Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

In the Spanish Peninsula.

Gaul and the Franks.

The "wanderings of the Jews" have begun. The drift of the migration is westward. They are gradually leaving the Orient and finding homes in European lands. In Gaul, the land that is largely France to-day, Jewish merchants from Asia Minor had found their way long before the Christian era. After the fall of Judea, many Jewish prisoners and slaves were brought thither. The first places of settlement were Arles, Narbonne, Marseilles, Orleans and Paris. We find them in Belgium too.

The successors of Rome in Gaul were Franks. The Franks (free men) were a confederacy formed about 240 C. E. of tribes dwelling on the lower Rhine and the Weser. The Frankish Empire, which extended far, was not one central government, but was subdivided into several monarchies. Under nearly all, the Jews enjoyed the rights of Roman citizenship.

We find the Jewish industries varied, including agriculture and all kinds of commerce (still in its infancy); in medicine they had been early distinguished. Some were soldiers too, for the restraints of the Church had not yet reached Western Europe. Even when Christianity was first introduced by the warrior Clovis, Jews and Christians mingled freely and held cordial relations; though the Jewish dietary laws occasionally caused embarrassment and ill-will when Jews sat at Christian tables. It was only the higher clergy who began to look upon these cordial relations with misgivings and to discourage them. In this way hatred was artificially fostered by the Church. Not till the beginning of the sixth century did a Christian king of Burgundy begin to discriminate unfavorably against the Jews, and to break off kindly relations by forbidding Christians to sit at Jewish tables. Soon the Church Councils began to issue severe anti-Jewish edicts. So in different provinces and towns within the Frankish empire we find restrictions such as these gradually introduced: Jews must not make proselytes; they must not "insult" Christians by showing themselves in the streets on Easter; they must not be permitted to serve as judges or as tax-farmers.

Their worst enemy at this early day was Bishop Avitus. He first tried to convert the Jews by preaching Church doctrines to them. Persuasion failing, he resorted to violence and incited a mob to burn their synagogues. This was in the year 576. Their fanaticism once fed, the masses fell upon the Jews and massacre began. Baptism was accepted by several in order to save their lives—others escaped to Marseilles.

Vicissitudes in Spain.

So far Gaul. Let us now turn to Spain or rather to the Peninsula, for Portugal was not yet a separate kingdom, and what is now the south of France was also included in the Roman territory taken by the Visigoths. Where the Jews were early settled in the lands of southern Europe, in very remote antiquity—too early even to trace—they were brought there as slaves in considerable numbers after the Judean War with Rome in 70, and were soon redeemed by their sympathizing brethren. As in Gaul, so here, the Visigoths, being of the broader Arian school, regarded the Jews with cordiality and esteem, and their superior knowledge gained for them public positions of honor and trust.

So we find the public-spirited Jews gratefully defending the passes of the Pyrenees against the inroads of the Franks and Burgundians, and winning distinction by their courage and trustworthiness. How patriotic the Jew always becomes when given the barest tolerance, we shall see right through his history!

Nor did they forget their religion, but became faithful disciples of teachers sent them from the Babylonian schools. For their well-wishing neighbors did not interfere with their complete observance of the precepts of Judaism.

But as soon as the orthodox Christians—i.e., the Roman Catholics—obtained the upper hand, the higher clergy, behaving identically like those in Gaul, began to sow the seeds of mistrust in the hearts of the people, and forbade close intercourse with Jews, as sin. Anti-Jewish legislation soon followed, the unfair discrimination to handicap the Jews in the race of life. They were deprived of their public posts. How Jewish history repeats itself!

Their height of misery was reached when one Sisebut came to the throne in 612. Jews were now prohibited from holding slaves, though slaves were held by all others and formed a necessary class in the restricted civilization of the age. The climax was reached when he offered them the alternative of baptism or expulsion. Very many preferred exile to apostacy. Some found the sacrifice of land, home and possessions too great, and externally submitted to a Faith that cruel experience had taught them to abhor. Under his successor, Swintilla, who repealed the harsh laws, the exiles returned to the land and the apostates to Judaism. But the Church Council re-enacted the unnatural command of forced baptism and the returned converts were compelled to become Christians again. What sort of Christians could they become under such conditions? But most cruel enactment of all—to think that a religious council should have proposed it—their children were torn from them and placed in monasteries to become completely estranged from both their Faith and their kindred. This hard law was mitigated however by the opposition of the powerful Visigothic nobles.

The next king who occupied the throne offered the remaining Jews the same alternative of exile or baptism. Again they submitted to banishment. Once more they were allowed to return though under many restrictions. But the forced converts were held in the Church with an iron grip, while, strange contradiction, they had yet to pay the Jewish tax! In secret and peril they still continued to observe the Jewish festivals. But the spies of the Church soon discovered this double life and compelled them to spend Jewish and Christian holidays away from their homes and in the presence of the clergy. After a few years in which this cruel vigilance was relaxed, King Erwig won over the clergy to his support by reinstating this Jewish persecution with more violence than all his predecessors. Now baptism was demanded, with confiscation, mutilation and exile as the penalties of its rejection. The Jewish Christians who had secretly clung to Judaism right through, were placed under complete clerical espionage. These abortive edicts were passed in 681. The next king, Egica, "bettered the instruction" of his predecessor. Jews were now forbidden to hold landed property, to trade with the Continent, or to do business with Christians. In their despair, the Jews of Spain entered into a conspiracy against this barbaric government. They were discovered, and nearly all reduced to slavery.

But relief was to come from an unexpected source. A new religion, Mohammedanism, had been brought to life and was becoming a great power in the world. It was destined to change for centuries the fate of the Jews of the Peninsula and transform an iron into a golden age. But to understand this movement, we must turn to Asia once more and look into the life of a new people—the Arabians.


This age produced nothing of a literary character except polemic replies in Latin to works written at this time to prove Christianity from the Jewish Scriptures.

Theme for discussion:—Why do you suppose the higher clergy opposed the mingling of Jews and Christians and the lower, favored it?