Judaism: Judaism in Northern and Eastern Europe to 1500

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Although Jews lived in the northern European provinces of the ancient Roman Empire, long-lasting communal settlements began only in the tenth century, when Christian monarchs promoted the economic vitality of their domains by inviting Jewish merchants into the newly developing towns.

Settlement and Early Institutions

A pattern of early royal support followed by royal opposition and instability characterized Jewish political life first in western Europe and then later in the East. The earliest royal policy toward the Jews in northern Europe dates from Charlemagne and, especially, from his son, Louis the Pious, who issued three private charters (privilegia ) to individual Jewish merchants in about 825. These texts indicate that Jews were among the international merchants doing business in the Carolingian empire and were granted protection of their lives, exemption from tolls, and guarantees of religious freedom. This Carolingian policy toward Jewish merchants was also pursued by subsequent rulers of the German empire, and it encouraged the Jewish immigration that became a factor in the demographic and urban expansion of early medieval Europe.

The first communities developed gradually in the Rhineland towns, where various family groups settled and intermarried. Of special significance were the Qalonimos family from Lucca, Italy; the descendants of Abun, a rabbi from Le Mans in northern France; and other families from France, which became the nucleus of the Mainz Jewish elite. Cut off from the Jewish political and religious authorities in Palestine and Babylonia, as well as Spain, the leaders of the Mainz community had considerable room to improvise and experiment with new patterns of autonomous local governance.

From the beginning, communal leadership assumed two overlapping but distinct forms. On the one hand, legal decisions were rendered by religious judges or rabbis who acquired expertise in the Talmud. On the other hand, communal control over nonlegal public affairs devolved upon the "elders," whose authority derived from their age, wealth, family lineage, and other personal qualities. They maintained public order, collected taxes for the Christian authorities and for support of Jewish social services, and were the liaison between the community and the gentile rulers.

In the period of first settlement the rabbis were merchants, like the rest of the community, and were among the elders who decided public policy. As communities grew in size and complexity, communal roles became more differentiated. A paid rabbinate gradually developed only in the thirteenth century.

The location of the early northern Jewish communities on a frontier prompted religious leaders and elders alike to be innovative. We see this in the legal decisions of Gershom ben Yehudah (d. 1028), the first major rabbinical figure in Mainz. Gershom functioned as an appeals judge on matters of Jewish law, and his legal opinions rarely mention the decisions and precedents of the Babylonian geonim. Rather, he answered questions by interpreting Talmudic or even biblical passages, thereby imitating rather than following the geonim. His ordinances against polygyny and a woman's involuntary divorce became binding precedents.

We also find signs of improvisation in the actions of the early community board (qahal) and communal leaders (parnasim ) contemporary with Gershom, who undertook to maintain law and order, supervise the weights and measures in the market, and provide for the indigent. The institution of maʿarufyah, an individual Jewish merchant's trade monopoly with a specific Christian client, was widespread in the Rhineland, and boards adopted measures to protect it. As the Jewish population grew in the eleventh century, local community boards placed a ban on new settlement (erem ha-yi-shuv ) to prevent excessive economic competition.

By the middle of the eleventh century, questions about the limits of local autonomy had arisen in newer areas of settlement, like the duchy of Champagne. Yehudah ha-Kohen, Gershom's successor, decided that in the area of general public welfare and security each local Jewish community was completely autonomous, but if a community violated religious law, another community or outside religious authority could hold it accountable.

An additional sign of new communal development occurred in 1084, when some of the Mainz Jews moved to Speyer, where they were welcomed by Bishop Rüdiger, who issued them a formal charter. Modeled on the early Carolingian privilegia, this charter extended to the new community guarantees of life, religious protection, and exemption from tolls. Confirmed by the German emperor Henry IV in 1090, this continued the Carolingian policy of royal or imperial legal protection of European Jews until the late thirteenth century. The patterns of royal protection and local Jewish self-rule that had first developed in the German towns became the model for local Jewish communities in the regions of royal France, England, and central Europe.

Developments in the High Middle Ages

The late eleventh and twelfth centuries were a time of social and cultural consolidation in northern Europe. New religious orders were founded; the popes renewed the claims of canon law to establish the primacy of the church over the empire in spiritual and even temporal affairs; and in Paris the university attracted students who eagerly came from all over Europe to sit at the feet of popular scholars like Peter Abelard. It is possible that the Christian Schoolmen were in part motivated to restate Christian doctrine in a clear and logically consistent way because Jews were raising doubts about Christianity in the minds of Christian townsmen. In return, an awareness of Christian religious innovation and ferment stimulated reappraisals of Judaism.

The First Crusade precipitated the first major crisis of Jewish cultural identity in northern Europe. Urban II's call for an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the spring of 1095 led local German peasants and petty knights on their way to the Holy Land to riot in the towns of Mainz, Worms, Cologne, and Speyer. According to the Latin and Hebrew chronicles that recount what happened on this Peasants' Crusade, just before and during the Jewish holiday of Shavuʿot in the spring of 1096, the righteous Jews of Mainz and Worms ritually slaughtered their families and themselves in order to prevent the Christian rioters from forcibly baptizing or killing them. The victims included leaders of the rabbinical elites of Mainz and Worms as well as hundreds of innocent men, women, and children.

Many Jews escaped or were subjected to baptism by force, but the survivors' guilt only heightened the loss of the saintly martyrs, whose memory now cast a shadow over the following generations of German Jews. Among the liturgical memorials they instituted in Europe was the earlier geonic prohibition of celebrating Jewish weddings between Passover and Shavuʿot, still observed as an annual period of collective mourning. New prayers were written to recall the righteousness of the slain and to invoke God's vengeance on the guilty Christians. Each spring the martyrs' names were recited in the Rhenish synagogues in order to keep alive the memory of the sacrificed dead and to invoke their merit as a form of vicarious atonement for the living.

Two other important northern Jewish ideals emerged in the twelfth century; the first of these was the asid, or pietist. By the second half of the twelfth century, an ascetic, pietistic movement emerged in Speyer, the one Jewish community that did not suffer major losses in 1096. It was led by descendants of the branch of the Qalonimos family that survived the riots of 1096. The pietists placed special emphasis not only on punctilious observance of Jewish law but also on certain spiritual exercises including concentrated prayer, physical self-denial, and the mystical and magical manipulations of Hebrew letter combinations that represent the secret names of God. One of the mottos of Shemuʾel ben Qalonimos the Elder (fl. mid-twelfth century) is "be resourceful in the fear of God," a Talmudic dictum (B.T., Ber. 17a) that he reinterpreted to mean that the pietist, or truly God-fearing Jew, must search scripture resourcefully in order to infer additional prohibitions and higher degrees of self-discipline.

In Sefer asidim (Book of the Pietists), written by Shemuʾel's son Yehudah the Pietist (d. 1217), we find a sectarian fellowship of pietists, led by their own sages, who are constantly challenged and tested by their inner passions and by the harmful presence of nonpietistic Jews, whom the author calls "the wicked." Among Yehudah's innovations is the requirement that pietists who sin should confess their sins to a sage and receive penances proportional to the sinful act and to the pleasure experienced while sinning.

This new Jewish pietistic ideal, incorporating ancient Jewish mystical and ascetic practices, began as a regimen for religious virtuosos but became a common-place of European Jewish spirituality after the late twelfth century and continued to define the dominant style of Jewish piety in eastern Europe even after it was challenged by the eighteenth-century revival movement of Hasidism.

The second new mode of Jewish spirituality that developed in the twelfth century in northern France was the Talmud scholar who excelled in intellectual prowess by discovering new interpretations of difficult passages. At the very time that Christian Schoolmen were reconciling the logical inconsistencies in authoritative theological texts and scholars of canon and Roman law were resolving contradictions by making new distinctions, rabbinical scholars began to study systematically the entire Talmudic corpus and apply canons of logical consistency to it. This activity developed in northern France and not in the Rhineland for two reasons. On the negative side, the older academies of Mainz and Worms suffered a loss of leadership in the riots of 1096. On the positive side, the newer schools in Champagne were able to build on the foundations in Hebrew Bible and Talmud interpretation established by the late-eleventh-century rabbinic master Rashi (Shelomoh ben Yitshaq, 10401105).

In the duchy of Champagne, another Jewish frontier, the master of Troyes taught generations of students who were geographically and culturally removed from the living oral culture of rabbinic studies in Mainz and Worms. For them Rashi produced the first comprehensive running commentary on almost the entire Hebrew Bible and the Babylonian Talmud, the canon of the Ashkenazic curriculum. Because of his extraordinary sensitivity to the biblical usage of language and his knowledge of the Talmudic corpus, he succeeded in providing the one gloss to both the Hebrew Bible and the Babylonian Talmud that has remained standard for all students of those texts to this day.

The next generation's scholars, who glossed Rashi's commentary (baʿalei ha-tosafot ), introduced a synoptic method of dialectical study designed to discover and resolve potential contradictions among different parts of the Talmud and between the Talmud and Jewish life in Christian Europe. The shift from the piecemeal to the synoptic study of the Talmud resulted in an expansion of the scope and detail of Jewish law. The new distinctions that resolved contradictions between divergent traditions added conceptual subtlety to categories of law that had been created for a Mediterranean society. Adjustments were also made to accommodate the Talmudic traditions, a product of ancient pagan and medieval Muslim societies, to the actual practices of the Jews living in Latin Christendom.

The Judaism that resulted from these encounters with Christian Europe in the twelfth century was more complex than the relatively homogeneous religious culture of the eleventh. The righteous self-image, the reverence of the dead martyrs, German Hasidism, and the scholasticism of the tosafists were part of a twelfth-century transformation of classical Judaism into a "traditional" Ashkenazic Judaism. Paralleling these developments were the creative philosophical synthesis of Moses Maimonides (d. 1204) in Egypt and the writing down for the first time of qabbalistic mystical traditions in southern France.

Expulsion and Resettlement in the Later Middle Ages

The pattern of royal support in return for Jewish economic usefulness appears in England in the twelfth century. Henry I (r. 11001135) issued a charter, no longer extant, similar to the continental ones, offering the Jews protection of life and toll exemptions backed by royal justice. Henry II (r. 11541189) extended Jewish privileges to include self-government under Jewish law. By this time, sizable Jewish communities existed not only in London but also in Norwich, Lincoln, and Oxford.

In addition to obtaining funds on demand from the community, the English kings turned to especially wealthy Jews, such as Aharon of Lincoln, for major loans. When Aharon died, in 1185, he had outstanding loans of fifteen thousand pounds, three-quarters of the annual receipts of the royal exchequer. To protect the safety of these financial records, Jewish and Christian officials were appointed to see to it that duplicate copies of loans were drawn up and deposited in chests (archae ). By 1200 the office of exchequer of the Jews was filled entirely by Christians, called the justices of the Jews. Another centralized official of the end of the twelfth century was the presbyter Judaeorum, not a chief rabbi but a wealthy Jew appointed by the king to serve as the liaison between the court and the Jewish community.

Jewish money lending at immoderate interest, or usury, became a major factor in the decline of the Jewish communities in England and France in the thirteenth century. Although papal policy condoned Jewish lending at moderate rates of interest, canon lawyers opposed it absolutely, and in the late thirteenth century the English and French kings implemented policies based on the stricter position. These measures against usury were neither economically nor politically motivated; rather, they were successful royal efforts at spiritual reform undertaken at a time of waning papal authority.

In royal France, money lending with interest was made illegal in 1230. To support his crusade, Louis IX (r. 12261270) confiscated Jewish loans, as provided by the Council of Lyon (1245), expelled only Jewish usurers from France in 1248/9, and confiscated their property. In England, Edward I (r. 12721307) issued his Statute on the Jews (1275), which outlawed Jewish lending completely, and in 1290 the Jews were expelled from his kingdom. Philip the Fair (r. 12851314) expelled the Jews of royal France in 1306.

Whereas royal policy toward the Jews shifted from support in the period of settlement to antagonism in the late thirteenth century, papal policy remained relatively constant and supportive. But when heretical movements posed a threat to the church itself, measures adopted to fight heresy sometimes were directed against the Jewish infidel as well. Thus papal approval of the new urban reforming orders of the Franciscans and, especially, the Dominicans as disciplinary arms of the church in the early thirteenth century created a source of new pressure against Jewish distinctiveness. Individual friars, sometimes zealous apostates from Judaism, actively sought to persuade Jews to convert.

At the same time that the Jewish communities were eliminated in England and royal France in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, organized Jewish life in the north shifted increasingly eastward to the politically fragmented German empire, the central European territories of Bohemia, Moravia, and Hungary, and Poland and Lithuania. The thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries were a time of continuous demographic expansion in Europe, and the Jewish communities in central and eastern Europe were augmented by natural increase and new immigration from the West.

The major turning point for central European Jewry was the Black Death of 1349, a trauma that reduced the population of some areas of Europe by as much as 50 percent. Unable to explain a catastrophe of such magnitude, the popular mind personalized the agents of destruction by blaming the Jews for poisoning the wells of Europe. Aside from being subject now to unpredictable waves of violence, whole Jewish communities were routinely expelled. The theme of death began to play an increased liturgical role in the religious sensibilities of Ashkenazic Judaism. In particular, the annual anniversary of a parent's death (Yi., yahrzeit ) is first attested at the end of the fourteenth century. The regular recitation by mourners of the Qaddish prayer also seems to have begun around the fourteenth century, in this period of increased Jewish martyrdom and random violence.

As a gradual demographic and economic recovery slowly began, Jews were readmitted for specified periods into towns of early settlement, like Speyer, and into newer Jewish communities in Austria and Bohemia. The decline of imperial authority over and protection of the Jews is reflected in the growing influence of the Christian burghers, who reserved the right to expel "their" Jews at will. The elimination of effective royal protection added to the Jewish communities' increased political vulnerability in the later Middle Ages in the West.

In the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Jewish legal authorities generally lost prestige and control in their communities. No intercommunal councils were established in the German empire after 1350, and local rabbis complained that the wealthy members of the community ignored them. To be sure, masters like Mosheh Mintz and Yisra'el Isserlein of Austria continued in the fifteenth century to exert their authority as great sages of the age, as had Gershom in the late tenth, but the influence of local rabbis declined after 1350.

Politically the proliferation of independent principalities and cities in the German empire constituted a safety valve for the Jews there. Whenever residents of one particular community were expelled, they could find refuge in another until the edict was rescinded. But as economic instability reduced the demand for Jewish money lending in the towns, some Jews began to settle in villages and on rural estates. Gradually they entered new occupations as agricultural merchants and middlemen. The decline in economic opportunities in the empire also led many Jews to join the eastward emigration of German Christian burghers attracted by new opportunities in Poland and Lithuania, still another frontier.

Although Jews had been settling gradually in the duchies of Poland and Lithuania for some time, official recognition of their communities appeared only in the thirteenth century. In 1264, Prince Boleslaw granted the Jews of Great Poland a charter modeled on those issued by Frederick II, duke of Austria, in 1244; Béla IV, king of Hungary, in 1251; and Otakar II, king of Bohemia and Moravia, in 1254. Unlike the Carolingian-type charters issued to Jewish merchants from the ninth through twelfth centuries, these were designed for Jews whose primary occupation was money lending. But like the earlier ones, the Polish charters provided for Jewish self-government and royal protection. In 1364, Casimir III (r. 11331170) issued a confirmation of these regional charters that was valid in the unified kingdom of Poland. Some Jews served the kings or dukes as money lenders and bankers; others managed estates forfeited to them for bad debts, lived in towns that the nobles founded, or farmed tolls. Jews were also prominent in the export trade of agricultural products to the German empire and the Crimea.

The Jews who migrated to Poland from Germany, Austria, and Bohemia brought along their familiar forms of communal government. The frontier model applies to Poland as it had before to the first settlements in western Europe, but with one important difference. The eastern immigrants could rely on support and spiritual guidance from their former homeland in the German empire.

The arrival of Yaʿaqov Polak in Cracow, where he opened his innovative Talmudic academy, marks the beginning of advanced Jewish religious study in Poland and with it the first condition for cultural independence from the West. In 1503, Alexander I (r. 15011506) appointed him rabbi of Jewry there. Symbolically, a new era of centralized Jewish self-government and cultural ferment was about to begin.

See Also

Ashkenazic Hasidism; Halakhah; Jewish Thought and Philosophy, article on Premodern Philosophy; Polemics, article on Jewish-Christian Polemics; Qabbalah; Rabbinate; Tosafot.


Detailed critical discussions of the rich bibliography on this period can be found in my "The Jews in Western Europe: Fourth to Sixteenth Century" and Kenneth R. Stow's "The Church and the Jews: From St. Paul to Paul IV," both in Bibliographical Essays in Medieval Jewish Studies (New York, 1976).

Despite its tendency to emphasize Jewish persecution in the Diaspora, parts of chapters 2541 in A History of the Jewish People, edited by H. H. Ben-Sasson (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), contain important discussions of medieval Jewish communal life and also refer to many of the primary sources. On the Jewish communities of England, one still must turn to Cecil Roth's A History of the Jews in England, 3d ed. (Oxford, 1964), chaps. 15, and the more solid study by H. G. Richardson, The English Jewry under Angevin Kings (London, 1960). On northern France, Louis Rabinowitz's The Social Life of the Jews of Northern France in the Twelfth to Fourteenth Centuries, 2d ed. (New York, 1972), and Robert Chazan's Medieval Jewry in Northern France (Baltimore, 1973) should be supplemented by the pertinent studies of Gavin Langmuir, such as "'Judei Nostri' and the Beginnings of Capetian Legislation," Traditio 19 (1963): 183244, and William Chester Jordan, such as "Jews on Top," Journal of Jewish Studies 29 (Spring 1978): 3956. A synthetic scholarly treatment of German Jewry still does not exist but readers may consult with profit Guido Kisch's The Jews in Medieval Germany, 2d ed. (New York, 1970). Important trends in the early years of the European Jewish community are discussed by Avraham Grossman in "On 'The Early Sages of Ashkenaz,'" Immanuel 15 (Winter 19821983): 7381, a summary of his book akhmei Ashkenaz ha-riʾshonim (Jerusalem, 1981).

The history and institutions of the medieval Jewish community are treated in depth in Salo W. Baron's The Jewish Community, 3 vols. (1942; reprint, Westport, Conn., 1972), which is out of date in some areas. On the major intellectual and religious trends discussed above, see Haym Soloveitchik's "Three Themes in the Sefer Hasidim," AJS Review 1 (1976): 311357, especially on the influence of the Tosafists, and my book Piety and Society: The Jewish Pietists of Medieval Germany (Leiden, 1981) on German (Ashkenazic) asidism.

Two important studies on the deterioration of Jewish life in the thirteenth century are Kenneth R. Stow's "Papal and Royal Attitudes toward Jewish Lending in the Thirteenth Century," AJS Review 6 (1981): 161184, and Jeremy Cohen's The Friars and the Jews (Ithaca, N.Y., 1982).

For Jewish life in central Europe during the late Middle Ages, see Shlomo Eidelberg's Jewish Life in Austria in the Fifteenth Century (Philadelphia, 1962) and Eric Zimmer's Harmony and Discord (New York, 1970). A basic work on eastern European Jewry that deals with the early period is Bernard D. Weinryb's The Jews of Poland (Philadelphia, 1972).

New Sources

Signer, Michael A., and John Van Engen, eds. Jews and Christians in Twelfth-Century Europe. Notre Dame, Ind., 2001.

Ivan G. Marcus (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Judaism: Judaism in Northern and Eastern Europe to 1500

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