Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 51

Tension grew between the Frankish Carolingian kings and the Catholic Church. The two enties relied on each other: the papacy gave the Carolingians legitimacy for their non royal blood to sit on royal thrones, and the Frankish armies defended the Papal States from Lombards and other aggressors. But they didn’t agree on all matters. One of their key differences was on the topic of Jewish toleration. The Carolingian kings considered their Jewish subjects useful, profitable members of society, while the Church hierarchy thought of them as theologically defective sinners who refused to recognize the divinity of their Lord Savior. There was no reconciling these two positions. 

When the power of the royal family was strong, the Jews of France were well protected. In 839 Catholic clergy were outraged, and nervous, when a deacon from Louis I’s own court ran away to Muslim Spain to convert to Judaism in safety. King Louis didn’t seem to mind. Louis the Pious died in 840 leaving three surviving sons. After a bloody civil war, Lothair I, Louis the German, and Charles the Bald divided the empire into thirds at the Treaty of Verdun in 843. Now there was an East Francia, Middle Francia, and a West Francia with a dependent Aquitaine held by a nephew Peppin II. 

The new Archbishop of Lyons Amulo participated in two Church councils that set new restrictions on Jewish life and movement. He was at the Council of Meaux (845) and the Council of Paris (846) where prohibitions on Jewish slave ownership, Jewish service in government office, and Jewish congregation with Christians were combined into a body of law. Most extreme was a proposal taken from Visigothic law: that Jewish children be removed from their parents and raised in Christian homes.King Charles the Bald refused to ratify these laws, however. Charles, like his father and grandfather, employed Jews as foreign diplomats. In 877 King Charles sent a Jewish emissary named Judacot to Barcelona with silver to rebuild a damaged Christian church there. Charles died of a fever that year. The Church blamed his Jewish physician. 

The poisoning of King Charles II was the third conspiracy southern European Jews were accused of in thirty years. French Jews had also been held responsible for a Danish incursion at Bordeaux (848) and Jews of Barcelona had been blamed for handing over the city to the Moors (852). The Viking threat was pinned on the Jews and they were suspected of collusion. An 11th century Christian historian wrote that the Bishop of Sens (871-883) expelled all the Jews and nuns from the city “certe de causa“, or “certainly with cause”. Tragically this tantalizing phrase is all of the story we get, and we don’t know what the Jews and nuns did or allegedly did to warrant this mutual expulsion. 

During the various reigns across the Frankish kingdoms by the unpopular and sickly Charles III, who may have had epilepsy, the power of the monarchy faded. His various relations died without legitimate sons, leaving their kingdoms to him. He faced uprisings, revolts, and grabs for the crowns made by nephews and bastards his half-brothers and uncles had left behind. Charles also dealt with Vikings, usually by paying them off, which worked but made him look weak. In his third dealing with the Normans, he married his daughter Giselda to one who converted to Christianity. The descendants of these Normans would later conquer England. In late 887, East Francia formally deposed King Charles III. He died six weeks later. The entire empire broke apart into miniature kingdoms which appointed or elected their own kings from within, based on who they felt had the best claim. Several of Charlemagne’s descendants ended up on royal thrones, but his Jewish tolerant empire was no more. 
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Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 50

Jewish life in the Carolingian realms was largely integrated with non Jews. In gratitude for Jewish assistance in a battle against Muslims, Charlemagne’s father Peppin the Short awarded a community of Jews one third of the city of Narbonne. Jews also held lands around Paris and the Rhône Valley. The Church was the largest landlord by far, but the Jewish community had a few vegetable gardens, mills, and tanneries. They had several vineyards and Jewish wine became the standard in the Frankish Empire, even for Christian church ritual purposes such as the Eucharist (Communion). 

Charlemagne employed several Jewish men in his court. A Jew named Isaac who may have been a Radhanite was chosen for a diplomatic mission to Baghdad. Isaac and two Frankish noblemen set out in 797 on a mission of friendship to Caliph Harun al-Rashid. The Franks died on the return journey, but Isaac brought back with him the Caliph’s offer of friendship and numerous wonderful gifts. The most awe inspiring of these, and difficult to get home, was a live Indian elephant named Abu l’Abaz or “the Father of the Frown”. Charlemagne later took the elephant with him in 804 when he subdued a rebellion in Denmark. 

The king also had a Jewish physician. This cultural expertise had emerged out of the high literacy rates of Jews, and the spice trade. Jews in France and Germany were more literate in Latin than Hebrew overall, but Jews were more likely than Christians or Muslims to study multiple languages, because that was good for being a traveling merchant. Spice traders traveled as far as China for medicinal herbs. A literate, polyglot spice trader might make himself a physician by studying in China, buying the right herbs, and bringing them back with him to the West. 

 Jews in Frankish cities kept the Sabbath, followed Kosher dietary laws, and practiced endogomy in marriage, but they did not have the Talmud in the West in the early days. Christians were fascinated with Jewish customs, rituals, and holy days. What’s more, Charlemagne’s son Louis I had carried on his tradition of Jewish tolerance and expanded it. Louis kept several “merchants of the palace” at his court, and established several laws for their protection, and the protection of all Jews in his empire. They were not to be subjected to torture or trial by water or fire. Their property was not to be seized without cause. Louis even appointed a special Jewish Magistrate or Master, not to enforce Jewish behavior but to ensure their protection from civil and religious authorities. 

The Archbishop of Lyons Agobard wrote an epistle in 826 or 827 to King Louis I, entitled On the Insolence of the Jews. Agobard was an ardent evangelicals and separatist, who objected to Louis’ law forbidding Christians from converting the pagan slaves of Jews. Agobard had also recently received a letter of rebuke for baptising Jewish children in four Frankish cities. In his epistle, he complained to the monarch of how the Jews celebrated the news of the rebuke, read aloud to the town by the Jewish Magistrate in Agobard’s absence, as he had been away when it arrived. He mentioned their claims of a close relationship with the king, being descended from the Biblical patriarchs, and bragging that the market day had been changed from Saturday to Sunday to accommodate them. In closing, Agobard threw in some certainly false accusations of child kidnapping. Louis I called the Archbishop in to yell at him. 

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Further Reading


Jewish Virtual Library Louis I
Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present by Esther Benbassa, translated by M. B. DeBevoise (sample chapter

Jewish Encyclopedia France

Jewish Encyclopedia Agobard

On the Insolence of Jews Medieval sourcebook

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 49

In 782 Arabs came to conquer Anatolia and Asia Minor, under the Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Emperor Constantine VI and his Regent mother Irene of Athens sent their militaries against them. The Byzantines had al-Rashid’s forces surrounded. However, a stratego (general and governor of a Byzantine theme) named Tatzates chose this moment to defect with his troops. They advanced on Constantinople and by the time a truce was called for, Irene was forced to sue for peace at steep terms. A three year peace treaty was brokered, with Byzantium paying the caliphate a hefty annual tribute. 

The same year the Byzantines experienced military successes in the Balkans, subduing the Slavs and reasserting their cultural influence on the region.  Meanwhile in the West, the Frankish king Charles the Great continued his thirty year campaign against the Germanic Saxons. He Christianized them at the point of a sword. The engagement between his daughter Rotrude and Constantine was called off in 787, and Charlemagne resolved not to let any of his daughters marry, possibly to avoid future heir contestants to the throne. He did let them take on lovers and have bastards, both of whom he favored with gifts and titles. 

Irene wanted to improve relations with the Papacy and was herself an iconodule. When it came time to appoint a new Patriarch of Constantinople she elected Tarasios. He was a layman, not a clergyman, but well educated in theology. Tarasios had served as a senator and was imperial secretary. Irene had him processed through a rapid ordination from deacon to priest to bishop. His one condition for taking the post was a promise Constantinople would be reconciled with the Eastern Church and Rome by restoring the veneration of icons. Irene wrote to Pope Adrian I (also recorded as Pope Hadrian I). He was miffed about her sex and about her instant bishop, but he agreed to the ecumenical council. 

Everyone met at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, and there was an ambush! Mutinous soldiers attacked and they skedaddled as only terrified monks and bishops with boat access can, and reconvened at Nicea. There they agreed that icons were totally fine now, that they no longer hated Christians who used icons to reflect on God’s glory, and that prior heresy making them think otherwise was the fault of Jews, Arabs, Persians, and Chinese. This council is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic Churches of Byzantine Rite, and the Eastern Orthodox Church as “The Triumph of Orthodoxy”. Later Protestant Christian faiths would consider icon veneration to be the sin of idolatry. 

Irene had brought her empire in line with Catholic doctrine. In 797, after her son impiously put his wife away in a convent so he could take up a public affair with her lady, Irene deposed him and had his eyes gouged out (a typical Byzantine punishment for deposed emperors.) Here was a true pious Christian, iconodule ruler of the empire. But she was a woman, the first empress regnant in the history of the Roman Byzantine empire. And so, on Christmas Day 800, Pope Leo III crowned the iconoclast Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor as he knelt at the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This was Irene’s thanks for the Second Council of Nicea. At home she was deposed by a plot against her in 802, and lived out the rest of her life in exile on the island of Lesbos. There is a common misconception that she was canonized and is a saint, but it is not true. Charlemagne however was celebrated as a saint between 1165-1179 and is now considered to have a confirmed beatification. 

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Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 48 

Constantine V reigned with his son Leo the Khazar as a junior emperor under him, as Constantine had served under his father. This system ensured a smooth transition upon the elder emperor’s demise, and reduced the chances an uncle or brother’s bid for the throne would have as much support. In 768, the 18 year old Leo wed Irene of Athens, a patrician’s daughter most likely chosen for her beauty in a bride-show. She was about 16. Their only child was born in January 771, a boy who would one day become Constantine VI. 

In September 775, Constantine V died of natural causes. Leo became Emperor Leo IV. He made his only son coemperor the following Pascha (Passover) Sunday, in 776, when Constantine VI was but 5 years old. Leo’s half-brothers threatened to rebel so he had them tonsured and exiled to Cherson that same year. Like his father and grandfather Leo was an iconoclast, but he took a more moderate position than they had at first. However, in 780 Leo discovered icons in his wife Irene’s possessions. He refused to share a marriage bed with her afterwards, and resumed persecution of iconophiles and monasteries. Leo IV died in the autumn of 780 of fever, while on campaign against the Bulgarians. 

Since little Constantine VI was only 9 years old, Regent Irene was the real power behind the throne. The young emperor’s uncle Caesar Nikephoros, younger half-brother to his father by his grandfather’s third wife Eudokia, immediately made a play for his crown. Irene suppressed this by having Nikephoros and all the sons of Eudokia ordained as priests, making them ineligible to be emperor. She had them publicly perform communion at the Hagia Sophia on Christmas Day, 780. In 781, Empress Regent Irene arranged a future marriage contract for young Constantine VI, aged 10, to someday wed the eldest daughter of the Frankish King Charlemagne, 5-year-old Rotrude. 

Charlemagne was Irene’s opposite in many ways. While Irene was an iconodule (icon worshipper), he was an iconoclast. She was a woman of of the Roman Greek East and he was a man of the French German West. He was the undisputed ruler of the Frankish kingdom and his reign had been blessed by Pope Adrian I. Charlemagne was the son of Charles Martel, victor at the Battle of the Tours. Martel was the bastard son of Pippin of Herstal –  the Mayor of the Palace who stole the power of the throne from the Merovingian dynasty, even while letting them continue to call themselves kings a little longer. 

In the 770s Charlemagne had defended certain Papal cities from Lombard takeover, including the former exarchate of Ravenna. In exchange for this the church provided legitimacy of his family’s position on the throne. The Carolingian dynasty was declared God’s will for Francia and Italy. On July 10, 774 Charles the Great was crowned King of the Lombards with the Iron Crown, so named because legend said it contained an iron nail from the True Cross which Jesus Christ was crucified on. By that time he held most of the lands between Aquitaine and Bavaria. 

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Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 47

When Arab forces surrounded the Byzantine captial of Constantinople during the Second Siege starting in the summer of 717, the Christians there didn’t know if they would survive. This wasn’t the loose blockade of the first round. It was a precise, military affair, with land forces including many mounted troops and a large navy. The Umayyads meant to starve them into surrender, or starve their merchants of economy until they forced a surrender, tactics that worked for them as often as force. But the Byzantine incendiary weapon Greek fire destroyed the Arab navy, allowing Constantinople to resupply itself while the Arab land troops were isolated. 

The winter of 717 was brutal. Famine and disease hit the Arab camps. The Byzantine navy stopped Arab multiple ships attempting to reach them and a ground resupply operation was seized in Asia Minor. The Bulgars were sometimes allies of Constantinople and sometimes enemies. In the spring of 718 they were allies, and attacked the Arab camps from the rear. 22-32,000 Arabs were cut down. The Muslims were forced to give up their siege. On their return voyage, natural disasters plagued them and killed many. To the Christians of Byzantium, it was a sign of God’s will. An old kind of Apocalypse theology was revived. 

During the Persian Wars of the 600s, when Constantinople had withstood Sassanid assault, Christian missionaries and bishops had preached that Constantinople was the New Jerusalem: that Old Testament prophecies about a coming Apocalypse applied to them. God had forsaken the Jews for he was displeased with them, but he had saved the Christians for they were his new chosen people. It was the original Israeli substitution theology. Romans began to conceive of “Roman Christian” as a race of people in direct opposition to the Jews, set apart by God as a holy contrast. After the Arab loss in 718, this theology returned. Arabs were seen as pawns or agents of the Jews, the true enemies of Christ. 

In 726 an underwater volcano erupted off the coast of modern Santorini in the Aegean Sea. This probably caused tsunamis, red tides, or other omens of the end times. Many Byzantines interpreted it as God’s wrath, for the sin of icon veneration. Emperor Leo III had a large image of Jesus removed from the Chalke Gate, and replaced with a simple cross. He didn’t check with any of the big churches or popes first though, he just did it. Veneration was a touchy issue, because it was tied up in Christ’s nature, Mary’s name, and whether Nestorianism was heresy or not. Pope Gregory III in Rome held two synods condemning Leo and upholding the veneration of images and the holiness of intercessory prayers. That is, prayers to Jesus, Mary, or a Saint, asking them to intercede with God on one’s behalf. 

In 741, Leo III died, leaving Byzantine to his son Constantine V. Constantine was also a staunch iconoclast (icon breaker). Constantine gathered the Council of Hereria in 754 to settle the matter, calling paintings of saints sinful, but the clergy gathered were not the heads of their churches. Contemporary sources accuse Constantine of harassment campaigns against monasteries, and with the martyrdom killing of St. Stephen. Because monasteries were exempt from both performing military service and paying taxes, many historians suppose Constantine had more practical reasons for trying to gain the obedience of the monks than his position on icons. 
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Further reading

Olster, David M. (1994). Roman Defeat, Christian Response, and Literary Construction of the Jew. University of Pennsylvania Press. 

L. Brubaker and J. Haldon. “Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680-850” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 46

From 712-740 the Umayyads campaigned in India. The first quest was a stunning success: they captured the Kingdom of Singh and a 2:1 return on investment. The caliph invested in grand public works projects. But when they failed in the Second Seige of Constantinople (717-718) and the embarrassing Battle of Toulouse against Duke Odo of Aquitaine (721), they were running out of money. Keen tax collectors pushed non-Arabs and non-Muslims to support the lavish lifestyle of the ruling minority, and the expense of maintaining the largest military in the world. People came to resent it. In 724 in Egypt, the first Coptic riots over tax policy broke out, because they were being taxed in the form of human slaves. 

​True believing Muslim mawla (non-Arabs) were not necessarily much happier with the ruling Umayyads than dhimmi (non-Muslims) and polytheists were. Each time a new caliph came to power, he moved the capital to his private estate. There was no permanent palace or central government facilities. Compared to the sophisticated courts of the Roman and Tang dynasties, the Umayyad court was simple and small, with almost all positions focused either on the military or raising taxes. There were no other matters of state significant to the caliphate sufficient to demand a government post. 

Local Iraqis were upset about gentrification in the 730s CE. Umayyad caliphs gave large, tax-free estates to their Arab favorites and spent treasury funds on improvements for them. These irrigation and land projects would inflate the surrounding land value, forcing locals out as privileged Arabs bought up the newly desirable space. Support started to grow for various contenders to the Umayyads for power, including members of the House of Muhammad, through his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali. 

The celebrated general Abdul Rahman al-Ghafiqi was killed during the Battle of Tours (732), which the Arabs lost to the Frankish Charles Martel. They were forced to cease further expansion into Europe, and fall back to Gaul. Al-Ghafiqi’s death was a terrible loss, bemoaned at length in Arab records of the day. A naval expedition to Sicily failed disastrously in 744, at great expense. Ships were not costs the fighting men could share with the capital like arms and armor, which they often provided themselves. In June of 746 the Third Fitna or Muslim Civil War began. By 750 the Umayyad caliphate was replaced by the Abbasid. 
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Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 45

The Arab Empire in the early 8th century was on the rise. It had started in the Hijaz (western Saudi Arabia) during the life of Muhammad. In the time of the first four caliphs, called the “rightly guided caliphs” in Islam, the Arabian territory quadrupled in 29 years. By the start of the Umayyad caliphate, the Arab empire controlled Spain, the northern coast of Africa from Morocco to Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean coast including Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, the entire Arab peninsula, including modern Saudi Arabia, Yemen, UAE, Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait, most of Persia, and part of modern Turkmenistan.

The Umayyad caliphate in 720 CE covered 11.1 Million square kilometers of land, or 7.45% of the Earth. The mighty Roman empire at its greatest (117 CE) was less than half that size, at 5 Million square kilometers or 3.36% of the Earth’s surface. It would take five centuries for the Mongols to usurp the Arabs as the largest empire builders in world history. Yet they continued to follow a policy of expansion. For one thing, it was the only way they had to pay their enormous army. Booty from successful campaigns had always been the traditional Arab form of soldier payment. The borders were now too large to leave undefended, but the military was too large to pay from the central treasury. 

A plantation system of agriculture had taken root. The many princes of the caliphate and sons of generals were given private estates, managed by servants and worked by slaves. Rules of the Qur’an forbid enslaving fellow Muslims, so a steady supply of non-Muslim slaves was called for. The social hierarchy had Arab Muslims at the top, followed by non-Arab converts to Islam, known as mawali. After these came the “people of the Book”, monotheist non-Muslim believers in the One True God, Christians and Jews. These dhimmi had to pay jizya and live under certain legal and social ” disabilities”. Then came polytheists, and finally slaves. 

The Arab slave trade was not based on race, exactly. Tribal superiority, religious superiority – these concepts existed in the 700s.  Racial superiority based on skin color or shared haplotype didn’t. They bought and captured non-Muslims in border territories, in central Asia, and along the east coast of Africa. Bantu people, captured from central Africa then sold on the east coast, were forcibly transported across the Indian Ocean to every shore. Missionary work in Africa was discouraged, as it would reduce the slave supply. From central Asia so many Slavic people were kidnapped and sold into forced labor, the English word “slave” was once simply the word “Slav”. 


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