Robert Chazan, THE JEWS OF MEDIEVAL WESTERN CHRISTENDOM CHAPTER 5 - THE NEWER JEWRIES OF THE NORTH GERMANY AND EASTERN EUROPE (Students' excerpt project)
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In the early Middle Ages, northern Europe – from England in the west to Poland in the east – was the underdeveloped area of western Christianity. These backward regions later transformed into the forefront of European civilization and became the center of a remarkable flourishing of Latin Christendom. However, this transformation did not happen everywhere in the same way. While, at first, the German areas led the way in evolving politically, ultimately, northern France and England took over the lead. The first powerful government to appear in northern Europe was the German emperor, a title that suggests a higher rank than that of a king. Nonetheless, over time, the kings of France and England outdid the German emperor, and their monarchies became superior in the medieval West. It is hard to tell which factors determined how the different areas developed. Did the English and the French have better leaders? Were the people, especially in the cities, more resourceful? Is it just because of geography and climate? Or was it a combination of factors?
Although the explanation is unknown, the reality is that while Germany was where the site for the earliest developments of northern-European Jewry took place, the Jewish communities of more western regions eventually outperformed German Jewry, both economically and culturally. German Jews did not experience the same decline and the massive expulsions that occurred in France and England where the blessing of a strong, central government turned into a curse. The Jews of Germany never enjoyed this blessing and likewise never suffered this curse. German Jewry experienced a different kind of decline which resulted from weak governance, widespread hostility towards Jews, and recurrent violence resulting from a combination of both.
Just like northern French Jewry had its hinterland in England, Germany had its hinterland in eastern Europe, especially Hungary and Poland. And just as some Jews moved from northern France westward to England to find new opportunities, similarly, Jews of Germany sought new opportunities in these lesser developed areas of eastern Europe. But that is where the similarity ends. The Jews who moved to England found more sophisticated economies and governments. In contrast, the Jews who moved into eastern areas of northern Europe were faced with underdeveloped economies and political systems that welcomed their presence and activities. Jewish life in England was gone by the end of the thirteenth century, and by the year 1500, eastern Europe was on its way to become a human reservoir for world-wide Jewry.
Like the Jews in northern France, those of medieval Germany did not see themselves as deeply rooted in German soil. We do not find any mentioning of Jewish ancestry in Germany before the year 1000, and no references to any legal or spiritual precedents from that earlier period. Once again, while individual Jewish traders may well have made their way towards northward prior to the year 1000, medieval German Jewry emerged after. Compared to the Jews of northern France, the German Jews show more awareness of ancestors who migrated from the Mediterranean world into northern Europe. Famous among these recollections are the alleged imperial transfer of the important Kalonymos family from Italy to the Rhineland and the transmission of mystical teaching from the south into the north.
We have noted in the previous chapter two brief reports of invitations to Jews to settle in areas new to them. The first of these reports, which was composed by a Jewish author, mentions an invitation from the count of Flanders; the second, written by a Christian chronicler, describes the support of William the Conqueror for Jewish immigration into England. For Germany, we have far more detailed information on the settlement of Jews in a town new to them. That town was Speyer, located along the Rhine River and the year was 1084. Our information comes from both Jewish and Christian sources, and, indeed, among the Christian sources is the invitation itself!
Let us begin with the Hebrew narrative source. It seems to have been part of a long history of the Jewish community of Speyer, written during the second half of the twelfth century. Unfortunately, the opening sections of this communal record have been lost. What has been preserved begins with one of the longest Hebrew First-Crusade narratives, edited in the 1140s. The collection, as we now have it, ends with a summary of the history of the Jews of Speyer, which describes its beginning in 1084, its fate during the First Crusade, and the rededication of its synagogue in 1104. The description of the rededication ends with the transfer of the Torah scrolls to the rebuilt sanctuary, “where they remain to this very day.” Soon after, the Jews of Speyer resumed praying in their sanctuary, “where they pray to this very day.” Both these references give the impression that this chronicle was written considerably later than the rededication of 1104.
According to this survey of the early history of Speyer Jewry, the Jews of Speyer originated from the older Jewish community of Mainz. The chronicler describes that in 1084 the entire Jewish neighborhood that been set on fire: “All the Jews’ quarter and their street were burned, and we were in great fear of the burghers.” It was then that the Jews of Mainz were invited by the bishop of Speyer to help build his new town. “The bishop greeted us warmly, sending his ministers and soldiers after us. He gave us a place in the town and expressed his intention to build around us a strong wall to protect us from our enemies. “Not all the Jews of Mainz accepted the invitation by the bishop while others did, and the community they created was destined for a long and distinguished history.
The charter of invitation, which was offered by Bishop Rudiger to the Mainz Jews serves as the second source of information on the origins of the Speyer Jewry. This establishment correlated with the Hebrew report and offered more valuable information. The bishop of Speyer, who also served as the temporal lord, Speyer starts off with pointing out the purpose of the invitation. He states that when he was building the village of Speyer into a town, he thought that it would be glorified if it were also be inhabited by Jews. Of course, this wish of the bishop was not to bring Jewish cultural or religious contributions to the town; the Jews were regarded useful for the economic value of Speyer. Bishop Rudiger describes further that he granted the Jews legal status more generously than Jews in any city of Germany. His claims concur well with the Jewish reference to the bishop’s kindness.
Rudiger’s first act of generosity was granting settlement of Jews in an area of Speyer that belonged to him. In fact, there were two areas, one in the lower town and one in the upper town, that the bishop opened up for Jewish settlement. to which had Jews settle in. Additionally, he also provided the Jews with land for burial. Realizing the danger of anti-Jewish violence as had occurred in Mainz, he added he had a wall built around the Jewish quarter to protect them from violent mobs. In later centuries, Christian authorities would demand that Jews live segregated from their Christian neighbors. But in this case, the Jews that moved to Speyer were partially attracted by the separation.
The Jews migrating to Speyer were merchants, and the economic provisions of their charter reflect commercial activities. Jews were allowed to buy and sell all through the town. Jews spending the night there did not have to pay tolls, which indicates a more wide-ranging Jewish trade with also out-of-town Jews involved. The later Jewish specialization in moneylending, as shown in the history of the Jews in northern France and England and later in thirteenth-century materials from Germany does not appear in this document yet.
Two additional themes in this document are freedom from Church demands and the right of self-government. The former is shown in the rule that Jews “may legally have nurses and servants from among our people” and that Jews “may sell to Christians slaughtered meats they consider unfit for themselves.” The right of self-government is shown in the following provision: “Just as the mayor of the town serves among the burghers, so too shall the Jewish leader (archisynagogus) adjudicate any quarrel that might arise among them or against them. If he be unable to determine the issue, then the case shall come before the bishop of the town or his chamberlain.” Once again, the charter does seem unusually generous. The Mainz Jews may have been attracted by this generosity, as the Hebrew account reports and as Bishop Rudiger intended.
The various privileges granted to the Jews may well have been a source of Christian animosity towards their community. The notion that Jews were necessary for the growth and glory of the town must have sounded offensive to the people of Speyer. The granting of the land, and especially the wall between their neighborhoods was probably resented as well. Finally, the fact that the Jews were not under municipal jurisdiction, that they were allowed their own courts as well as the fact that their more complicated cases would be judged by the bishop himself must have annoyed Christian burghers who also strove to have their own self-government. The tensions between the two groups fed into itself. The Jews moved to Speyer already wary of their Christian neighbors. Their suspicions moved them to request the privileges given by the bishop, which in turn fueled into the anti-Jewish sentiments of the townsfolk.
Six years later, Bishop Rudiger and the leadership of the Speyer Jewish community approached the emperor Henry IV for additional protections. They received provisions that went beyond those in the 1084 charter. Jewish physical safety was assured: if anyone assaulted a Jew, he would have to pay a steep fine or receive harsh corporeal punishment. Jewish property was protected: Jewish homes were exempt from imperial quartering, and their horses exempt from requisitions. The penalties for violating these provisions was high. Finally, Jewish spiritual autonomy was assured with a ban on forcible baptism. This ban included a three-day waiting period for Jews who expressed a desire to convert to ensure their full consent. Once again, the penalties for breaking these laws were steep.
The Jews that the 1084 charter dealt with were essentially businessmen which were given extensive trading rights. An interesting clause in the charter deals with the (unintended) trading in stolen goods. The clause states that “If a stolen item be found in their possession and if the Jew claims that he bought it, he shall substantiate by an oath how much he paid and how much he would accept, and in that way, he shall return the item to him to whom it belonged.” For Jewish businessmen involved in extensive buying and selling, this clause was an important safeguard. Jews were also protected against certain kinds of judicial hardship; they could insist on using the Jewish court system, even in cases that involved Christians. And, as mentioned earlier, the Jewish courts were allowed to rule in cases that would arise inside the Jewish community. Beyond the Jewish court system, the court of the bishop was the only court one could appeal to. At last, there were several useful safeguards against the intrusion of Church law into Jewish life. Jews were allowed to employ Christians except on Christian festivals and Sundays. Although the Jews were prohibited from buying Christian slaves, they were allowed to own pagan slaves. Such pagan slaves could not be lured away from their Jewish masters through baptism. Jews had the right to sell their wine, dyes, and medicines to Christians. The imperial charter of 1090 to the Jews of Speyer was similar to the earlier charter of 1084 in that it was generous in protecting the Jews and in the rights they were granted. Another imperial charter from the mid-twelfth century, granted to the Jews of Worms by Emperor Frederick I presents itself as a confirmation of an earlier charter, also given to the Jews of that town by Emperor Henry IV. The strong parallels between the content and language of that document and our 1090 charter give the impression that there existed, towards the end of the eleventh century, a more-or-less standard version of such grants for the Jews of Germany.
The Jews of eleventh-century Germany, specifically of the Rhineland, are the first protagonists in northern-European Jewry's cultural creativity. As previously noted, during the middle decades of the eleventh century, the famous northern-French Jewish figure Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes (Rashi) traveled eastward to the Rhineland to continue his studies. He clearly saw the Rhineland academies as being the forefront of Jewish studies at the time.
Rabbi Gershom of Mainz, known as the "Light of the Exile," is the most prominent figure in the earliest phase of northern-European creativity. Rabbi Gershom's leadership can be seen in both the communal and literary spheres, although much is uncertain about both sets of activities. His contemporaries and later Jews obviously recognized him as a significant authority. His “responsa” (replies to questions about Jewish law) were influential in later studies and interpretations of Jewish law. It is believed that he was behind several important communal ordinances that have since gained widespread acceptance among German Jews, and eventually all Western Jews. The most well-known of these ordinances associated with Rabbi Gershom prohibits polygamy. This ordinance has been a pillar of Jewish family life throughout the following millennium.
Hardly anything of Rabbi Gershom’s writings still exists, and therefore it is hard to fully understand the scope of his intellectual activity. His work clearly focused on Jewish law and its roots in the Babylonian Talmud. He allegedly copied the Talmud. Since the Talmud is very large in size, it is possible for people to make mistakes while copying it. Different readings of the Talmud can affect how someone interprets important passages. Rabbi Gershom seems to have created an authoritative Talmudic text which allowed scholars in the Rhineland and northern Europe to study the same text. Whatever his exact contributions were, following generations of Jewish thinkers associate Rabbi Gershom with the flourishing of German Jewry and its rise to prominence.
The call to the First Crusade triggered widespread anti-Jewish sentiments. These anti-Jewish sentiments led to bloody massacres that are often described as a detrimental milestone in Jewish history. However, the assaults of 1096 were limited in their location. While violent incidents did occur outside the Rhineland, they would not have left a noteworthy impression on Jewish history. It was the violent eruptions in the Rhineland itself that were earth-shattering. The 1096 attacks on the Jewish communities in Speyer, Worms, Mainz, and Cologne were intense, unprecedented, and deadly. They totally devastated these important early centers of Jewish life. Nonetheless, the Jewish communities in the Rhineland recovered fairly quickly and were able to reemerge as flourishing centers of Jewish life and creativity.