Dark centuries: 12th - 14th century AD

Persecution of the Jews becomes increasingly a feature of European life during the later centuries of the Middle Ages. The imagination of gullible Christians is seized by a succession of hysterical slanders. One, surfacing in the 12th century, is the belief that Jews engage in the ritual murder of Christian children. The most common charge in the next century is that they desecrate the Host, or communion wafer.

This follows the church's adoption of the doctrine of Transubstantation, stating that the body of Christ is physically within the consecrated Host. To desecrate this is seen as ritual murder and blasphemy. At times of stress any of these charges can become the pretext for a massacre.

The economic status of the Jews declines in the same period. Their position as money-lenders to the rich and powerful is eroded from the 13th century when merchants from northern Italy (collectively described as Lombards) develop banking activities. The Jews, no longer indispensable, are expelled from England in 1290 and from France in 1306.

Elsewhere they survive by engaging in a lower level of usury, as pawnbrokers to ordinary citizens - a dangerous situation, since debtors often welcome an excuse to turn on their creditors. In these circumstances, when Europe's town face the terrifying crisis of the Black Death, the Jews are the almost inevitable victims.

Poisoned wells: AD 1348-1349

As Europe's citizens succumb in vast numbers to the plague, a rumour spreads that the cause lies in polluted water. The wells, it is said, have been deliberately poisoned by the Jews. The first massacres of Jews occur in France in the spring and summer of 1348. The situation rapidly becomes worse after a Jewish doctor, tortured on the rack at Chillon in Switzerland, says that he has poisoned wells with powder sent to him for the purpose by a rabbi in Spain.

Basel burns all its Jews later that month. In November the hysteria spreads to Germany.

In town after town during the next nine months, through Germany and up into Flanders, Jews are burnt in their tens of thousands (in addition to those dying anyway of the plague). Jews fleeing from this horror make their way mainly into Poland, where they are protected by the king, Casimir III. He is said to be influenced in the direction of tolerance by Esther, his Jewish mistress.

This migration brings into Poland, and subsequently into Russia, large communities of Jews speaking Yiddish - their own version of German, developed in the medieval centuries.

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.

A HistoryWorld.net history available online at: www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?ParagraphID=fse

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