History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

The Rise of Poland and Fall of Rome

We must break the continuity of our narrative for a brief space to trace the earlier history of Israel in another land—Poland. The Poles, a Slavic tribe, entered a little late into the European family of nations—though there were later yet to come. Its national history hardly begins before the ninth century and it did not become Christian until about the year 1000. Erom that time on its fortunes had an alternate ebb and flow till the close of the fifteenth century, and then it was all ebb until its course was rudely brought to a close in the eighteenth century.

Jews Form Poland's Middle Class.

The Jews from Southern Russia, probably including the remains of the Chazars, found a congenial home in Poland as early as the tenth century. They came in larger numbers after the persecutions of the First Crusade (1098).

Driven from other lands, they were hailed here. Eor the Polish population consisted of but two classes—the nobles, who owned the soil, and the serfs, who tilled it and who were engaged in simple industries. They needed a middle class, a commercial class, who would bring to this new country that enterprise needed to develop its natural resources. The Jews were found to be such a people. They had rendered a similar service to Hungary. It was they who now directed the working of the salt mines and who farmed the taxes and customs—though not admitted to the handicrafts.

It is a hard saying that the Polish population, just because they were less civilized and Christianity less organized, were more tolerant than in those older countries where the Church held completer sway. Such had been the experience of Jews in Spain in the fifth century. So, although, in 1264 and 1279, Church Assemblies met in Bruda and enacted a series of Jewish restrictions, whose details are familiar to the reader by their monotonous reiteration, they received no local sanction and remained inoperative for many years.

Naturally, the Jews were directly concerned in the checkered career of Poland. They suffered under the Tartar incursion of 1241, and could not have been unaffected by the loss of Silesia and later of Pomerania through rival contests for the throne, and by other losses through outside invasion.

It was in the year 1264 that a charter was drawn up distinctly deciding the status of Jews in Poland. This made them an imperium in imperio, a group granted a sort of local self-government and a limited local independence. While this was disadvantageous in that it prevented more neighborly relations in time of peace, it protected their interests in time of storm.

In 1319 their legal status was equal with that of the Christian.

Casimir's Charter.

But under Casimir III the Great, who reigned from 1310 till 1370, deservedly styled "King of the serfs and Jews," and whose amiable aim it was to restrict the nobility and uplift the masses,—a still more favorable charter was granted. This gave freedom of residence, equal taxation, permission to hold landed property, and special legal rights. Murder of a Jew was to be punished by death—this was new for many lands. Casimir certainly stood alone in addressing the Jews as "our dear and faithful subjects." No king ever tried so hard to lessen their grievances. Consequently, they prospered under such favorable conditions.

When the anti-Jewish crusade swept over Europe as a sequel to the Black Plague, the cruel slander and its consequent massacre tainted Poland, too, for Casimir was dead. But the numbers slain (ten thousand), though large absolutely, were relatively small.

The turn of the tide came with the next king and the next dynasty—the Jagellon. Commercial jealousy plus religious fanaticism brought the change. The rising power of the clergy was demonstrated in the dissemination in Posen of the threadbare fable of a host, desecrated by Jews, miraculously shedding blood. This meant forced "confession" on the rack. We are almost prepared for the next step. A priest leads an anti-Jewish riot at Cracow, in 1407. Then came the Hussite uprising, when feeling ran high; the restrictive laws of the Bruda Assemblies of nigh two hundred years earlier were now put into practice for the first time.

Both Poland and the Jews fared better under Casimir IV, who reigned till the fatal year 1492. Lithuania was now finally united with the land, many lost lands were regained and manufacture and commerce grew by rapid strides, reaching their zenith in the next century under the Sigismunds.

On behalf of the Jews, the broad-minded monarch, Casimir IV, renewed the charter of Casimir III that had fallen into abeyance. He even declared that whoever brought against a Jew the charge of desecrating the host—or of using Christian blood for Passover without being able to substantiate it, would be put to death.

But the Church of Poland had by this time reached the power it had long held further west—and, consistent with its policy, determined to tolerate no such favorable attitude towards the Jews, and proceeded deliberately to introduce the more western state of things. This brings Polish Jewry to the social level of those of Germany and Austria and our narrative to the period in which we last considered their fortunes there.

John of Capistrano, Inquisitor of the Jews.

A new persecutor had appeared—John of Capistrano. Each generation now produced a new Pharaoh—we might style it "an apostolic succession" of enemies of Israel.

Emperors and popes endorsed the crusade of this powerful monk. His dire influence changed former defenders into opponents. A series of oppressions marked his trail.

The Bavarian Duke of Landshut followed the precedent of Emperor Albert II in fleecing and banishing the Jews, in the year 1450. We see the effect of his preaching in the severity of Pope Nicholas V, for he carried the crusade of restriction even into Italy and succeeded in removing every vestige of favorable distinction that Still survived in Spain.

Ferrer had been hard enough. But "the little finger" of the Franciscan monk, John of Capistrano, was "thicker than the loins" of the Dominican friar, Vincent Ferrer.

This fearful fanatic was appointed "Inquisitor of the Jews." It was his business, as it was certainly his pleasure, to see that every measure of popish bulls should be relentlessly fulfilled, whether it was against Jews building a synagogue or against a Christian kindling a fire on Sabbath in a Jewish home. He saw to it that no Christian midwife should minister to a Jewish mother, even if it meant the saving of a life. From the unbaptized outcast the milk of human kindness nmst be withheld.

So the toils were closing around them, for he carried his blighting influence from land to land. Like his predecessor, Ferrer, Capistrano was a man of great force of character, an ascetic whose iron will and persuasive eloquence were all-compelling with the superstitious masses who credulously believed his claim to work miracles. Whithersoever he came he heaped fuel on the fanaticism of monarchs and people and transformed liberals into bigots. Under his regime we find in many German provinces, reaching to Silesia, children of exiled parents handed over to the Church to be brought up in an alien faith and to be forever estranged from their families.

It was he who changed the broad and beneficent edicts of Duke Godfrey of Franconia in favor of the Jews into an edict of banishment against them, in 1454. It was his presence in Breslau that induced the people to imprison the Jews, to confiscate their property and to cancel their outstanding accounts. Here, as elsewhere, a fiction of a desecrated miracle-working host was readily fabricated to give a semblance of justice to the outrage. It was he who pitilessly superintended the torture of some Jews until he wrung from them a confession of guilt for an offence that had never been committed. Then burning, baptism and banishment followed in due course.

This was the man whom the clergy brought to Poland to frustrate the liberal charter of Casimir IV. He reached Cracow in 1454 and began his denunciatory preaching. At this psychological moment, Casimir was weakened by a defeat at the hands of the Prussians. This was the monkish opportunity. With clergy against him, it was impossible to raise another army to hold his realm together. The bishops dictated terms. They promised aid in his military proceedings if he revoked all privileges granted to the Jews. What should he do? They sought to convince him, too, that the procedure that would further his ambition was also the course of piety. He yielded. The humiliating badge on the Jewish gaberdine, marked the complete degradation of the Jews of Poland.

The Byzantine Empire.

It seemed as though all the hostile forces of Christendom were closing around them and that the knell was to be rung on European Jewry. But dawn came after long night and from an unexpected quarter.

In the year 711 the entrance of the Mohammedan into Spain saved the Jews of that land from gradual but sure extinction. After a lapse of over 700 years a similar invasion was to save them again.

The Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, fell before the triumphant hosts of the Turkish monarch, Mahomet II, in the year 1453. That year marks one of the turning points in the Dark Ages.

To give a brief survey of its history; This Greek empire was founded in 395, when Theodosius divided his empire between his two sons. From that year there was a Western (Roman) Empire with its capital at Rome and an Eastern Empire with its capital at Constantinople. They became also two divisions of the Church—Western Rome of the Latin (Catholic), Eastern Constantinople of the Greek. While never as powerful, the Eastern represented a vast territory overlapping three continents, with splendid opportunities of development. But it never used them wisely or beneficently. Constitutionally despotic, century after century witnessed a series of tyrannical abuses. Through misgovernment from within and enemies from without, it began to melt away piecemeal. When the Mohammedan swept triumphantly westward, some of the choicest of their eastern provinces were taken—Palestine, Syria and Egypt. The Bulgarians robbed them on the north, and the Venetians on the south.

Conquered by the Turks.

But the greatest enemy came later—the Turk. This was a subdivision of the Turanian group in the family of races, whose empire spread from Mongolia, moving steadily westward, reaching Russian and Byzantine borders as early as the fifth century. But we are here concerned only with that division of the Turks known as Ottomans or Asmalis, whom we first meet in Western Asia and who finally settled in Phrygia. Here in 1290, Othman founded an independent Turkish Empire and gained a foothold in Europe. The unwary Greeks were foolish enough to despise their small successes, as the Moslems in Spain had equally despised the steady advance of Christians from the north. But soon the Turks had reached Adrianople. A vast army, gathered from Slavonia, Hungary and Italy, met with a crushing defeat in 1390. Then Bajazet I ravaged Servia, Wallachia and Moldavia.

The capture of the Sultan by Timart gave a half century respite. Next Macedonia and Greece, which had all been included in the Byzantine Empire, fell in 1450. It was but three years later that Mahomet II took Constantinople, the last relic of the Empire of the Caesars. Its walls were overthrown by cannon, marking a new era in warfare. Turkey continued to expand, both in Asia and Europe, and continued for centuries one of the greatest of European powers. The conquest of Constantinople was undertaken with all the barbarity of the age. It was a terrible retribution on an unworthy power, and its overthrow was the extinction of the unfit.

Had there been truer union in Christendom, the Eastern Empire could have been saved. But the intrigues of popes and emperors and their selfish indifference to the larger interests of the Church and State wrought havoc to both.

The stay of the Jews in this empire had not been a happy one. Under its sway, the Patriarchate of Palestine had been abolished and they were banished from the Holy Land. Justinian's code of "One law, one land, one Church," made repression if not oppression of the Jews legal and systematic.

Yet it chronicled no such severe massacres as disgraced the West; although Jews were denied public office. The famous traveler, Benjamin of Tudela testifies to Israel's peace and prosperity there. They were masters of silk culture and produced the best silks and purple stuffs in the Empire.

Turkey Becomes a Haven for the Jews.

It was for the Jews of the rest of Europe that the Turkish conquest was of such saving and tremendous consequence. We have seen them banished from England and France; we shall see them banished from Spain and Portugal. Not only was the treatment of Ferrer and Capistrano making life for them, as loyal Jews, well nigh impossible, in the Occident, but with a refinement of cruelty, Venetian shipmasters were forbidden to take Jews on their boats, whereby they were trying to escape to the Orient.

At this darkest hour, when their lot was like that of Israel in Egypt, "making bricks without straw," this second Mohammedan State became a new land of refuge; for the new monarchy opened a door of welcome to all refugees, Jewish and Christian. Here they were free to live; here free to worship. So, the fall of the Greek Empire did not mean the fall of the Greek Church—for this Turkish Charlemagne even regulated the appointment of a Patriarch over the Church and a Chief Rabbi over the Synagogue; he chose a Jew for his physicianin-chief (Chacham-Bashi).

The first Jewish appointee (Moses Kapsali), was given a seat in the Divan (State Council) and placed at the head of the Jews of Turkey, sanctioning rabbinical appointments and regulating the taxes. Here again was a Nagid (an office something like that of Resh Galutha, that had been abolished in 940). This territory being the original home of the Karaites, t he dying movement now revived awhile; but its intellectual era was over. Hither fled monk-ridden Israel from Germany and Hungary, from Poland and the Rhine—later from Spain. The new refugees sent urgent messages to their brethren in bondage to come to the new Canaan. They were glowing pictures of a land flowing with milk and honey and "with none to fray them away."—where they could enjoy unmolested the fruit of their toil.

With influential positions at court, with unrestricted commerce, with freedom of worship, movement, domicile and dress, there began for them here an era of prosperity that was to continue unbroken for two hundred years. So the brand was again snatched from the burning and Israel was given a new lease of life once more.


Poland:—Casimir the Great was the most enlightened monarch of his age and was called the Polish Solomon. He stigmatized persecution as "an insult to the common sense as well as the conscience of the people." His welcome to the oppressed Jews to come to his land and his defence of their cause against the clergy occurred prior to his love of the Jewish maid, Esterka, and not a result of it, as the story goes.

The Host:—The "host" was the name given in the Catholic Church to the consecrated bread of the Eucharist. It is derived from the Latin Jiostia, victim, for it is treated as a sacrifice. It is unleavened in some churches, as it is commemorative of the "last (Passover) supper." The belief that this bread becomes mystically transformed into the body of the "Savior," is known as the doctrine of transubstantiation.

Greek Church:—The form of Christianity of the Eastern Roman Empire was known as the Greek Church. Russia is its centre today. Doctrinally it is similar to Catholicism; but it does not acknowledge the Pope.

Theme for Discussion:—Why was Poland more tolerant when less civilized?