The standard narrative, with regards to relations between Christians and Jews, is one of constant conflict. The Jews have been subjected to various forms of repression, ranging from marginalization to genocide. The underlying assumption is that the Christian majority was either motivated by religious fanaticism or ignorant bigotry. Of course, the events during World War II loom large in this understanding. The Germans are just assumed to have gone insane and followed an anti-Semitic madman.
That’s what makes the book Early Medieval Jewish Policy in Western Europe such an interesting read. Instead of the modern practice of working backwards to force history into the current narrative, it is a review of the polices toward the Jews, in the centuries following the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It’s an old book, published in 1977, by a now retired scholar of the period. It’s also a short book, just 140 pages. The style and brevity makes it a good introduction to the period for the casual reader.
The book starts with a review of Jewish policy under the Visigoths, who ruled what is now Western France and most of what is now Spain. Both Gaul and Iberia had large Jewish populations by the end of the Roman Empire. The Breviary of Alaric was a collection of Roman laws that applied to the Hispano-Roman and Gallo-Roman population, living under Visigoth rule. It was within this body of laws that official policy regarding the Jews was established in the Visigoth kingdom.
Under the Visigoths, the Jews had a great deal of autonomy. They maintained their own courts, were permitted to own slaves and conduct trade within the kingdom. More important, the Jews were rich and powerful, so they played a large role in the internal politics of the kingdom. The main area of conflict was over the Jewish habit of proselytizing to the Christians as well as the pagans. The Church would tolerate the Jews converting pagans, but not the converting of Christians.
That’s the most interesting aspect of the book. Throughout the early medieval period, the Jewish populations in the former Western Roman Empire were endlessly proselytizing to the Christian populations. This was not just under the Visigoths in the early Christian period. This continued through the Carolingian period, despite very strong objections from the Church. Even the Church, however, was forced to overlook these violations of the law, as the Jews had a lot of power.
If one were to search for a starting point of anti-Jewish sentiment in the West, it would not date to the time of Christ, but to the medieval period. Jews not only competed with the Church politically and culturally, they were very aggressive in their approach to Christians. For example, in the Carolingian period, Jews widely circulated the Toledot Yeshu, which is an alternative biography of Jesus. It describes Jesus as an illegitimate child, who practiced magic, was an adulterer, and died a shameful death.
The Church, of course, was not happy about this behavior, but lacked the power to do much about it, other than train better priests. That’s another interesting aspect of the period. Jews and Christians regulars celebrated feats together and Christians tended to prefer the Jewish sermons to that offered by the Church. Many Bishops also had good relations with the Jews in their area. In other words, into the Middle Ages, there was not much in the way of antisemitism, at least not as we understand it.
It was these twin realities that drove the development of anti-Jewish policy in the Church during this period. Many important churchman, individually and collectively, not only feared the proselytizing of the Jews, but worried about the fact Judaism was very attractive to both pagans and Christians. It was in this period that institutional opposition to Judaism developed and evolved, despite the fact that the secular authorities were pro-Jewish in their policies. Antisemitism was a reaction to this.
Another aspect to all of this is the fact that Jews used to be aggressive proselytizers, working hard to convert pagans and Christians. Today, the opposite is true. While anyone can become a Jew, that’s like saying anyone can become a physicist. It is technically true, but conversion is not common. Jewish law requires the rabbi to try three times to discourage the convert. This policy may have been a response to the conflicts with the Church over the conversion of Christians.
Probably the most surprising thing in the book is just how pro-Jewish most secular rulers were in the early medieval period. Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious were extremely favorable to the Jews in their domains. They actively encouraged Jews to immigrate into their lands and gave them special privileges to conduct trade. They also had many Jews serving in administrative roles, holding power over Christians. The Jews were treated better than the Church in many cases.
The reality of the early medieval period is that the secular authorities maintained a very tenuous grip on their holdings. The king relied upon the local landowners and community leaders to maintain control. In many cases, those wealthy and powerful people were Jews within large Jewish communities. As a result, the Church was often the least influential institution. In many cases, the local bishop relied upon Jewish support to maintain his position. The Jews had a lot of power.
Probably the most telling point in this regard is the fact that the most successful monarchs of the period all had pro-Jewish polices. Charlemagne, Theodoric the Great and Gregory the Great pursued pro-Jewish polices. The Jews were literate, wealthy and maintained well-organized, long-standing contacts with Jewish communities throughout the West and East. As such, they were a powerful ally. In return for Jewish support, successful Christian rulers protected Jewish interests.
As much as this reality contradicts the current narrative, it also contradicts many anti-Semitic narratives as well. For example, it is popular with modern anti-Semites to claim the Jews worked with the Muslims in conquering Christian Spain. In reality, the Jews were willing to work with whoever looked like a winner. Jews also worked with Christians against the Muslims and sided with the Viking raiders when they sacked Bordeaux. They also worked with the Franks against the Vikings.
One final bit of interest is it seems that the beginning of Jewish hatred for the Catholic Church began in this period. This hatred turns up today in modern Zionism. In Yoram Hazony’s book, The Virtue of Nationalism, he repeatedly claims that Catholicism was a form of empire, which he condemns. It’s a strange tick, given that the Catholic Church holds little influence in the modern world. It was the Church, however, that managed to reduce Jewish power in the West, starting in the medieval period.
The book does not address this issue, but the fact that Church policy was separate, often at odds with official policy, in the kingdoms of the early medieval period, made it possible for Jews to carve out special privileges. Once Church policy became entangled with official policy, this was no longer possible. Jews were then marginalized and isolated, in order to prevent them from influencing the secular authorities and proselytizing to the Christians. The Catholic Church was bad for Jews.
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