Holy Wars and Antisemitism - Facing History and Ourselves

Holy Wars and Antisemitism - Facing History and Ourselves

4 Holy Wars and Antisemitism (700s–1300) At the end of the eleventh century, Muslim Turks threatened Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empi...

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4 Holy Wars and Antisemitism (700s–1300) At the end of the eleventh century, Muslim Turks threatened Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Alexius Comnenus, who was also the head of the Eastern or Greek Orthodox Church, appealed to Pope Urban II for help. The pope, who headed the Roman Catholic Church in the western part of the old Roman Empire, called for a holy war. That holy war would later be called a crusade. It was the first of several crusades. (The cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith and the word crusade literally means “a war for the cross.”) Although the crusades did not stop the Turks from taking Constantinople, they did have a profound impact on the way individuals and groups throughout Europe, the Middle East, and beyond saw themselves and others. Jews were deeply affected by the crusades, even though they seemingly had nothing to do with the fight. “US” AND “THEM” IN NORTHERN EUROPE

In the seventh century, only a few Jews lived in northern Europe. Many of the earliest arrivals were former soldiers in the Roman armies or traders who had followed those armies. By the eighth century, more Jews had settled in the region. Many of them had come by way of the old Roman trade routes. By 900, a growing number of Jewish families were living in the valley of the Moselle River, in what is now France and Germany. And by 1000, some were moving to the Rhineland—the valley of Germany’s Rhine River. The newcomers found themselves in a frontier society where war was commonplace. As a result of repeated invasions by nomadic tribes from other parts of Europe and central Asia, powerful men, each with an army of warriors or knights loyal only to him, ruled much of the region. Each kept the peace and protected the less powerful in his territory in exchange for goods or services.



This system is known today as feudalism; it was based on personal relationships. Those relationships may have had their origins in the bonds between the invading warriors and their chiefs. As they settled into the territories they conquered, some chiefs became nobles who granted fiefs—estates—to their warriors in return for their service on the battlefield. These young men were known as vassals. The word comes from the Celtic word for “boy”; in a very real sense, early vassals were “the boys” who fought on behalf of their “chief.” In time the relationships among these warriors and chiefs created a society roughly arranged like a pyramid, with a king or an emperor at the top. Below him were his vassals—the most powerful nobles in the kingdom. Those nobles, in turn, had their own vassals, and so on down the line to the lowest vassals of all—warriors who had no land or soldiers of their own. One’s rank in society depended on the value of the services provided. At the lowest level, serfs held the right to farm a few strips of land for themselves in return for their work on the lord’s estate. At a much higher level, a duke held the right to the income of his large estate in return for providing the king with a certain number of warriors for 40 days each year. Then, as now, titles and ranks could be somewhat misleading. A duke with a strong army could become more powerful than any king, and a peasant with a skill that was in high demand could maintain his independence in a world that was, increasingly, anything but free. The only unifying force in northern Europe in the days of feudalism was the Roman Catholic Church, headed by the pope. The church struggled to unite Christians by keeping alive Roman laws and learning. Missionaries spread out across northern Europe to convert pagans and stamp out heresies. Although the church had members of all ranks, it was organized in much the way kingdoms were—with the pope at the top of the pyramid and bishops and abbots roughly equal to nobles and knights. In fact, they often came from the same families. Many bishops owned large estates, had many vassals, and relied on serfs to work their land. These church leaders took part in the struggles for power that occurred often throughout northern Europe. A few even went to war themselves. Church leaders also helped kings and other rulers manage their affairs; they were able to read and write at a time when most people in Europe, including many kings, were illiterate. How did Jews fit into this world? After all, they could not take an oath of loyalty to a great lord and become his vassals; to do so, they would have had to swear their loyalty on the relics of Christian saints, which meant

Holy Wars and Antisemitism (700s–1300)


at least partially accepting Christianity. And they certainly had not moved north to become serfs. They had settled in the north because they saw opportunities there for a better life. Most Jews arrived in northern Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries. It was a time when the region’s economy was beginning to recover from centuries of wars and invasions. Because Christians had had to concentrate for so long on protecting themselves from invaders, few of them had the skills, experience, or contacts to revive trade with countries along the Mediterranean Sea. For help, a number of rulers turned to Jewish merchants who had lived in the Mediterranean region for generations before making their way north. They were experienced in doing business with both Christians and Muslims. These Jews had other advantages as well. Unlike most of their Christian neighbors—serfs, peasants, and even dukes—who were tied to a particular piece of land or even to a particular ruler, many Jews were free to move from place to place. Indeed, those who worked as traders needed to travel. They were also literate at a time when the vast majority of Europeans could neither read nor write. Many were also familiar with a new numbering system used in the Muslim world—the decimal system. It sounds like a small advantage until you think about the difficulties of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing long columns of numbers using Roman numerals. Very few Christian merchants were familiar with this new way of working with numbers, because the church considered the decimal system a pagan device well into the 1400s.1 For Christians, the Jews’ use of the new numbering system added to their differentness and strengthened the sense that they were outsiders. So did the fact that their business dealings were mainly with nobles rather than ordinary people. In a society in which hunger was a fact of life and money scarce, ordinary people could not possibly afford the exotic spices, jewels, or bolts of fancy cloth that many Jewish merchants brought to northern Europe. Not every Jew, of course, was involved in buying and selling luxury goods. Most of the newcomers worked as dyers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, butchers, and harness makers. Others were scribes, winemakers, and physicians. Many did odd jobs. These Jews also aroused strong feelings. Their Christian neighbors saw them as rivals. Yet over the years, the two groups learned how to get along with one another. Christians and Jews swapped everyday goods and services in the marketplace. They also exchanged information, traded stories, and learned a little about one another’s customs and beliefs. As neighbors, they shared many of the same problems and faced



many of the same risks. Fires, floods, and a host of epidemics threatened both Christian and Jewish families. Records reveal that the two groups often fought side by side in defense of their town or city. Yet, although these experiences built trust, genuine friendships were rare. Religious differences were often a barrier to close ties between Jews and Christians. The word religion comes from a Latin word meaning “to tie or bind together.” People who share a religion are bound together by common beliefs, values, and customs. They form a community linked not only by a faith but also by a worldview. Although almost every religion teaches respect for individual differences, believers often see nonbelievers (or believers of other faiths and traditions) not only as misguided and blind to the truth but sometimes as devious, dangerous, or even treacherous. Many Christians were particularly troubled by Jews’ refusal to accept Jesus as their messiah. After all, Christians found what they understood to be predictions of Jesus’s return to Earth throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (known to Christians as the Old Testament). Indeed, they viewed such Jewish prophets and leaders as Moses, Elijah, David, and Isaiah as individuals who foresaw the coming of Jesus centuries before his birth. Why, they wondered, did Jews interpret those passages differently and insist that the prophets were speaking about their own times rather than anticipating the coming of Jesus? Some Christians came to believe that Jews knew Christianity was the true religion but rejected it anyway. To these Christians, the idea that people would deny the truth was so outrageous that it could have only one explanation—Jews were in partnership with the devil. Why, then, were Jews allowed to live among Christians? The answer dates back to the teachings of St. Augustine (see Chapter 2). He maintained that the church had a responsibility to keep Jews alive because of their connection to Jesus, who was a Jew. Augustine regarded Jews as a permanent reminder that Christianity had replaced Judaism as the true faith. He argued that the Jews’ humiliation and loss of power showed what happens to those who reject God’s truth. Thus, for many Christians, showing contempt for Jews became a way of affirming their own faith. As early as the ninth century, Christians in a number of French towns had a custom of assaulting Jews at Easter, a time that recalled the crucifixion and accounts of Jewish responsibility for the execution of Jesus. For example, Christians in Chalon, a town in northern Burgundy, threw stones at their Jewish neighbors on Palm Sunday. Each year in Toulouse, religious leaders forced a Jew to stand in the town square and receive a slap in the face. One man was struck so hard that he died of a

Holy Wars and Antisemitism (700s–1300)


fractured skull. Most attacks, however, were far more restrained. The idea was to humiliate Jews—not to kill them or frighten them into leaving town. Leaders of the Catholic Church were teaching two contradictory ideas—contempt for Jews and toleration of their right to practice their religion. If Jews and Christians seemed to be getting along too well, church leaders would thunder that Jews were an “accursed people in league with the devil.” They also issued edicts making it a sin for a Christian to eat with a Jew, work for one, or visit a synagogue. Yet when congregants assaulted their Jewish neighbors, those same religious leaders would preach tolerance, following Augustine’s belief that Jews should not be destroyed completely. How did these opposing ideas affect Jewish life in northern Europe? Clues can be found in two documents. The first was written by an anonymous Jew who tells how his people came to Speyer, a city in the Rhineland, in 1084. It begins with these words: At the outset, when we came to establish our residence in Speyer— may its foundations never falter!—it was as a result of the fire that broke out in the city of Mainz. The city of Mainz was our city of origin and the residence of our ancestors, the ancient and revered community, praised above all communities in the empire. All the Jews’ quarter and their street were burned, and we stood in great fear of the burghers. At the same time, Meir Cohen came from Worms, bearing a copy of Torat Cohanim [the part of the Hebrew Scriptures known in English as the book of Leviticus]. The burghers thought it was silver or gold and slew him. . . . We then decided to set forth from there and to settle wherever we might find a fortified city. . . . The bishop of Speyer [Bishop Rudiger] greeted us warmly, sending his ministers and soldiers after us. He gave us a place in the city and expressed his intention to build about us a strong wall to protect us from our enemies, to afford us fortification.2 According to the writer, he and other Jews “stood in great fear of the burghers.” Burghers were citizens of a city or town. Not everyone who lived in a community could become a burgher. To do so, one had to be a Christian, own property, and have the ability to make a living as an artisan or a merchant. The burghers tended to see Jews as rivals, which is why Bishop Rudiger assumed that Jews would want to live apart from the burghers for their own safety. Notice, too, that Jews were free to move from one city to another. Many were traders whose skills and goods were



portable. So if some of their neighbors were hostile—in this case, the burghers of Mainz—they could find another place to live. The second document is a charter issued in 1087 by Bishop Rudiger of Speyer to the Jews who had settled in the city. A charter is a kind of contract between a ruler and a group of residents that spells out each party’s rights and obligations. The bishop issued the charter because he was the town’s ruler. As the first document indicates, he governed with the aid of his own warriors. The Speyer charter was the first issued to a Jewish community as a whole; earlier charters had been given to individuals or families. Bishop Rudiger wrote, in part: 1. Those Jews whom I have gathered I placed outside the neighborhood and residential area of the other burghers. In order that [the Jews] not be easily disrupted by the insolence of the mob, I have encircled them with a wall. 2. The site of their residential area I have acquired properly—first the hill partially by purchase and partially by exchange; then the valley I received by gift of the heirs. I have given [the Jews] that area on the condition that they annually pay three and one-half pounds in Speyer currency for the shared use of the monks. [In other words, some of the tax money Jews were required to pay was used to support the monks under Bishop Rudiger’s protection.] 3. I have accorded the free right of exchanging gold and silver and of buying and selling everything they use—both within their residential area and outside, beyond the gate down to the wharf and on the wharf itself. I have given them the same right throughout the entire city. 4. I have, moreover, given [the Jews] out of the land of the Church burial ground to be held in perpetuity. 5. I have also added that, if a Jew from elsewhere has quartered with them, he shall pay no toll. 6. Just as the mayor of the city serves among the burghers, so too shall the Jewish leader [pass judgment on] any quarrel which might arise among [the Jews] or against them. If he is unable to determine the issue, then the case shall come before the bishop of the town or his chamberlain [an official in charge of the bishop’s household]. 7. [The Jews] must discharge the responsibility of watch, guard, and fortification only in their own area. The responsibility of guarding they may discharge along with their servants. 8. [The Jews] may legally have nurses and servants from among our people.

Holy Wars and Antisemitism (700s–1300)


9. [The Jews] may legally sell to Christians meat, which they consider unfit for themselves according to the sanctity of their law. Christians may legally buy such meats. In short, in order to achieve the height of kindness, I have granted them a legal status more generous than any the Jewish people have in any city of the German kingdom. Lest one of my successors dare to deny this grant and concession and force them to a greater tax, claiming that the Jews themselves usurped this status and did not receive it from the bishop, I have given them this charter of aforesaid grant as proper testimony. In order that the meaning of this matter remains throughout the generations, I have strengthened it by signing it and by the imposition of my seal.3 The charter reflects the bishop’s efforts to address the concerns of the Jews who settled in Speyer. He was aware that the burghers of Speyer, like the burghers of Mainz, viewed Jews with hostility, partly because they felt that Jews supported the bishops and other rulers at a time when the burghers and other townspeople were struggling to become more independent of those same rulers. These people saw the dependence of Jews on bishops and kings as proof that Jews were outsiders with special privileges. Jews did support local rulers and relied on charters to guarantee their rights and define their responsibilities, because they understood how vulnerable they were as a small group of non-Christians in a Christian world. Indeed, just three years after Bishop Rudiger issued the Speyer charter, Jews there sought additional protection. They asked Henry IV, the Holy Roman emperor, to approve the terms of that charter. (Calling the area the emperor ruled the Holy Roman Empire was an attempt to promote unity through a name that recalled the old Roman Empire. It included much of present-day Germany as well as parts of France and Italy.) In 1090, Henry issued a document that affirmed the rights listed in the Speyer charter for all of his Jewish subjects. Just five years later, Pope Urban II called for a holy war against the Muslims, and everything changed. At the time, Muslims controlled many places there that were sacred to Christians, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which had been built over Jesus’s burial place. For centuries, Christian pilgrims had been traveling to Jerusalem to pray there.