Daily Archives: 3 December 2005

Black Death Pogroms and Jews in Slavic Lands

The belief that the Jews were responsible for the Black Death first took root in southern France and neighboring Spain. In the fourteenth century there were only 2.5 million Jews in all of Europe, but a third of these lived in Spain and on the other side of the Pyrenees in southern France. The Jewish communities in this region were of long standing, in some parts going back to Roman times. There were relatively affluent, extremely literate, and in a relationship of growing tension with their Christian neighbors for both religious and economic reasons….

The Black Death pogroms against the German Jews had the inevitable effect of making them feel frightened and insecure. When Duke Casimir II of Poland not only tried to protect Jews in his domains from pogroms, but invited Jews to move eastward and settle in his vast, underpopulated domains, large numbers of Jews began to move en masse to Poland.

This immigration continued into the sixteenth century. Like many Western European rulers of the early Middle Ages (700-1000), the Polish duke and his successors saw the Jews as an economic asset, bringing credit facilities and long-distance trade to the country.

By 1500 the Jews had been assigned an additional role of importance in Polish society and the frontier Ukrainian lands also ruled by the Polish nobility. They were widely employed as estate agents for the Polish nobility, supervising thousands of peasants forced into serfdom and managing the exploitation of the rich Polish and Ukrainian soil. Jewish males became trilingual–Hebrew for liturgy and rabbinical learning, a Slavic language for business, and Yiddish, a late medieval German dialect written in Hebrew characters, for everyday life in their own communities (most Jewish women knew only Yiddish).

By the mid-sixteenth-century Jews were rewarded for their services. as estate agents with a lucrative monopoly in selling liquor to the peasants. This is the origin of the Yiddish folk song “a Gentile is a drunkard.” Jews also prospered as lumber and fur merchants. Great schools of rabbinical learning, many still in existence when night descended in September 1939, emerged in Poland and the Ukraine. By the early seventeenth century half of the Jewish world population of 3.5 million lived in Poland and the Ukraine.

The Jews came to love the Polish and Ukrainian physical environment and in the nineteenth century (if not much earlier) wrote poetry lavishly praising the farmland, forests, and climate of Eastern Europe. The rise of the great Jewish communities in Slavic Europe, remarkable for their enterprise and traditional learning, and also innovative in religious and literary expression, was a direct result of the Black Death.

SOURCE: In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World It Made, by Norman F. Cantor (Harper Perennial, 2002), pp. 150-151, 163-165

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From Aristotle via Arabic to Aquinas

The Thomist school grew from the consequences of the penetration into the Paris University around the middle of the twelfth century of the vast corpus of Aristotelian science and philosophy through the medium of Arabic and Jewish schools (also writing in Arabic) in Spain and Sicily.

The Aristotelian corpus was translated in the eastern Mediterranean by Byzantine monks and Arab Muslim scholars into Arabic between 800 and 1000 and found its way, accompanied by various mathematical and medical texts, into Cordoba, Spain, and Palermo, Sicily, by 1050. Previously only Aristotelian logic was available in the West, which was thoroughly dominated by the Platonic idealistic and mystical rather than the Aristotelian scientific and rational frame of thought. By the middle of the thirteenth century Aristotle’s writings were being translated directly from Greek into Latin rather than through Arabic mediation, and these improved translations were available to the corpulent and good-humored Dominican friar at Paris, Thomas Aquinas.

What drove the Thomist mission was a concern that Catholic doctrine was founded on the Bible, church authority, and the more mystical and irrational part of ancient culture, not on reason and Aristotelian science. It was to defend this established faith and high culture–something that the Cairo rabbi Maimonides had already attempted for Judaism, to deep resentment from the Orthodox rabbinate–that Thomas Aquinas, following his Parisian Dominican mentor Albert the Great, set out to show the large-scale compatibility of Catholic faith and Aristotelian reason and science.

SOURCE: In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World It Made, by Norman F. Cantor (Harper Perennial, 2002), pp. 116-117

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