The formation of Medieval Europe between 300 and 1100 CE is known informally as the early Middle Ages, a period which saw the decline of classical civilization as well as the fall of Rome. It is a period marked by the barbarian invasions and the early Germanic kingdoms that would later give rise to Charlemagne and Carolingian Europe and the centralization of the Catholic church in Europe (Bryce, 1886). The rise of the religion during this time became a central influence in European society and the sentiments felt within social circles during this era. The dominance of the church during this period led to the increased authority given to the Pope and the power bestowed to Emperors who were crowned by the Pope. These foundations formed the basis for what would be the Holy Roman Empire.
The Holy Roman Empire is defined as the union of central European territories that were all under the rule of a the Holy Roman Emperor from 962 CE. until approximately 1806 CE. (Heer, 2002). This political entity covered much of present day Europe centered around Germany but interestingly enough, never included the city of Rome of modern day Italy within its territories. This is considered the first instance of a true “Europe.” The Holy Roman Empire originates in the eastern half of Charlemagne’s empire. In 800, Charlemagne had received from the Pope the title of Emperor, reminiscent of the title held by Roman emperors, both in the Rome of old and in the Byzantium of the time (Heer, 2002). By 911 CE. eastern and western Franconia had completely separated, the latter continuing as the kingdom of the Franks, or what is known as France; the former continuing as the kingdom of Germany. In 962 CE. Otto I The Great reclaimed the imperial dignity which had lost all prestige and was conferred by popes on bit players in Italian politics (Bryce, 1886). Because of this, 962 CE. is said to be the most official date of the Holy Roman Empire, also known as the Roman Papacy because of the influence of Catholicism and the title of emperor received bestowed by the Pope (Zophy, 1980).
In contemporary and later writings, this crowning would also be referred to as translatio imperii, the transfer of the Empire from the Romans to a new Empire. The German Emperors thus thought of themselves as being in direct succession of those of the Roman Empire; this is why they initially called themselves Augustus. Still, they did not call themselves “Roman” Emperors at first, probably in order not to provoke conflict with the Roman Emperor who still existed in Constantinople. The term imperator Romanorum only became common under Conrad II later.
The centralizing power of the church and the Roman Papacy had many repercussions for middle and low class citizens of the empire and in surrounding territories as well. Because of the dominance of Catholicism, all other religious groups were ostracized during this period. The combination of state and religion did not allow for extraneous religious groups to practice and worship of anyone other than the Pope was viewed as treason against the Emperor, since the Emperor was crowned by the Pope (Heer, 2002). Loyalty to anyone other than the Emperor and the Pope was prohibited, leading to much social friction and religious prohibition. Especially noted during this period are the Jews, whose discrimination is widely covered in historical literary texts such as the Bible.
The Jews have experienced a long history of persecution in many different lands but during this period lived predominately in what is modern day Israel. During the Middle Ages, this area was covered under the Roman Empire and was ruled and protected by the Roman Emperor (Zophy, 1980). The conflicts that arose between the Jews and the western church during this period were substantial and deeply rooted in history. The Jews refused to worship the Pope and the beliefs of Catholicism that were dominant ideologies. A rich history and their own language segregated them from the Romans in much the same way that they were discriminated against centuries before in Egypt under the rule of the Pharaohs. Jewish culture set them apart in substantial ways, creating a different set of religious holidays that were observed and a separate set of moral justices that they lived by within their communities. Christians were also discriminated against, but because they were fewer in number and held many similar beliefs as Catholicism, their segregation was not as distinguishable and so their discrimination not as blatant or widespread.
Jews were discriminated against because of their beliefs that differed from traditional Catholic teachings and the fact that their religion relied so much on their historical background. In addition the concept that Judaism was not a religion that one could be converted into bothered many people. It was as if the Jews were the ones that discriminated against anyone that was not of Jewish decent by not allowing them to practice or integrate within their communities. Jewish communities were extremely unified and practiced a segregation of their own will. Being Jewish is to be a victim for the crime of being superior to their persecutors. This claim to superiority was originally religiously based, as God’s “Chosen People” of Old Testament tradition. And this Jewish preoccupation — as being victims of their self-presumed superiority — still existed in the Middle Ages and continues to exist today.
The distaste that grew for Jews led to the increase of Jewish apostates who slandered Judaism’s practices and writings in order to prove their religious sincerity to Christian Church and secular leaders. The rise of the Roman Catholic church and the church’s supremacy in matters of state resulted in frequent expulsions and persecutions against the Jews. Rome’s attitudes swung from tolerance to hostility against its Jewish subjects and in one of the most infamous displays of hostility during this period, the Romans destroyed most of Jerusalem but left the Western Wall, a retaining wall of the Temple Mount (Bryce, 1886). Several revolts on both sides resulted in the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem and the forbidding of practicing Judaism in any Roman territory.
In much of Europe during the Middle Ages, Jews were denied citizenship and its rights, barred from holding posts in government and the military, and excluded from membership in guilds and the professions. During late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages the Roman Empire repeatedly repressed the Jewish population, first by ejecting them from their homelands during the pagan Roman era and later by officially establishing them as second-class citizens during the Christian Roman era. Later in medieval Western Europe, further persecutions of Jews in the name of Christianity occurred, notably during the Crusades-when Jews all over Germany were massacred. Discrimination against the Jews led to Jews that were later sold into slavery by the Romans and the killings of multitudes of Jews during various revolts and “exterminations.” The Crusades of the Middle Ages routinely attacked Jewish communities, and increasingly harsh laws restricted them from most economic activity and land ownership, leaving open only money-lending and a few other trades (Zophy, 1980). Jews were subject to expulsions from England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire throughout the Middle Ages, with most of the population moving to Eastern Europe and especially Poland. Even during this period, Jews were often forced to live in highly segregated ghettos and shtetls (Heer, 2002). The end of the Middle Ages brought little change in Jews’ position in Europe, and the Catholic Reformation renewed anti-Jewish legislation and reinforced the system of ghetto segregation in Roman Catholic countries. Jews remained subject to occasional massacres as they would throughout European history.
Discrimination of the Jewish community during the early Middle Ages was a direct result of the combination of Jews who segregated themselves, the rise of Catholicism as the dominant religious authority and the intolerance of Romans to Jewish history and culture. On one hand a long history of discrimination has caused Jews to band together and form tight communities where they share similar beliefs, a similar history and can practice together. Having always been persecuted has caused them to unify. In addition their long held belief of being “the chosen people of the Lord” causes a resent among non-Jewish people who view the Jews as being snobbish and “too good” for the rest of society. This Jewish idea also causes resentment due to the inability for non-Jews to practice Judaism, as it is a hereditary religion, passed on through generations. This automatically segregates all non-Jewish persons and this limiting factor is grounds for much resentment and persecution against Jews. This period of the rise of the Catholic church, increased Christianity and the unity of church and state resulting in the Papacy of the Roman Empire only adds the the discrimination. Now, being Jewish is perceived as blatant treason toward the government and practices become prohibited as Catholicism becomes the rule of the land. Continued prosecution only causes Jewish communities to unify even more, in turn causing more segregation against them.
The early Middle Ages and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire is no different from other periods of history in that Jews were persecuted for their beliefs and discriminated against in the most unjust manners.
Bryce, James. HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE, THE. New York: A.L. Burt Company, 1886.
Criswell, David. The Rise and Fall of the Holy Roman Empire: From Charlemagne to Napoleon. Frederick, MD: Publishamerica, 2005.
Heer, Friedrich. Holy Roman Empire. London: Phoenix Press, 2002.
Velde, Franaois . “Contents – The Holy Roman Empire.” The Holy Roman Empire. 13 Feb. 2008. 5 Apr. 2008 .
Zophy, Jonathan W.. The Holy Roman Empire: A Dictionary Handbook. New York: Greenwood Press, 1980.
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