HISTORY OF HISTORY OF JUDAISM


The Spanish Inquisition: AD 1478-1834

In 1478 the pope, Sixtus IV, allows Ferdinand and Isabella to establish a special branch of the Inquisition in Spain. There is believed to be a danger to the church from Jews masquerading as Christians.

Such Jews are referred to as marranos ('swine'). Their conversion is the result of anti-Semitic violence during the previous century. To escape the likelihood of death at the hands of Christian mobs, many Jews (probably about 100,000) accept baptism. But a considerable number continue to practise their Jewish faith in secret. The concept of secret groups of heretics particularly alarms the church; and the remarkable tenacity of the Jews of Belmonte, in maintaining their faith behind a Catholic facade, proves that there is good cause for the inquisitors' suspicions.

The first Grand Inquisitor is appointed in 1480. He is Tomas de Torquemada, who himself comes from a family of converted Jews. His dedication to his task will become legendary. And the public much appreciates the great ceremonies which he stage-manages - the famous auto-da-fés.

The auto-da-fé (Spanish for 'act-of-faith') is a solemn religious ceremony in a tradition going back to the inquisition against the Cathars. The inquisitor and those accused of heresy process into a public place, such as the main square of a town. After the holding of a mass, the verdicts on the accused and the sentences on the guilty are announced.

In 1492 Torquemada persuades Ferdinand and Isabella to expel from Spain all Jews who are unwilling to convert to Christianity. About 160,000 of them leave the country. Ten years later the same demands are made of the Spanish Muslims.

From being one of the most tolerant countries in Europe, in the heyday of Cordoba and Toledo, Spain becomes the most intolerant. The Inquisition extends its sway to Latin America, to Portugal and to the Spanish Netherlands. It is not finally suppressed until 1820 in Portugal and 1834 in Spain.


A new diaspora: AD 1492-1510

The Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492 has wide repercussions, because of the growing power of Spain at this period. The Portuguese king is forced to expel his Jews in 1497 as a condition of marrying a Spanish princess. Spanish rule in Sicily and Naples means that from 1510 Jews have no place in the Italian peninsula south of the papal states. No expulsion of Jews is perpetrated by the papacy, but from 1555 the Jews even here are forced to live in ghettos and to wear a distinctive badge.

Meanwhile, copying the Spanish example, France expels its few remaining Jews. In England there have been no Jews since 1290. By the early 16th century the entire west of Europe is out of bounds to the Jewish people.

The majority of the Jews displaced in this wave of state persecution are those with a background in Spain. They become known as the Sephardim (from Sepharad, the Hebrew word for Spain) by contrast with the Jews of Germany and central Europe (the Ashkenazim, from Ashkenaz meaning Germany). The Sephardim, fleeing from the hostility of Christian Europe, make their way east to the more welcoming Muslim communities of north Africa, Palestine and above all Turkey.

The Ottoman sultan Bayazid II positively encourages Jewish settlement in the newly Muslim city of Istanbul.

In their new homes around the eastern Mediterranean the Sephardim continue the traditions and rituals of Spanish Jewry.

In particular they preserve through the centuries the language known as Ladino. This derives from medieval Spanish, mixed with a certain amount of Hebrew, and is usually written in Hebrew characters. It is the equivalent of the Yiddish of the Ashkenazim, which has its roots similarly in medieval German.


The ghetto: from AD 1516

For three centuries, from the 16th to the 18th, the ghetto becomes the environment of Jewish communities in Europe. Part of the reason is the Christian community's wish to control the Jewish minority in its midst; and part is the need of the Jews themselves for protection from Christian mobs. Each of the great waves of persecution - at the time of the crusades, or the Black Death - is followed by a tighter isolation of Jewish quarters.

The word ghetto is first used in Venice, where from 1516 the Jews are forced to live in a particular area of the city, with access controlled by Christian janitors. The name is said to derive from the Venetian term for an iron foundry which was previously on the site.

Within the ghetto the Jewish community is allowed control over its own affairs, through law courts, schools and other such institutions. The enclosed nature of the community, with safety and opportunity inside the perimeter and danger outside the gates, causes an intense and self-aware culture. Here, particularly in northern Europe through the medium of Yiddish, there thrives the rich Jewish tradition of story-telling and music.

Intolerance is the usual attitude of the surrounding Christian community. But sometimes a ruler favours the Jews. One example is Stephen Báthory, in Poland in the 1570s.

Appreciating the value of the skills of the Jews, Stephen Báthory takes special steps to protect their interests - restricting, for example, the trading rights of merchants and pedlars arriving in Poland at this time in large numbers (rather surprisingly) from Scotland.

He also grants the Polish Jews their own parliament, which meets twice a year and has tax-raising powers. It remains in existence for nearly two centuries, till 1764.

The ghettos of Italy, Germany and Poland begin to be demolished in the Napoleonic period, when the notions of the French Revolution make such segregation seem medieval. The ghettos of modern times, such as Warsaw, are deliberate revivals by the Nazis of a long disused system.

The European countries which never had Jewish ghettos have little reason to be proud of that distinction. They are the ones - England, France and Spain - which at one time or another expelled every Jew.


New beginnings: 17th century AD

With the development of trading empires in northwest Europe in the 17th century, Jews begin to be appreciated again for their commercial skills. The Dutch, having rid themselves of the fervently Catholic Spaniards, encourage the return of the Jews. The English, during the Commonwealth, repeal the law of 1290 which made Jewish residence in the country illegal. Similarly Protestant colonies in north America welcome Jewish immigrants.

The Jews become gradually better placed to play a full role in Christian countries. But the process is one of long and painful struggle, extending well into the 19th century.


The Rothschild dynasty: AD 1801-1815

William IX, ruler of the German state of Hesse-Kappel and possessor of a vast fortune, has for some years consulted in a private capacity his friend Mayer Amschel Rothschild, a Jewish banker and merchant of Frankfurt. He values Rothschild's advice both on matters of finance and on additions to his art collection. In 1801 he formally appoints him his court agent, and encourages him to offer his financial skills to other European princes in these troubled years when Napoleon is unsettling the continent.

Rothschild responds energetically to this opportunity. By 1803 he is in a position to lend 20 million francs to the Danish government.

The Danish loan is the first of many such transactions on behalf of governments which rapidly establish the Rothschild family as Europe's most powerful bankers, rising to a pre-eminence comparable to that of the Medici and the Fugger in earlier centuries.

The family is soon represented in all the important centres of the continent. Mayer Amschel has five sons. He keeps the eldest, Anselm Mayer, at his side to inherit the Frankfurt bank. The four younger sons establish branches elsewhere: Solomon in Vienna, Nathan Mayer in London, Karl in Naples and Jacob in Paris.

The Rothschild family gambles heavily on the eventual defeat of Napoleon. Their loans are all to his enemies (surprisingly Napoleon allows Jacob, operating from Paris, to raise money for the exiled Bourbons). Their network of contacts enables them to move money around Europe even in wartime conditions. A famous example, but only one of many, is Nathan's transfer of large sums of money from London to Portugal to pay the British troops in the Peninsular War.

By the end of the war the Rothschild family has a vast reputation among the allies, and a close involvement in the government finances of many nations.

The qualities soundly underpinning their good fortune, in addition to undoubted financial flair, are that they are trustworthy and very well informed.

An example of the former is the fortune left in Mayer Amschel Rothschild's care when his patron flees from Hesse-Kassel after Napoleon's victory at Jena in 1806. It amounts to perhaps half a million pounds in the money of those days. In spite of every attempt by Napoleon's agents to make him make him hand it over, Rothschild keeps it safe and returns it, with interest, to its owner in 1815.

As to reliable information, the most famous incident concerns that same year, 1815. On June 20 Nathan Mayer Rothschild calls on the government in London, during the morning, with a startling piece of good news. The duke of Wellington, he informs the officials - who are at first somewhat incredulous - has two days earlier won a decisive victory over Napoleon at Waterloo.

Confirmation arrives that afternoon through the government's own channels. The Rothschild network of communication includes, famously, the use of homing pigeons. But on this occasion their success is due to one of their couriers, who was waiting in the harbour at Ostend for the first scrap of news.

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