A hard time for the Jews
The Middle Ages in Europe were a difficult time for the Jews. Many Jews lived in Western Europe between about 1000 and 1500 AD, but all the rulers were Christians, and almost all the people who had any power were Christians.
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These Christians thought Jews were different and strange. They suspected Jews of sympathizing with the Islamic arch-enemies of the Christians, so possibly traitors too. In many places, laws blocked Jews from owning land, and so they could not be farmers (or not very successful farmers). Jews also often had to live in special Jewish sections of towns, called ghettos (GET-toes).
Jews as bankers
Because Christian laws said that Christian people could not lend money out at interest, and yet most kings and queens need to borrow money, the Jews played a big role in the medieval economy as moneylenders. But lending money to kings is risky. Sometimes the king paid the money back, and the Jews made some money.
Jewish culture in the Middle Ages
Even though life was always risky, Jews built successful lives in medieval Europe. They opened schools, like the one that the scholar Rashi organized in the 1000s in northern France. Children learned to read Hebrew as well as local languages. The Jews celebrated Hanukkah and Purim and Passover. They went to synagogues.
In southern Europe – Spain, Italy, Greece, and especially Sicily – many Jews made their living not as bankers but as traders. Often Jewish families established brothers or sisters or cousins in different Mediterranean ports. That way they could have representatives they trusted. They sold European wool cloth, coral, and wine to the Islamic Empire and to the Crusaders in the Levant. In return, they brought back steel, silk, sugar, glass, medicines, and paper.
Why did England and France throw out the Jews?
Other times the king found it easier to just throw the Jews out of his kingdom, or to make a new law saying that Christians didn’t have to pay Jews back the money they had borrowed. King Edward I of England, for instance, solved some of his money problems by throwing all the Jews out of England in 1290 – and they were not allowed back for more than 300 years.
Some of these British Jews moved to the Netherlands. Other British Jews tried to move to France, where Blanche of Castile‘s old policy still protected them. But King Philip IV threw them out of France in 1291.
Why did Poland welcome the Jews?
In other parts of Europe, though, some kings welcomed the Jews. Many Jews moved to Poland from England, France, and Germany after the First Crusade, when many Crusaders killed Jews at home as well as Muslims in Jerusalem.
After the Mongol invasions in the 1200s, the Polish kings encouraged thousands of German Jews to move to Poland, bringing money and education to rebuild their ruined country. The Polish kings gave these Jews special privileges to encourage them to move to Poland. Then when the Black Death came to Europe in the 1300s, many Christians in Germany blamed the disease on the Jews, and again they were killing Jews, so many more Jews chose to move to Poland for safety.
Why did Spain throw out the Jews?
In 1492, when the Christian king and queen Ferdinand and Isabella finally finished reconquering Spain from its Muslim rulers, one of the first things they did was to force all of the Jews in Spain to leave. Some of these Jews moved to the Netherlands, but most of them sailed to North Africa, to the Hafsids there, or across the Mediterranean to the Ottoman Empire, which welcomed the Jews enthusiastically.
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