Jews put their fellow Jews first

A historical overview Used and persecuted - Jews in the Middle Ages

Jewish life in Europe has not only existed since the Middle Ages. Jewish colonies existed in the Roman province of Hispania as early as the 1st century. At the end of antiquity, Jews not only live on the Iberian Peninsula but also in Italy, the Balkans, Gaul and the Roman province of Germania inferior. The first Jewish communities can be found here in Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Worms and Speyer. Free Jews have Roman citizenship and their belief is recognized as a "religio licita" (permitted religion).

Alone among Christians

The Jewish religion basically remains that way even when the Roman Empire becomes Christian from the 4th century onwards. However, from now on Jews are regarded as "Gentiles" or "unbelievers" and no longer as equal to Christians. While the emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire issued increasingly restrictive edicts in the 5th and 6th centuries that clearly define the subordination of Jews to the Christian majority population and forbid them to build synagogues, for example, after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire towards the end of the 5th In the 19th century in the Germanic empires that were emerging there, initially relative tolerance.

Dear traders in the Franconian Empire

In the Carolingian Frankish empire, Jews received royal protection in the 8th and 9th centuries. You are respected as doctors, but above all needed as traders between the continents. In the Mediterranean trade between the Christian countries of Europe and the Muslim countries of North Africa, the Middle East, but also Spain, Jewish seafarers occupy an almost monopoly position in the 9th century. The Franconian rulers Charlemagne (747–814) and his son Ludwig the Pious (778-840) grant the Jews of their empire special privileges. Many of them achieve considerable prosperity, which in turn gives them the resentment of Christian contemporaries.

Accusation of "murder of god"

But the privileges granted to the Jews in Carolingian letters of protection, which for example forbid the church to evangelize the pagan slaves of Jews, arouse opposition from the clergy. The polemics of the high clergy are based on the view that the Jews are responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and are therefore "murderers of God" (since Christians understand that Jesus is the Son of God). The Church believes that they must live scattered among other peoples as a punishment for their unbelief, and their only possible salvation is Christian conversion. Archbishop Agobard von Lyon (769-840), one of the greatest opponents of Judaism in the Franconian Empire, even equated the Jews with the "Antichrist", which will shape anti-Jewish literature into the 20th century.

Limited employment opportunities

It is at least as disastrous that Jews in the Christian estates that have emerged since the 9th and 10th centuries are forced into an outsider role that prevents their social integration. As non-Christians, they are not allowed to acquire land, so they can only settle in cities. Here, too, their employment opportunities are limited. A craft can only be practiced by someone who is a member of a guild. However, these are all Christian brotherhoods. As a result, Jews have no access. What remains for them are professions that are outlawed by Christians, such as junk trading, pawnbroking or lending. Since church law forbids Christians to lend money against interest until the 15th century, Jews become very successful as bankers. Which, however, often brings them the resentment of their Christian contemporaries.

Flowering time in the 11th century

Nevertheless, Judaism experienced a heyday in the area of ​​today's Germany in the 11th century. Around 20,000 Jews lived in the Holy Roman Empire north of the Alps at that time. Jewish traders immigrate from Italy and southern France to the big cities of the Rhineland and southern Germany. Central German cities such as Magdeburg, Erfurt and Merseburg also get large Jewish communities. A privilege issued by Emperor Heinrich IV (1050-1106) to the Jews of Worms from 1090 proves that Jews at that time belonged to the upper classes of society and were even allowed to carry weapons.

The catastrophe of the crusades

The situation changes abruptly with the First Crusade from 1096. Both the peasant army that passed through first, which also includes numerous criminals, and the large crusader army led by the later King of Jerusalem, Godfried von Bouillon (1060-1100), among others, leave a swath of desolation and death. Numerous Jewish communities in the Rhineland, but also in Magdeburg, Regensburg and Prague are attacked. The crusaders are not only interested in killing the "enemies of Christ" or forcibly baptizing them, but also to gain possession of their property, which they need to finance their procession.

Gradual incapacitation

The negative consequences of the crusade pogroms for the legal position of the Jews in the empire are also lasting: Emperor Heinrich IV placed his Jewish subjects under his personal protection in the Peace of Mainz in 1103, but at the same time denied them the right to carry their own weapons. The Stauffer Emperor Friedrich II (1194-1250) goes one step further. In the certainly well-intentioned endeavor to ensure better protection for the Jews, he declared them to be "chamber servants" in 1236, that is, to the "possession" of the Roman-German emperor. Although they are guaranteed the protection of life and property and internal Jewish autonomy, this is bought at the cost of the loss of personal freedoms and special taxes. For the emperor, the electoral princes and other imperial princes, protection funds and special taxes from Jewish subjects will increasingly become sources of income that they will make full use of.

Medieval accusations

However, this did not give the Jews in the Roman-German Empire permanent security from persecution, extermination and expulsion. Since the 12th century Jews have repeatedly been accused of so-called "satanic" crimes such as ritual murder of Christians, host sacrilege, blasphemy or well poisoning. In the subsequent regional pogroms and expulsions, entire communities across Germany were wiped out, as was the case in Erfurt for the first time in 1221. Jews were also massively persecuted in France and England during this period.

The plague and the pogroms

The worst came when the plague penetrated Central Europe in 1348. Since the real spreaders of the epidemic - lice in the furs of rats - are unknown, the Jews are soon declared scapegoats. It is said that they poisoned the wells and thus caused the "Black Death". Although the emperor, pope and imperial estates try to exercise their patronage role towards the Jews - who are also an important source of income for them - they often fail to do so. Too many local agitators have an interest in killing the Jews and enriching themselves with their property. One year after the great plague pogroms of 1349, very few Jews still live in Central Europe. The large Jewish community in Erfurt was also wiped out at that time.

The decline of Jewish life

It is true that Jewish life will soon settle again, but it often does not last for a long time. At that time, the Jews in Germany had already lost much of their original economic importance. In addition, by the 15th century at the latest, they are everywhere forced to live in their own delimited city quarters, the ghettos or Jewish alleys, and to show themselves through special clothing such as the horned pointed hat. That makes their persecution and eviction even easier. In the same century, Jews were expelled from most imperial cities and sovereign territories in the east of the empire. Poland becomes a new center of Jewish life in Europe. They take their mixed German-Jewish language - Yiddish - with them there.