strengthened the canons to ensure that “no layman should ever presume to be promoted to the sacred honor of the pontificate, nor even anyone in orders, unless he had risen through the separate grades and had been made cardinal deacon or priests.” They really were determined to root out any and all evidence of Constantine’s time in office.

In all fairness, Stephen and the bishops did not excuse their own behavior during the past year. Everyone confessed “that all of them had sinned in that they had taken communion from Constantine’s hands. So as a result a penance was imposed on them all.” The nature of the penance is not documented, which is too bad. But we can probably be certain that they didn’t cut out the tongues that had received communion from the ‘intruder’.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Liber Pontificalis, n.96, ch.7, p.91. As I mentioned in the previous post, virtually the only source for these events is the vita of Stephen III from the Book of the Popes. I won’t cite this source every time, but you can go read chapters 1 – 22.