Thursday, December 4, 2014

Jewish Society in Latin Christendom (800-1100)

Jews living in the Roman Empire faced increasing state hostility after 386 when Christianity was made the sole legal religion. Physical punishment for being Jewish began with the emperor Heraclius in 610.

Relief came to Jews in Levantia, Egypt, Carthaginia, and Iberia with advancing Muslim armies between 635 and 720. Jews living under Muslim rule eventually became known as Sephardi.

These Sephardic Jews developed traditions which differed from Jews remaining in what, after 386, we may call Christendom. Jews living in Christendom—first the Roman Empire but later its successor states in western Olympia as well—became known as Ashkenazi.

Everyone living in western Olympia suffered with the collapse of Roman rule there in the 400s.

Life for Jews in Latin Christendom remained primitive and painful until Charles, known as “the Great,” or Charlemagne, began his rule of the Franks in 768. He lifted the travel restrictions which had limited their geographic and social mobility. They quickly prospered as moneylenders and merchants. They even did well as wine-growers and established large estates in southern Gallia.

These economic functions were middle class in nature and that class—socially located between rulers and peasants—was lacking in the feudal society of western Olympia until about the year 1000. Jewish merchants exported “furs, timber, and swords, but also slaves” and imported “spices, perfumes, jewels, and silks” (Cantor, 163).

When the Vikings occupied northern Gallia, turning it into “Northmanland” or Normandy, a large number of Jews moved to its major city of Rouen. When the Normans conquered southern Britannia in 1066, Jews followed them there. They settled first in London and then fanned out.

By the year 1000, Jews had also settled along the Rhine and were doing well in trade. Mainz developed into a center of Jewish learning. This mattered. Jewish society did well in Iberia especially during the golden age of Muslim rule there (900-1150). Jewish society in southern Gallia did well enough by remaining in contact with it. But knowledge of Hebrew, Jewish Scripture, and the Talmud remained largely lost to Jews in Latin Christendom until rekindled in Mainz. Beginning in Mainz, then, Jewish life in Latin Christendom took on distinct Talmudic contours.

The most important Jewish scholar in Latin Christendom for centuries was (Rabbi) Solomon ben Isaac (1040-1105) who became known as Rashi. His commentaries on both Jewish Scripture and the Talmud were so clear yet insightful that they have remained significant to this day. He started what would become an important yeshiva in Troyes around 1070.

As with Jewish society in Iberia, leadership in Jewish societies in Latin Christendom was dominated by families combining wealth and rabbinical authority through strategic marriages. Leading individuals from these families provided the Jewish societies in different major cities with their financial basis and intellectual and ethical guidance.

Latin Christian rulers and leaders were often hostile toward Jews. Jews had to pay them, sometimes handsomely, for the privilege of being left alone.

After 1050, the feudal society of Latin Christian began to change in ways that marginalized Jews. Economically, ownership of land required a Christian oath to an overlord that Jews could not make. Crafts and commerce began to be controlled increasingly by urban guilds that excluded Jews from membership.

Emerging law schools, as in Bologna (founded 1088), led a revival of Roman law and renewed interest in Justinian restrictions on Jews. This led to harmful changes in civil (state) and canon (church) law.

Kings started to consolidate their power at the expense of aristocrats and free cities as well as Jews.

The year 1096 marks the beginning of the long decline of Ashkenazi Jews. 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.

(Today we continued our reflections on Norman Cantor’s The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews [HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 163-8].)

Copyright © 2014 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.