Expulsion of the Jews in Medieval Europe

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13th century rabbis in France

Jews were gradually expelled from many parts of Europe in Medieval times and later: — from England in 1290, from France in 1306 and from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497. They were also expelled from Hungary in 1376, from Sicily in the 15th century, from Bavaria in 1470, from Bohemia in 1542, By 1500, except for isolated communities in France and Italy, western Europe was virtually bereft of Jews, who were allowed to return to some places like England, but they still faced discrimination and exclusion from public life.

In medieval Europe and elsewhere, Jews were harshly persecuted, denied entrance into certain professions, prohibited from owning land, forced to pay extra taxes and excluded from the normal education system. Especially during and after of the Crusades of 1096, 1146–47, and 1189–90 and of the Black Death in 1348–49, things got really bad for Jews in Europe. During the Crusades, many Jews in Europe, particularly those in Germany, were slaughtered by Christian Crusaders who were on their way to Palestine to reclaim it from Islam. Whole communities were massacred, and others were expelled.

In 1517 Jews in Venice were confined to neighborhoods around the cannon foundry, or “ghetto” . The word ghetto came from this move. In other places Jews were forced to wear special clothes or badges. Through it all the Jews kept their culture and communities alive in their synagogues and schools, with the help of their rabbis, and for the part steadfastly refused to assimilate. The German-Israeli scholar Gershom Scholem wrote: the Jews “have had a relationship with Europe only to the degree that Europe has acted upon us as a destructive stimulation.” There were pogroms in Russia in 1881, 1891, 1897 and 1903.

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research yivoinstitute.org ; Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish History.org jewishhistory.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu

Expulsion of Jews from England and Their Return

Jews accused of poisoning wells during the Great Plague

In England the Jews faced increasing restrictions during the Thirteenth Century, and in 1290 they were all expelled from England. Shortly afterwards the Jews were expelled from France. In The Jews were expelled from southern Italy, then known as the Kingdom of Naples, in the 16th century. Few returned even after the ban was lifted in the 18th century. Also in the 16th century, in Germany, Martin Luther (founder of Protestant Christianity) preached viciously against the Jews. [Source: BBC]

Tara Holmes of the BBC wrote: The Jews were banished from England by Edward I. His motivation was partly financial: once they were banished, their possessions became property of the crown. England was short of money and illegal coin-clipping was on the rise. The Jews became Edward's scapegoat. He banned them from usury (money-lending at interest) in 1275. 1278 brought widespread arrests of Jewish men; many were hanged and 600 imprisoned in the Tower of London. [Source: Tara Holmes, BBC, June 24, 2011]

In 1290 Edward banished the Jews outright. He issued writs to the sheriffs of all English counties ordering them to enforce his Edict of Expulsion, a decree which required all Jews to be expelled from the country by All Saints' Day (1st November) that year. They were only allowed to carry with them their portable property. Apart from a few exceptions, houses and properties were passed to the king. This made England the first European country to expel Jews, and they remained banned for 366 years. Some Jews stayed in England by hiding their identity and religion but the majority settled in France and Germany.

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: In 1290 King Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion and exiled around 2000 Jews from England. His actions were in part motivated by a financial crisis within the royal household. When Edward first expelled the Jews from Gascony and England he appropriated their property and debts. He then passed on the cost of deportation to the English taxpayers who, fired up by anti-Semitic myths and folklore, were happy to foot the bill of exiling scapegoated English Jews. In their article “States, Regimes, and Decisions,” Karen Barkey (now the Haas Distinguished Chair of religious diversity at UC Berkeley) and Ira Katznelson (Ruggles Professor of political science and history at Columbia) argue that the expulsion was not just about money; it was about state building. They argue that the motivation behind the expulsion of Jews from England and France was the “result of attempts by kings to manage royal insecurity, refashion relations between state and society, and build more durable systems of taxation within the territories they claimed as theirs.” All of which means that as European social identities began to fossilize and Jews became less financially important, Jews also became more clearly identifiable as outsiders. This left them socially and politically vulnerable and ultimately led to their eviction. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, February 5, 2017]

It wasn't until the 17th century that Jews were allowed back to Britain. It was Oliver Cromwell who orchestrated the Jews' return after he came to power. He was influenced in this by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam, the Jewish ambassador to the Gentiles. On 31 October 1655, Cromwell submitted a seven-point petition to the Council of State calling for Jews to return to Britain. Cromwell met with resistance at the Whitehall Conference in December that year but resolved to authorise an unofficial readmission. At that time, the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community had been expelled from Spain. Many exiled Jews headed to Amsterdam, helping to turn it into one of the world's busiest ports. Cromwell saw that the return of the Jews would bring great financial benefits to England. In 1656 Cromwell made a verbal promise, backed by the Council of State, to allow Jews to return to Britain and practise their faith freely. As a result, Jews from Holland, Spain and Portugal came to Britain. They became more and more integrated into British society. For a time, England was one of the most religiously tolerant countries in Europe. But it wasn't until 1858 that English Jews received formal emancipation.

Expulsion of the Jews from France, 1306

According to the BBC: “During the first half of the 13th century the attitude of the Church towards Jews hardened from disapproval to loathing. On 22 July, 1306 King Philip IV of France expelled all Jews from his kingdom. King Philip IV, known as Philip the Fair, came to the throne in 1285. A few years later, in 1290, Jews living in England were expelled by King Edward I, many of them moving to France. Unfortunately for the Jews, France had its own history of persecution. The Lateran Council of 1215 summoned by Pope Innocent III forbade the living or working together and trading between Jews and Christians. Jews were excluded from all trades except pawn broking and working with old clothes. They had to wear a special garment to differentiate them from Christians. This applied throughout the Christian world wherever canon law was followed. [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]

“This period included an infamous two year disputation of the Talmud which led to the burning of 20 cartloads of the holy book in Paris in 1242. Jews had been expelled from France in 1182 by an earlier King Philip and regularly throughout the 13th century but within a few years they were allowed back. They acted as tax collectors for the king but this role was gradually taken over by Italian bankers. So by the beginning of the 14th century they were no longer indispensable to the crown. |::|

Expulsion of the Jews

“In 1306 King Philip was short of money due to a war with the Flemish and a complex currency revaluation problem. It was against this financial background that King Philip came up with the plan to expel the Jews of France and confiscate and sell off their property. This was a normal event in mediaeval times. It was perfectly legal for the King to take over the Jews' possessions as they were in effect already his property. Jews were regarded as 'servi camerae mostrae', the Latin for 'servants of our chamber'. They were the King's chattel to do with as he saw fit. They had until this time also been entitled to his protection. King Philip saw the Jews as a liability with which he wanted to deal and an asset which he needed to realise. They had been tolerated, because of their material usefulness, but never accepted. |::|

“In January of 1306 King Philip set up a secret plan to strip the Jews of their belongings and expel them from the country. If any were to be found after a particular date then they would be killed. 100,000 Jews were arrested on July 22nd 1306. This was the day after the solemn fast of the 9th of Av which has often seen calamitous occurrences for Jews. It was possible to complete the arrests in one day because the orders had been kept secret. The authorities knew the whereabouts of the Jews and they were taken by surprise. |::|

“When in prison the Jews were told that they were sentenced to exile. They had to leave behind their belongings and debts and were to be allowed to leave the country only with the clothes they were wearing and a small sum of money. They were permitted 12 sous each. They were then given a period of one month in which to flee or face the consequences. However it took until the October for the expulsions to be complete due to the noting and processing of the assets concerned. |::|

“All the Jews' belongings were auctioned. The King took the proceeds. All debts to the Jews were transferred to the King and he received the payments from their Christian debtors. In order to maximise the profit, the King made sure the sale happened at the same time that a new edict forbidding coin clipping came into force. Endemic in the middle ages, coin clipping involved shaving off a tiny part of the precious metal of the coin and melting the collected clippings down to sell. Philip also offered a bounty of 20 percent to anyone who discovered any wealth that the Jews had secreted. |::|

“In taking this action and removing one of the main sources of finance in his kingdom the King was taking a desperate step. Though the Kingdom of France had expanded during the 13th century the Jews were allowed to remain in areas outside the realm. These were Lorraine, the county of Burgundy, Savoy, Dauphiné, Roussillon, and the papal lands at Avignon. Although the expulsion was quick the auctions took a long time. They were still happening at the time of King Philip's death. He was succeeded by his son Louis who in 1315 reversed the decree. However by 1322 the Jews were banished once more. This was part of a pattern of expulsion and return. It concluded with the expulsion of 1394. This is accepted as the date of the last expulsion from France in the mediaeval period. They returned over the following centuries as the kingdom expanded into areas to which they had fled.” |::|

Burning of Jews in Portugal in 1497

Expulsion of Jews from Spain

In 1492 Jews were expelled from Spain. The same thing happened in Portugal in 1497. The Jews did not forsee the expulsion, The victory of the Catholic monarchs over the Muslims in Spain set off a wave of religious intolerance that lead to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. In 1492, the same year Columbus discovered America, 150,000 Jews known as Sephardim were stripped of their possessions during the Spanish Inquisition and kicked out of the Spain.

In 1492, the Spanish inquisitor general Torquemada gave the Jews three months to convert to Christianity, leave the country, or face execution. Many Jews sought refuge in the Netherlands or the Islamic empires of the Moors, Arabs and Turks, where there was more religious toleration.

Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote: In the spring of 1492, shortly after the Moors were driven out of Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain expelled all the Jews from their lands and thus, by a stroke of the pen, put an end to the largest and most distinguished Jewish settlement in Europe. The expulsion of this intelligent, cultured, and industrious class was prompted only in part by the greed of the king and the intensified nationalism of the people who had just brought the crusade against the Muslim Moors to a glorious close. The real motive was the religious zeal of the Church, the Queen, and the masses. The official reason given for driving out the Jews was that they encouraged the Marranos to persist in their Jewishness and thus would not allow them to become good Christians.

About 100,000 of the 150,000 Sephardic Jews kicked out of the Spain were welcomed to Istanbul by the Ottoman Sultan Bayazit II, who dispatched the Ottoman navy to rescue many Jews. "The exiled Sephardim," wrote journalist Melanie Menagh, "brought with them the glories of Spain's golden age and made major contributions to Turkish life. Many were physicians and they introduced modern European medical techniques to the court.” Some Jews lived on quietly as Catholics in Toledo and other Spanish cities. One Toledo resident told Journalist Louise E. Levathes, "I have a friend. He is Catholic and goes to mass every Sunday. But for some reason his grandfather and father told him not to eat pork, and every Friday night he lights a Sabbath candle."

1479-15 — Isabella's severe anti-Jewish leanings influence Ferdinand and lead to the final expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
1492 — End of Muslim states in Spain.
1492 — Christian expulsion of Muslim Moors from Spain.
1492 — The Alhambra Decree ordered the expulsion of the Jews from Castile and Aragon, Spain. The edict was not formally revoked until December 16, 1968.
1492 — Columbus sets sail.
1492 — Christian expulsion of Jews from Spain, sending over 200,000 Jews fleeing: 137,000 Jews forced to leave Sicily.

Book: “Farwell España, The World of Sephardism Remembered” by Howard M. Sachar (Alfred A. Knopf).

Account of the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain

The following is an account of the expulsion of Spanish Jewry originally written in Hebrew by an Italian Jew in the spring of 1495: “In the year 5252 [1492], in the days of King Ferdinand, the Lord visited the remnant of his people a second time [the first Spanish visitation was in 1391], and exiled them. After the King had captured the city of Granada from the Moors, and it had surrendered to him on the 7th [2d] of January of the year just mentioned, he ordered the expulsion of all the Jews in all parts of his kingdom-in the kingdoms of Castile, Catalonia, Aragon, Galicia, Majorca, Minorca, the Basque provinces, the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, and the kingdom of Valencia. Even before that the Queen had expelled them from the kingdom of Andalusia [1483][Source: Jewish Sourcebooks sourcebooks.fordham.edu

The King gave them three months' time in which to leave. It ,vas announced in public in every city on the first of May, which happened to be the 19th day of the Omer, and the term ended on the day before the 9th of Ab. [The forty-nine days between the second of Passover and Shabuot are called Omer days. The actual decree of expulsion was signed March 31 and announced the first of May, the 19th day of the Omer. The Jews were to leave during in May, June, and July and be out of the country by August I, the 8th of Ab.]

About their number there is no agreement, but, after many inquiries, I found that the most generally accepted estimate is 50,000 families, or, as others say, 53,000- [This would be about 250,000 persons. Other estimates run from 100,000 to 800,000.] They had houses, fields, vineyards, and cattle, and most of them were artisans. At that time there existed many [Talmudic] academies in Spain, and at the head of the greatest of them were Rabbi Isaac Aboab in Guadalajara [probably the greatest Spanish rabbi of his day], Rabbi Isaac Veçudó in Leon, and Rabbi Jacob Habib in Salamanca [later author of a famous collection of the non-legal parts of the Talmud, the En Yaakob]. In the last named city there was a great expert in mathematics, and whenever there was any doubt on mathematical questions in the Christian academy of that city they referred them to him. His name was Abraham Zacuto. [This famous astronomer encouraged the expedition of Vasco da Gama.] . . .

In the course of the three months' respite granted them they endeavoured to effect an arrangement permitting them to stay on in the country, and they felt confident of success. Their representatives were the rabbi, Don Abraham Seneor, the leader of the Spanish congregations, who was attended by a retinue on thirty mules, and Rabbi Meïr Melamed, who was secretary to the King, and Don Isaac Abravanel [1437-1508], who had fled to Castile from the King of Portugal, and then occupied an equally prominent position at the Spanish royal court. He, too, was later expelled, went to Naples, and was highly esteemed by the King of Naples. The aforementioned great rabbi, Rabbi Isaac of Leon, used to call this Don Abraham Seneor: "Soné Or" ["Hater of Light," a Hebrew pun on Seneor], because he was a heretic, and the end proved that he was right, as he was converted to Christianity at the age of eighty, he and all his family, and Rabbi Meïr Melamed with him . [Seneor and his son-in-law, Meïr, were converted June 15, 1492; Ferdinand and Isabella were among the sponsors.] Don Abraham had arranged the nuptials between the King and the Queen. The Queen was the heiress to the throne, and the King one of the Spanish nobility. On account of this, Don Abraham was appointed leader of the Jews, but not with their consent.

Consequences of the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain

The Italian Jew wrote in 1495: The agreement permitting them to remain in the country on the payment of a large sum of money was almost completed when it was frustrated by the interference of a prior who was called the Prior of Santa Cruz. [Legend relates that Torquemada, Prior of the convent of Santa Cruz, thundered, with crucifix aloft, to the King and Queen: "Judas Iscariot sold his master for thirty pieces of silver. Your Highness would sell him anew for thirty thousand. Here he is, take him, and barter him away."] Then the Queen gave an answer to the representatives of the Jews, similar to the saying of King Solomon [ProverbS 2 1: 1]: "The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water. God turneth it withersoever He will." She said furthermore: "Do you believe that this comes upon you from us? The Lord hath put this thing into the heart of the king." [Isabella says it is God's will that the Jews be expelled.] [Source: Jewish Sourcebooks sourcebooks.fordham.edu

Then they saw that there was evil determined against them by the King, and they gave up the hope of remaining. But the time had become short, and they had to hasten their exodus from Spain. They sold their houses, their landed estates, and their cattle for very small prices, to save themselves. The King did not allow them to carry silver and gold out of his country, so that they were compelled to exchange their silver and gold for merchandise of cloths and skins and other things- [Ever since 1480 Jews and Gentiles were forbidden to export precious metal, the source of a nation's wealth.]

One hundred and twenty thousand of them went to Portugal, according to a compact which a prominent man, Don Vidal bar Benveniste del Cavalleria, had made with the King of Portugal, and they paid one ducat for every soul, and the fourth part of all the merchandise they had carried thither; and he allowed them to stay in his country six months. This King acted much worse toward them than the King of Spain, and after the six months had elapsed he made slaves of all those that remained in his country, and banished seven hundred children to a remote island to settle it, and all of them died. Some say that there were double as many. Upon them the Scriptural word was fulfilled [Deuteronomy 28:32]: "Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, etc" [all Spanish Jews, who were still in Portugal in 1493, were enslaved by King John (1481-1495). The children were sent to the isle of St. Thomas, off the coast of Africa.] He also ordered the congregation of Lisbon, his capital, not to raise their voice in their prayers, that the Lord might not hear their complaining about the violence that was done unto them.

Many of the exiled Spaniards went to Mohammedan countries, to Fez, Tlemçen, and the Berber provinces, under the King of Tunis. [These North African lands are across the Mediterranean from Spain.] On account of their large numbers the Moors did not allow them into their cities, and many of them died in the fields from hunger, thirst, and lack of everything. The lions and bears, which are numerous in this country, killed some of them while they lay starving outside of the cities. A Jew in the kingdom of Tlemçen, named Abraham, the viceroy who ruled the kingdom, made part of them come to this kingdom, and he spent a large amount of money to help them. The Jews of Northern Africa were very charitable toward them. A part of those who went to Northern Africa, as they found no rest and no place that would receive them, returned to Spain, and became converts, and through them the prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled [Lamentations 1:13]: "He hath spread a net for my feet, he hath turned me back." For, originally, they had all fled for the sake of the unity of God; only a very few had become converts throughout all the boundaries of Spain; they did not spare their fortunes; yea, parents escaped without having regard to their children.

Where Jews Expelled From Spain Went

The Italian Jew wrote in 1495: When the edict of expulsion became known in the other countries, vessels came from Genoa to the Spanish harbors to carry away the Jews. The crews of these vessels, too, acted maliciously and meanly toward the Jews, robbed them, and delivered some of them to the famous pirate of that time who was called the Corsair of Genoa. To those who escaped and arrived at Genoa the people of the city showed themselves merciless, and oppressed and robbed them, and the cruelty of their wicked hearts went so far that they took the infants from the mothers' breasts. [Source: Jewish Sourcebooks sourcebooks.fordham.edu

Many ships with Jews, especially from Sicily, went to the city of Naples on the coast. The King of this country was friendly to the Jews, received them all, and was merciful towards them, and he helped them with money. The Jews that were at Naples supplied them with food as much as they could, and sent around to the other parts of Italy to collect money to sustain them. The Marranos in this city lent them money on pledges without interest; even the. Dominican Brotherhood acted mercifully toward them. [The Dominican monks were normally bitterly opposed to Jews.] On account of their very large number, all this was not enough. Some of them died by famine, others sold their children to Christians to sustain their life. Finally, a plague broke out among them, spread to Naples, and very many of them died, so that the living wearied of burying the dead.

Part of the exiled Spaniards went over sea to Turkey. Some of them were thrown into the sea and drowned, but those who arrived, there the King of Turkey received kindly, as they were artisans. He lent them money and settled many of them on an island, and gave them fields and estates. [The Turks needed smiths and makers of munitions for the war against Christian Europe.]

A few of the exiles were dispersed in the countries of Italy, in the city of Ferrara, in the [papal] countries of Romagna, the March, and Patrimonium, and in Rome. . . .

He who said unto His world, Enough, may He also say Enough unto our sufferings, and may He look down upon our impotence. May He turn again, and have compassion upon us, and hasten out salvation. Thus may it be Thy will!

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Wikipedia, Live Science, Archaeology magazine, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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