Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 33

Augustine of Canterbury was Prior of a church in Rome when Pope Gregory I asked him to lead a missionary quest to the Kingdom of Kent on the island of Britain. The Pope wrote letters to the Frankish kings and queens along the route, ensuring Augustine and his entourage of forty priests and monks would have a welcome journey. They arrived in Kent in 596 CE, welcomed by the Catholic Queen who had sent for them, Bertha, and her tolerant pagan husband, Æthelberht. The king gave the missionaries land to build a monastery, and welcomed them to seek converts among his people. 

By 601, Æthelberht was a baptised Catholic. Gregory was pleased with Augustine and sent him a special white scarf with black crosses in 601. It was made from wool raised by sheep at a particular nunnery, reserved only for popes and those they choose to honor. The current pope wears such a stole from lambs descended from the very same herd. Augustine’s mission work was slow but steady, following Gregory’s preferred style of persuasion rather than coercion. He was a Pope who avoided bloodshed as best he could, an urban politician, not a holy crusader. Paganism continued to be practiced in Kent through the 630s and was not outlawed until 640. 

While Augustine had great success with converting the Anglo-Saxon pagans, he struggled with the other aim of his mission: bringing the Celtic Christians back in line with Roman Christian doctrine. Christians had been in other parts of England – and in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales – long before Augustine arrived on Kentish shores. They just weren’t the right sort of Christians. They didn’t do baptism right, they had the wrong haircut, and they didn’t know when Easter was. 

Augustine wrote that they did “incomplete” baptisms, but not exactly what that meant. They two groups argued incessantly over tonsure or the proper haircut for a monk. Roman tonsure was in a halo style, with the top and center of the head shaved, and the hair clipped fairly short. We don’t have any surviving paintings to be certain of the Celtic tonsure style, but the general consensus was shorn from one ear to the other, over the dome of the head, and otherwise uncut. A tonsure mullet if you will: holy in the front, party in the back. This was a major point of contention between Augustine and the Celts. 

The other was the timing of Easter, and the related timing of Passover. Since the beginning of Christianity this has continued to be a sticking point in church orthodoxy and religious continuity between groups of Christians. The Celts were accused of observing Easter on the 14th of the Jewish month Nissan, which was not true, but is important to consider. The Celtic form of “heresy” was perceived as a type of Judaizing. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 32

Francia was just a watery channel away from the island of Britain. This is the first place on our world map and in our long series where I cannot say “Jews had already been there.” In fact there is no evidence Jews would come to England until shortly after the Norman conquest in 1066 CE. So the story I tell today is setting the stage for those later Jewish English communities. There are no Jews in this post. There are pagan Celts and all manner of Christian Germanic tribes.

The Angles and Jutes came from the Jute Peninsula shared by modern Germany and Denmark. The Saxons hailed from northern Germany. These three Germanic tribes were the strongest invaders; the British natives and Celts called them collectively “Anglo-Saxons”. The Frisians are still an indigenous group living in Germany and the Netherland, numbering at about 360,000. They speak three distinct, mutually unintelligible languages, two of which are endangered. 

In the 6th century the King of Kent Æthelbehrt married Frankish Princess Bertha. He was a pagan, she was a Catholic, could I make it anymore obvious? As condition of their marriage she got to bring her Frankish bishop Liudhard along and freely practice her faith. The king granted both, and didn’t go back on his word after the wedding. Bertha and Liudhard restored an old Roman era Christian church, but the bishop didn’t make many converts. He died of natural causes in 595 CE.

Queen Bertha had been in steady communication with Pope Gregory I. That was the kind of pen pal royalty had, especially Catholic royalty. As we have gone over before, Pope Gregory was a politically shrewd man. King Æthelberht was a star on the rise. He had overlordship over the other kingdoms south of the river and well established trade with his wife’s family in the Frankish kingdoms.Gregory had been thinking of sending a mission to Kent since 595. When news of Liudhard’s death reached him in 596, there was a hope for Gregory to get his own bishop in at Kent, not a Frankish bishop.

The man he chose was a priest named Augustine. 


Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 31

​Clotaire II issued the Edict of Paris in 614 or 615. This was done shortly after the Church held the 5th Synod of Paris, expressing their wishes for ecclesiastic life in the city. His Edict was a measured response of concessions and conditions. One concession was the Church’s desired ban on Jews holding civic office in Frankish government, excluding it to bishops, who were already excluded to Frankish nobility. This second exclusion had meant a drop in the moral and education standards of bishops. Clotaire agreed, barring Jews from high office in the kingdoms of Neustria, Burgundia, and Austrasia. 

Mayor of the Palace was an important administrative position within these Frankish kingdoms. Someone to listen to the nobles, run the everyday function of the palace grounds themselves, oversee the education of any minor royal heirs, and stay behind while the kings fought in wars. In 617, the Mayor of Austrasia, Peppin the Middle, convinced King Clotaire II to make the Mayorships lifelong, hereditary appointments. Like kingships. This would prove a fatal mistake to the Merovingian dynasty. 

This took legislative power from the king and gave it to the mayors, while also giving the nobles greater power to raise petitions against him which he could not ignore. In 623, Clotaire was forced to make his 20 year old son Dagobert King of Austrasia when they demanded a monarch of their own. Dagobert was the last Frankish king to have real royal power. The rest were either boys or puppets, regardless under the control of the most powerful and cunning Mayor of the three Frankish kingdoms of that time, Peppin of Austrasia. 

As a fully empowered monarch, King Dagobert proclaimed in 625 that all Jews in Austrasia must convert or leave the kingdom. This was not on the suggestion of the Catholic Church or the nobles. They’d been following Pope Gregory’s strategy of patient persuasion, and tax breaks for converts. Emperor Heraclius of Rome had written, high on his victory over Persia at Jerusalem. He’d driven the Israelites out of his kingdom and urged Dagobert his fellow Catholic to do the same. There are no further mentions of unconverted Jews in Austrasia during the next 175 years of the Merovingian (or Mayoral) reign. 

Dagobert was forced to make his son Sigebert III King of Austrasia as his father had done, but at the age of 3 not 20. Not trusting Peppin with the power of being Mayor to the boy-King, Dagobert kept the administrator hostage in Neustria. In 634 Dagobert secured oaths of loyalty from nobles to his second son Clovis II as future king of Neustria and Burgundy, shoring up defenses against threats to his line he already sensed. Dagobert died in 639, leaving two child kings, ages 11 and 5. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 30

Jews had been in the land north of Spain and Italy since the 1st century. They arrived with the first Roman settlers and stayed when the first Arianist Christian Germanic tribes defeated their Roman Catholic enemies. A semi-mythic line was founded by a Frankish queen, and allegedly the sea god Neptune, to produce Clovis I the Merovingian. He conquered what remained of Roman power in Gaul and defeated (or united!) all the Frankish tribes. Clovis was crowned King of All Franks in 509 CE. He is considered the Father of France for this achievement. 

Clovis was born a pagan, converted to the Arianism more common among his people, and the converted again to the Catholic faith of his Visigothic wife. This brought him into a strong alliance with Pope Gregory I. At the First Council of Orleans, Clovis distinctly linked the Church and the Crown. Over time, the Catholic Church and Frankish kingdom would go from entwined to enmeshed. Upon his death in 511, Clovis willed the kingdom to be divided into four kingdoms for his four sons to rule. They were not divided along cultural, language, or geographic boundaries, but on ensuring fair equal incomes to each royal heir. 

His last surviving heir Clotaire I reunited the kingdom once again in 550, adding the region of Burgundy for good measure. When he died the kingdom boundaries were newly drawn for his four sons. This is a fascinating alternative to oldest son solitary reign, but it was a disordered and chaotic one. The complex tax system of Rome was replaced with simple tolls and market fees. Lords were awarded landed in exchange for the responsibility of raising an army in time of need, and being self sufficient in all others. Frankish kingdoms were feudalist. Trade was in luxury goods like jewels, handled by Jewish merchants.

Two of Clotaire’s sons married a pair of Visigothic Spanish princess sisters, Brunhilda and Gaswintha. Sigeburt seems to have loved Brunhilda, but when Galswintha told Chilperec she didn’t approve of his concubines, he and his favorite concubine Ferdegund plotted to have her murdered. Brunhilda and Ferdegund were in a feud for the next half century. Their combined alleged assassination body count is well into the hundreds and includes a dozen kings and kings’ heirs, including Sigeburt and Chilperec. Ferdegund died first of natural causes, while Brunhilda lived long enough to be executed horribly in her seventies by Ferdegund’s son Clotaire II. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 29

Many of the Jews who’d fled Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 628 CE when he massacred the people of Jerusalem fled to Egypt. This was also part of the Empire and the Coptic Christians there had some longstanding tensions with the Hebrew peoples. In 617 CE Jewish residents of Alexandria had sided with Persian invaders, and the Copts weren’t keen on more Jews moving in. Jews had lived in Alexandria since its founding in 332 BCE under Alexander the Great. 

Starting in those early BCE years Alexandria Jews in Egypt translated the Torah into Greek. This Old Testament, LLX or Septuagint (Seventy), was the one read by the Apostle Paul and is the foundation of many modern Christian Bible translations, including the Greek Orthodox Bible. Over the time of this translation, the population of Alexandria was Christianizing, as were the translators. LLX was completed in 132 BCE. Twelve years after the influx of Jerusalem Jews, Arabs took Egypt for the Caliphate and not much is known about life for Egyptian Jews. 

North African tribes who spoke the Berber language converted to Judaism from the 1st to 7th centuries. They were fabled to be the descendants of Goliath, the Biblical Giant from Canaan. When the Arab conquest began to sweep through Africa, many Christian Berbers converted to Islam, but most Jewish Berbers did not. They had faith in their God, and in their Queen. Queen La Kahina Dahiya ruled over a nomadic Jewish territory spreading from modern Tunisia to Morocco and gave the Muslims their only serious defeat in the Islamic campaigns, forcing the Arabs to retreat all the way back hundreds of miles to Egypt.

According to Arab historians, in 698 CE the Kahina (Prophetess) called a war council of Bedouins (nomads) and blamed the attack on fruits of the city. Under her supposed orders, buildings were torn down, gems were buried, and fruit orchards and fields were set alight to make the city less desirable. When the Muslims came back with reinforcements, they were greeted by the common people as liberators – according to the victors who wrote this history. 

Once Dahiya knew defeat was certain, she told her sons to surrender themselves and convert; Islam was still monotheism to the one true God after all. For herself, she chose honorable death in battle. (Though one history by Irving Washington has her taken captive and beheaded when she refuses to convert.) One of Kahina Dahiya’s sons went on to win victory over Visigothic Spain on behalf of his new Muslim masters in 701 CE. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 28

In the 6th and 7th centuries, Italy was fragmented into territories under Lombard or Byzantine authority. Lombardi Italy was initially Arianist, believing in a Divine and Holy – but not Godly – Christ. However, in the late 600s the Lombards began adopting Catholicism, and were under papal authority by the time of Pope Gregory I. This meant that they had a similar pro Jewish policy, often in complete agreement with the Byzantine capitol in Constantinople. 

In 655 CE Pope Gregory bemoaned in a letter to the Governor of Sicily that the politician was not enforcing laws designed to curtail Jews from “anti-Christian” activities – with strong implications the governor was on the payroll of the Jewish community. An order by Emperor Heraclius 23 years before, that all Jews be baptised, had been ignored in the Italian peninsula, as was Emperor Leo’s order declaring all Jews were henceforth “New Christians” in 722/723. This was not because the people that were in charge were particular fond of these educated merchants. 

Male literacy was high among Jewish communities because of the importance placed on studying the Torah. This often meant that even in places where Jews were despised, they could find education and work in high status positions. Jews had long been goldsmiths as a trade: self-employed is safest for a hated people. Jewish women wove silks at home. Jewish merchants had learned to maximize profits by carrying small, high value goods like jewelry and silks. None of these are devious or wicked. All fit in the context of the story we’ve been going through. 

“[I]t would seem that those officials who attempted to curtail Jewish activities failed in these efforts and those who tended to be pro-Jewish gained valuable supporters of substantial economic and military importance.  … In Italy the political situation was simply too fragmented, and the Jews apparently were too numerous, influential, and important to be attacked effectively and systematically even by emperors and kings.” 

Early Medieval Jewish Policy in Western Europe

The Jews of Italy in the days of Pope Gregory may have felt cautiously optimistic. Byzantine officials were relaxing anti Jewish laws and the population of Rome was Judaizing. North African Jewish Berber tribes were gaining prominence and reknown. The Visigothic crown had gown to a pro Jewish king for once. In the Frankish kingdoms to the north, Queen Brunhild and her grandsons ruled their domains with pro Jewish policies as well. The world had its fair share of troubles – wars and famines and plagues. But as the country dissolved into factional nation states, Jewish persecution in Italy on a broad national scale disappeared for centuries. 

Further reading 

“Early Medieval Jewish Policy in Western Europe” by Bernard S. Bachrach 

“Christian Life and Worship (Dissertations in European Economic Theory)” by Gerald Ellard 

The letters of Gregory the Great translated by RC Martin

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 27

Here we have a profile of a non Jew important to the story. Pope Gregory I, also known as Saint Gregory the Great, came from a wealthy, noble, political, and papal family. His father was a Roman Senator and his great-great-grandfather had been Pope Felix III (or IV). Gregory did not contract a plague that wiped out nearly a third of Italy in his boyhood years, and he was also protected from a famine and from fighting. Historians suppose his parents withdrew to their country villas when the urban situation grew too unstable. Gregory was a diligent and devout student. 

He took monastic vows for a short time but found the life did not suit him. By the age of thirty, Gregory had reached the highest post in local politics, Prefect of Rome. He proved himself to be a capable administrator. As the Lombard’s became more aggressive, Gregory was sent as a special envoy on behalf of the Catholic Church to plead to the Byzantine Emperor Marcus for defensive troops. Gregory did as he was asked but once it became clear Marcus would do no more than set Franks against the Lombard’s, he changed his tactic. He cultivated relationships with Italian nobles instead during his years in the capitol. 

Gregory assumed the throne of St. Peter in 590 CE and the first thing he did as pope was write a lot of letters saying he’d never wanted to be pope, and why did this have to happen to him? He’d inherited the Tiara at a rough time. Constantinople wasn’t sending help against the Lombards. There was a serious food shortage. The city was filled with war refugees. Rome had never needed a man like Gregory more. First he stationed the borders and filled the garrisons with strong and capable men. Then he asked for every records ledger and accounts book the Church had on the present state of affairs. 

Wealthy Italians often donated large gifts to the Church, including farm lands with slaves and other real estate. Gregory donated much of his own fortune to the Church and encouraged his friends to do the same. He increased slave production quotas, sold their yield for wine, cheese, and grain, and gave this food to the poor as free Alms. For the nobles who had fallen on hard times but could not for reasons of station rely on public charities, Gregory prepared meals with his own hands and sent them with monks as “gifts”. He diverted shipments intended for other regions of the Empire, and had them directed to Rome instead until the famine passed. 

Gregory took a pro Jewish position as Pope, despite holding anti Jewish personal views he himself described as “the deepest horror and loathing”.  He ignored many instances of Jewish merchants buying and selling Christian slaves, knowing that Roman officials were involved in and encouraged the illegal trade. Gregory was far more alarmed by the close relations between Christians and Jews leading to intermarriage. According to Jewish law, their new spouse must convert to Judaism before the wedding can occur. Each marriage was a gain for Judaism and a loss for Christianity. It was banned by Byzantine and Church law, repeatedly, but the repetition only confirms how unenforced the laws were. Gregory was a shrewd politician, so he chose to be politick and not fight against the locally popular Jews. 

Further reading 

“Early Medieval Jewish Policy in Western Europe” by Bernard S. Bachrach 

“Christian Life and Worship (Dissertations in European Economic Theory)” by Gerald Ellard 

The letters of Gregory the Great translated by RC Martin