Jews and the Reformation

A.) Jews in the Society around 1500

Groups of Jews resided in many European cities, in segregated districts, in Italy referred to as GHETTO, in Germany as JUDENGASSE. The oldest such ghetto on record was located in Venice. These Jewish settlements had been established there based on royal protection, for which they paid an extra tax. The Jewish quarter (street) was walled and separated from the christian part of town by gates, which were to be closed at nightfall and opened at dawn. The cities' guilds barred Jews from membership; Jews could not acquire land, were barred from settling in the countryside. Dresscodes, often intended to humiliate the Jews, ensured that they distinguished themselves from their christian neighbours by dress and hairstyle. Intermarriages were also forbidden. The Jews who lived in France, England, the Empire etc. were referred to as ASHKENAZI.
Within the Holy Roman Empire, Jewish communities were mainly found in FREE IMPERIAL CITIES; elsewhere they needed the permission of the territorial lord if they wanted to settle there.

England's and France's Jewish population had suffered in the crusade era, as the Jewish communities in those days had been plundered by the crusaders, and many survivors had fled the country. In the years of the BLACK DEATH (1347-1349), in the Holy Roman Empire and in Italy, the disease was blamed on Jews who were accused of having poisoned the wells, and many ghettos were plundered (Emperor Charles IV. failing to take steps to prevent the pogroms); then large numbers of Jews migrated to Poland and settled there. These communities were to keep their language, YIDDISH, which can be described as basically a 14th century German dialect with many words from the Hebrew. The Spanish Jews came under heavy pressure to convert or leave the country after the conquest of Granada in 1492; many emigrated into the Ottoman Empire, where they settled in groups, for instance in SALONICA. They held on to their language, LADINO, which similarily can be described as a Spanish dialect with Hebrew words included.

B.) The Idea of a State Church and the Jewish Minority

In the 16th century, few regarded the matter of confession as based on a personal decision; in their view, there was only one true belief, everybody else was destined for damnation. Therefore, not only individuals should profess the one true confession, but the entire community should embrace it. Neither Martin Luther, nor Jean Calvin, not even the early Anabaptists wanted to destroy the unity of the church.
The reformation went hand in hand in a thorough reorganization of church administration; in the cities the city councils usurped authority in the ecclesiastic administration of their city and dependent territory; in Saxony, for instance, a new Landeskirche (church administration) was established, the borders of which coincided with the Duchy's political borders.
Authority over most Jewish communities in the Empire lay with the Emperor; yet the entire reformation unfolded in the context of a princely opposition challenging his authority; the princes and city councils usurped authority, they were ready and willing to interfere in the Jewish communities as well.

C.) Anti-Jewish Prejudices

In Catholic communities, series of images portraying the Way of the Cross were, until into the 19th century, interpreted as confirming the prejudice that the Jews had been responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. Christians in the time of the crusades did not distinguish between the Jews of the 1st century A.D. and those of the 12th or 13th century.
The Lutheran Reformation had been preceded by the REUCHLIN DEBATE - Humanist Reuchlin had taken position against an Imperial order to burn Jewish books, which had been demanded by a Jew who had converted to christianity, JAKOB PFEFFERKORN, and supported by Cologne priest HOCHSTRATEN. Reuchlin was Germany's leading expert on the Hebrew language.

D.) Protestantism and the Jews

Luther, who learnt Hebrew himself in order to properly translate the bible, in the beginning expected the Jews to convert; later (around 1537) he turned increasingly anti-Semitic; Calvin similarly had little sympathies for the Jews. The Lutheran cities, such as Frankfurt / Main continued to tolerate their Jewish community, without love for their non-christian neighbours. In some protestant territories, ordonnances explicitly stated the area to be "free of jews".
In times of crisis, the Jewish quarters of cities were sometimes subject to mob raids, such as in Frankfurt in 1612-1616.

In the Calvinist Dutch Republic, religious tolerance was adopted, a policy which then attracted a consideravle number of Jewish refugees. Here the economic factor - Portuguese Jews controlled the sugar industry in Brazil and later were instrumental in the transfer of that industry into the Caribbean, was important.

E.) Poland-Lithuania

Poland ever since 1348 had offered home to a large Jewish community. In 1555 Poland adopted religious toleration as official policy - then to implement the Counterreformation in 1572. The Jewish community continued to thrive.

Jewish Encyclopedia
Article Martin Luther, from Jewish Encyclopedia; the J.E. has no articles on Calvin and Zwingli.
Zwingli on the Jews, from Zwingli von A bis Z, in German

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on January 27th 2003, last revised on November 15th 2004

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