Sermons to Jews

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While at all times zealous Christians sought the opportunity of personally propagating their faith among Jews, the first recorded instance of systematic conversionist sermons is apparently from France in the ninth century. Archbishop *Agobard of Lyons in his Epistola de baptizandis Hebraeis, written between 816 and 825, indicates that on his instructions the clergy of Lyons went every Saturday to preach in the synagogues, attendance on the part of the Jews presumably being compulsory. This was probably not a unique or localized happening. With the foundation of the *Dominican order (1216) the system was regularized. Conversionist sermons which the Jews had to attend are referred to in 1242 in a law of James I of Aragon, which received papal approval. After the Disputation of *Barcelona in 1263, the king himself actually delivered a conversionist harangue in the synagogue and later issued an order enjoining the Jews and Saracens to listen quietly to the addresses of the preaching friars who had come to convert them – though in 1268 he forbade the preachers to be escorted by more than ten persons. Pablo *Christiani (d. 1274), who was then a leading anti-Jewish propagandist, obtained permission to preach in the synagogues also from the king of France. It was however only in 1278 that the compulsory conversionist sermon received explicit papal authorization in the bull Vineam soreth of Pope *Nicholas iii (and see papal *bulls); obedience to this was enjoined in England in the following year by Edward i. It was enforced only sporadically however, as for example in the intense anti-Jewish campaign conducted in Spain by the fiery Vicente *Ferrer in the early years of the 15th century. In Sicily, at that time under Aragonese rule, Fra Matteo di Girgenti was appointed Lettore degli ebrei ("Reader [i.e., Preacher] to the Jews") in 1428.

With the anti-Jewish reaction which accompanied the Counter-Reformation, the institution of conversionist sermons was placed on a new basis. In a bull, Vices eius nos of Sept. 1, 1577, Pope *Gregory xiii ordered the Jews of Rome and other places in the Papal States to send a certain quota of their number on specified occasions to one of the churches to hear a sermon which might open their eyes to the true faith. The same pope's bull, Sancta mater ecclesia of exactly seven years later, reverted to the subject and laid down more precise conditions. From then on, the institution was a regular abuse of Jewish life in the Papal States (including *Avignon and the *Comtat Venaissin in France) and in other parts of the Roman Catholic world as well. It was in Rome itself that the abuses were most extreme. Here 100 Jews and 50 Jewesses had to attend the designated church each week in order to listen to these addresses, generally delivered by an apostate from Judaism whose fee was paid by the Jewish community. Beadles armed with rods saw to it that they paid attention, and examined their ears to ensure that they were not plugged. Michel de Montaigne records that when he was in Rome in 1581 he heard a sermon delivered apparently by Andrea del Monte, who is known to have used language of such unmeasured violence that the Jews appealed to the papal Curia for protection. The sermons delivered in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence in 1583 by the apostate Vitale de' Medici (formerly Jehiel da Pesaro) were published. At Ferrara, a special entrance was made from the ghetto to the Church of St. Crispino, where the sermons were delivered, so that the Jews would not be subject to insult when they passed through the street.

In Venice, the authorities forbade the introduction of the conversionist sermon, but it was allowed in neighboring Padua. In 1630 the emperor Ferdinand ii instituted conversionist sermons in Vienna, in the auditorium of the university, 200 Jews including at least 40 adolescents having to attend on each occasion. In Prague, the Jesuits initiated conversionist sermons in the same year. Though elsewhere there was some relaxation of the system in the 18th century (in Mantua, for example, where it was abolished in 1699), the institution of the conversionist sermon continued in the Papal States, both in Italy and in France, down to the period of the French Revolution. In Italy it was renewed after the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of papal rule, to be abolished by Pope Pius ix in 1846 during the liberal period at the beginning of his pontificate. The well-known poem by Robert *Browning, "Holy Cross Day," attempts to reflect the state of mind of the Jews on these occasions.


Baron, Social2, 9 (1965), 79ff., 274ff.; 14 (1970), 60–61, 238–9, 327, 392; S. Grayzel, Church and the Jews in the xiiith Century (19662), 15–16, 257ff., 281; A. Milano, Il Ghetto di Roma (1964), index; P. Browe, Die Judenmission im Mittelalter und die Paepste (1942).

[Cecil Roth]