History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

A 'Light' in Lands of Exile.

The Feudal System and the Jews.

European society was arranged on the plan of the feudal system (feud, fief— an estate). That is, the lands were parcelled out among the lords, who held them in tenure to the king. The peasantry in turn were vassals of the lords, lived on their land and paid them in kind from the produce. In time of war the king summoned his lords, and the lords their vassals. Many of these humble tenants were serfs, bound to the soil on which they toiled.

What place had the Jews in this regime? Strictly speaking, none. They were almost regarded as intruders, granted sufferance for the convenience of trade. The king usually took them under his protection, and, indifferent though it was, he taxed them for it roundly.

Not granted the privilege of carrying arms — for warfare was the daily occupation of a "gentleman" — they directed their attention to commerce and industry. In this way they served a useful function and became a monied class. We shall see how this general status could change from an undisturbed security — in which quiet joys may not have been lacking — to a state of tension and peril in which a doubtful safety was only reached by hurried flight.

End of Frankish Empire.

In our opening chapter we saw the renowned Charlemagne bringing most of the European races under his sway. But the mantle of his greatness did not fall upon the shoulders of his successor, his son, Louis. Like the Greek Alexander, Charlemagne had the genius to found a vast empire, but not the power to assure it to posterity. Louis was fairly styled "The Gentle" (pious); but sterner qualities were needed to hold all the Carlovingian Empire in control. Torn between rebellious sons on the one hand and a scheming clergy on the other, his dominions at his death broke up and split into three kingdoms. A treaty was enacted at Verdun in 843 and its outcome was an eastern and western Frankish Empire; these were really the beginnings of the French and German nations.

But with almost each new monarch, in those days of conflict, national boundaries changed. Sometimes Italy was held and sometimes lost; but in the year 888, on the death of Charles the Fat, the Carlovingian Empire (as the Frankish was called, after Charlemagne), came to an end.

Then there was a second influx of barbarians. Those of the fifth century had consisted of Huns, Goths and Vandals and had broken up the Western Roman Empire. This second invasion consisted of Danes and Norse from the north, Saracens from the south, and Hungarians from the east. They undid much of Charlemagne's good work of establishing law and order. Many of the races he had subjected — such as Wends and Czechs — broke away and a period of misrule followed.

So the social status in this time of turmoil was low indeed. The strong grew rich and menacingly powerful; the poor became enslaved. In Italy all sorts of adventurers seized and disgraced the office of Pope, and violence and immorality were rife.

Not till the middle of the next century did Otto the Great, a man of something of the vigor of Charlemagne, recover Italy and bring the people within his dominions into something like order again.

Like his illustrious predecessor, he, too, assumed the imperial title and again we hear of the "Holy Roman Empire." This meant Germany and Italy. The people continued to delude themselves into the belief that the Roman Empire continued to exist by setting up this empty title. From the capital Aix-la-Chapelle to the capital Rome was a long journey for German kings to take, for this phantom honor. Better would it have been for Germany had its kings stayed at home to strengthen their legitimate domain than to dissipate their energies in pursuing sham glories. But "Roman Empire" was a term to conjure with. This notion of one sole sovereignty helped to sustain the idea of one sole Church, as already explained. A world-empire, material and religious, became a kind of doctrine. It made the pope, too, as head of the Church, a species of spiritual emperor — which carried with it immense powder and vast sway. But, in the hands of unscrupulous men, it often brought demoralization and disaster.

Jews Under Charlemagne's Successors.

In this setting how fared Israel under Charlemagne's successors? Louis, his eldest son, whose sway was chiefly exercised in the French portion of his empire, certainly earned his title of gentle, in his treatment of Israel. His reign with that of his father form one of the bright spots in mediaeval Jewish annals. He gave the Jews freedom of movement and of worship, protection against bigoted clergy, appointing a special Magister Judaeorum (head of the Jews) for the consideration of their secular and religious needs.

As examples of his beneficence he gave them jurisdiction over their own offenders, and he changed the market day from Saturday to Sunday. His kindly treatment was more than seconded by his queen, Judith, who did not merely tolerate Judaism but favored it. Naturally the example of the court was followed by the courtiers, who even began to show partiality for Jewish worship and preaching, while abbots sat at the feet of Jewish scholars. One bishop, Bodo, repelled by the immoralities of the clergy, became a proselyte to Judaism. With the zeal of a convert, he left "country, kindred and father's home" for the sake of his new faith.

This remarkable friendliness, in contrast with the more usual antagonism, brings out two opposing attitudes of Christians towards the Jews. By some they were regarded as the chosen people of God and as such to be venerated; by others, they were looked upon as outcasts of God and as such to be condemned. King Louis' brief day represented the former. Too soon and all too long were the Jews to experience the latter. Alas, it grew to be the normal status. Already in Louis' reign the higher clergy — always less tolerant than the lower — began to look with alarm at this drift towards Judaism. Agobard, bishop of Lyons, attacked them persistently and relentlessly and even joined the rebellion of Louis' sons because of their father's "criminal" kindness to the Jews. He tried to revive all those cruel Church laws which had made life so bitter in early Spain. Owing to the opposition of the king, he failed. With a persistence worthy of a better cause he wrote bitter letters to his bishops urging them to endorse his bigotry. But Louis turned a deaf ear to their united appeal.

But Amolo, who succeeded Agobard, not only in the bishopric of Lyons, but also in antagonism to the Jews, continued the vendetta of hate. A council was called at Meaux in 849 at which it was proposed to reinstitute all anti-Jewish laws of previous councils; but Charles the Bald, the next king, was as unwilling as his father to countenance anti-Jewish legislation.

Amolo, again following his master's example, issued a slanderous letter against the Jews to all the clergy of France. While affecting no change at first, the persistent virulence gradually told. The clergy began preaching anti-Jewish sermons, which naturally led to anti-Jewish riots. The sermon and the riot became an annual Easter institution — accompanied in Toulouse by a box on the ear of a representative of the Jewish community — an official humiliation.

"Selling Jews."

Yes, Jews of the Frankish Empire, were soon to learn that their tolerant days were over. All the indignities of early Spain were now introduced into France. In the year 914, Charles the Simple, Charles the Bald's successor, even handed over the lands of the Jews of Narbonne to the Church — on the inference, more menacing than the act, that the Jews were the property of the emperor.

"Selling Jews" was to become a profitable business of kings. This royal asset could often be transferred and it carried with it the right of taxation. Otto II "presented" the Jews of Merseburg to the local bishops. However wantonly they may have been fleeced with each change, the injury to their dignity in this humiliating treatment as chattels was their gravest and most enduring loss.

Rabenu Gershom.

So far their external condition. But internally the Jews had always lived in a world of their own — "the Law," in which they could occasionally forget the hard world without. So here in "lands of exile," as they termed all territory outside of Judaea, we shall see them creating a Jewish atmosphere around them, with the synagogue as their social as well as their religious focus.

A great man now loomed up in this world of the Law, Rabenu Gershom. Trained perhaps in the Narbonne school established by Charlemagne, he left France and settled in Germany. We may call him the founder of Talmudic study in both those lands.

As scholar first, he opened a Jewish academy in Mayence that drew students from many lands. All reverently looked up to this teacher as their religious authority; he not only revised the text of the Talmud, but his explanations became a popular commentary.

The custom has already been referred to for different communities to send their religious and communal questions for solution to renowned rabbis. Their answers, Responsa, were accepted as addenda to Talmudic law. Many came from his pen. No longer was it necessary to send to the East for religious guidance and information. France, Germany and Italy became independent of the fast-dying Babylonia. We shall see Spain following their example.

A Jewish Synod.

But Gershom did not earn his title, "Light of the Exile," simply as a bookish man. To him all turned as trusted guide in the varied perplexities created by new conditions and environment.

Seizing the opportunity of the rehance placed upon him, he summoned a Jewish Synod in the year 1000. Though obedience to him and his colleagues was voluntary, all gladly accepted their decisions as final authority for Jewish practice, and their decisions open a new chapter in Jewish law.

First and most important was the practical abrogation of polygamy, making a law of what was becoming a custom that a man should have but one wife. For monogamy is always presented as the ideal married state, even in the Bible.

Secondly, when unfortunately divorce had to be resorted to, he established new safeguards for the protection of the more helpless — the women. Henceforth, as distinct from Talmudic law, the wife's consent was necessary.

The third decision concerned those who were forced by cruel edict to forsake their faith for a time. The new law was in the direction of mercy; it declared that once they returned to the fold they must not be reproached. That such terrible expedients had to be considered was a sad commentary on the times of persecution. Alas! this very experience came home to Rabbi Gershom in the case of his own son. He was forced with others to abjure his faith, when a fanatic outbreak was launched against the Jews under Henry II. R. Gershom voiced the popular sorrow in a mournful poem and in a series of Selichoth (prayers of supplication for forgiveness).

The fourth decision touched a point of honor. The traveler who carried a letter from one friend to another was forbidden to read it, though it were unsealed, under penalty of excommunication.

So Jewish law — officially closed with the completion of the Talmud — continued to have a further development through frequent Responsa and occasional synods. The expansion and classification of the law continued to be the chief occupation of Jewish scholars for several centuries to come.


Monogamy.—Since Gershom's day monogamy has become Jewish law for the Occident. Two hundred years earlier the schools in Babylonia had made the taking of a second wife conditional on the consent of the first, although polygamy was the prevailing custom there.

Polygamy did not quite die out in Christendom till the sixteenth century. Read Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, Abrahams, ch. vii, "Monogamy and the Home," p. 122.

Theme for Discussion:—The advisability and practicability of a Synod today, advocated by some, to adjust Jewish practice in accordance with modern belief.