Peaceful Coexistence and Papal Intervention
There is no popular writing extant to tell us how the ordinary Christians of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa thought of Jews and acted toward them in Christianity's first six hundred years. It must have fixed in the popular mind the conviction that the Jews had crucified Jesus and that their descendents bore hereditary guilt for the deed because they had never repudiated it. A fair presumption is that Jews and Christians got on fairly peacefully at the neighborhood level, knowing that pagan idolatry was the common enemy.
The correspondence of Gregory I tells us something about attempts at the forced conversion of the Jews. He favors their becoming Christians, unsurprisingly, but demands justice in their regard under the terms of Roman Law. From his letters we learn a few things about Jews in the empire toward the year 600: that some were deeply involved in the slave trade; that Jews lived untroubled lives among Christians in certain regions and were dealt with cruelly in others; and that close living brought irritations in its wake because of over-vigorous chanting in adjacent synagogues and churches. The papal correspondence was, by and large, protective of Jewish rights, while continuing to assume their subordinate position in society.
Such was not the case in the century that followed Gregory’s papacy. At the same time, the expulsion of Jews was beginning in Europe; from France under King Dagobert (626) and under the Spanish monarchy—with church collusion—when in 694 the Jews were required to choose between baptism and slavery. These moves appear to be based on religion, but history has shown that all such expulsions and persecutions are dependent on other factors such as politics, xenophobia, and scapegoating. The unique factor was that the Christians arrived early at the erroneous conclusion that the Jews were being divinely punished for not having come over to their way of belief. Even when religious difference had little or nothing to do with specific Christian antagonisms to Jews, it could always be alleged as the root rationale for Christian behavior.
In the years 500-1500 the Jews, as a religious and a cultural minority, were often preyed upon by the Christian majority in a familiar sociological pattern. The papal record is consistently mixed. Harsh infringements of Jewish rights are censured at the same time that restrictions are imposed on their full participation in society. The vocabulary of guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion and charges of stubbornness and blindness recur.
Still, as many historians of Judaism have observed, these infringements of civil and social liberty never approached the point of the elimination of the Jewish people entirely—a terrifying first from the Nazi era.