The Toleration of Jewish Life in Christian Territory

There was also a deeper theological reason to allow and protect Jewish habitation in Christian lands. The Church had adopted the views of the 5th century Church Father, Saint Augustine regarding Jews.“So Cain…said…’ I shall be a mourner and an outcast on the earth, and it shall be that everyone who finds me shall slay me.’…’Not so,’ [G-d] says; ‘but whosoever shall kill Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’ That is…not by bodily death shall the ungodly race of carnal Jews perish…So to the end of the seven days of time the continued preservation of the Jews will be a proof to believing Christians of the subjection merited by those who…put the Lord to death.”[1]

His doctrine was further expounded in the work titled Constitutio Pro Iudaeis written in 1199 by Pope Innocent III. The doctrine supported or at best tolerated the existence of Jews in Christian lands to testify to the veracity of G-d’s promises to Israel, the original bearers of sacred Scripture and the original chosen people. Their continued existence and lack of self-determination reflected their sins and punishment ultimately evidenced through the loss of the land of Israel, their historic homeland. In the end, the Church argued, Jews would come to embrace the Christian faith.

This position as we will soon see was in contrast to the Visigoth codes which until the early 8th century had repeatedly stipulated forced conversions and expulsions of Jews residing in their territory. The new policy guaranteed Jews the right to live, to use the Hebrew language, to build synagogues, rabbinical academies, to own property, and to organize themselves into communities known as aljamas in which they were able to exercise extensive judicial control.[2]

Such privileges had their cost, however. As previously mentioned, Jews were regarded as  property of the monarchs. They paid the monarchs handsomely through taxes and loans for the privileges they had received. Nevertheless, Jews in the Christian kingdoms of Castile-Leon, Navarre, Aragon, Valencia, Catalonia, and Portugal found an environment which tolerated their existence.  At times, the well being of the Jewish community was guaranteed unequivocally. The Fuero Real (royal statute) of King Alfonso IX who reigned from 1171 to 1230 as king of León and Galicia clearly stipulated the religious guarantees granted to Jewish communities in his domain.

“We do not prevent Jews observing their Sabbaths, and the holidays enjoined by their religion. They may practice whatever the holy church and the kings have permitted; and no persons shall oppose or obstruct them. No one shall compel them to appear before a tribunal, nor condemn them, nor seize nor arrest their persons on those days that they may not do anything contrary to their religion. Neither may they summon any other person to justice on those days.”[3]

The tolerance that was extended during the reign of King Alfonso IX was reinforced in during the reign of Alfonso X. In the city of Salamanca, Jews were granted the same rights as Christians as its charter reveals:

“Jews have the same rights as Christians, and any person that kills or wounds them is to suffer for such crime, the same as if it were committed on a Christian, or on an inhabitant of Salamanca. Jews and their heirs are to be treated the same as if they were inhabitants of Salamanca; and their sentences are to be signed by two Jews and a Christian, or two Christians and a Jew.”[4]

Similar charters were shared by other cities like Sahagun and Alcala to name a few. But in the late medieval period, the monarchs of the various kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula were always confronted with a contradictory situation. On the one hand, the monarchs extended royal protection to Jewish communities. On the other, Jews remained in the eyes of the masses as a people guilty of deicide. The situation of Jews would gradually begin to deteriorate in the 13th century with the gradual enlargement of the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon in the wake of severe Muslim defeats.

In the Kingdom of Aragon, prohibitions against Jews filling public offices were enacted in the 1283 by King Pedro III marking a significant change in attitudes towards Jewish participation in the kingdom.[5] The first king of Portugal, Affonso Henriques ruled from 1139-1185 and found Jews already living in the cities of Santarem, Lisbon, and Beja when he conquered them. He pursued the generally tolerant course of action of his grandfather King Alfonso VI of Castile. He issued letters of security to the Jews and to the Moors of Faro. King Affonsoappointed Jews to royal positions including Dom Yaḥya ibn Ya’ish as almoxarife, the receiver of customs.  King Affonso’s son, Sancho I who ruled from 1185 until 1211 followed the tolerant policy of his father. The same approach was adopted by Sancho’s son Affonso II who ruled from 1211-1223.Under his rule, he employed Jews as farmers of the taxes and as tax-collectors.

Under the reign of King Affonso II however, the antagonistic attitudes of the Church towards Jews increased. Affonso adopted the resolutions approved by the Cortes at Coimbra in 1211. The resolutions included an order thata Jew who had been baptized could not return to Judaism.  In addition, no Jew was to prevent his children from accepting Christianity or disinherit them for converting.  Despite approving these decrees, he opposed the pronouncement of the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 with respect to the Jews.[6] King Affonso II paid a price for his opposition and died under a ban. His son Sancho II who ruled from 1223-1246 sustained the power struggle with the Church. Despite the canonical proscription, he still appointed Jews as tax-farmers.Because of his indulgence extended to Jews, Pope Gregory IX sent the bishops of Astorga and Lugo to dispute his blatant violations of ecclesiastical edicts.

In the end however, papal intimidations appear to have had little effect upon King Affonso III. King Affonso III ruled from 1246-1279 and was the son of Sancho II, who had been unseated by Papal decree.The priesthood protested to the Pope in 1258 that King Affonso was permitting Jews to serve in public offices in which they assumed power over Christians. Furthermore, he did not oblige them to wear a distinctive badge or to pay the contribution to the Church.  King Affonso III appears to have reacted counter to the clerics’ expectations.He directed that Muslim slaves were not to be automatically granted freedom when purchased by Jews.  Christians were also required to meet their debt obligations to Jews. 

King Affonso III also structured the internal matters of the Jewish community. King Affonso I had previously approved self-government in civic as well as in criminal cases. Perhaps most significantly, King Affonso issued a decree regulating the privileges and responsibilities of the rabbis, which was ultimately reviewed in 1402 under King John I. Despite this, the Jews of Portugal were required to pay the Juderega or Judenga, a poll-tax of 30 dinheiros, similar to the practice in Castile. The amount was fixed in memorial of the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot, a sign of the continuing designation of Jews as a traitorous people.[7]


[1] David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2013), p. 130.

[2] Natalie Oeltjen, “Crisis and Regeneration: The Conversos of Majorca, 1391 – 1416.” (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2012), https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/32784/3/Oeltjen_Natalie_B_201206_PhD_thesis.pdf. pp. 40-45. The word aljama is an Arabic word found in official documents in Spain and Portugal referring to the self govering communities consisting of Jews and Muslims living under Christian hegemony.

[3] E.H. Lindo, The Jews of Spain and Portugal (London: Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans, 1848), p. 77.

[4] E.H. Lindo, The Jews of Spain and Portugal (London: Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans, 1848), p. 90.

[5] José Hinojosa Montalvo, “Los judíos en la España medieval: de la tolerancia a la expulsión.” (Lecture, Universidad de Alicante, 1998), http://rua.ua.es/dspace/bitstream/10045/13209/1/Hinojosa_Judios_España.pdf. p.27.

[6] The Canon 70 interestingly notes that “Some (Jews), we understand, who voluntarily approached the waters of holy baptism, do not entirely cast off the old man that they may more perfectly put on the new one, because, retaining remnants of the former rite, they obscure by such a mixture the beauty of the Christian religion. But since it is written: ‘Accursed is the man that goeth on the two ways’ (Ecclus. 2:14), and ‘a garment that is woven together of woolen and linen’ (Deut. 22: ii) ought not to be put on, we decree that such persons be in every way restrained by the prelates from the observance of the former rite, that, having given themselves of their own free will to the Christian religion, salutary coercive action may preserve them in its observance, since not to know the way of the Lord is a lesser evil than to retrace one’s steps after it is known.” This occurrence among purportedly voluntary converts only enhances the argument that involuntary converts actually continued Jewish observances. H. J. Schroeder, Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils: Text, Translation and Commentary, (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1937), pp. 236-296.

[7] King Affonso III was succeeded by his son Diniz. Under the rule of King Diniz from 1279-1325 Jews remained in a generally favorable situation.  The positive influence which Dom Judah, chief rabbi and Dom Gedaliah, his son and successor, exerted on the king was important. The fact that they also served as the King’s treasurers was also critical. As was the case during the reign of King Affonso, the priesthood complained that King Diniz allowed the presence of Jews at his court. They also they complained that he delegated official positions to them. Furthermore, Jews were not compelled them to wear distinctive badges. The clergy’s drive toward action against the Jewish community was partially realized under King Diniz’s successor. King Affonso IV who reigned from 1325-1357 was not positively inclined to Jews. After his accession to the throne, Jews were prohibited from appearing in public without a badge. The badge was a six-pointed yellow star and was worn on a hat or on upper clothing. They were also prohibited from wearing gold chains.


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Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education. He is the author of The Converso Dilemma: Halakhic Responsa and the Status of Forced Converts and The Karaites: And the Question of Jewish Identity.

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