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

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