History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

This is the second in a three volume series of Jewish history. It covers the age of Charlemagne to the the Expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Topics covered include Jews in Moorish and Christian Spain, 'Blood Libel', pogroms, and expulsions in France, England, and Germany, Jewish converts and 'Crypto-Jews', Rashi, Maimonides, and other Jewish moralists, and the role of Jews in the discovery of America.

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[Title Page] from History of Mediaval Jews by Maurice Harris


Jewish history in the Middle Ages is, broadly speaking, European; hitherto it had been Asiatic. The story of the Jews of the epoch here treated is largely a Spanish story; and in so far as it is Spanish, it is largely a literary story. Long deprived of State power and prestige, their work is confined to the academy and the study. The Jewish Chazar Kingdom is hardly an exception, for, like Jonah's gourd, "it came up in a night and withered in a night."

It is true that in the Peninsula the Jews did exercise a kind of political power, but it was "behind thrones," not on them. Here Ibn Nagdela, Ibn Schaprut and Abarbanel loom prominent.

The literature, the production of which covers so much of this period, falls into two groups: —

  1. A literature written around the Law, consisting of Commentaries, Digests and Responsa. These form an unbroken chain of development in Jewish practice from the close of the Babylonian schools to the production of the Summary of the Asherides.
  2. A Philosophy, interpreted for the most part in terms of the prevailing Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian schools, yet with certain vital discriminations that make it a distinctively Jewish Theology. It synchronizes with the Scholasticism of the Church, which it greatly influenced. This Philosophy covers a wide range from the rationalism of Gersonides to the mysticism of Kabala.

Yet here and there these two streams merge. The Philosophy took the Bible as its starting point and objective, while some of the commentaries are philosophies.

Some men belong to both divisions, such as Saadyah; Maimonides gave us a "Second Law" as well as a "Guide to the Perplexed."

Between the two, the poets occupy a middle place; yet even these take God and the Law as their classic themes. Gabirol and Halevi were poet philosophers.

The Jewish litterateur wrote only for his own people, though occasionally reaching beyond the confines of Jewry. But the Jewish trader served an economic function for the world at large. Here he was the advance herald of commerce in an age of feudalism. He financed States and projects before the Italian banker appeared to give dignity to money-lending by the use of a new name.

But far more important than his place as middleman in the realm of industry was his place as middleman in the realm of letters. The Jewish linguists and translators brought Judaeo-Arabic science to the knowledge of Christian Europe, thus linking the races.

While the Hebrew and the Moslem lived together congenially and explored the realms of science hand in hand, by the Christian the Jews were rarely understood. Hence, their status in Christendom was a precarious one. They stood a helpless minority in a bigoted environment. At its best, theirs was a life of sufferance with its details of legal restrictions, taxes that were spoliations, and the humiliations of badge and ghetto. At its worst, it was a terrific tragedy, of which the "Hep, Hep!" of the Crusaders was the first act, the Black Death and the Inquisition the second act, the massacres and the expulsions making the climax.

Yet, throughout, their patient faith never flagged. It is the most wondrous fact of it all. And it did seem as though Providence intervened to open to them havens of refuge in the darkest hours — in Moslem Spain in the eighth century of Visigothic persecution, in Poland in the eleventh century of Crusade ravage, and in Turkey in the fifteenth century, when monkish hostility was fast hemming them in and shutting all doors of escape.

In the whole survey of this stirring period we must recognize that while there were many martyrs there were some traitors. The latter, rather than the former, contribute the tragedy of Israel. Together they mark the conflict between the ideal and the sordid — a conflict that is going on still.

So the study of this epoch may help the Jew of to-day to see himself mirrored. It thus becomes a not unimportant element in his religious education.

This introduction should be read at the close as well as at the opening of this book, for it is a summary of its contents.

Preface to the New Edition

This volume continues unbrokenly the History of the Jews from the point at which it closed in A Thousand Years of Jewish History.

The material in the volume falls into two divisions, — history and literature. The pupils may find the history more interesting and certainly simpler; but the literature must not be neglected, for the purpose of this series of books is to deepen Jewish consciousness. It will be noticed how largely the Jews were involved in all the great world movements and crises. It has, therefore, been found advisable to outline briefly certain events of general history in order to make clear the relation of the Jews to them.

A final volume, Modern Jewish History, completes the story of the Jew from the close of this book to the present day. It is a very small volume and could be included in the same year's course as this one.

In revising this work, effort has been made to simplify in language and presentation. Sub-titles have been introduced within each chapter.

The notes will be found fuller; "a theme for discussion" has been placed at the close of each chapter. The book has also been made attractive by the introduction of pictures. Credit is due Mr. Philip Cowen for his painstaking labors in obtaining some of these illustrations.

Many cross references are interspersed through the book, not only to aid the memory, but also to bring like conditions in different eras side by side.

[Contents] from History of Mediaval Jews by Maurice Harris
[Contents] from History of Mediaval Jews by Maurice Harris
[Contents] from History of Mediaval Jews by Maurice Harris
[Contents] from History of Mediaval Jews by Maurice Harris
[Contents] from History of Mediaval Jews by Maurice Harris
[Contents] from History of Mediaval Jews by Maurice Harris
[Contents] from History of Mediaval Jews by Maurice Harris