History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

The Zenith of Popish Power.

Pope and Emperor

We must say further a word about the Christian world in which the Jews were hving in sufferance, for, to understand their life we should know their environment. The complete subjugation of all the nations in Christendom had been the aim of the early popes from Leo III, who crowned Charlemagne, as told in the opening chapter. It now came near realization with Gregory VII (1073), who instituted the celibacy of the clergy, so that as unmarried, they should have no interest outside of the Church. He also exempted them from secular authority, that their power should be more unrestrained, and he withdrew Church property from secular control.

This determined man forced the Emperor Henry IV, who had angered him, to come to him in Italy as a suppliant. In midwinter the humiliated monarch was compelled to remain barefoot and otherwise clothed in but the haircloth shirt of a penitent, outside the castle gates of Canossa, before the tyrant pontiff would consent to remove the ban of excommunication. This was in 1077. The Crusades brought increased prestige, for kings as well as people received absolution from sin from the pope as representative of divinity on earth. Likewise, the monarchs of Christendom were presumed to receive their lands from his hands (as tributary to St. Peter's chair). Further, the widely scattered mendicant friars made his assumption of world sway almost a reality.

It was impossible that emperor and pope should claim universal control (though theoretically in different realms), without clash, as we have already seen. The climax was reached in the conflict between Frederick I, Barbarossa and Pope Hadrian on the question of the control of Italy, never quite conceded to the Emperors. The pope insisted that Frederick should hold the stirrup while he mounted his horse — a small formality, but great in the subjection it implied. The pope died but the fight lived.

Popish power reached its culmination with Innocent III. He introduced Confession, which gave to local priests dangerous power over families into whose privacy it penetrated. The interdict, placing an individual or a whole people under the ban, was the whip through which Innocent forced kings to do his bidding. It was more potent than armies, for the superstitious masses fled with horror from the excommunicated — deemed accursed, and from whose polluted person all religious rites were withheld. Further, the pope's representatives — "papal legates," as they were called — could in his name dictate commands and prohibitions on whole nations in defiance of their kings.

The Popes and the Jews.

The effect of this power on the condition of the Jews was obvious. However friendly a monarch might be towards them, the Pope or his bishop could demand a reverse treatment. This actually happened in nearly every European land. We have seen popes absolving debts to Jewish creditors. On what theory was this justified?

Perhaps on the ground that the Jews having rejected Jesus the Savior were arch heretics deserving no rights, tolerated at all only by the benevolent sufferance of the Christian. Jews might have protested against this ecclesiastical logic. The lamb might protest to the hungry lion.

The pope could, like the emperor, be a protector of the Jews, too. Innocent III protected them, not in rights or privileges, but only against mob violence and forced conversion. Beyond that, he was not their ally but their persecutor. His bitter letters to Alfonso of Castile, Pedro of Aragon and the Count of Nevers (France), reveal his fanatic antagonism to "the people of the book."

So it happened that even in Spanish Christian kingdoms, where Jews had been treated with enlightened kindness (See chap, xii), the pope determined to insinuate the canker of antagonism. Soon it began to work. In 1212 a mob attacked the Jews of Toledo. Then they were made to suffer by Ferdinand III of Leon and Castile, the "saint" who burnt heretics with his own hand. Next they were debased through priestly urgency by James I of Aragon.

Finally Innocent III summoned the Fourth Lateran Council, known as "the great council" because of the daring demands of the papacy, and because of its farreaching consequences. Its decisions brought Christendom more completely under popish dominance than ever before. Strange historic contrast — in the very year 1215, in which England won its Magna Charta of political liberty, was this Council called to issue edicts of spiritual serfdom. So we are almost prepared to learn that this great charter was one of the things that Innocent III condemned.

We are concerned here only with those of its seventy canons that dealt with the Jews. They were chiefly confirmatory of earlier anti-Jewish restrictions, giving them renewed and more decided reinforcement. They were all framed with the view of keeping the Jew in an inferior station, on the theory that it was outrageous that "these accursed of God" should hold, in any relation of life, a position of superiority over "the true believer." Hence provisions such as the following:

"No prince dare give office to a Jew" (directly aimed against Spain and Provence). "Jews may not employ Christians as servants." "They must pay tithes and taxes to the Church." "They must not appear in the public streets during Easter."

The Badge.

But the climax of cruel discrimination was reached in a new imposition — a distinctive Jewish dress. To Innocent III, then, do we owe the culmination of degradation — the yellow badge. Henceforth for six centuries this mark of infamy singled out the Jew for the mockery, the scorn and occasionally the violence of every passerby. Spanish Jewry for a time put off the evil day, but was eventually forced to succumb.

The persistent contempt of their neighbors that this fostered could not but react unfavorably on Jewish character. It tended to break their spirit, though it did not shake their faith. Surrounded by hostility and insult and later confined to the slums of the towns, they became indifferent to externals in dress, manners and speech, the pernicious effect of which has almost survived to this day.

Even as far as distant Hungary the edict was carried. Here the Jews had settled since the days of the Chazars. Free and esteemed, they became prosperous farmers of salt mines, they were given the right of coinage and many posts of honor. No longer must this be tolerated. A later pope, Gregory IX, thundered his anti-Jewish edict in 1232. The official insignia of honor was now exchanged for the yellow badge of shame.

Massacre of Albigenses.

The Church was not much kinder to its own children, who dared to defy its decisions. For a new crusade was now preached not against the unbelieving Turk abroad, but against the unbelieving Christian at home. Those liberal Christians of Southern France, the Albigenses, had always been a thorn in the Church's side (p. 141). This heresy should be tolerated no longer. The "mission" to eradicate them was entrusted to the monk Arnold of Citeaux as inspirer, and to Count Simon de Montfort as executor. So the dreadful work, that only the most willfully blind could call religious, was begun. In 1209 the city of Beziers was burnt to the ground and the inhabitants put to the sword. As it was not always possible to distinguish orthodox from heretic, the heartless Arnold commanded his minions to slay them all, with the words "God will know his own." Some two hundred Jews living in their midst also lost their lives. So, at the same time this quiet and learned Jewish community was dispersed and their books consigned to the flames. Bigotry always fears scholarship.

A persistent warfare against surviving Albigenses was steadily continued, until they were shorn of all power and deprived of all their lands. The dominions of Raymond of Toulouse were given to Simon de Montfort. De Montfort's wife Alice went further yet in her fanatic zeal, arrested the Jews of Toulouse and handed over their children to the Church. De Montfort restored the adults to liberty, but the children remained in the ecclesiastical clutches.

It was in 1228 that the relentless monks completed their war of extermination against their own coreligionists, the Albigenses. For the possession of a Bible translated into French was sufficient proof of heresy and meant the death of its owner. Thus was a peaceful and cultured group of Christians exterminated from Southern France. With their passing, there disappeared, too, the Provencal community of Jews that gave so much promise of a golden literary era, like unto Spain.

This whole epoch was worthy to be called "A Dark Age," not because men were ignorant, but because independent thought was branded as sin.

The Monkish Orders.

It was during the rule of Innocent III (whom John Draper calls "the great criminal") that the Dominican and Franciscan orders were established. They were instituted to stem the tide of heresy, which almost meant — to check the spread of knowledge.

They were called the mendicant monks, for they forswore wealth and lived by begging alms. Poverty as such was a virtue again, as in the days of the Essenes. Dominic, who gave his name to the first Order, was born in 1170, built up a complete organization with friars, nuns and tertiaries. This Dominican order grew rapidly, and its monasteries were established all over Christendom. When Raymond de Penyaforte became Dominican general he made persecution of heretics its chief concern, even bidding its disciples study Hebrew and Arabic the better to convert Jews and Mohammedans. Under such impetus anti-Jewish laws were now enacted thick and fast.

Francis d'Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order, who flourished about the year 1200, was one of the noble men of history. He began his great career by distributing all his means to the poor until bereft of every shred of possession. But the Franciscans soon forgot the three principles of chastity, poverty and obedience instituted by their gentle founder.

Barefoot friars of both Orders now spread over Europe, reverenced by the people with superstitious awe, and so exercising over them a perilous influence at times. It was they who did the work of the Church that the dissipated clergy neglected. And it was through them that the claim of the pope to universal dominance attained its zenith. Thus it came about that "all interests were absorbed, all classes governed and all passions colored by religious fervor," writes Lecky. The political became completely subordinate to the theological.

We shall see in later chapters how the influence of the monastic orders was nearly always against the Jews. Through their teaching, as much as any, the people acquired that mythical concept of a Jew as a species of monstrosity, whose blood was tainted. They helped to spread the slander of "Ritual Murder." So in the days when might meant right, the Jews learnt what it cost for a minority to adhere to a religion not accepted by their surroundings.


Christian Ascetics:—A good picture of the abnormal extremes to which hermits, ascetics and "saints" were carried in their well-intentioned fanaticism, will be found in Lecky's Intellectual Development of Europe. Some even regarded washing as sin and sanctioned dirt and the diseases it bred. He further points out that it led to the abandonment of family ties and extinguished civic virtues.

The Badge:—The usual badge was a yellow, red or white ring on the upper garment. The Jew found without it was fined. The shapes and colors varied in different lands. Usually round, at times it was made in the shape of the Tablets of the Law.

Morals of the Clergy:—Read the Council of Trent, by James Anthony Froude, for the complete account of the degeneration of the Catholic clergy. Also Caesar Borgia, by Garner, McBride, Nast & Co., N. Y.

Francis d'Assisi:Leaders of Christian and Anti-Christian Thought, by Ernest Renan. Mathieson & Co., London.

The Ghetto in Church Legislation:Old European Jewries, chap, iii, by David Philipson. Jewish Publication Society of America.

Theme for Discussion:—Contrast the Jewish Essenes with the Christian monks.