History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Jewish Life In German States.

The Church now dominated society, giving character to its popular life and entering so largely into all its concerns as to make the position of the Jew who was not of the Church still more anomalous. We saw that economically he had no place in the feudal system. In language, food and occupation, in belief and outlook so different was his life, that Christian and Jew might have said one to the other: "Our ways are not your ways, nor our thoughts your thoughts."

A Jewish Troubadour.

Yet he did not stand willingly aloof, when religion did not bid withdrawal. For example, we find a Jew among the troubadours. Those poet minne-singers {minne—love) would wander with harp and lyre from castle to castle where the baron and his lady, together with their retainers, would listen to their song of chivalry and adventure and throw them money {largesse, as it was called), on which they lived. A Jewish poet of this order was Susskind of Trimberg-on-the-Saale, who flourished about the year 1200. A few of his lyrics are preserved, wherein the knight and his lady of the days of romance were among his favorite themes. But his own life revealed the conflict of Israel among the nations that he portrays in the fable of the wolf. Either he can be minne-singer to the Gentile and suppress the Jew, or, he may throw in his lot with his people and then he must abandon his art. How often has that alternative faced the son of Israel even in brighter days!

The feudal baron occasionally lowered the portcullis of his castle to admit the Jew bringing wares from a distant land. At times he received articles of value in exchange for money, when money was the need — say of the impoverished knight who wished to vary the monotony of an idle career by wandering forth to the wars, and needed suitable ecpupment. He would expect to redeem the pledge by hiring out his sword to any lord who had a skirmish on hand, for it was the day of mercenaries.

The "Ritual Murder" Slander.

In times of peaceful lull the Jew was let alone, though "severely alone." But he was always at the mercy of the caprice of the multitude. At best he was mistrusted and readily made the object of suspicion. If a dead body was found it was quite usual to charge the murder to the Jews on the grotesque theory that they had used the blood for their Passover ritual. Little did the Christian know that in formulating this monstrous charge against the Jew it was but borrowing from the pagan an earlier charge brought against the Christian; in the latter case it was a follower of the Church who had been charged with using blood for his sacrament service, in the former that he used in the Passover bread. Both charges were equally fabulous, that against the Jew, based on the biblical precept to place the blood of the lamb upon the door-post; that against the Christian, based on the belief that the wine at the sacrament miraculously became the blood of the Savior.

With Christianity's rise to power, the slander against the Church soon disappeared; but against the Jew it grew in virulence; and on this false charge Jews were slain every century and in every land. Nor is this lie yet dead. In 1247 the Jews appealed to Pope Innocent IV for protection against this calumny. He issued a bull declaring the charge false and unfounded. But it was brought up again every few years —in Mayence in 1283, in Munich in 1285, in Oberwesel and Boppard in 1286. Other instances will be detailed later. The charge always meant plunder and massacre.

Another Synod.

A synod had been convened by R. Gershom in the year 1000; a second, in the year 1146 after the Second Crusade. Now, to strengthen the bonds between Jew and Jew in those perilous days, another synod was summoned at Mayence in the year 1223:

First, it arranged to divide the distribution of the burden of royal taxation in fair proportion. (For when a king decided to extort money from "his Jews," he might favor one Jew by exemption at the expense of others.) This decision and those that follow throw a lurid light on the times:

  • No bad treatment by Gentiles should justify dishonorable treatment of them.
  • It severely condemned the counterfeiting of coin.
  • The "informer"—whose mischievous disclosures often brought so much injury—was to make good any loss incurred by his betrayal.
  • He who sought an office in the synagogue by bringing outside, Gentile, influence to bear, was to be excommunicated. (In Maccabaean days Jason sought the high priesthood through Greek influence, History was repeating itself.)

The "Empire."

Yet, in the German Empire, "so called," the emperor gave the Jews a quasi protection, as did Conrad III in the second crusade. But there was none to protect them from the emperor, who was, as it were, the court of last resort. He usually had his hands full to suhvert the intrigues of his rival, the Pope. Then, too, his local office as German king conflicted with his international past as Roman emperor. Sometimes the emperor was a Saxon, sometimes a Franconian, then a Bavarian or a Swabian or again an Austrian. For Germany then included pretty well all of Central Europe— a group of States — not a nation.

The conflict between the pope and the emperor grew in bitterness; that between Pope Hadrian and Barbarossa, the most picturesque monarch of the Middle Ages, has already been told. The latter would have liked to have been a Charlemagne, but he spent his best years in fighting for that elusive prize, "Roman kingship," crossing the Alps six times that he might have more profitably devoted to strengthening Germany.

Then, too, the Italian himself protested against this subordinate position and fought against the German kings for independence. That conflict continued for three centuries. The opponents acquired ^party names from their respective war cries. The Guelphs (Welfe) supported the Pope, the Ghibelines (Waiblingen) rallied round the German emperor. The pope supported the Italian side, not to further Italian independence, but only to curb the emperor's power.

The Emperor's Right in the Jews.

In these struggles the Jew could take no official part, yet he was often made the sufferer. Much depended on the whim of the emperor. Though Barbarossa was firm in exacting his vested rights in the Jews, yet he was not ill-disposed towards them. What were those vested rights? The German emperors claimed to he the hereditary successors of the ancient Roman emperors. Since a Roman emperor, Vespasian, had conquered the Judaean State, the Jews were regarded as the emperor's servants. This old claim was now revived under the title of "servants of the chamber." It really meant that the revenue derived from the Jews was the emperor's perquisite for his private treasury. Yet, for that matter without any such supposed right, English and French kings sold and leased their Jews as their personal chattels. Under gracious emperors Jews could carry arms and hold lands and slaves. But these were never assured rights, only temporary grants.

An example of capricious treatment of the Jews is well seen in the case of Frederick II (who became emperor in 1212). He was a grandson of Barbrossa, last of the Hohenstaufen line. A cultured man speaking six languages, and a patron of letters, he was not unnaturally interested in Jewish scholarship. He invited some savants to settle in Italy and befriended them. One of these was Jacob Anatoli, a pupil of Michael Scotus. He translated for the emperor the Arabic of Averroes' Aristotle into Hebrew, whence it was translated into Latin. This task had also been undertaken, by Ibn Tibbon.

Yet this same Frederick II shut the Jews up in ghettos, restricted their occupations, heavily taxed them and forced them to wear the badge. He even rebuked Duke Frederick of Austria for issuing the following laws for Jewish protection. The murderer of a Jew should be put to death; the kidnaper of a Jewish child was to be punished for theft; Jews were to have local jurisdiction and to be protected from extortion. What a pity the Austrian Frederick was not emperor.

Small comfort was it to the Jew, never eager for revenge, to see Frederick II, in spite of his seven crowns, worsted in conflict with the popes and dying under the ban. After all, hard though he was, Frederick II might have been regarded as a protecting providence of Israel compared with their persecutors after his death. For anarchy now followed, and it went hard with them in the Guelf and Ghibeline struggle. War always brings out the savage in man, and the Jew was a convenient outlet for brutal lusts. They were burnt in the Sinzig synagogue by self-styled "Judenbrenner" (burners of Jews). In spite of Duke Frederick's humane provisions, Austria reaffirmed all the anti-Jewish edicts of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

Meir of Rothenberg.

When in 1273, Rudolph of Hapsburg was chosen emperor some condition of order and security was restored. Aided financially by the Jews, he gave them some protection and issued a denial of the "blood accusation." Under him flourished Meir of Rothenberg, one of the last of the Tosafists (p. 129). Much as we admire his Talmudic erudition — for, like R. Gershom, he was called "a light" — still more do we esteem his piety. The German Jews, with Meir at their head, had determined to leave this land of persecution and emigrate to the East. But the flight of Meir and his party was discovered and he was arrested. Rudolph did not wish the withdrawal of a people whom he could mulct from time to time. Meir was imprisoned. The Jews offered a large sum for the release of their revered teacher. But the noble man refused freedom on that condition, fearing that the precedent might suggest to future rapacious kings a new means of squeezing the Jews.

Like Akiba, he answered questions on the Law from his prison; and in the prison he died in 1293. Even his body was held for ransom.

Poets and legalists usually move in dififerent planes. But Meir, the Tosafist, was a poet, too, with the Law naturally as his theme. Here are some verses from a dirge bewailing the burning of the Pentateuch in 1285 in Paris. It is incorporated in Fast of Ab ritual — a Kinah or lamentation:

The Burning of the Law

Ask, is it well, O thou consumed of fire,

With those that mourn for thee.

That yearn to tread thy courts, that sore desire

Thy sanctuary;

That, panting for thy land's sweet dust, are grieved,

And sorrow in their souls,

And by the flames of wasting fire bereaved,

Mourn for thy scrolls;

And thou revealed amid a heavenly fire,

By earthly fire consumed.

Say how the foe unscorched escaped the pyre

Thy flames illumed

Thou sittest high exalted, lofty foe

To judge the sons of God;

And with thy judgments stern dost bring them low

Beneath thy rod.

O Sinai! was it then for this God chose

Thy mount of modest height.

Rejecting statelier, while on thee arose

His glorious light?

Moses; and Aaron in the mountain Hor;

I will of them inquire:

Is there another to replace this Law

Devoured of fire?

In sackcloth I will clothe and sable band,

For well-beloved by me

Were they whose lives were many as the sand —

The slain of thee.

I am astonied that the day fair light

Yet shineth brilliantly

On all things: — it is ever dark as night

To me and thee.

E'en as thy Rock has sore afflicted thee

He will assuage thy woe;

Will turn again the tribes' captivity,

And raise thee low.

My heart shall be uplifted on the day

Thy Rock shall be thy light,

When He shall make thy gloom to pass away,

Thy darkness bright.

Translated by Nina Davis.


The Popes and the "Blood Accusation" {Ritual Murder): Reference has been made to the Bull of Innocent IV, issued in 1247. We give a translation in full:

To the Archbishops and Bishops of Germany.

We have received a pitiable complaint from the Jews of Germany. They say that some nobles, lay and ecclesiastical, and other powerful and notable men within your cities and dioceses, designing to seize and usurp their goods unjustly, devise against them impious counsels and invent diverse pretexts. Without considering that testimonies to the Christian Faith have proceeded from their records and that the sacred scripture among other precepts of the Law says: "Thou shalt not kill." and forbids them at their Passover ceremonies to touch any dead flesh, they falsely accuse the Jews of using in these same ceremonies the body of a murdered child, thinking that the said practice is required by their Law, whereas it is clearly contrary to their Law. And they cast upon the Jews, with malicious intent, any corpse that by chance is discovered at any place.

Attacking them with these and other inventions, and without formal accusation, confession or conviction, and in despite of the privileges conceded to the Jews by the clemency of the Holy See, they despoil them of their goods (contrary to the law of God and of justice), and they visit them with hunger, imprisonment and so many calamities and afflictions, punishing them with diverse punishments (even condemning many of them to shameful death) that the Jews, living under the rule of the said princes, notables, and powerful men in worse plight than were their fathers under Pharoah in Egypt, are compelled to leave places where they and their ancestors have dwelt from time immemorial.

Hence, in fear of extermination, they have thought it necessary to have recourse to the protection fo the Holy See. Now, therefore, being unwilling that the Jews should be unjustly harassed (for God in his mercy awaits their conversion, seeing that, on the testimony of the Prophet, it is believed that the remnant of them is destined to be saved), we order that you show yourselves favourable and well disposed to them, and whenever you find any violent attempt made against them, with respect to the matters mentioned above, by the prelates, nobles, and powerful men aforesaid, you shall see that the matter is treated according to law, and shall not in future permit the Jews to be improperly molested on these or similar charges by any persons whatsoever. Those who molest them you shall summarily restrain by your ecclesiastical censure.

We append the Bull of Gregory X, issued in 1272:

Since Jews cannot bear testimony against Christians, we decree that the testimony of Christians against Jews shall be of no avail unless there is a Jew bearing testimony among them. For it sometimes happens that Christians lose their children, and Jews are charged by their enemies with taking them away and killing them and using their hearts and blood for religious purposes; the fathers of the children, or other Christians, in hatred of the Jews, hide the children away so that they may cause trouble to the Jews and gain money from them for relieving them from their trouble, and in order that they may most falsely assert that the Jews have secretly stolen and murdered their children and that they use the blood for religious purposes, whereas their law strictly forbids them to use blood for ceremonial purposes, or to taste it, or to eat the flesh of animals with cloven hoofs, as has been many times demonstrated at our court by Jews converted to the Christian faith. On charges of this kind Jews have often been seized and imprisoned unjustly. We decree that in such cases the testimony of Christians against Jews shall not be admitted; that Jews imprisoned on this empty charge shall be liberated; that they be not imprisoned in future on this empty charge unless (which we cannot believe) they are found in the act.

Similar Bulls, protesting against the calumny were issued by Martin V, 1422; Nicholas V, 1447, and Paul III, 1540.

Jewish Troubadours.Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, by Israel Abrahams, pp. 361-2, J. P. S. of A. Only a Word, a story of mediaeval life in which the hired mercenary plays so large a part. The author wonderfully reproduces the atmosphere of the Middle Ages. Original German by George Ebers

Servants of the Chamber: Latin: Servi camerae; German, Kammerknechtschaft. Camera means chamber.

Theme for Discussion:—The troubadour Susskind suggests the question in how far could mediaeval Jews enter into the social life of the Gentile.