Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
A History of the Jews in Christian Spain (Two-volume set) Paperback – January 1, 1993
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Learn more
Customers who viewed this item also viewed
Customers who bought this item also bought
Top customer reviews
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
What struck me when reading Baer's account is that most Christian Spanish monarchs during the period in question had a relatively tolerant attitude towards the Jewish population. Jews were predominantly urban, and were allowed to live inside the citadels. While an important subset of the Jewish community consisted of money-lenders or "tax-farmers" (a kind of tax-collectors for the crown), most were artisans. Some were peasants. Baer has even managed to find a medieval record mentioning a Jewish toreador! The Jewish communities had extensive autonomy with legal jurisdiction over their own affairs, including the right to mutilate blasphemers or execute informers (people who falsely denounced Jews to the crown). The Jews could count on the aid of the Christian rulers when they persecuted Karaites, a Jewish sect deemed heretical by the rabbis. Legal conflicts between the Jewish and Christian communities were to be solved through arbitration by courts with an equal amount of members from both sides.
Most conspicuous was the existence of a Jewish aristocracy which served the Christian kings in a variety of capacities. They administered the crown's finances, looked after the king's estates, organized the confiscation and redistribution of Muslim property in recently retaken regions, and served as ambassadors to Muslim courts (Jews often spoke Arabic). They were employed as physicians at the royal courts. A few Jews even served in the military. Due to their knowledge of Arabic, Jews were employed as translators of scientific and philosophical works from the Muslim lands. When the crusaders re-conquered Muslim-held territory, the Muslims were often expelled, while the Jews were allowed to stay. While captured Muslims could be sold into slavery, captured Jews could not.
Of course, not all was well in this seemingly multi-culturalist paradise. The "tolerant" kings used "their" Jews (legally, all Jews "belonged" to the king) as cash-cows. Often, the vast estates of Jewish aristocrats were confiscated by the king after the aristocrat's death, even when the Jew had been a trusted advisor. Wealthy Jews would pay substantial sums of money to the royal treasury in return for extensive rights to collect taxes from the Christian subjects. The king would then promptly cancel the Jews' (unpopular) "tax-farming" rights, but without repaying the amount the Jewish aristocrats had already forewarded him! The good fortune of entire Jewish communities was dependent on that of their leaders, who could be sacked on the whim of the king. Rebellions against royal power often meant pogroms, since the Jews were seen as the king's men. Overzealous foreign crusaders sometimes massacred both "friendly" Jews and hostile Muslims.
Overall, however, the Catholic rulers of Spain and the Jewish communities formed a symbiotic relationship, since the kings needed the services of the Jews to carry out the Reconquista. Jews were used to repopulate the desolate war zones, Jewish credit was needed to stimulate trade and commerce, and the Jews themselves came in handy as go-betweens with the Moors. Jewish physicians were popular among all layers of the population. In return for their services, Jews got a certain amount of autonomy, and protection from the fanatics on the Christian side.
What eventually sealed the fate of the Jews were two, perhaps interdependent, processes. Both took place on an all-European scale. One was the tendency to centralization during the 13th and 14th centuries. While this strengthened the crown, it also tended to undercut Jewish autonomy, since everyone in the realm was to be subject to the same legislation: Roman law and (Christian) Canon Law. The new stress on unity and uniformity meant that Jews, just as Cathars and other "heretics", were suddenly deemed beyond the pale. The rise of a Christian burgher class presumably made the crown less dependent on Jewish credit. In Spain, this tendency towards centralism and a more modern economy was (ironically) accompanied by more democracy, when the kings convened the Cortes, sometimes regarded as the world's first parliament. The Christian Estates in the Cortes often demanded anti-Jewish measures.
The second process that affected the Jews negatively was the strong religious zeal of the 13th century papacy and the mendicant orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. The Church demanded that Jews shouldn't have authority over Christians, that they should wear special dress and badges, and that the taking of interest should be prohibited. Jews were forced to attend Christian sermons in their own synagogues with the aim to convert them. Jewish attempts to convert Christians and Muslims, on the other hand, were prohibited. (According to Baer, many slaves owned by wealthy Jews in Spain were Muslims, and could gain their freedom by adopting Judaism. It's not entirely clear whether these slaves really were Muslims, however, since the author also says that they had to be circumcised at conversion, suggesting they were really pagans. At one point, he refers to the slaves as "Muslims and Tatars"!) Jews were required to swear oaths containing anti-Jewish anathemas, the Talmud was either censored or burned, and the inquisition was already looking into cases of converted Jews who supposedly carried out Jewish rituals in secret. The blood libel reached Spain during this period. During the Plague, Jews were attacked by Christian mobs in the usual fashion.
The Spanish kings during the latter half of the 13th century vacillated between pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish policies, but usually the pro-Jewish stances won out. The tide seems to have turned against the Jews during the 14th century, especially during the calamitous civil war in the Castile between Peter (Pedro) the Cruel and his brother Henry. Peter is often depicted as pro-Jewish, but according to Baer, both sides in the conflict massacred or extorted the Jewish populations (including their own allies). Many Jewish communities were wiped out, and anti-Semitic feelings run high. Ironically, however, not even Henry (the victor) could completely dispense with the Jews, confirming their privileges after the war (!), and appointing some of them ambassadors to Muslim courts. Yet, the negative example had been set, and it would be mostly downhill from there...
I found "A History of the Jews in Christian Spain" immensely interesting. Why didn't we know any of this before? Imagine if Muslim rulers had appointed Jews to high offices, given them autonomy, shielded them against religious zealots, etc. This would be taken as yet another example of remarkable Muslim "tolerance", to be contrasted with the crusaders in Palestine or pogroms in Europe. Indeed, many Muslim rulers *were* tolerant towards Jews, Christians or even "pagans". Yet, when Christian crusading kingdoms in Spain treated the Jews in the same tolerant manner, there is only silence...
Officially received history jumps directly from the anti-Semitic Visigoths to the anti-Semitic "Catholic monarchs" Ferdinando and Isabella, saying nothing about the developments in between.
As I said, interesting...
But being so loaded (an in two volumes) with information, affecting the daily lives of the regular Jewish folk as well as the courtesans and intellectual luminaries, it is well worth browsing through. The author doesn't make it easy either to follow up the lives of the Jews, being as they were from various kingdoms. He dedicates chapters to Castile, for instance, and then returns chronologically to pick up the story in Aragón, when he could have dealt with issues together simultaneously, at least he should have taken more care to organize the stories. If it is a daunting task to tell of so many lives as are here presented, within various geographical scenarios, and for such a long time period as the Middle Ages, the author cannot be blamed for failing: he never even tries. He just takes a kingdom and deals with it for a time; then picks another and does likewise; then takes a different subject matter, then looks into it at another kingdom (perhaps another time...?). One looses any sense of cohesiveness.
Once said, I doubt there is anything left out of the book without even one mention, if it was worthwhile.