In 1096 French knights on the First Crusade traveled down the Rhine River on their way to Jerusalem. As they did, they inflicted terrible destruction and death on Jewish communities. The chivalric ideal of the Crusades demanded victory over perceived enemies of the Church: Muslims abroad and heretics and Jews at home.
By 1100 a movement known as the New Piety had emerged in Latin Christendom. Its initial leaders were Gregory 7th (pope, 1073-1085), Peter Damian (1007-72, cardinal, Benedictine), and Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109). Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1154), the most powerful Christian of the 1100s, became its irresistible proponent. Whatever else the movement meant, it meant systemic hatred for Jews that continued officially in the Latin Christian Church through at least 1965 (the end of the Second Vatican Council).
For centuries the Church had placed great emphasis on public ceremonies, the Old Testament, and Jesus as divine ruler. Proponents of the New Piety changed this. Now far deeper meaning was found in personal devotion, the New Testament, Jesus as suffering servant, and Mary as his devoted mother and our greatest mediator with him.
This led to a significant cultural flowering. Religious devotion found new and intense forms of expression, both personal and public, in “the Virgin cult,…Gothic architecture, religious poetry and music of great power” (Cantor, 169).
Yet there was a dark side to all of this. Strangely enough, sorrow for the suffering of Jesus led to rage against those mistakenly blamed as its cause: Jews. Gregory wrote letters to Latin Christian political leaders in Iberia telling them not to work with Jews. Peter Damian wrote anti-Jewish pamphlets. Bernard preached fiery anti-Jewish sermons.
So anti-Judaism wasn’t the attitude of some oppressed lower-class people who didn’t know and couldn’t do any better. It was a point of view advocated by the best minds and most powerful leaders of the times.
This rationalization for punishing Jews was coupled with a desire to convert them to Christianity. At this time the belief gained ground that the sooner all Jews became Christians, the sooner Jesus would return to earth (Cantor, 174).
As early as 1130, Pierre Abelard could see that Jews were doomed because of the absurd Christian hatred toward them.
In 1144 in southern Britannia the destructive narrative known as the “blood libel” was created. The blood libel was the malicious story that Jews kidnapped Christian babies to use their blood in making unleavened bread for Passover.
Another reason for Ashkenazi decline after 1100: the economic skills of Jews, especially of finance and commerce, became redundant. Christians developed them. Now Christians wanted to rid themselves of Jewish competition (Cantor, 175).
Innocent 3rd, powerful ruler of the Latin Christian Church, theologically and legally isolated Jews within Latin Christendom at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. There he justified requiring Jews to live apart from Christians, to wear clothing easily identifying them as Jews, and to accept perpetual mistreatment.
The agony of Ashkenazi Jews intensified in the 1200s with the destruction of Jewish societies in both Gallia and southern Britannia. This destruction had three causes: the actions of Louis 9th (French ruler and Latin Christian saint), the preaching of the newly founded Dominican order, and the papal creation of the Inquisition to attack nonconforming Christians.
Louis 9th (1214-1270, r. 1226) “was the most admired, glamorous, and fabled king since Charlemagne” (Cantor, 176). He was pious, brave, and anti-Judaic. Others imitated him.
A widespread and popular form of Christianity called Catharism centered in the southern Gallian city of Albi. The pope, ruler of the Latin Christian Church, saw this movement as a direct threat to his organization and worked resolutely to crush it. He did so by calling a crusade of northern Gallian knights against it. He set up the secret courts of the Inquisition to ferret out nonconformists, torture them for information, and execute them. Finally, he sent Dominicans into the region as a positive alternative to both Cathars and conventional Church leaders and Christians.
While Jews were not official targets of this organized violence, since technically they were not heretics, they got swept up in the general destruction and death. So too did socially marginal Christians who were labeled as witches or even lepers and then murdered.
Strangely enough, it was at this time that the study and practice of the Kabbalah became popular amongst Jews living in Provence (southeastern Gallia). There the rabbis had strongly rejected the rationalism of Maimonides. From Provence, Kabbalistic thinking moved to northern Iberia where by 1300 The Zohar, the definitive text on the Kabbalah, was written.
Cantor acknowledges that Latin Christendom was increasingly hostile to Jews after 1100. This hostility increased in intensity in 1215 when the ruler of the Latin Christian Church had Jews theologically and legally isolated, wearing distinct clothes, and subject to perpetual mistreatment.
At the same time, Cantor argues that Jews did not necessarily respond creatively to these painful challenges. Sometimes their responses made their situation even worse (Cantor, 180).
One, Jewish development of the Kabbalah in the 1200s bore many similarities to the Catharism hated by Latin Christian authorities and may even have stimulated its development (Cantor, 180). This enthusiasm for a mystical understanding of Judaism and the world meant an obliviousness to very real dangers and a failure to protect Jews against them. It meant a distracted passivity when focused action was needed.
Two, many rabbis converted to Christianity, become powerful Dominicans and, as participants in the Inquisition, led the attack against their former co-religionists (Cantor, 180).
Three, Ashkenazic rabbis failed to adequately protect their societies. One way they failed was by interpreting the worsening situation of Jews as a sign of the coming of the Messiah. “The worse things are, the better they will soon become” (Cantor, 180).
In 1290, the Jews of southern Britannia, having become poor through economic redundancy and political persecution, were expelled by Edward 1st, nephew of Louis 9th. Jews were not allowed back until 1653—decades after Shakespeare featured the Jewish villain Shylock in his play, The Merchant of Venice.
In 1306, Philip 4th, grandson of Louis 9th, expelled Jews from the lands of Gallia which he controlled.
Most of the Jews expelled from Britannia and Gallia migrated east to Germania. There in the early 1300s a reconstituted Jewish society enjoyed renewed vitality. The Germanic dialect they learned, when combined with Hebrew words they knew, became Yiddish.
In 1348 Latin Christendom was struck by the plague. Its cause unknown and, at the time, unknowable, it was blamed on Jews poisoning wells. Th led to more pogroms.
Jews were able to migrate to Germania because a desire for their economic skills outweighed the fear and hatred of them. By 1500, however, Germanian Christians no longer needed their skills and forced them farther east into Lusatia and Sarmatia.
By 1600, a thriving Jewish society had developed in there. Economically, Jews served in what had become for them traditional roles as bankers and merchants. They also became the managers of large estates for absentee Polish Catholic oligarchs as well as sole distributors of liquor through village taverns. A center of Jewish intellectual culture developed in Krakow with schools and a printing press. In 1648, the number of Jews worldwide was about 1,500,000; in Lusatia and Sarmatia alone, about 200,000.
The vitality of this Jewish society was shattered in 1648. A Cossack rebellion turned Polish peasants against their Jewish estate agents. Cantor believes that this retaliation, though not justifiable, may be understandable. “The Jews were the immediate instrument of [peasant] subjugation and degradation. The Halakic rabbis never considered the Jewish role in oppression…in relation to the Hebrew prophets’ ideas of social justice” (Cantor, 184). “Or perhaps the Jews were so moved by racist contempt for the…Polish peasantry as to regard them as subhuman and unworthy of consideration under biblical categories of justice and humanity” (Cantor, 185).
Jewish society in Lusatia and Sarmatia never recovered the vitality it lost that year. When Christendom in this area sank politically and economically after 1700, Jews there sank with it.
(Today we continued our reflections on Norman Cantor’s The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews [HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 169-185].)