Thursday, December 28, 2017

Medieval Jewry in Western Europe

Before TED talks there was Norman Cantor; but what a TED talk!  

Medieval historian Norman Cantor, from Manitoba, taught at Princeton, Columbia, Tel Aviv, Chicago and many other illustrious places. The judgment, perhaps unkind, on his Wikipedia entry, is that he was a pretty boy talker and popularizer of medieval history more than a contributor of original scholarship.  

Works for me here . . . In 1997 he participated in a symposium at the International Center for Humanistic Judaism.  The institute "celebrates cultural Jewish identity through a human-focused philosophy of life." It offers professional training as well as general adult education courses.  I'm glad I ran across Cantor's presentation at this 1997 colloquium.

Cantor's topic at the '97 symposium was "The medieval Jew." Here's the summary if you have just eight minutes, but listen for yourself, below: 

A 500-year Banking Monopoly

A terrible disaster struck Western Europe in about 500 CE.   The great invasions of the 4th and 5th centuries from the Germanic north, and the Mongol east, brought an end to the 500 year "safe and secure" (tongue firmly in cheek) rule of Rome. New kingdoms replaced the "benign and beautiful Roman Empire." It was good for the Jews who had been discriminated against, isolated, and ghettoized under the late Christianized, Roman Empire in the West. 

The collapse of the Roman Empire ushered in the rise of Ashkenazi Jewry.  For the next 500 years Jews had a virtual monopoly on banking and credit. It allowed the formation of a Jewish elite of large scale bankers. Great Jewish merchant families accumulated the capital, commercial capability, and courage to engage in long distance trade. This trade was facilitated by a Jewish network along the shores of the Mediterranean, and into Asia. Jews were the great merchants of the early Middle Ages. They brought Jewels, perfumes, and spices, from around the Mediterranean, and from as far away as India: things the feudal aristocracy of Western Europe wanted "to make their crude lives a little more pleasant and beautiful."

These Jewish merchants exported furs, swords, and lumber from the great forests of Europe. And slaves. Jews were very much involved in white slave traffic in the early Middle Ages. They provided credit instruments, bridge loans when great lords died (to allow settlement of estates); they funded armed conflict. After around 750 AD the Jewish importance accelerated with the great Muslim expansion.  Jews were uniquely positioned and able to trade across the frontiers between Christian and Muslim lands.

These great capitalists of the early medieval world were protected by Christian nobility who protected them against Bishops and meshugena monks. 

A Rabbinic-Capitalist Elite

The Jewish community in Western Europe in this early medieval period was dominated by a rabbinic capitalist elite. Most Jews were craftsmen, small farmers, carriers of wood and water. But this community of craftsmen, small farmers, and carriers of wood and water came to be dominated—until the late 19th Century—by a narrow band of capitalist families who intermarried with great rabbinical families. Together these families formed an aristocracy. There was a small degree of upward mobility. A very bright young man, excelling at his studies, might marry into a rabbinic family, or a capitalist family, and start his own line. But it was rare.

This capitalist-rabbinic dynasty was accompanied by the rise of Jewish law (halakha). Halakha spread westward from the great schools of Iraq towards Western Europe, but the strict observance of the law took hold very slowly in Western Europe. By 1000 CE, however, Talmudic schools had been established in the West and the law became the dominant way of life, imposed on the Jewish masses by this narrow capitalist-rabbinic elite. 

Rashi (1040-1105) wrote his commentary on the bible in Troyes (northern France) to justify the halakhic code that Jews in Western Europe had come to live by. But the great Ashkenaz was already past its glory.

Christian Competition, Rise of Christian Religiosity, and Revival of Roman Law

After the middle of the 11th century three changes brought an end to the good fortune of the Jews of the early middle ages: the monopoly on banking and credit ended, there was a great revival of Christian spirituality, and there was a revival of Roman law.

The emergence of Christian merchants, bankers, and creditors provided intense competition to the Jewish capitalist hegemony. The field of competition was tilted when bishops and princes placed restrictions on Jewish trade.

At the same time there was a revival of Roman law with the founding of Roman law schools in Bologna and elsewhere. When Roman law was revived, those old late-Roman discriminatory statutes came roaring back. Roman law, complete with its anti-Semitic elements, was taught in law schools, and was enforced by Christian beurocrats.  It was a disaster for Jews.

There was a great upsurge of Christian spirituality starting in the mid-eleventh century. This reached far beyond liturgy and worship: it enriched the arts, literature, and music--the sublime. But it also revived and generated a great Jew-phobia among Christians. Jew-phobia and anti-Semitism was at the very heart of the flowering of Catholic spirituality.  Chaucer, St. Anselm, everyone, was consumed with the hatred of Jews. Jew hatred was central to this great Catholic culture of the High Middle Ages.

This presentd a terrible problem for the Jewish community.  The European nobility, who had been protective of the Jews, were overcome by mass hysteria against the Jews.  Pogroms, intense ghettoization, and exclusion of Jews from the business world they had participated in followed. This resulted in a great decline of the Ashkenaz. The crusades took their toll. There was a great diminishment of wealth. The Virgin Mary cult went up, and Jews went down. 

By 1300, Jews were expelled from England and they did not return until 1653. By 1350 Jews were expelled from almost all of France except for an eastern province of Alsace. Jews fled eastward into Germany. There they picked up German and carried it with them to Poland, as Yiddish, in the 16th century. Jews continued to live in Germany, but in the late middle ages there were terrible pogroms in Germany, too, and Jews moved eastward. 

Jews were blamed for the black death of the mid 14th century. Doctors testified in court that it was due to Jews poisoning wells. 

The Move to Poland and Eastern Lands

Jews moved to Poland in the 16th century, carrying their Yiddish, their rabbinical elite, and their law with them. There they were useful to the Dukes of Poland and the Polish aristocracy to stimulate international trade and to provide credit instruments. They served the Polish aristocracy by managing estates in Ukraine, recently captured by Poland. In exchange they were given a monopoly over the liquor trade in Ukraine. It did not endear the Jews to the greater population. 

Internal Decline

In response to this decline of the Ashkenaz during the high Middle Ages, in the 12 and 13th centuries there was a crisis in intellectual life among the rabbis and among Jewish intellectuals. Western Europe was undergoing a revival of Aristotelian philosophy and science, which was hard to square with revealed religion. It presented a great challenge to the traditions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism alike. In all three there was an intellectual crisis. How do we reconcile theistic traditions with philosophy and science?

Among Jews, Maimonedes (1135-1204) advocated a reconciliation between science and strict observance of Jewish law. He wrote his Guide for the Perplexed, attempting to show how you could be a devout Jew and still a believer in modern science (of his day). It's unconvincing, this Guide, says Cantor. And it was unconvincing to the rabbis of Southern France. They rejected Maimonides' philosophical works, and instead kept only his biblical commentaries. Instead of moving toward science, the rabbis moved towards the kabbala, and "the accentuation of a Hellenistic astrological mystical pastiche." Judaism moved towards an irrationalist, mystical  culture. The Jews of Ashkenaz were not only ghettoized externally, they withdrew into an irrationalist culture internally. 

Iberian Jewry

Spain was different. Jews had been there for centuries. They lived there peacefully during the Roman empire, and they accommodated themselves well to Muslim Arabic rule. Muslim Spain was a Golden Age of sorts. Jews were able to build up the great commercial corporations as they had in Northern Europe, and they developed a rich culture of Hebrew literature, liturgy, and music; and at the same time they pursued Greek and Arab philosophy and medicine.

The conditions of Iberian Jewry deteriorated in the mid 12th century, about a century after the decline of Ashkenaz. New Muslims from Africa, fundamentalists, arrived. A cold wind of intolerance blew. Christian princes invaded from the north to reconquer Muslim lands. By the middle of the 13th century, most of Iberia was back in Christian hands. In 1492 the last of the Muslim principalities (Grenada) was overcome. 

A practicing Jewish presence disappeared from Spain between 1390 and 1500.  The Jewish population in 1390 was perhaps one million in an overall population of 10 million. After 1492 no more observant Jews were left in Spain. 

Many converted. Pogroms were stirred up against this highly visible and  successful minority. But mass conversion in the 15th century was also the result of Jewish internal developments. Kabbala had transferred to Spain. The Zohar, the main text of Jewish mysticism, was written down in Aragon in the 14th century. Intellecutal leaders of the Jewish community in Spain, as in Europe, now rejected rationalism, and science, and learning. Instead they held fast to a marginal mystical culture. Young Jews were not attracted. Cut off from the learning of the late middle ages, which flowered into the Renaissance, conversion was an attempt to breach this intellectual chasm. Jews saw great things going on in the gentile world. It was an impetus to conversion.

And conversion worked. Jews rose to important positions in courts and the Church in Spain upon conversion. Some of the greatest scholar of early Christian Spain were converts from Judaism in the 16th century. 


Norman Cantor, "The Medieval Jew" (1997)
Cantor died in 2004

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