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The Relevance of the Seal

The importance of the seal in the Holy Roman Empire goes back to the Latin tradition.* The Romans used the seal as a guaranty, largely to prevent forgery, and as a certification. In the later Roman period, when the level of education spread, the seal became less important, as many more persons could both read the documents involving their interests and affix their signatures to them. But the seal continued to serve peoples such as the Teutons, Slavs, and Magyars, whose leaders and masses were equally illiterate. We know, for example, that the first Carolingian kings could not read; William the Conqueror was illiterate; and the educational level of many high ecclesiastics throughout a good part of the Middle Ages was not much better.

In general it may be said that the seal, often in the form of a signet ring, was a secondary means of certification on royal documents, the primary form being the actual signature when the principal could write. It was also used to identify a messenger as being authentic; in Hungary, laws from the late eleventh century, possibly based on earlier German proto-types, refer to sigilla citationis or “summon seals,” where the seal ring itself is presented as the authorization of the royal messenger. The seal here performs its original function as signum or “sign,” equivalent to a written decree.

Initially, only royal documents had seals attached to them. Gradually seals became connected with documents involving important matters and came to serve as a certification of them. By the tenth century the seal was regarded as the primary means of authentication, and by the twelfth century the presence or absence of a seal was the ultimate arbiter of authenticity. The use of seals on non-royal documents (which in the early feudal period were merely placed in locked files) was slow in developing, the oldest known case dating to the year 927, when Duke Arnolf of Bavaria sealed a trade agreement with Archbishop Odalbert of Salzburg. By the beginning of the eleventh century all the bishops of the empire possessed seals, and by the second half of the twelfth century the use of seals had spread not only in the ecclesiastical world but throughout the high secular classes as well. This was a logical development in an illiterate society, for once the seal matrix had been made and identified, its stamp offered greater security than any written sign. Its importance was enhanced by the increasing power of Roman canonical law at this time, as the Church spread its influence and waged its fight to dominate the emperors. In the twelfth century Pope Alexander III stated that the authenticity of documents signed by witnesses who had died could be established only if they were notarized or sealed, and Innocent III rejected a royal document because it was deficient in both these attributes.

The development of coats of arms in this period also added to the importance of seals. Both devices allowed the owner to be recognized at once, and the two became quickly linked. By the beginning of the thirteenth century almost every noble family had both a coat of arms and a seal, and soon vernacular tongues—mainly German and Provençal—began to appear as legends on seals, further proof that their use was no longer restricted to top church and state leaders.

The legal power of the seal varied from area to area, and an attempt will be made here to analyze the variety of approaches in this matter. In both canonical and German civil law, first importance was given to actual witnesses over legal documents. The seal was thus primary only when witnesses were no longer alive. By the middle of the twelfth century, however, the sealed document was rising in importance when compared to the evidence of witnesses; and by 1275 the Schwabenspiegel (the ancient Swabian legal code) stated that documents were better than witnesses because of the mortality of the latter. In Germany by the fourteenth century the power of the seal was at its height, and it had credibility in and for itself.

However, there were certain legal limitations to the power of the seal, the main one being the understanding of authenticity, called in canonical law sigillum authenticum and from there carried over into the Schwabenspiegel. This meant that only “authentic seals” were recognized as having credibility: these were the seals of the pope, kings, lay princes, and priests. Canonical law was more severe than civil law; in it, no credence at all was given to other seals, while in civil law seals of burghers had evidential value in private matters. It is clear, however, that the seal of a person of high standing on a private document was of greater importance than other seals and more important even than the testimony of witnesses of common rank.

At the height of its significance in the fourteenth century in German-speaking countries, the seal had an accessory but equally valid function, the consummation of the legal process. Sealing did not mean delivery and recording of the document because it preceded those activities. Only when actual delivery was made did the sealed document offer final proof of the consummated legal action. But because it was the final step, the act of sealing in practice concluded the transaction. Thus, even in a symbolic sense, sealing became of added importance.

As the fourteenth century progressed, royal, princely, ecclesiastical, and municipal chancelleries took on enlarged power, a process paralleled by the growth of literacy. The signatures of principals and witnesses started to become more significant. During the fifteenth century hand-writing renewed its primacy over sealing as a means of certification. The main value of the seal at this time was as a witness to the document. Indeed, even in Germany by the sixteenth century the signature could replace the seal as binding evidence. This development marks the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and is likewise indicated by stylistic changes of the seals themselves.

What we observe, then, is a completion of a historical cycle. The early Romans developed the signet ring as a guaranty and certification. As literacy spread, the legal importance of the seal faded, to be replaced by the notarial system. But the barbarian peoples sweeping into Europe in successive waves—the various Germanic tribes, the Magyars, and the Slavs—reproduced the conditions of early Rome and led to a return of sealing. As the various tribes settled down and became more civilized, and literacy was diffused in slowly enlarging circles from the Church to the aristocrats, then to the burghers, and finally to the common people, the seal again lost its importance. As noted previously, the culture of Mediterranean Europe never completely succumbed to barbarian influence and the notarial system developed by the late Romans continued to be used in the countries most absorbed into the orbit of Latin law—the old heartland of Italy, as well as Spain and Portugal, southern France, and parts of the southern and western fringes of the Germanic tribal lands.

The position of the Jewish seal in the Holy Roman Empire was filled with ambiguities, admirably studied by Guido Kisch in his various juridical writings dealing with the Jews of medieval Germany. Examples cited here all come from these works.

By the twelfth century rather clear case rules established legality of documents. These developed at Magdeburg in Saxony and became the legal system predominant in central Germany, from where they spread east and north, to Brandenburg, Silesia, Pomerania, Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, Poland, and even to numerous cities in Russia. According to Magdeburg law, to be complete and valid, every document had to follow the traditional forms written by hand, with the seals attached by their rightful owners. Both content and seals were necessary essentials. If these were valid, despite the questionability of certain clauses, such as exceeding the restrictions on interest rate, the correctly executed document would be upheld in law. The sole exceptions, insofar as the validity of the seal was concerned, dealt with questions of defect, fraud, or counterfeiting. All these were grounds frequently used by Christian debtors to escape repayment. In fact, Jewish creditors had had such bad experience that they attempted to incorporate wording in the document itself to exculpate them from future claims of fraud. Kisch gives an example taken from a document dated August 6, 1417, at Naumburg: “If it also be that words or seals in this letter should be displaced, missing, or broken, or if there were any omission or defect in this letter or seal, this shall work no injury to the Jews mentioned as to their aforementioned money, on our good faith” (1949b, p. 479).

Such phrasing was not usually accepted as a defense, particularly when the Christian debtors were influential. A case where the judge bent to the power of the Christians—in this example, the burgraves of Dohna in Saxony—is illustrative. The document dates to shortly before 1402. A Jew demanded payment of thirty marks as indicated on a promissory note sealed and co-sealed. The knights, brothers, admitted to recognizing their seal on the document but claimed the amount owed was only ten marks. Their defense was that they had sealed another document and that the Jew had switched the seals. The owner of the other seal, who had co-sealed, also admitted to his seal but claimed he could not remember how much money was involved. The sentence was against the Jewish plaintiff, the judge accepting the specious arguments of the high-born defendants.

A similar case from the end of the fifteenth century involved bringing in as arbitrator Bishop Conrad of Breslau, a town noted for its virulent hatred of Jews. A Christian, Bertusch Koslig by name, had borrowed money from a Jew against which debt a quittance had been issued. However, the Jew produced a second promissory note, properly sealed by Koslig, which the defendant stated was fraudulent. The bishop requested an oath from the Christian that he had never sealed the second note, though the trial does not indicate how Koslig explained the presence of his seal on it. When two Christian friends of Koslig, who were “pious men,” supported his position, Bishop Conrad decided against the plaintiff and declared—despite the sealed document—that Koslig was free of all debt. Thus in this case the evidence of the seal was declared valueless, a decision inconceivable if both parties to the action had been Christians.

A very similar case from after 1413 ended the same way. A Jew, Abraham, had brought as evidence of debt a letter stamped with the seal of a certain Hans Glogaw from Naumburg. The defendant swore that he had no idea how the seal got on the document. The judge decided that if Glogaw could bring two witnesses to testify that the seal appeared on the note through trickery, and both Glogaw and the witnesses would swear on holy oath that no money was owed the Jew, the seal would be removed from the note and the note destroyed. This favorable decision must have given Hans Glogaw confidence to attempt to escape another debt four years later. In this case, the promissory note came from his father. Hans Glogaw admitted to the seal (as did his cousin, who had co-sealed) but swore the seals were attached to the document by fraud. Again the judge sided with the defendants, provided that, as before, they would swear their innocence on oath and bring witnesses to support their claims.

These cases, though atypical, are cited to show that, despite the importance of the seal, its correct attachment was not the sole or overriding factor in every decision, and that this was even less true where a Jewish plaintiff was attempting to collect a loan made to a Christian debtor or when the defendants were powerful people. We must also recognize the possibility (whether it was true in these cases or not) that seals could be stolen or forged, which undoubtedly was a large factor in their decreasing importance as literacy spread. The problem of forgery led many communities to demand that all claims of indebtedness, whether public, semi-public, or private, be issued under the supervision of some state or municipal authority. This itself eliminated, at least in the legal sense, the need for personal Jewish seals. Kisch cites one case in which a deed could not be executed because the Jews lacked seals of their own; the problem was solved by entering the deed in the City Book of Brünn (now Brno), where the incident occurred. Eventually, this practice was made the norm. In the German-speaking lands a municipal magistrate or a (Christian) judge of the Jews was appointed to register quittances; the same system was used in the ecclesiastical states. Sometimes a Jew Book, a system which first developed in England as a consequence of riots deliberately fomented to destroy evidence of debts to Jews, was kept, the equivalent of notarial registration in southern Europe. This, of course, obviated the need for Jewish seals, at least in the juridical sense. Elsewhere, where the tradition of sealing was still strong, as, for example, at Speyer, the city seal was used by the Jews to make all transactions legal. Throughout the Rhineland by the latter part of the fourteenth century various laws stipulated that Jewish seals were only valid when the Jews were sealing as witnesses and when the seals appeared in conjunction with a city seal or a bishop’s signet.

Because of this development, which was established practice by around 1400, and the different rules operating throughout the many autonomous bodies in Germany, there is no automatic correlation between the frequency of Jewish seals and the importance of Jews in moneylending in any specific area. Nor is there any direct relation between tax receipts and Jewish seals. For example, the list of imperial tax revenues from 1241 reveals that Jews paid 20 percent of the total raised in German cities, yet there are no known Jewish personal seals in Germany at that date. One might make the general statement that the personal Jewish seal is largely a product of certain well-defined conditions in specific areas of the fourteenth century. And even in the German states, where the seal had the greatest legal importance, the personal Jewish seal or community Jewish seal is only one index of the importance of the Jewish presence.

It should also be noted that records from the European Middle Ages do not represent the totality of transactions. The bulk of surviving Jewish deeds in many areas—and this is particularly true in England and the Midi—concern loans involving land, which were the most carefully registered. Lesser transactions were often not recorded, and the original documents have long since perished. Furthermore, the strict regulations of Jewish law prohibited Jews in conflict with other Jews from bringing their lawsuits before non-Jewish courts; not being registered in state files, such documents were soon lost. These unofficial records were kept in buildings either made entirely of wood or with wooden joists and finishes, through which disastrous fires raged periodically. We can say with certainty only that the seal in the Holy Roman Empire was of extreme importance and that there are a larger number of Jewish personal seals from lands under its control than elsewhere; that Jewish seals flourished in the fourteenth century; and that their legal value, iconography, and legends largely mirror the culture from which they sprang.

The Situation of the Jews in the Empire

The position of the Jews during the late medieval period in the German-speaking lands or, more properly, in the Holy Roman Empire, cannot be isolated from the general political, social, and economic developments which affected society as a whole. In an important sense, what happened to the Jews was a measure of the general climate.

On the obvious level of politics, the period from the eleventh through the thirteenth century was characterized by a struggle for supremacy between the Empire and the Papacy, reaching its climax toward the end of this epoch with a victory for the latter.* The death of Frederick II in 1250, followed by what has been called the Great Interregnum (the period between the passing of Conrad IV in 1254 and the election of Rudolf of Hapsburg in 1273), left political and geographical chaos, which favored the degradation and then downfall of the Jews. Germany, without the leadership of an emperor, broke up into a multitude of independent cities, principalities, and ecclesiastical states, each striving to gain more power or to enlarge itself at the expense of its neighbors.

When Rudolf was finally made emperor, the institution was reborn in a much weakened form. Henceforth the emperors, compelled at each election to buy votes through bribery and coercion, found Jew-gouging the most convenient way to raise money. The Judenregal, or Royal Prerogative to collect Jewish taxes, formerly a respectable element of imperial policy, now became an instrument abused by the emperors and leased to or parceled out among the archbishops, princes, and patricians. With their newfound power under the weakened emperors, both secular and spiritual rulers only too eagerly imitated this imperial policy. The free cities emerged strengthened from the interregnum but were increasingly torn by the clash between the patriciates and the guilds; the path of least resistance was to turn against the Jews, whom all united in both envying and despising. The Church, seeking to consolidate its power against the political ambitions of the emperors, sided with the guilds, the popular party in the urban centers, while the more worldly patricians—whose natural interest lay with the Jews (in the days of the Black Death, for example, the city fathers in Frankfort, Strasbourg, Cologne, and Basel initially tried to protect the Jews from the mob)—were forced to abandon them in order to retain what political strength they could.

The contest in the cities between the patricians and the guilds was merely a reflection of larger conflicts in the empire. The urban centers came together in alliances such as the Swabian and Rhenish leagues. The country knights also allied themselves, and sallied forth from their craggy citadels on marauding raids against the cities. The princes jockeyed for more territory. The emperors tried to favor their own lands or relatives—the House of Luxembourg or the House of Hapsburg or the Wittelsbach dynasty which ruled Bavaria. Less parochial emperors tried to arbitrate conflicts and maintain an uneasy peace among discordant elements. But the clash between social classes in the cities tended to dissipate the urban influence. The guilds fought to share or dominate the government; the patricians resisted. The Jews, almost exclusively citydwellers, became scapegoats for the competing parties. All sides, from the emperor through the archbishops and bishops, the princes and dukes, and the city fathers, were united in one respect: they wanted to extract as much money as possible from the Jews. The guilds, which feared Jewish economic competition, were often considerably in their debt as well. The conditions were therefore propitious, particularly considering the legal helplessness and lack of juridical status of the Jews, for their eradication. A severe blow occurred in 1342, when, over and above the heavy assessments the Jews had always been required to pay by empire, state, and city, Ludwig IV levied an additional tax of one gulden, called the “golden penny offering” (goldener Opferpfennig), on all Jews aged twelve and over who possessed an inheritance of at least twenty gulden. The final culmination to a series of less well-known social convulsions were the massacres attending the Black Death, which ravaged Germany in 1348 and 1349.

After the catastrophe of the Black Death, the cities and nobles again found themselves in need of cash and started inviting back what remained of their shattered Jewries. Then Emperor Wenzel, to curry favor further, in 1385 canceled all Jewish debts in the territory of the Swabian League of Cities; in 1390 he attempted to do the same thing on a grander scale. As A. Freimann and I. Kracauer put it (1929, p. 29), “It was all too tempting when income did not come up to standards of living to borrow again and create purely consumptive loans in the hope that another compulsory liquidation of debts would secure release from inconvenient creditors.”

These cumulative measures, following upon the physical devastation wrought by the Black Death, were the last straw: the few remaining Jews settled in smaller towns or on estates of the lesser nobility. A significant remnant also fled to Austria and farther east, forming the nuclei of the great Jewish settlements in Poland and the Pale of Russia. At this time too the Ashkenazi communities in northern Italy, made up of some of these German refugees, began to form. In the early part of the fifteenth century, as though conditions were not sufficiently disastrous in Germany, the Hussite wars made the Jews suspect of “collaboration,” and extra “heretic money” was demanded from them in the form of extraordinary war taxes. Their last haven in Austria was also eliminated. The growing economic power of the Christian bourgeoisie made the Jews superfluous,* while the overtaxing of Emperor Sigismund had drained their communities to the point that the income from them had lost its importance. As in England two centuries and France one century earlier, expulsion of the Jews no longer was fraught with economic hazard. Thus by the sixteenth century it might be said that Germany was in a profound sense Judenrein, that is, clean of Jews.

This political and social turmoil was in turn a reflection of deep currents shaking society. In a valuable essay, A. B. Hibbert (1963) points out that in economic terms early medieval society was “unsaturated”; that is, it could use and absorb without great difficulty more capital investment than had hitherto been available. Large untapped resources, expanding territory (including both internal expansion—bringing agriculture to former arid and forest regions—and external expansion into the Slavic lands), a growing population, and rising expectations led to an enlargement of trade, finance, and industrial production. In these early years, as a concomitant of prosperity, tolerance of “foreigners,” a term which referred not only to Jews and persons from other countries but also to inhabitants of the same region living in other towns or principalities, was notable.

In the thirteenth century a less liberal urban attitude took shape, caused by market saturation. The European economy was beginning to strain under the increase in population and the extreme exploitation of natural resources. The city oligarchies, no longer sure of expansion, tried to consolidate their control over trade and industry. The guilds reacted to this pressure by attempting to protect their own interests.* Growing tension resulted as the external pressure of the saturated economy tempted the patriciates to exploit the community even more to preserve themselves. An important psychological manifestation of this conflict was aggravated fear and hatred of the “foreigner.” The very success of the patricians had undermined their position. Improvements in the supply system and greater availability of goods was increasing competition and shrinking profits. Regions which had been markets for finished products and suppliers of cheap raw materials now were politically strong enough to resist such exploitation and began to accumulate their own capital. Western and central Europe in the thirteenth century thus was going through a process similar to that occurring at the present time in large areas of the world.

To retain their profits, the patricians had to increase artificial restraints. The first step was to consolidate their oligarchic position; if this could be done, they would then be able to raise the prices of those consumer goods whose imports they controlled and/or to force down the price of the manufactured goods which they exported by depressing the living standards of the guildsmen. Conflict between the two classes was thus inevitable.

These conditions were exacerbated in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, and indeed it was only the discovery of the New World, with the consequent looting of precious ores from the Indians and dumping of excess population through colonization, which re-established western European patterns of growth and optimism. Before this occurred, how-ever, the old tensions were intensified by new ones: epidemics, of which the Black Death was only the most notorious; unnatural weather conditions adversely affecting crops; the wars of England, Flanders, and France; the beginning of Turkish expansion; and a population growing too great for available resources. The result was a diminishing per capita purchasing power and heightened social tensions in the towns. Even the art following the Black Death shows a change to a pessimistic outlook.

The Jews were the natural scapegoats. Monumenta Judaica well describes the social contradictions between oligarchs and craftsmen:

While the patrician council in the city was primarily interested in trade and loans and had little to fear from the competition with Jews and were often secret partners in money lending with them, the hostility toward the latter expressed itself for the most part in the guilds; for their livelihood was best secured if—in the sense of the closed city economy—the competition of trade was largely limited and exchange of wares between the city and the hinterland took place according to fixed rules dictated by the guilds.

Referring to the period of the Black Death, that is, the middle of the fourteenth century, the analysis continues: “Release from debts, division of the booty, change of the constitution, and the possible banning of Jews from the city were the goals of broad sections of the population, and the authorities generally yielded in order not to lose their position” (p. 221). Marvin Lowenthal sums up the matter in his usual ironic style:

The guilds were eager to come to blows with every class that threatened the socialism of their closed corporations: patricians, merchants and Jews. The latter—while still without gaining the right to hold office or losing their peculiar disabilities and obligations—were beginning, as individuals, to be admitted to citizenship in many of the larger cities. This advance, especially marked in the first third of the fourteenth century, was probably a response to the needs of the growing cities for Jewish brains and money and to the closer partnership between patricians and “capitalists” against the cooperative economy of the guilds. By striking down the Jews, the guilds not only destroyed a hated money-power, but hoped to weaken the patricians and nobility who depended upon that power. The lower masses rose against the Jews with the vague instinct—assiduously nurtured by the other classes—that Jewish wealth was responsible for their own poverty, and with the clear and quite correct belief that this wealth—even if it were but a candlestick stripped from the poorest ghetto den—was worth looting. For their part the patricians and nobility saw in the attack on the Jews a welcome diversion of popular wrath from their own heads; and they were not loath to see their notes and mortgages tossed into the same bonfire with the bodies of their creditors” (1936, pp. 126–27).*

The shift in power from the patricians to the guilds, a fourteenth- and fifteenth-century phenomenon in many cities of Flanders and Italy, as well as Germany (though it was sometimes only temporary in nature or took the form of a seesawing back and forth between the two factions), did not create a greater liberality of outlook but rather the opposite. Rule by guilds was government founded on intense regulation. The interest of the producers of goods was often antagonistic to that of the mercantile element, which led to protectionist policies. A defensive emphasis on the local region and the regulated staple dominated. The successful revolt of the guilds against the patricians led to a system based on parochial interests which excluded foreign goods and capital as much as possible and was distrustful of “foreigners” or “outsiders.” In this scheme of things the Jew had no place. Using the clichés of our time, the victory of “democracy” over “oligarchy”—or “socialist” over “capitalist” control—meant the substitution of a group of bigoted village types for the more cosmopolitan patrician leaders of earlier times. The result was that these towns failed in their function of acting as centers for the improvement of production, distribution, and expansion of industry and trade.* As has often been the case, the murder or expulsion of the Jews was a symptom of the inability of a society to adapt to new conditions, and thus the Jewish presence or absence can be taken as an index of its progress or retrogression.

The writer would like to acknowledge his debt of gratitude to two articles on the subject of Jewish seals from the Holy Roman Empire. The first is “Rheinische Judensiegel im Spätmittelalter” (“Rhenish Jewish Seals in the Late Middle Ages”). Anna-Dorothee van den Brincken, former chief archivist of the Historical Archives of Cologne, the writer of this important article, participated in the research leading to the creation of the exhibition entitled “Monumenta Judaica,” held at the Cologne City Museum in 1963–64. The second article, of equal importance and more extensive in scope, published in Hebrew by Zvi Avneri, is titled “Hebrew Seals of Ashkenazi Jews during the Middle Ages.” It is a catalogue of sixty-two Ashkenazi seals, limited for the most part to those of German-speaking territories. Of these seals, fourteen are known through mention in secondary sources; forty-eight seals are extant. Though there are a few errors in this catalogue, it is a seminal list without which the work of the present writer would have been much more difficult. Since Avneri merely quotes the name of each seal owner and the documentary background of each seal, his name is listed in the individual bibliographies here only when no other source is known.


*The background and use of the seal in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire was best analyzed by Oswald Redlich in his 1911 book, Die Privaturkunden des Mittelalters.

In the late medieval period Holy Roman Empire came to mean the German-speaking lands, but it initially included the Frankish and Lombardian tribes (of Germanic origin but not language) living in northern France and Italy. Elements of the Hungarian and Slavic language groups were also incorporated within the empire.

*Actually, both were losers in the struggle. Frederick II unsuccessfully challenged the temporal power of the Church and was condemned by the Council of Lyons in 1244, but at the turn of the century Philip the Fair (IV), the irreproachably pious king of France, was attacked by Pope Boniface VIII, stood up to the pope, and was vindicated. He then counterattacked and forced the transfer of the papacy to Avignon, an act which decisively ended the temporal pre-eminence of the Church. What had happened during the thirteenth century was that Germany weakened while France became strong enough to appeal successfully to the national sentiment against the encroachments of ecclesia. As Henri Pirenne concluded, in A History of Europe, “The Papacy was tottering, in its turn, on the ruins of the Imperial power which it had overthrown” (1938, p. 375).

*The Jews were not driven out of Germany, as they were in England and France, as a result of being supplanted by the Lombards and Cahorsins. The German rulers preferred Jewish usurers because the high income derived from them through heavy Jewish taxation remained in Germany, whereas the Italians sent their profits back home to banks in northern Italy or to the papacy. The Jews, who had recovered time and time again from the most disastrous events, were ultimately destroyed because the charging of interest became acceptable in Germany by the fifteenth century, and as a result powerful Christian banking families such as the Fuggers and Welsers emerged.

*The word “guild” (sometimes spelled “gild”) in this period refers to associations of burghers as well as laborers and craftsmen. The guild rolls for the twelfth and thirteenth century include coopers, carpenters, masons, butchers, bakers, dyers, mercers, and merchants. The guildsmen somewhat resembled the skilled craftsmen of certain unions at the present time, who are economically members of the middle class. Both patricians and guild members belonged to the bourgeoisie, the Third Estate.

Hibbert states that eastern Europe in this period was not yet “saturated” in the sense described here, and thus did not face the same crisis. The growth of Jewry in the eastern countries of Europe at this time is very germane.

*Should it be thought that this is merely a parochial Jewish view of what happened, let me quote the Strasbourg historian Jacob von Konigshofen (1346–1420), who wrote shortly after these events: “The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt.”

*Substitute the word “countries” for “towns,” and we have a description of what is happening in Europe today.

*The background and use of the seal in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire was best analyzed by Oswald Redlich in his 1911 book, Die Privaturkunden des Mittelalters.

In the late medieval period Holy Roman Empire came to mean the German-speaking lands, but it initially included the Frankish and Lombardian tribes (of Germanic origin but not language) living in northern France and Italy. Elements of the Hungarian and Slavic language groups were also incorporated within the empire.

*Actually, both were losers in the struggle. Frederick II unsuccessfully challenged the temporal power of the Church and was condemned by the Council of Lyons in 1244, but at the turn of the century Philip the Fair (IV), the irreproachably pious king of France, was attacked by Pope Boniface VIII, stood up to the pope, and was vindicated. He then counterattacked and forced the transfer of the papacy to Avignon, an act which decisively ended the temporal pre-eminence of the Church. What had happened during the thirteenth century was that Germany weakened while France became strong enough to appeal successfully to the national sentiment against the encroachments of ecclesia. As Henri Pirenne concluded, in A History of Europe, “The Papacy was tottering, in its turn, on the ruins of the Imperial power which it had overthrown” (1938, p. 375).

*The Jews were not driven out of Germany, as they were in England and France, as a result of being supplanted by the Lombards and Cahorsins. The German rulers preferred Jewish usurers because the high income derived from them through heavy Jewish taxation remained in Germany, whereas the Italians sent their profits back home to banks in northern Italy or to the papacy. The Jews, who had recovered time and time again from the most disastrous events, were ultimately destroyed because the charging of interest became acceptable in Germany by the fifteenth century, and as a result powerful Christian banking families such as the Fuggers and Welsers emerged.

*The word “guild” (sometimes spelled “gild”) in this period refers to associations of burghers as well as laborers and craftsmen. The guild rolls for the twelfth and thirteenth century include coopers, carpenters, masons, butchers, bakers, dyers, mercers, and merchants. The guildsmen somewhat resembled the skilled craftsmen of certain unions at the present time, who are economically members of the middle class. Both patricians and guild members belonged to the bourgeoisie, the Third Estate.

Hibbert states that eastern Europe in this period was not yet “saturated” in the sense described here, and thus did not face the same crisis. The growth of Jewry in the eastern countries of Europe at this time is very germane.

*Should it be thought that this is merely a parochial Jewish view of what happened, let me quote the Strasbourg historian Jacob von Konigshofen (1346–1420), who wrote shortly after these events: “The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt.”

*Substitute the word “countries” for “towns,” and we have a description of what is happening in Europe today.

The importance of the seal in the Holy Roman Empire goes back to the Latin tradition.* The Romans used the seal as a guaranty, largely to prevent forgery, and as a certification. In the later Roman period, when the level of education spread, the seal became less important, as many more persons could both read the documents involving their interests and affix their signatures to them. But the seal continued to serve peoples such as the Teutons, Slavs, and Magyars, whose leaders and masses were equally illiterate. We know, for example, that the first Carolingian kings could not read; William the Conqueror was illiterate; and the educational level of many high ecclesiastics throughout a good part of the Middle Ages was not much better.

The importance of the seal in the Holy Roman Empire goes back to the Latin tradition.* The Romans used the seal as a guaranty, largely to prevent forgery, and as a certification. In the later Roman period, when the level of education spread, the seal became less important, as many more persons could both read the documents involving their interests and affix their signatures to them. But the seal continued to serve peoples such as the Teutons, Slavs, and Magyars, whose leaders and masses were equally illiterate. We know, for example, that the first Carolingian kings could not read; William the Conqueror was illiterate; and the educational level of many high ecclesiastics throughout a good part of the Middle Ages was not much better.

On the obvious level of politics, the period from the eleventh through the thirteenth century was characterized by a struggle for supremacy between the Empire and the Papacy, reaching its climax toward the end of this epoch with a victory for the latter.* The death of Frederick II in 1250, followed by what has been called the Great Interregnum (the period between the passing of Conrad IV in 1254 and the election of Rudolf of Hapsburg in 1273), left political and geographical chaos, which favored the degradation and then downfall of the Jews. Germany, without the leadership of an emperor, broke up into a multitude of independent cities, principalities, and ecclesiastical states, each striving to gain more power or to enlarge itself at the expense of its neighbors.

These cumulative measures, following upon the physical devastation wrought by the Black Death, were the last straw: the few remaining Jews settled in smaller towns or on estates of the lesser nobility. A significant remnant also fled to Austria and farther east, forming the nuclei of the great Jewish settlements in Poland and the Pale of Russia. At this time too the Ashkenazi communities in northern Italy, made up of some of these German refugees, began to form. In the early part of the fifteenth century, as though conditions were not sufficiently disastrous in Germany, the Hussite wars made the Jews suspect of “collaboration,” and extra “heretic money” was demanded from them in the form of extraordinary war taxes. Their last haven in Austria was also eliminated. The growing economic power of the Christian bourgeoisie made the Jews superfluous,* while the overtaxing of Emperor Sigismund had drained their communities to the point that the income from them had lost its importance. As in England two centuries and France one century earlier, expulsion of the Jews no longer was fraught with economic hazard. Thus by the sixteenth century it might be said that Germany was in a profound sense Judenrein, that is, clean of Jews.

In the thirteenth century a less liberal urban attitude took shape, caused by market saturation. The European economy was beginning to strain under the increase in population and the extreme exploitation of natural resources. The city oligarchies, no longer sure of expansion, tried to consolidate their control over trade and industry. The guilds reacted to this pressure by attempting to protect their own interests.* Growing tension resulted as the external pressure of the saturated economy tempted the patriciates to exploit the community even more to preserve themselves. An important psychological manifestation of this conflict was aggravated fear and hatred of the “foreigner.” The very success of the patricians had undermined their position. Improvements in the supply system and greater availability of goods was increasing competition and shrinking profits. Regions which had been markets for finished products and suppliers of cheap raw materials now were politically strong enough to resist such exploitation and began to accumulate their own capital. Western and central Europe in the thirteenth century thus was going through a process similar to that occurring at the present time in large areas of the world.

These conditions were exacerbated in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, and indeed it was only the discovery of the New World, with the consequent looting of precious ores from the Indians and dumping of excess population through colonization, which re-established western European patterns of growth and optimism. Before this occurred, how-ever, the old tensions were intensified by new ones: epidemics, of which the Black Death was only the most notorious; unnatural weather conditions adversely affecting crops; the wars of England, Flanders, and France; the beginning of Turkish expansion; and a population growing too great for available resources. The result was a diminishing per capita purchasing power and heightened social tensions in the towns. Even the art following the Black Death shows a change to a pessimistic outlook.

The guilds were eager to come to blows with every class that threatened the socialism of their closed corporations: patricians, merchants and Jews. The latter—while still without gaining the right to hold office or losing their peculiar disabilities and obligations—were beginning, as individuals, to be admitted to citizenship in many of the larger cities. This advance, especially marked in the first third of the fourteenth century, was probably a response to the needs of the growing cities for Jewish brains and money and to the closer partnership between patricians and “capitalists” against the cooperative economy of the guilds. By striking down the Jews, the guilds not only destroyed a hated money-power, but hoped to weaken the patricians and nobility who depended upon that power. The lower masses rose against the Jews with the vague instinct—assiduously nurtured by the other classes—that Jewish wealth was responsible for their own poverty, and with the clear and quite correct belief that this wealth—even if it were but a candlestick stripped from the poorest ghetto den—was worth looting. For their part the patricians and nobility saw in the attack on the Jews a welcome diversion of popular wrath from their own heads; and they were not loath to see their notes and mortgages tossed into the same bonfire with the bodies of their creditors” (1936, pp. 126–27).*

The shift in power from the patricians to the guilds, a fourteenth- and fifteenth-century phenomenon in many cities of Flanders and Italy, as well as Germany (though it was sometimes only temporary in nature or took the form of a seesawing back and forth between the two factions), did not create a greater liberality of outlook but rather the opposite. Rule by guilds was government founded on intense regulation. The interest of the producers of goods was often antagonistic to that of the mercantile element, which led to protectionist policies. A defensive emphasis on the local region and the regulated staple dominated. The successful revolt of the guilds against the patricians led to a system based on parochial interests which excluded foreign goods and capital as much as possible and was distrustful of “foreigners” or “outsiders.” In this scheme of things the Jew had no place. Using the clichés of our time, the victory of “democracy” over “oligarchy”—or “socialist” over “capitalist” control—meant the substitution of a group of bigoted village types for the more cosmopolitan patrician leaders of earlier times. The result was that these towns failed in their function of acting as centers for the improvement of production, distribution, and expansion of industry and trade.* As has often been the case, the murder or expulsion of the Jews was a symptom of the inability of a society to adapt to new conditions, and thus the Jewish presence or absence can be taken as an index of its progress or retrogression.

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344859
MARC Record
OCLC
1055142843
Pages
146-155
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-SA
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