The failure of the Roman Empire, continuous barbarian invasion, and the establishment of Christian Europe defined the early Middle Ages. The old empire was replaced by regional states that were not strong enough to defend against the Viking threat from the north, the Muslim threat from the south, or the Magyar migration from the East. European civilization was chaotic until about the 10th century when the church reformed, the Renaissance took hold and Europe stabilized. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages is a comprehensively examination of the life of European Jews from the late 10th-century to the 1500s.
Abrahams details both macro and micro aspects of the defining elements of Jewish life, such as the importance of the synagogue, the nature and impact of community life, Jewish attitudes about marriage, monogamy and family, the trades and occupations of Medieval Jews, and the nature of relations between Christians and Jews. Abrahams cites a massive list of Jewish authorities for his historical and anecdotal evidence. Abrahams, a member of the British educational elite, starts his 1896 book with what he believes is the center of Medieval Jewish life — the synagogue.
The synagogue was not only a moral institution, it was the core of daily community life. It was a place of prayer, education, celebration, and social event, all of which gave it the institutional status of an extended family. This was especially apparent in Jewish weddings which were as much a celebration of community as family. Abrahams asserts that this sense of community is the key element of Jewish life. Abrahams states, “Every Jew found his joy and sorrow in all Jews’ joys and sorrows.
” He describes the Jewish social approach to the difficulties of life in the Middle Ages as one of, “Burdens to be shared, not shirked” Abrahams attributes the disparity between Jewish and Christian community life to the nature of each religion’s organization. Judaism was decentralized with each community’s attitudes and practices determined by community consensus and a rabbinical leadership that was local and independent. To the contrary, Christian practice and attitude was dependent on Church policy as determined by the Pope and his bishops.
In essence, Jewish culture was bottom-up, while Christian culture was top-down. Abrahams details the physical establishment of the synagogue, as well as the customary dress, the separation of the sexes in ritual and prayer, the sale of religious “honors,” the variety of regional music, and other matters that may be interesting and informative to students of Jewish history. I found these insights providing color and personality to the historical record less compelling and informative than his cultural and historical analysis.
Abrahams also explains the nature of community leadership – the officials of the Jewish synagogue, such as the shamash, or caretaker, or the schulklopfer, the temple official who called the congregation to prayer. After considering the importance of synagogue life, the book addresses the relationship between the Jewish community and the majority society and the greater ruling state. Jewish life in the Middle Ages was for the most part a story of social and economic isolation, persecution and massacres.
The comparatively small Jewish population was thought by Christian society as a people fated to live without a nation, punishment for their responsibility in the failure of the messianic mission. Further, Jewish loyalties were not predominantly national, but were religious, perhaps cultural, in nature. Consequently, Jews were thought of as strangers almost everywhere in Medieval Europe, which may explain the ease with which they were discriminated against in secular law and matters of taxation. Yet, once Christianity prohibited the lending of money, Jews performed a commercial need as bankers and financiers.
Perhaps the best known of medieval anti-Jewish practices was the ghetto. In 2nd century Rome, the ghetto was a place where Jews voluntarily clustered for religious and cultural reasons. It facilitated self-protection and provided necessary community needs such a synagogue and other religious institutions. In 1215, Pope Innocent III made Jewish segregation Church policy, but it wasn’t until the 15th century that Jews were segregated by secular law, initially in Frankfurt, Germany, and the practice quickly spread across medieval Europe.
It successfully marginalized Jewish social influence and limited competitive Jewish commerce. The isolation of Jews into ghettos was the death knell to any possible assimilation with mainstream culture in those countries. In some regions, segregation evolved into separation. Jews were expelled from France and England in the 13th century, and from Spain and Austria in the 15th century. Next to Abraham’s examination of synagogue life, I found his profile of Jewish home life the most compelling and enlightening in the book.
Perhaps this is because Abrahams believes that Jewish home life is essentially a domestic form of synagogue life. He states, “The home was the place where the Jew was at his best. ” Abrahams is unequivocal that the foundation of the Jewish home was in the practice of monogamy and the Jewish duty of marriage. Family was the Jewish ideal and women were the keepers of the family and the home. The Jewish home mirrored synagogue life through daily and Sabbath ritual and prayer and women were equally responsible with men for the performance of Jewish observance in the home.
Abrahams observes that there were contradictions in medieval Jewish marriage that are quite different from modern marriage. It was considered a duty, not an act of love. Prevailing religious lamentations for the failure of Zion and the cultural anguish of the Jewish Diaspora superseded personal joy. Abrahams does reveal an idealization of love in latter Yiddish poetry, but marriage in the Middle Ages was a sober social process, not a cause of personal celebration. Abraham’s examination of Jewish trades and occupations details the travels of Jewish merchant, Benjaimin of Tudela, all over the 12th century known world.
It is a powerful anecdote of Jewish commerce and the adventure of far-flung medieval travel. Benjamin’s written record offers compelling reading, as full of cultural and sociological observations as business details. Jews were prohibited from many occupations, but succeeded in such diverse professions and crafts as doctor, fabric and glass manufacturer, printing, and utensil and furniture fabrication. Jews were often sailors and soldiers, and tradition says the first person to sight America was a Jew in the crew of Christopher Columbus.
Abrahams argues that Jews became bankers – the loaners and investors of money – because the secular authorities placed such high taxes upon them. Maintaining a successful family and community and earning a living wage were no small accomplishments in light of the Jew’s social segregation. In spite of social debasement, Jewish family experience was equal to that found in medieval Gentile homes. Abrahams observes, “In most of these particulars, I can hardly think that the life of the Jewish child differed from that of his gentile brother.
But the Jewish view of domesticity showed itself in the success with which life was made lovable to the child notwithstanding the rigours of the discipline to which he was subjected. ” Abrahams makes a case that the dramatic stories used to express the ideals of the Jewish Bible contributed to the attitudes and substance of medieval Judaism. He explains that much of Jewish education was taught through study of the Talmud, a Holy text containing discussion and argument about Jewish law.
Talmudic study engendered a spirit of lively debate and placed a high value on individual thought and interpretation. These qualities of Jewish learning influenced the character and vitality of Jewish life. In his description of internal Jewish community life there is a sense that Jewish society was rich and diverse, including participation in such non-religious institutions as sports, the theater, the circus, literature and poetry, music, dancing, and even juggling. There were Jewish pirates and lion tamers and Many Jews loved competitive games such as chess and card playing.
In contrast to this cultural richness, marginalization and maltreatment marked the external life of the European Jew. Jews were tormented with constant humiliation, even as so personal as being forced to wear the yellow star badge as mandated by Pope Innocent III, and being restricted from wearing certain styles and colors of clothing. The contrast between the glorious substance of internal Jewish life and the abuses endured by Jews from the secular rulers of European nations and Christian society as whole leaves one wondering why Western civilization triumphed.