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Israel and Judah
Greece and Rome
Middle Ages
     Jews under Christian rule
     Wandering Jews
     German crusade and the Jews
     Dark centuries
     Poisoned wells
     The Spanish Inquisition

15th - 19th century
20th century
To be completed

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Jews under Christian rule: from the 4th century AD

The Jews of the Diaspora have spread throughout the Roman empire long before its rulers become Christian, in the 4th century AD. The change of imperial religion does not benefit the Jews. In spite of their struggles against the Roman authorities in Palestine, the Jews in other cities of the empire have won a considerable degree of acceptance.

Judaism is referred to in Roman legal documents as insignissima religio, certe licita ('a well-known religion, certainly lawful'). In Christian imperial pronouncements Jews are more often described as secta nefaria, a 'nefarious sect'.


Once the Roman emperors are Christian, the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus is naturally laid more at the door of the Jews than of the Roman authorities - although it is Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judaea, who orders the deed. But St Matthew's Gospel contains one terrible line, responsible surely for much suffering in subsequent centuries. It reports that the Jews, clamouring for the death of Jesus, cry out to Pilate: 'His blood be on us, and on our children'.

The pretext is in place for centuries of persecution. Not until 1965 does the Vatican formally declare that the Jewish people are not to be held collectively responsible for the death of Jesus (in the declaration Nostra Aetate, approved by an overwhelming majority of the Second Vatican Council and promulgated by Pope Paul VI).


Wandering Jews: from the 7th century

Over the centuries the treatment of the Jews within the territory of the old Roman empire ranges from outright persecution to occasional encouragement. The variation, unpredictable and often sudden, greatly affects the distribution of Jewish communities.

A wave of persecution and forced conversion in the early 7th century is at its worst in Visigothic Spain. Later in the same century there is a welcome swing in the other direction, not so much in Europe as in the Asian and African parts of the old Roman empire.


The Muslims, conquering half the Roman empire, tolerate the 'people of the book' on principle. Jewish communities thrive under Islam in the oldest regions of the Diaspora, such as Egypt, and they acquire important new areas of settlement - in particular Muslim Spain, soon to be the region in which Jews are more fully integrated than anywhere else. One of the strangest details of Jewish history dates also from this period - the conversion of the Khazars.

In northern Europe encouragement by Charlemagne and his successors brings Jewish communities to the Rhine. Spain and Germany become the two great centres of European Jewry. But a large and prosperous population in good times tends to attract the worst of any subsequent persecution.


A wide range of circumstances make the Jews dangerously exposed to persecution. The Christians claim a religious motive for hostility. The Jews, both by preference and by necessity, tend to live as a separate and easily identifiable community - an easy target in times of stress. And the economic role of the Jews aggravates the situation.

Arriving peacefully in fully settled areas, the option of living on the land is not open to Jews. Their first activity in a new area is usually that of the merchant, making use of their international network of contacts. But Christian merchants tend to crowd out their Jewish rivals.


Soon the richer Jews have only one way to use their wealth - lending it on interest, in the practice of usury which is forbidden by the Christian church but is tolerated (since the function is needed in any mercantile society) if carried out by non-Christians.

No debtor loves his creditor (even today banks are not universally popular). The Jewish moneylender and his entire community can easily fall victim to mass hysteria. The first catastrophic example of this is in 1096, when undisciplined mobs in Germany make the Jews the first target of their crusade.


The German crusade and the Jews: 1096

No great feudal lord in Germany answers the pope's call to go on crusade. Instead three lesser figures gather large bands of simple German pilgrims and then inflame them with hatred of the Jews in their own communities - using the argument that before going to punish the Muslims who have seized Christ's sepulchre in Jerusalem, it makes sense to punish the Jews, closer to hand, whose ancestors are held responsible for his actual death.

In Spier in early May, in Worms and Mainz later in the month, and in Cologne, Trier and Metz in June, communities of Jews are seized and massacred by crusaders on their way east.


Prague is reached at the end of June and the city's Jews are killed. In most of these places the local bishops make efforts to protect the Jewish population, but they prove unable to do so. The king of Hungary, Kálmán, shows greater resolve.

Each of the three German crusading rabbles tries to makes its way onwards through Hungary. Kálmán at first attempts to give them peaceful passage, but they soon provoke violence - after which the Hungarian army annihilates all three groups. Many thousands of Jews and Christians die in Europe in this first summer of the first crusade. It is an ominous setback to the crusading ideal.


Dark centuries: 12th - 14th century

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: 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: 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.


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