THE YEAR 1000 WAS A TURNING POINT IN HISTORY FOR BOTH GENTILE AND JEW BUT IN OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS. (1)
THE AGE OF SALVATION
The Jews escaped the general devastation of this first phase of their medieval experience with remarkably good fortune. Lest the admittedly large number of Jews killed during these four centuries seem oppressive to those who make it a business to gather Jewish statistics only, let us comfort them with Montaigne’s epigram, “There is something altogether not too displeasing in the misfortunes of our friends", and cite the fact that Rome, a city with a population of 1,000,000 before the barbarian invasions, was reduced to 50,000 after the barbarians had taken turns sacking the city. Until they were Christianized, Goths and Vandals, Franks and Vikings never inquired into the religious affiliations of those they killed (Editors Note: the Christians also did this when they captured Jerusalem in the first crusade saying that any Christians they killed would go to heaven).
In Italy, Theodoric the Great (c.454-526) invited the Jews to settle in every city in his domain—Rome. Naples, Venice, Milan, and his new capital, Ravenna. They were merchants, bankers, judges, farmers, jewellers, artisans. Perhaps as much as a third of the Jews in Italy were not descendants of Abraham and Moses but the descendants of Romulus and Remus, inasmuch as their ancestors were former pagans who had converted to Judaism as far back as 100 CE
The story was much the same in France and Germany. Charlemagne encouraged Jews from other parts of the world to come to his empire. Specifically, he wanted the Jews to settle in cities, to foster industries, to extend the frontiers of commerce, and therefore he granted them liberal charters of self-government. Many found high posts in his court, especially in the diplomatic service. The reason for these special grants was simple enough. The feudal system provided for only three social classes, which, in the words of an eleventh century wit, were “the nobles—who did the fighting; the priests—who did the praying; and the serfs—who did the work." There was no burgher or merchant class. This field was left open to the Jews.
In Spain the picture at first was slightly different. King Reccared, with the fearful zeal of a new convert, spread his newly found Christianity with a sword so fierce that not only were the Visigoths baptized, but a large number of Jews as well. When the Mohammedans conquered Spain and granted everyone religious freedom, many of these forcibly converted Jews did not return fully to the Mosaic religion
Many “crypto-Jews” became the cosmopolitan world citizens who moved with elegance and aplomb in the courts of viziers and grandees, marrying into the families of both. They were destined to form the nucleus of a most vexing and controversial problem in Spain, which exploded with calamitous results in the late fifteenth century.
We can now see how the forces shaping Jewish history in the early Feudal Age began with two paradoxes. Not only were the Jews the only non-Christians left in the entire Christian world, but, ironically, they lived in freedom outside the feudal system, while the gentiles were imprisoned within it.
WHY HAD THE JEWS NOT BEEN CONVERTED OR KILLED AS HAD THE OTHER PAGANS AND NONBELIEVERS? WHY HAD THEY RECEIVED SPECIAL EXEMPTION? WHY DID THE CHURCH PROTECT THEM?
The Church had manoeuvred itself into this paradoxical passe by the force of its own logic. Because the civilization of the Middle Ages was religiously oriented, it was important that the Jews be converted to Christianity. For how did the Church claim that Jesus was universally divine if his own people disclaimed him?
At first every conciliation was held out to the Jews as an inducement to accept Christianity. The Jews would not convert. The Church was in a dilemma. If the Jews were ignored, it might be equal to an admission that Jesus was not universally divine. On the other hand, if the Church exterminated his people, as it had the heathens, then the Church could never claim that the Jews had acknowledged Christ divine. The Jew was an ambivalent figure in the Western world. He could neither be converted nor killed. To prevent his religion from infecting the Christian believer with doubt, the Jew, therefore, was excluded from the feudal system. The Church did not realize that with this act it had jailed its own people and set the Jew free.
Some of the laws enacted against the Jews in these centuries were not new. They were, in fact, patterned after Old Testament and Talmudic laws against non-Jews.
Old Jewish laws forbade a non-Jew being appointed king of Israel, or holding a post from which he could govern Jews. To prevent too great an intermixing between Jews and Greeks, Palestinian law forbade a Jew to sell land to a non-Jew. The Christians enacted like laws against the Jews. These cannot be judged as good or bad in terms of today’s society. They were in expression of society in those days.
THERE IS LITTLE HISTORICAL MATERIAL FOR THOSE WHO MIGHT WANT TO CAST EARLY MEDIEVAL JEWISH HISTORY IN THE MOULD OF MARTYRDOM.
As with the laws of Constantine, Constantius, Theodosius, and Justinian, the occasional edicts against Jews were observed mostly in the breach. Impatient eager beavers, rushing history, did, here and there, now and then, issue laws expelling Jews from this or that city, in this or that year. But the Jews were soon recalled with apologies, since feudal society had not yet developed a merchant class of its own. These exceptions did not constitute official Church policy any more than the lynching of a Negro constituted official United States policy seventy years ago. From the pronouncement of Pope Gregory the Great (591), forbidding the forcible conversion of Jews, to the decree of Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), instituting the yellow badge for Jews, the Jews lived in comparative freedom and moderate prosperity.
UNTIL THE ELEVENTH CENTURY, THE CHURCH COULD TAKE A LENIENT ATTITUDE TOWARD THE OBSTINATE JEW, HOPING TIME WOULD CONVINCE HIM OF HIS ERROR.
The Church was supreme, the princes obedient, the people docile. Then, dramatically, after the eleventh century, developments with unforeseen consequences took place, changing the fabric of medieval Jewish life. Such serious restrictive legislation as the humiliating garb, ritual-murder charges, Host-desecration libels, and confinement to the ghetto were not the heritage of the early Dark Ages but the heritage of the Crusades, the Renaissance, and the Reformation.
THE AGE OF MORE SALVATION
If “salvation” was the key to the first phase of medieval history, then “more salvation” was the key to the Crusades.
For, as with gold, one can never have enough of either. Although the origins of the Crusades were deeply rooted in the religious, political and social texture of the age, these origins had no bearing upon Jewish history, but the Crusades themselves did.
We must be careful how we focus the lens of history on this period. If we keep it focused on Jews exclusively, then this interlude becomes a gory story of pillaging Jewish settlements, killing Jewish people, looting Jewish wealth, and, of course, committing the inevitable rape that so alliteratively goes with rapine. But if we enlarge our sector of vision to include Jews and Christians, an entirely different picture emerges.
A great many of the Crusaders were pious Christians fired with the idea of freeing the Holy Land from the infidel and turning Jerusalem into a Christian shrine. Many others were in quest of loot and the opportunity to kill with impunity. The days of chivalry, when only knights and their pages were permitted to lay down their lives on the field of battle, had vanished. The common man was now also extended the privilege of dying for honor, but this knightly prerogative did not fire him with joy. Therefore, to stir up zeal for a Crusade in an age where no universal conscription existed, serfs were promised freedom, criminals were offered pardon, sinners were granted absolution.
As a result of this propaganda barrage, unruly mobs, full of ardor and energy but low on discipline and supplies, sprang up all over. Long before the Crusaders reached the Holy Land they ran out of provisions. Armed detachments began attacking defenseless villages in the path of their march. At first it was Jewish communities. The Western world protested to the Pope against these outrages, and in many instances other Christian citizens came to the aid of the Jews. The looting now became general, Christians too became victims, and the fighting spread. More Crusaders died en route to the Holy Land than lived to fight for it.
As Crusade after Crusade met with either total defeat or only partial victory, it became more and more difficult to enlist the support of the populace for succeeding Crusades. As the nature of the Crusades shifted from that of freeing the Holy Land from the infidel to that of pillaging the rich Byzantine Empire, the enemy became the Greek Orthodox Catholics instead of the Mohammedan's. What had started out as desultory looting of Jews ended up as a bloodbath for Christians.
Relations between Constantinople and Rome, never cordial since the founding of the Byzantine Empire in the fifth century, hardened through the years into hatred, and in 1094 the pontiffs of both cities pronounced anathema upon each other. “Political mistrust made the Latins hate and suspectthe Greek schismatic's, while the Greeks despised and loathed the rough Latin heretics.” The history of the Byzantine Empire was, to quote Gibbon, a “tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery.” Its military strength was offset by its intellectual weakness. During its eleven hundred years, the Byzantine civilization produced only three art forms—Byzantine churches, Byzantine painting, and castrated Byzantine choirboys; it did not produce a single new idea, philosopher, writer, or scientist of note.
IT WAS A TRIPLE BLESSING FOR THE JEWS THAT THEY WERE EXPELLED FROM THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE BEFORE THE START OF THE CRUSADES.
They escaped the massacre, they escaped the blame, and they escaped those chroniclers who would have chalked up the fracas as another manifestation of Jewish persecution. In 1183, Byzantine Greeks killed all Italians in the realm, and in 1204 Italians in the fourth Crusade took their revenge with a carnage almost unparalleled in history. The bestiality of the Crusaders shocked Pope, prince, and people, but their horror in no way stopped the slaughter. Byzantium was carved up by the Crusaders like a cadaver, and its towns were tossed as loot to the Italian city-states which had fi nanced this Crusade. Though the Greeks recaptured Con stantinople fifty years later, the empire had been weakened In 1453 she fell before the onslaught of the Turks, and (he Christian stronghold in the East was lost.
The fifth Crusade met with indifferent success. After the-sixth and seventh the zeal was gone. After the eighth Crusade, the fire was extinguished. Christian and Jew alike rejoiced that it was all over. But the Crusades, ironically, had the opposite effect from the one intended. It had been hoped that the capture of Jerusalem would rally the faithful into a more closely knit Christian community. Instead, the faith of the Christians in their own superiority was badly shaken Thousands had been exposed to the superior culture of the Mohammedan's. Serfs, freed during the Crusades, did not want to go back to the farm after they had seen Constantinople and the splendor of the Saracen (the Roman name for the Arab). They settled in the towns, swelling them into cities. A spirit of restlessness pervaded Europe. This spirit found its expression in two ways: through the creative outlet of the Renaissance, and in the religious protest of the Reformation. In the former the Jews participated fully, and succeeded brilliantly. In the latter they tried hard to stay out of the family quarrel and failed miserably.
THOUGH EUROPE WAS READY FOR THE RENAISSANCE, IT WAS THE ITALIANS WHO FIRST SAW HER, GRABBED HER, AND HAD THE MEN OF GENIUS ON TAP.
to shape the inchoate yearnings of the age into an intellectual force which illuminated the European scene for over two hundred years, from about 1320 to 1520. All of Italy was not involved in this humanistic resurgence. It was boxed in a rectangle bounded by Naples in the south, Milan the north, Venice in the east, and Genoa in the west. It as ushered in by humanists (Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio) and died with artists (Cellini, Titian, Michelangelo). To make the grade in between, one had to have such names as Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Filippo Lippi, Bellini. The melancholy task of the Jewish historian is to record the fact that no Jew qualified.
IN ITALY, THE RENAISSANCE TOOK ESSENTIALLY A NONRELIGIOUS COURSE, WITH THE ACCENT ON THE INDIVIDUAL.
In Northern Europe, the Renaissance, running a hundred years behind, took essentially a religiously oriented course, as exemplified by Johann Reuchlin in Germany. Reuchlin (1455-1522) had a profound influence on the history of Europe, because, more in any other, he helped to lay the foundations for Protestantism through the influence of his writings on the development of Luther’s theological thinking. Reuchlin’s humanistic philosophy was undisguisedly Hebraic. Though a Christian, brought up on Latin, he spoke Hebrew fluently, was familiar with Hebrew literature, and was a student of the Kabala, a Jewish mystic and metaphysical philosophy which seeped into the writings of Jewish and Christian scholars and scientists during the Renaissance. At the risk of his own life, when a deviation from dogma meant death, Reuchlin protected the Jews against slander, defended the Talmud against calumny, and popularized Jewish thought among Christian intellectuals.
The year 1000 was a turning point for both gentile and Jew, but in opposite directions. Why had the Jews not been converted or killed as had other pagans and nonbelievers? Why had they received special exemption? Why did the Church protect them?
Some anti-Jewish laws were based on Old Testament and Talmudic laws against non-Jews.
There is little historical material for to cast early medieval Jewish history in the mold of martyrdom.
Until the eleventh century, the Church could take a lenient attitude toward the obstinate Jew, hoping time would convince him of his error. If ‘salvation’ was the key to the first phase of medieval history, then ‘more salvation’ was the key to the Crusades
As the nature of the Crusades shifted from freeing the Holy Land from the infidel to pillaging the rich Byzantine Empire, the enemy became the Greek Orthodox Catholics instead of the Mohammedan's.
It was a triple blessing for the Jews to have been expelled from the Byzantine Empire before the start of the Crusades. Though Europe was ready for the Renaissance, it was the Italians who first saw her, grabbed her, and had the men of genius on tap. In Italy, the Renaissance took a nonreligious course, with the accent on the individual.