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 in 1095 Urban II 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.

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The king’s daughter and the emperor’s son

Charlemagne’s relationship with his daughters has raised eyebrows for twelve centuries. In Einhard’s famous phrasing, “[H]e kept them close beside him at home until his death, saying that he could not stand to be parted from their company.”1.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.19, in Charlemagne’s Courtier, ed. Paul Dutton, p.29. Einhard has other highly interesting things to say about Charlemagne’s daughters and their relationship with their father, and we will explore that in another post. But at least once he considered letting a daughter go, when the mighty Byzantine Empire proposed joining families. That would be enough to make the most protective father think twice about keeping his daughter at home.

Charles was a man who enjoyed life’s pleasures, and a woman’s comfort not the least of them. His wives and concubines produced eighteen children (or more), a fact which caused some concern with at least one poet.2.McKitterick notes that Wetti of Richenau includes Charlemagne in his vision of hell, with a beast chewing on his genitals. Charlemagne: Formation of a European Identity, p.91. His first daughter with his second wife Hildegard was named Rotrude, who was born in 775. Being a daughter of a king, her usual duty and fate would have been to serve as a bridge between great families. Her chance came from an unexpected quarter in 781, when her father was in Rome.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.19, in Charlemagne’s Courtier, ed. Paul Dutton, p.29.
2. McKitterick notes that Wetti of Richenau includes Charlemagne in his vision of hell, with a beast chewing on his genitals. Charlemagne: Formation of a European Identity, p.91.