Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Persecution of European Jewry in the Middle Ages

Wilhelm Marr, a journalist and self-proclaimed prophet of race theory, popularized the term Anti-Semitism in 1879, thereby cloaking the centuries-long sentiment of Jew-hate (Judenhass) with a pseudoscientific nomenclature and marking a new chapter in a grotesque history of xenophobia, ideological hate, and homicidal greed. Marr saw himself as the harbinger of a new tone in politics and wanted to bring the latest insights from “race science” into public discourse. He lamented what he saw as a Jewish hegemony over Aryans in the historic struggle of the races that was ultimately heading toward the fall of Aryan civilization. When we step back from this cosmic struggle and look at Marr, however, we see a failure in life whose chronic impecuniousness and difficult personality led him into two disastrous marriages with Jewish women who grew weary of supporting him. When we discuss antisemitism and race theory, let’s not forget that “isms” and ideologies are sometimes window dressing for the more mundane aggravations of the human condition.

Throughout the Middle Ages Jews faced intermittent pogroms, occasional expulsions, and severe restrictions on their living space and livelihood. Antisemitic myths and legends, born in antiquity, came into fruition at this time and could be reactivated for massacres during times of economic or political difficulties. Throughout the Middle Ages Jews gradually migrated eastward. They had been expelled from Belgium (1261), England (1290), France (1306 and 1394), Spain (1492), and Portugal (1507). Some of the worst paroxysms of violence occurred in Germanic territory during the First Crusade in 1096 and the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1348. By the 19th century, the majority of European Jewry lived in Eastern Europe, leaving only pockets of forlorn ghetto communities whose survival depended on the whim of regional and local magistrates.

Three hateful legends about the Jews developed in the Middle Ages: the blood libel, host desecration, and well poisoning. Although the myth of ritual murder, or blood libel, took shape in the Middle Ages starting especially with the Second Crusade, it had been around a long time. The first recorded blood libel case occurred in 1144 in Norwich, England. The body of a boy named William was found during Holy Week. The death was blamed on the Jews who allegedly kidnapped and tortured the boy in a mock reenactment of Christ’s death. To their credit, the local government officials dismissed the accusations and protected the Jews. The blood libel reared its ugly head again in 1255 when the Jews of Lincoln were accused of kidnapping, torturing and crucifying a boy named Hugh. Almost one hundred Jews were imprisoned, some were executed and Jewish goods were confiscated.

The legal status of the Jews in the Middle Ages was precarious. They could not gain citizenship and were usually protected only by the capricious grace of a monarch who valued their economic services in the face of a hostile church and populace. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 marked the epitome of antisemitic legislation that had occurred intermittently for centuries. Innocent III marked the zenith of papal power in the Middle Ages, distinguishing himself from other medieval popes not only in securing power for the church but also in his opposition to the Jews. As a result of the Council, Jews could no longer hold public office and they were required to wear a yellow badge on their clothing. In other synods and councils later in the century Jews were forbidden to debate religion with Christians, obtain academic degrees, buy or rent real estate, and live outside ghettos. It is difficult not to conclude that the wearing of distinctive badges and conical hats were designed as much to humiliate Jews as to indicate merely their separate status.

The great outbreak of bubonic plague in the middle of the 14th century, known as the Black Death, is clearly one of the worst epidemic disasters in world history. It was a severe blow to European civilization and made its mark on the culture, economy and population for the next two centuries. The plague killed off more than a third of Europe’s population. Although it carried away Jew and Gentile alike, Christians attributed the Black Death to God’s punishment for tolerating the infidel in their midst. Moreover, they accused the Jews of spreading the plague by poisoning the wells. Under torture, Jews confessed to such crimes. Thousands of Jews were burned alive in the gruesome “holocaust.” The chronicler Jacob von K√∂nigshofen recounts the murder of 2000 Jews in his city of Strasbourg in 1349. He explicitly states the economic motivation of the perpetrators:

And everything that was owed to the Jews was canceled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts. The council, however, took the cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working-men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt.

But one thousand Jews got baptized to avoid being burned to death. (Religious conversion was not an option during the Nazi period.) In the same way that recurrent famines and epidemics in the decades prior to the impact of the Black Death made the outbreak of bubonic plague even more damaging to European civilization, likewise the pogroms of the Black Death were a result of long-standing tensions over the centuries.