Author Archives: Joshua Levy

About Joshua Levy

Joshua Levy is a doctoral candidate in the department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, studying medieval Jewish history. His dissertation, "Sefer Milhamot Hashem, Chapter Eleven: The Earliest Jewish Critique of the New Testament," is an examination of medieval Jewish criticisms of the Gospel of Matthew.

Expulsion and Readmission

Between 1290 and 1550, England, France, and most of southern and eastern Europe expelled their Jewish populations, at least once and sometimes several times (expulsion followed by readmission followed by expulsion). What did it mean to be “expelled”?  How and why did expulsion emerge as a common expression of intolerance during this period? 


Prior to the crescendo of expulsions that occurred in the 14th century, European Jewry experienced several brutal eruptions of intolerance, including, for example, the massacres that swept northern Europe in the wake of the Black Death (Jews were accused of poisoning the wells and thus causing the plague) and the The Great Conversion riots of 1391 in Spain, which resulted in the death of one third of the Spanish Jewish community.

These unprecedented incidences of violence resulted in an increasingly insecure existence for European Jewry in the later Middle Ages. For example, in the German lands, after the Black Death, Jewish settlement rights were more often than not limited in time to ten to twelve years, renewable and changeable at the discretion of the local ruler.  

"A Civilized Way of Eliminating Jews"

It was in this context that expulsion, or banishment, became more common. Historian Salo Baron deemed it a “somewhat more civilized way of eliminating Jews.” Expulsion, he argued, certainly appeared legitimate, as it often amounted to the simple failure to renew an existing temporary residence permit. Baron also points to the medieval conception of Jews as permanent “exiles” as another way to understand the phenomenon of expulsion. While the exiles were tolerated in Christian communities as examples of Christian truth, this toleration could cease at the discretion of the local rulers.

Thus expulsion provided a “legitimate,” less violent way of eliminating the Jews from a region. But why eliminate them at all? The rationale for group expulsion was complex, but the most common reasons for doing so were economic and religious. When raising taxes failed to produce enough revenue for a local ruler, expelling a group and taking its land and possessions was often the next best alternative. (However, expulsion for economic gain proved counterproductive, as the loss of regular Jewish revenue depressed the economy in the long run.)

How the Crusades Affected Medieval Jews in Europe and Palestine

While the following article outlines the origins and consequences of the Crusades to recapture the Holy Land for Christianity, it is important to recognize that the Church also conducted crusades against heretics, or groups of Christians that did not agree with official church doctrine.

 For example, in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III launched a crusade to destroy the Albigensians, a group judged heretical for their dualist theology. The legacy of this crusade includes the Inquisition, a mobile tribunal that judged heretics based on information obtained through torture and secret testimony.  The Inquisition would play a central role in Jewish history when it was established in 15th- century Spain as a means of dealing with the crypto-Jewish population there.Crusades

The Crusade for the Holy Land: The First Crusade of 1096

The origins of the Christian Crusade to liberate the Holy Land are found in the spread of a warrior Asiatic tribe. In 1071, the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert, thereby occupying all of Asia Minor, including Palestine. As stories of atrocities committed against Christian pilgrims filtered back to Europe, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus appealed for help against the Seljuks. Pope Urban II called for a crusade against the Muslims in 1095. The stated goal of this crusade was to recapture the Holy Land and ensure safety for Christian pilgrims visiting sacred sites. However, many of the crusaders saw it as the perfect opportunity to serve God and simultaneously make a fortune in looting and ransom.

By 1096, a large army (25,000-30,000 men) was prepared for battle. They marched from southern France to Constantinople, where friction immediately arose between the Byzantines, who were unprepared for such an army, and the crusaders. In 1097, the crusaders left Constantinople and marched towards Jerusalem, which fell in 1099. The goal of the Crusade had been achieved. In celebration, the crusaders ruthlessly slaughtered all of the Muslim inhabitants of the city. The Jewish community in Palestine was forced to surrender to the new rulers, or face execution.