Jews and Muslims

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Jews and Muslims


Multiculturalism in the Medieval West. Traditionally, historians have treated medieval western and central Europe as “Christendom,” reflecting a unified ideal supported by medieval philosophers and theologians. Europe was, however, far more-divided than such a concept implies, and European religion was no exception. Although Europe was ostensibly Christian, most cities

had Jewish enclaves, particularly if they were near trade routes or royal or noble courts. Spain was even more diverse with large communities of Muslims, Jews, and Christians who lived and worked together and even intermarried. In the process it developed a distinctive culture and can truly be described as multicultural.

The Establishment of a “Muslim” Spain. In 710 Muslims from North Africa invaded Spain and began a conquest that ended with their defeat in 753 in central France. Retreating back to Spain, Muslim leaders established a series of small kingdoms ostensibly answerable to a caliph (ruler) based in the city of Cordoba. The Muslim kingdoms were anything but the homogeneous culture that such a name implies. Political necessity caused Muslims to intermarry with Christian families, and the children of such unions were raised as Muslims. Islamic thought argued for relative tolerance to Christians and Jews as fellow “people of the book.” The Muslim society of medieval Spain had an urban orientation, leaving room for Christian nobles and peasants, who were traditionally more rural, and for Jewish communities, which often concentrated in cities. Involved in trade and cultural exchange with a Muslim community that stretched from West Africa to modern Afghanistan, the Muslim kingdoms of medieval Spain prospered during the ninth, tenth, and early eleventh centuries.

Accomplishments of European Muslim Culture. At a time when Christians living to the north and east of Spain had dirt roads, little or no plumbing, no police, and regular invasions by Vikings or other marauders, Muslims in medieval Spanish cities enjoyed cobblestone roads, running water, policed streets, and peace. Christian travelers visiting Cordoba commented on its cleanliness, splendor, and artistry. Involved in a truly transcontinental commerce, medieval Spaniards had access to products from Africa, the Near East, and Asia. Medieval Muslims traveled, in part because of the requirement for all Muslims to make a pilgrimage once in their lifetime to Mecca in modern Saudi Arabia. There were also active Muslim schools whose scholars collected and commented on classical authors. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as connections between Muslim Spain and Christian Europe increased, these Muslim commentaries were incorporated into medieval Christian philosophy.

Christian Attitudes toward the ”Moors.” The name “Moor” was given to the Muslims of medieval Spain by Christians who increasingly saw all Muslims as the same. Although the Christians of medieval Spain paid homage to and cooperated with Muslim rulers, there was some sense of a fundamental distinction between the two communities. The eleventh-century French epic poem The Song of Roland depicts the common attitude of Christians north of Spain: Muslims provide a treacherous, vicious, and “base” foil for the Frankish hero Roland and his peerless ruler, Charlemagne. In the later eleventh and twelfth centuries, as relations between Christians and Muslims in Spain became more strained, that attitude became increasingly prevalent. The Muslims against whom Crusaders fought in the Near East were condemned in even stronger language. In 1095 Pope Urban II, for example, called them a “race so base, so despised, an instrument of demons.” Despite the growing distrust of Muslims by Christian Europeans, Christian Spaniards still cooperated with them. One of the national heroes of Spain is Rodrigo Diaz de Viviar, known as El Cid, who in the twelfth-century Poem of El Cid makes alliances with both Muslim and Christian nobles. Although there are unprincipled and treacherous Muslims among his enemies, there are treacherous Christians as well, and other Muslims are portrayed as valiant and effective warriors.


One of the earliest recorded accusations of ritual murder against the Jews was written by Thomas of Mon-mouth around 1173. This story about the 1140 murder of William, an English boy of Norwich, includes charges that were commonly leveled against Jews throughout the Middle Ages.

Then the boy, like an innocent lamb, was led to the slaughter. He was treated kindly by the Jews at first, and, ignorant of what was being prepared for him, he was kept till the morrow. But on the next day [Tuesday, 21 March 1140], which in that year was the Passover tor them, after the singing of the hymns appointed for the day in the synagogue, the chiefs ot the Jews. … suddenly seized hold of the boy William as he was. having his dinner and in no fear of any treachery, and ill-treated him in various horrible ways. For while some of them held him behind, others opened his mouth and introduced an instrument of torture which is called a teazle [a wooden gag] and, fixing it by straps through both jaws to the back of his neck, they fastened it with a knot as tightly as it could be drawn.

After that, taking a short piece of rope of about the thickness of one’s little finger and tying three knots in it at certain distances marked out, they bound round that innocent head with it from the forehead to the back, forcing the middle knot into his forehead and the two others into his temples, the two ends of the rope being most tightly stretched at the back of his head and fastened in a very tight knot. The ends of the rope were then passed round his neck and carried round his throat under his chin, and there they finished off this dreadful engine of torture in a tight knot.

But not even yet could the cruelty of the torturers be satisfied without adding even more severe pains. Having shaved his head, they stabbed it with countless thorn-points, and made the blood come horribly from the wounds they made. [Jesus worn a crown of thorns.] And so cruel were they and so eager to inflict pain that it was difficult to say whether they were more cruel or more ingenious in their tortures. For their skill in torturing kept up the strength of their cruelty and ministered arms thereto.

And thus, while these enemies of the Christian name were rioting in the spirit of malignity around the boy, some of those present judged him to be fixed to a cross in mockery of the Lord’s Passion, as though they would say: “even as we condemned the Christ to a shameful death, so let us also condemn the Christian, so that, uniting the lord and his servant in a like punishment, we may retort upon themselves the pain of that reproach which they impute to us.” …

And we, after enquiring into the matter very diligently, did both find the house, and discovered some most certain marks in it of what had been done there. [This house was supposed to be the home of a rich Jew, lileazar, who was later murdered by order of his debtor, Sir Simon de Movers.] For report goes that there was there instead of a cross a post set up between two other posts, and a beam stretched across the midmost post and attached to the other on either side. And as we afterwards discovered, from the marks of the wounds and of the bands, the right hand and foot had been tightly bound and fastened with cords, but the left hand and foot were pierced with two nails. Now the deed was done in this way, lest it should be discovered, from the presence of nail-marks in both hands and both feet, that the murderers were Jews and not Christians, if eventually the body were found. [That is, both hands and feet were not nailed lest it look like a crucifixion.] … And since many streams of blood were running down from all parts of his body, then, to stop the blood and to wash and close the wounds, they poured boiling water over him.

Thus then the glorious boy and martyr of Christ, William, dying the death of time in reproach of the Lord’s death, but crowned with the blood of a glorious martyrdom, entered into the kingdom of glory on high to live for ever.…

As a proof of the truth and credibility of the matter we now adduce something which we have heard from the lips of Theobald, who was once a Jew, and afterwards a monk. He verily told us that in the ancient writings of his fathers it was written that the Jews, without the shedding of human blood, could neither obtain their freedom, nor could they ever return to their fatherland. [There is. no such statement in Jewish law or literature.] Hence it was laid down by them in ancient times that every year they must sacrifice a Christian in some part of the world to the Most 1 ligh God in scum and contempt ot Christ, that so rhev niighr avenge their sufferings on Him; inasmuch as it was because of Christ’s death that they had been shut out from their own country, and were in exile as slaves in a foreign land.

Source: Jacob Marcus, Tfa/ew in the Medieval World: A SourcebQ&k, 315–1791 (Cincinnati: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 193B)> pp. 121–127

The Reconquista . In the eleventh century Christian nobles took advantage of the disintegration of the Cordoba caliphate to begin the Reconquista, a reconquest of the Iberian peninsula. Under the well-known king Alfonso I (reigned 1065–1109), Christians captured the Muslim stronghold and commercial city of Toledo, which is located in the geographic center of the peninsula. During the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries Christian lords gradually pushed south until, by around 1250, the only Muslim kingdom left in the peninsula was the small territory of Granada in the far south. Granada existed as a Muslim enclave until it was conquered in 1492. Although territories changed hands, it took years for life to change fundamentally in the reconquered lands. Muslim populations still supplied necessary labor and taxes to their Christian rulers, who had no intention of destroying their best tax base, and there is some evidence that a disproportionate amount of craft and trade work was done by Muslims. By the four teenth century, however, Muslims increasingly found themselves under suspicion. Along with the Jews, they were blamed for the outbreaks of famine and plague that punctuated the first half of the fourteenth century. Under such pressures and for various economic and social advantages, Muslims converted to Christianity. These converted Muslims continued to have a strong economic and social presence in later medieval Spain although the derogatory nickname of “conversos” (the converted ones), which was applied to Jewish and Muslim converts, shows the suspicion to which they were still subjected.

Life in a Jewish Enclave. Jews existed in small enclaves in most major commercial and governmental centers in medieval northern Europe as well as throughout the urban population in medieval Spain. These small communities developed for religious purposes—medieval Jews defined themselves as a “community of the chosen” while those who were not Jews were by definition not chosen—and for protection. Within these enclaves Jews lived much like other medieval Europeans. There were rich and poor Jews; the stereotypical idea that all Jews were wealthy moneylenders is completely false. Although Jews, like other medieval Europeans, attempted to obtain land, because they tended to live in cities they generally practiced craft and mercantile professions rather than farming. In some cases they were allowed trade with Christians, while in others their market was confined to other Jews or to export. Outside of the doctrinal and ritual differences between Christianity and Judaism, the primary difference between Jewish and Christian life in the Middle Ages was the constant insecurity that Jews faced. Their lack of attendance at the religious rituals that were so fundamental to many medieval Europeans automatically put them outside the community at large and made them seem suspicious. For this reason, communities generally knew who the Jewish residents were. The situation for Jews worsened in 1215, when the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that the Jews had to wear distinctive robes or marks on their clothing. Although it was possible to obtain waivers, these documents were expensive. For protection Jews relied on Christian secular and religious leaders, who did so mainly when they found aiding Jews advantageous.

Establishing Jewish Communities and Authority. Before they settled in an area, most Jewish communities received charters from their Christian lords. One clause that frequently reappears in these charters is the right of self-government within the Jewish community. Medieval Jews were led by a council of male elders who governed Jewish behavior, religious practices, and commercial dealings. These councils also acted as liaisons with Christian rulers and could be quite effective. In the middle of the fourteenth century the Jewish leaders of various communities in Aragon (a Spanish kingdom) met and were able have made into law a detailed ordinance that protected Jewish rights and properties. Often these councils were led by the community rabbi, their religious and intellectual leader, who had spent many years studying the Torah, Talmud, and other sacred writings.

Jewish Employment and Medieval Lords. Always a minority religious group, Jews relied on medieval lords for protection, paying hefty taxes and making many “gifts” in return. Nevertheless, medieval lords did frequently expel Jews from their cities and even their kingdoms. For example, the French king Philip II Augustus (reigned 1180–1223) expelled the Jews from his kingdom in 1182, gaining the goodwill of the Church and profiting from confiscated Jewish wealth. In 1198, however, he readmitted the Jews but regulated one of the Jewish community’s most lucrative professions, banking, as well as other Jewish commercial ventures, in such a way that he reserved large profits to himself. In medieval Spain the situation was far better for Jews. Jews held high offices in Muslim kingdoms, becoming diplomats and court physicians. In tenth-century Cordoba there was even a Jewish school (a yeshiva) with an international reputation, and Jews emigrated from all over the Mediterranean to live in Spain. It has been suggested that by about 1100, 90 percent of the Jews in the world lived in medieval Iberia. Even after the reconquest had begun, Spanish Christian rulers seem to have shown greater tolerance than their northern counterparts. Jews in many Spanish Christian kingdoms were put under the protection of the rulers, who until the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, seemed more willing to enforce their guardianship than other Christian lords. Christian kings in northern Spain used Jews as physicians, scientists, tax collectors, diplomats, judges, and public officials, and in the thirteenth century King James of Aragon encouraged Jews from North Africa and France to settle in his kingdom through property grants and tax exemptions.

Attitudes toward One Another—Jews and Christians. The attitudes of Christians and Jews toward one another were complex to say the least. At their most extreme Christians viewed the Jews as Christ killers and heretics, while Jews saw Christians as a fallen, impure people. In general, however, in medieval Spain the communities coexisted, and the attitudes varied depending on the individuals involved. Outside the Iberian peninsula, attitudes were more extreme. Jews saw Christians as treacherous and cruel, ready to renege on promises and legal contracts at a moment’s notice. The general population of Christians tended to view the Jewish enclaves as a potential subversive community in their midst, dangerous precisely because their rituals and meetings were held “secretly” and must, therefore, be conspiracies. Christian theologians saw Jews as deliberately rejecting Christ’s message and, for this reason, as not much different from heretics. A theologian and letter writer of the late twelfth century, Peter of Blois, expressed these attitudes in a treatise “Against the Perfidy of the Jews”: “For the Jew is always inconstant and shifty. Now he says Yes, anon he says No, at one time he quibbles about the literal meaning, at another he refers all to the times of his own Messiah, i.e. of the Antichrist, and after the manner of his father the devil often changes into monstrous shapes.”

Cases of Ritual Murder. Some medieval Christians believed that Jews seized children and tortured them to death as part of the rites for Passover. The need for blood—particularly innocent, young, children’s blood—formed a key part of accusations that Jews performed ritual murders and of general suspicion of Jews in much of Christian Europe well into the seventeenth century. The first complete version of this myth appeared in the writings of Thomas of Monmouth, who recorded around 1173 the supposed ritual murder of a boy named William in the English town of Norwich during 1144. As the economy of Europe worsened in the late thirteenth century and as famines and plagues struck during the first half of the fourteenth century, Jews were increasingly accused of poisoning wells, causing crop failures, killing livestock, and performing magical ceremonies that led to plagues.


Jon Irving Bloomberg, The Jewish World in the Middle Ages (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 2000).

Gilbert Dahan, The Christian Polemic against the Jews in the Middle Ages, translated by Jody Gladding (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998).

Salomon Grayzel, The Church and the Jews in the Thirteenth Century, 2 volumes (New York, Hermon Press, 1989).

Hugh N. Kennedy, Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of Al-Andalus (London & New York : Longman, 1996).

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Jews and Muslims

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