John D. Young and Dr. Paul B. Pixton, History
Having previously completed a study of religious memory as a motivating factor for Christians to persecute Jews in the High and Late Middle Ages, I felt a strong desire to tell the other side of the story–to analyze the Jewish historical mind-set during these persecution episodes. I have discovered much about the late medieval Jewish mind-set during the course of this research, and my findings appear in much lengthier form in my Honors Thesis “Crucifix and Torah: The Role of Religious Memory in Medieval Christian Persecution of Jews.” I will attempt to briefly reiterate the principal conclusions of my research in this report.
Whereas Christian religious memory–remembrances of key historical events of religious significance–remained fundamentally the same during the High and Late Middle Ages, Jewish religious memory changed substantially during the centuries between the pogroms of the First Crusade and the mass Jewish migrations of the late medieval and early modern periods. Because of this changing nature, I have of necessity examined a wide variety of events in order to gain a sense of the Jewish historical mind-set during these centuries. Jews’ perceptions of their own sacred history were also much more ubiquitous than those of Christians, for Jews were constantly surrounded by stories and examples of those who had gone before them. Through education, which included powerful mnemonic devices1, and especially through liturgy, medieval Jews came face to face with their ancestors daily.2
An important dichotomy surfaces in the actions, motivated by religious memories, of the Jews of these centuries, as inspired by their ancestors’ experiences. This dichotomy seems to be a great key to interpreting the nature of Jewish religious memory. First, the medieval Jews, despite undergoing very serious opposition, thought of themselves as an enduring people. After the pogroms of the First Crusade, the Jews, following the lead of their forebears, exhibited a great sense of their calling as the stricken, though chosen, people. When faced with serious hardships, they somehow found their niche in European society and even did quite well economically and otherwise. The setbacks, for the most part, did not drive them from their homes, despite the recurrence of similar difficulties over the next two centuries. The makeup of persecution episodes changed, however, and the Jews began to alter their view of the situation. Beginning in the late thirteenth century, Jews faced challenges that many could no longer weather. Here we witness the second half of this dichotomy–the Jewish propensity for flight. Indeed, the igrations to Poland and Lithuania of the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries were, in essence, the opening of a new chapter of the Diaspora–a further extension of Israel’s wandering state.
This change in perception was at least partially brought on by external influences. During the Early Middle Ages, the Jews entered into occupations forbidden to Christians by theology, especially banking and money-lending. As more and more Christians began to take up these professions in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Jews found themselves in difficult economic circumstances.3 Legal measures that fixed the rate of usury likewise damaged the Jews’ ability to make a living. Meanwhile, other laws forced Jews to occupy special quarters and wear distinguishing clothing, effectively pushing Jews to the margins of society and turning them into objects of derision and hatred. Ritual murder and host desecration accusations, prominent in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, were largely due to the demographic situation.
Finally, forced expulsions imposed by frustrated monarchs (e.g., from England in 1290, from France in 1306, and from Spain in 1492) necessitated Jewish flight.4 Although many kingdoms eventually reopened their doors to the Jews, lasting damage was done to once-thriving Jewish communities. Coupled with the brutal pogroms of the Black Death period (1348-50), these expulsions compelled Jews to look eastward for sanctuary in the more tolerant kingdoms of Poland and Lithuania. These realms lacked the economic structures that Jews were accustomed to providing, and thousands of Jewish immigrants found safe haven there, though they eventually faced almost-complete extinction at the hands of the Nazis.
The pogroms of the First Crusade seemed quite familiar, for the Jews knew that God saw fit to test his chosen people. Thus, when faced with these trials, affected communities looked to previous examples of testing, especially the sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah.5 As the Jews faced social and economic ostracization and more brutal pogroms, they looked to other historical precedents. It seems the Exodus became the preferred historical incident for the Jews who fled East. Overall, it must be concluded that historical precedent played a major role in the motivations of Jews during these centuries.
This project is the boldest step to date in my passionate quest to understand Jewish history. It has provided a tremendous undergraduate research experience and given me direction in my academic life. I will continue to pursue these issues in graduate school this Fall. The efforts and counsel of my advisor, Dr. Paul Pixton, are greatly appreciated; this project has given me the opportunity to associate with him and with other faculty on a level that would have been impossible otherwise.
- See, for example, Ivan G. Marcus, Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).
- Yosef Yerushalmi explains, “Historiography never served as a primary vehicle for Jewish memory in the Middle Ages. . . . In the Middle Ages, as before, Jewish memory had other channels–largely ritual and liturgical–through which to flow, and only that which was transfigured ritually and liturgically was endowed with a real chance for survival and permanence.” Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 39-40. This vehicle for perpetuating religious memory was particularly effective, since “with minor regional variations, that liturgy was recited by all medieval Jews . . . three times each day.” Yerushalmi, “Medieval Jewry: From Within and From Without,” in Aspects of Jewish Culture in the Middle Ages, ed. Paul E. Szarmach (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1979), 20.
- For more on these developments, see Joseph Shatzmiller, Shylock Reconsidered: Jews, Moneylending, and Medieval Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).
- For thorough studies of the English and French expulsions, see respectively Robin R. Mundill, England’s Jewish Solution: Experiment and Expulsion, 1262-1290 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 249-85 and Robert Chazan, Medieval Jewry in Northern France: A Political and Social History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 191-205.
- Yerushalmi, Zakhor, 38.