Expulsion and Readmission

Medieval European Jewry repeatedly faced banishment for both economic and religious reasons.

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Between 1290 and 1550, England, France, and most of southern and eastern Europe expelled their Jewish populations, at least once and sometimes several times (expulsion followed by readmission followed by expulsion). What did it mean to be “expelled”?  How and why did expulsion emerge as a common expression of intolerance during this period? 


Prior to the crescendo of expulsions that occurred in the 14th century, European Jewry experienced several brutal eruptions of intolerance, including, for example, the massacres that swept northern Europe in the wake of the Black Death (Jews were accused of poisoning the wells and thus causing the plague) and the The Great Conversion riots of 1391 in Spain, which resulted in the death of one third of the Spanish Jewish community.

These unprecedented incidences of violence resulted in an increasingly insecure existence for European Jewry in the later Middle Ages. For example, in the German lands, after the Black Death, Jewish settlement rights were more often than not limited in time to ten to twelve years, renewable and changeable at the discretion of the local ruler.  

"A Civilized Way of Eliminating Jews"

It was in this context that expulsion, or banishment, became more common. Historian Salo Baron deemed it a “somewhat more civilized way of eliminating Jews.” Expulsion, he argued, certainly appeared legitimate, as it often amounted to the simple failure to renew an existing temporary residence permit. Baron also points to the medieval conception of Jews as permanent “exiles” as another way to understand the phenomenon of expulsion. While the exiles were tolerated in Christian communities as examples of Christian truth, this toleration could cease at the discretion of the local rulers.

Thus expulsion provided a “legitimate,” less violent way of eliminating the Jews from a region. But why eliminate them at all? The rationale for group expulsion was complex, but the most common reasons for doing so were economic and religious. When raising taxes failed to produce enough revenue for a local ruler, expelling a group and taking its land and possessions was often the next best alternative. (However, expulsion for economic gain proved counterproductive, as the loss of regular Jewish revenue depressed the economy in the long run.)

 Popular anti-Jewish sentiment also fueled expulsions. In addition to the anti-Jewish witness theory, outlined above, rumors circulated regarding, for example, Jews killing Christians in mockery of the crucifixion (ritual murder), Jews desecrating the host (communal wafer), and Jews poisoning wells. (None of these rumors were true.)

In addition to economic and religious reasons for expelling the Jews in the late Middle Ages, historian Salo Baron adds his theory of nationalism and intolerance. Baron noticed that all of the regions that expelled the Jews during this period were evolving national states. In England, France, and the Iberian peninsula, argues Baron, the emergence of a national identity contributed to the decision to expel. In defining the national self, these states eliminated the most obvious “other,” the Jews. The expansion of two multinational states at the time--Poland-Lithuania and the Ottoman Empire-- provided refuge for the exiles.

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Joshua Levy is a doctoral candidate in the department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, studying medieval Jewish history. His dissertation, "Sefer Milhamot Hashem, Chapter Eleven: The Earliest Jewish Critique of the New Testament," is an examination of medieval Jewish criticisms of the Gospel of Matthew.