Judaism in the Middle Ages


Eastern Roman Empire

The Eastern Roman Empire, under assault from barbarian invasion, passed a number of laws in the early Middle Ages, including the legislation of Justinian, which culminated in the principle of taking away civil rights from heretics and unbelievers and of making their existence as difficult as possible. The restrictive laws of Constantine and Theodosius were renewed with increased rigor. The public observance of their religion was forbidden the Jews. The loss of their civil rights was followed by disregard for their personal freedom.

In the wars waged by the Iconoclasts (eighth and ninth centuries) the Jews especially had to suffer, and mostly at the hands of iconoclastic emperors who were suspected of being heretics with Jewish tendencies. Many Jews fled to the neighboring states of the Slavs and Tatars, which were just coming into existence, and found refuge and protection on the lower Volga and on the northern shores of the Black Sea in the realm of the Khazars.

Western Roman Empire

While the East-Roman empire engaged in perpetual warfare with neighbors who were ever growing stronger, the Western Roman Empire fell prey to the barbarians. With the exception of the restrictive laws of the first Christian emperors, which still remained in force, the Jews were not troubled on account of their faith.

Not until the beginning of the ninth century did the Church succeed in drawing all humanity within her jurisdiction, and in bringing together and definitely settling the regulations in canonical law which the authority of the Church ordained for believers and their treatment of non-believers. Intercourse with Jews was almost entirely forbidden to believers, and thereby a chasm was created between the adherents of the two religions, which could not be bridged.

Jews and the Christian Church

On the other hand, the Church found herself compelled to make the Jew a fellow citizen of the believer; for she enforced upon her own communities the Biblical prohibition against usury; and thus the only way left open to her of conducting financial operations was to seek loans at a legally determined rate of interest from the adherents of another faith. Through these peculiar conditions the Jews rapidly acquired influence. At the same time they were compelled to find their pleasures at home and in their own circles only. Their sole intellectual food came from their own literature, to which they devoted themselves with all the strength of their nature.

This was the general condition of the Jews in Western lands. Their fate in each particular country depended on the changing political conditions. In Italy they experienced dark days during the endless wars waged by the Heruli, Rugii, Ostrogoths, and Longobardi. The severe laws of the Roman emperors were in general more mildly administered than elsewhere; the Arian confession, of which the Germanic conquerors of Italy were adherents, being in contrast with the Catholic characterized by its tolerance. Among the Burgundians and Franks, who professed the Catholic faith, the ecclesiastical sentiment, fortunately for the Jews, made but slow progress, and the Merovingian rulers rendered only a listless and indifferent support to the demands of the Church, the influence of which they had no inclination to increase.

In the Pyrenean peninsula, from the most ancient times, Jews had lived peaceably in greater numbers than in the land of the Franks. The same modest good fortune remained to them when the Suevi, Alani, Vandals, and Visigoths occupied the land. It came to a sudden end when the Visigothic kings embraced Catholicism and wished to convert all their subjects to the same faith. Many Jews yielded to compulsion in the secret hope that the severe measures would be of short duration. But they soon bitterly repented this hasty step; for the Visigothic legislation insisted with inexorable severity that those who had been baptized by force should remain true to the Christian faith. Consequently the Jews eagerly welcomed the Arabs when the latter conquered the peninsula in 711.

Those Jews who still wished to remain true to the faith of their fathers were protected by the Church herself from compulsory conversion. There was no change in this policy even later, when the pope called for the support of the Carolingians in protecting his ideal kingdom with their temporal power. Charlemagne, moreover, was glad to use the Church for the purpose of welding together the loosely connected elements of his kingdom when he transformed the old Roman empire into a Christian one, and united under the imperial crown all the German races at that time firmly settled. When, a few decades after his death, his world-empire fell apart (843), the rulers of Italy, France, and Germany left the Church free scope in her dealings with the Jews, and under the influence of religious zeal hatred toward the unbelievers ripened into deeds of horror.

The Crusades

The trials which the Jews endured from time to time in the different kingdoms of the Christian West were only indications of the catastrophe which broke over them at the time of the Crusades. A wild, unrestrained throng, for which the crusade was only an excuse to indulge its rapacity, fell upon the peaceful Jews and sacrificed them to its fanaticism. In the First Crusade (1096) flourishing communities on the Rhine and the Danube were utterly destroyed. In the Second Crusade (1147) the Jews in France suffered especially. Philip Augustus treated them with exceptional severity. In his days the Third Crusade took place (1188); and the preparations for it proved to be momentous for the English Jews. After unspeakable trials Jews were banished from England in 1290; and 365 years passed before they were allowed to settle again in the British Isles. The Jews were also subjected to attacks by the Shepherds' Crusades of 1251 and 1320.

Persecution and Blood Libel

The justification for these deeds was found in crimes laid to the charge of the Jews. They were held responsible for the crime imputed to them a thousand years before this; and the false charge was circulated that they wished to dishonor the host which was supposed to represent Jesus' body. They were further charged with being the cause of every calamity. In 1240 the plundering raids of the Mongols were laid at their door. When, a hundred years later, the Black Death raged through Europe, the tale was invented that the Jews had poisoned the wells. The only court of appeal that regarded itself as their appointed protector, according to historical conceptions, was the "Roman emperor of the German nation." The emperor, as legal successor to Titus, who had acquired the Jews for his special property through the destruction of the Temple, claimed the rights of possession and protection over all the Jews in the former Roman empire.

They thus became imperial "servi cameræ." He might present them and their possessions to princes or to cities. That the Jews were not utterly destroyed was due to two circumstances: (1) the envy, distrust, and greed of princes and peoples toward one another, and (2) the moral strength which was infused into the Jews by a suffering which was undeserved but which enabled them to resist persecution. The abilities which could find no expression in the service of country or of humanity at large, were directed with all the more zeal toward the study of the Bible and Talmud, toward ordering communal affairs, toward building up a happy family life, and toward bettering the condition of the Jewish race in general.


Everywhere in the Christian Occident an equally gloomy picture was presented. The Jews, who were driven out of England in 1290, out of France in 1394, and out of numerous districts of Germany, Italy, and the Balkan peninsula between 1350 and 1450, were scattered in all directions, and fled preferably to the new Slavic kingdoms, where for the time being other confessions were still tolerated. Here they found a sure refuge under benevolent rulers and acquired a certain prosperity, in the enjoyment of which the study of the Talmud was followed with renewed vigor. Together with their faith, they took with them the German language and customs, which they have cultivated in a Slavic environment with unexampled faithfulness up to the present time.

As in Slavic countries, so also under Muslim rule the persecuted Jews often found a humane reception, especially from the eighth century onward in the Pyrenean peninsula. But even as early as the thirteenth century the Arabs could no longer offer a real resistance to the advancing force of Christian kings; and with the fall of political power Arabic culture declined, after having been transmitted to the Occident at about the same period, chiefly through the Jews in the north of Spain and in the south of France. At that time there was no field of learning which the Spanish Jews did not cultivate. They studied the secular sciences with the same zeal as the Bible and Talmud.

But the growing influence of the Church gradually crowded them out of this advantageous position. At first the attempt was made to win them to Christianity through writings and religious disputations; and when these attempts failed they were ever more and more restricted in the exercise of their civil rights. Soon they were obliged to live in separate quarters of the cities and to wear humiliating badges on their clothing. Thereby they were made a prey to the scorn and hatred of their fellow citizens.

In 1391, when a fanatical mob killed thirty thousand Jews in Seville alone, many in their fright sought refuge in baptism. And although they often continued to observe in secret the laws of their fathers the Inquisition soon rooted out these pretended Christians or Maranos. Thousands were thrown into prison, tortured, and burned, until a project was formed to sweep all Spain clean of unbelievers.

The plan matured when in 1492 the last Moorish fortress fell into the hands of the Christians. Several hundred thousand Jews were forced from the country which had been their home for 1,500 years. Many of them fled to the Balkan peninsula, where a few decades before the Crescent had won a victory over the Cross through the Osmanli Turks. These exiles have faithfully preserved the language of the country they were forced to leave; and to-day, after a lapse of more than 400 years, Spanish is still the mother tongue of their descendants.


  1. "Jewish history." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_history&gt; Text from this source has been incorporated into this article.

Article Info

Title Judaism in the Middle Ages
Last UpdatedJanuary 28, 2021
URL religionfacts.com/medieval-judaism
Short URLrlft.co/3761
MLA Citation “Judaism in the Middle Ages.” ReligionFacts.com. 28 Jan. 2021. Web. Accessed 16 Jan. 2022. <religionfacts.com/medieval-judaism>