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Whereas Christianity began as a tiny sect in the predominately pagan Roman Empire, during the Middle Ages it was the dominant religion in Europe. And while it’s common to describe this period as one of unrelenting persecution and misery for Europe’s Jews, some historians argue for a more balanced approach.

We live in an age of sound bites and the 140-character tweet. In this world, the Jewish experience during the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church was at the peak of its power, is usually summed up in six words: It was bad for the Jews. The truth, of course, is more complicated.


Norman Roth, for example, professor emeritus of Hebrew and Semitic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has argued that it’s incorrect to speak of “the Church” as persecuting or discriminating against the Jews. The Church, he says, was never a monolithic entity, with the pope giving orders that were followed to the letter down the line, all the way to the local priest living in some faraway corner of Europe. Archbishops and bishops had jurisdiction on the local level, and the degree of tolerance or persecution – and there were periods of both – depended upon who filled those roles at any given time, irrespective of papal directives from Rome.

Others point out that during the Middle Ages the Jews were under the jurisdiction of the secular rulers, who were responsible for their protection. While the clergy may have egged them on, it was the kings and princes who expelled the Jews from their lands, usually for economic and social reasons.

Yet the majority of historians – even those who argue for a more nuanced approach – agree that the thirteenth century was a turning point in Jewish-Church relations, a time when Church acceptance of the presence of Jews in a predominately Christian society was replaced with a much less tolerant policy. In the words of Hebrew University historian Benzion Dinur, from then on the state and the Church would “consider the Jews as people of no religion (benei bli dat) who have no place in the Christian world.”

What happened?


From Augustine to the Crusades

Augustine of Hippo, the fifth-century Christian theologian, had a profound influence on official Church policy regarding the Jews. He rejected those who argued the Jews should be killed or forcibly converted, saying the Jews served a purpose in God’s plan for the world: Their adherence to the Torah proved the authenticity of the “Old Testament,” which in the Church’s opinion contained prophecies that foretold the coming of Christianity. Therefore, Jews should be allowed to live in Christian societies and practice Judaism without interference.

This became the official policy of the popes, who ruled from Rome. But it didn’t mean that Jews should be welcomed with open arms and allowed to participate in Christian society freely. Church councils – which could be binding upon all Christians or affect only those living in a particular country, province or diocese – forbade intermarriage between Christians and Jews or even sharing a meal in order to keep the two communities separate. The third Toledo Synod, held in 582, also prohibited Jews from holding any public office that would enable them to punish Christians; Jews were prohibited from owning slaves as well. The Quinisext Synod of Constantinople, held in 692, and several later synods forbade Christians from receiving treatment from Jewish physicians, although even popes would often ignore this ruling and employ Jews as court physicians. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) included a regulation that Jews must wear a special dress to distinguish them from Christians, which often took the form of a yellow badge.

But while there were archbishops and bishops who railed against the Jews and sought to curtail their social and economic activities, there were others who acted as advocates and protectors. For instance, Rudiger Huzmann, bishop of Speyer, famously invited Jews to settle in his city in 1084 to help “enhance its image a thousandfold.” In the charter outlining the Jews’ rights, he granted them the right to “buy and sell what they please,” own land, and maintain their own beis din, among other privileges.

During the First Crusade, which was launched by Pope Urban II in 1095 to drive out the Muslims from Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land, the Jews of Speyer were attacked by the army assembled by German Count Emicho of Leiningen. Speyer’s burghers and peasants from the countryside also joined the attack. But according to Mainz Anonymous, a contemporaneous account written by an unknown Jewish author, the bishop at that time, Johann von Kraichgau I, “came with many troops and wholeheartedly stood by the community, he took them into his private quarters and saved them from their hands.” Of course, the Jews had to pay for the privilege of being housed in the bishop’s palace until the pogrom subsided, but at least their lives had been saved and they were grateful.

Emicho was also responsible for the pogrom in nearby Mainz. Here too the city’s leading clergyman, Archbishop Ruthard, gave the Jews shelter in his quarters. But Emicho’s troops attacked the palace and murdered the majority of Mainz’s Jews, some 700 souls. Another 200 killed themselves and their families rather than submit to the horde. In Worms, Bishop Adalbert tried to protect his city’s Jews from the marauders, but without success. The local populace, which had accused Worms’s Jews of poisoning their wells, joined forces with Emicho’s army; the city’s entire kehillah, some 800 souls, was slaughtered. In Cologne, the scene of another brutal attack, Archbishop Hermann III sent many Jews to the countryside, where they were successfully hidden by Christian peasants.

Many Jews were also forcibly converted by the crusading mob, even though this was against official Church policy. But in at least one place, Regensburg, the kehillah was allowed to return to practicing Judaism by Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV.


The Talmud on Trial

There is no question that life was precarious for Europe’s Jews throughout the Middle Ages. But in the early years, at least, the Jews were welcomed by many Church and secular leaders thanks to their economic prowess. This changed in the thirteenth century, when economic activity began to slow. During the 1300s – a century marked by famine, plague, and social unrest – European growth and prosperity ground to a halt. As the economic importance of the Jews declined, so too did their protected status. But while the secular monarchs had no problem expelling the Jews when they needed to – either to refill an empty treasury with confiscated Jewish wealth or to appease discontented burghers and peasants – Church figures still had to contend with Augustine.

Augustine’s viewpoint was seriously challenged in 1240, when a Jewish apostate named Nicholas Donin put the Talmud on trial in Paris. Donin, who had joined the Franciscan Order, translated the Talmud into Latin with the express purpose of condemning it and the Jews. Donin first went to Rome, where he convinced Pope Gregory IX that the Talmud included attacks on Jesus and his mother, Mary, and encouraged hostile relations between Jews and Christians.

Before this, the pope and other high-ranking clergy had ignored the Talmud, which was, literally, a closed book to most of them. But now an incensed Gregory sent transcripts of Donin’s accusations to Church authorities, along with an order to seize all copies of the Talmud and deposit them with the Dominicans and Franciscans, who were to examine the volumes. If it was found that Donin’s charges were correct, the volumes were to be burned.

This papal order was ignored, except in France, where King Louis IX ordered France’s Jews to surrender their Talmuds, on pain of death. On June 12, 1240, a disputation between Donin and four French rabbis began. While one outcome of the debate is well known – the subsequent burning of the Talmud and other Jewish books on June 17, 1244 – the Disputation of Paris had yet another devastating effect upon European Jewry. Before the disputation, the pope and most other clergymen assumed the Jews relied exclusively on the Written Torah – what they called the Old Testament – for religious instruction and inspiration. The knowledge that the Jews regarded the Oral Torah just as highly came as a shock.

After the initial shock wore off, some members of the Church finally had the ammunition they needed to replace the Church’s ambivalent relationship with the Jews with one of outright hostility. By “abandoning” the Bible for the Talmud, which contained blasphemies against Christianity, they argued, the Jews had changed the rules of the game. Therefore, Augustine’s argument on their behalf no longer applied. The Jews no longer had a place in the Christian world.


The Rise of Anti-Judaism

In the decades that followed, Jews were expelled from England and France and other places. There would be several more disputations, including the famous one that took place between Ramban and the apostate Dominican Friar Pablo Christiani in Barcelona in 1263. While there had been blood libels and accusations of well poisonings before the Disputation of Paris, the accusations multiplied during this period. And the consequences could be grave. For instance, after the Jews of Troyes, France were accused of a blood libel in 1288, they were burned at the stake – the first mass burning of Jews in Europe.

The official stance of most of the popes was that Jews didn’t use Christian blood to bake matzot or poison wells. During the Black Death, Clement IV issued a papal bull stating, contrary to public opinion, that the plague wasn’t a Jewish plot. But according to Jeremy Cohen, author of The Friars and the Jews: The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism, mendicant orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans also had a voice in determining Church policy, and that voice was virulently against Judaism, which the friars equated with a “pernicious heresy.” In Cohen’s words:

As inquisitors, missionaries, disputants, polemicists, scholars, and itinerant preachers, mendicants engaged in a concerted effort to undermine the religious freedom and physical security of the medieval Jewish community. It was they who developed and manned the papal Inquisition, who intervened in the Maimonidean controversy, who directed the burnings of the Talmud, who compelled the Jews to listen and respond to their inflammatory sermons, and who actively promoted anti-Jewish hatred among the laity of Western Christendom.

The Jews were now seen not just as spiritual outsiders but also as a real and present physical danger, and the friars were increasingly fanning the flames with their fiery sermons. In Spain, the century ended with a series of pogroms that led to the forced conversion of tens of thousands of Jews and the slaughter of many more. Yet the rabble-rousing friars and local clergymen weren’t content even with that. Convinced that many of the new converts were practicing Judaism in secret, they convinced the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to establish an Inquisition in newly-unified Spain.

The Spanish Inquisition opened for business in 1483, under the leadership of the Dominican friar Tomas de Torquemada. Just a few decades later the Church itself came under attack when Martin Luther began his Reformation. In Part IV we’ll take a look at how the Jews fared during this era of Inquisition and insurgency.



“Bishops and Jews in the Middle Ages,” Norman Roth, The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 80, No. 1 (Jan. 1994).

“Christian Persecution of Jews over the Centuries,” Gerard S. Sloyan, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,

Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages, Robert Chazan, Behrman House, 1979.

“The First Crusade,” Rabbi Berl Wein,

The Friars and the Jews: the Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism, Jeremy Cohen, Cornell University Press, 1984.


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