The Medieval Era
After a few centuries of freedom from harassment during the Carolingian period (800-1000), the Jews of western Europe began to suffer new indignities as the crusades came on. The Muslims were the "infidel" targets in the attempted recapture of the holy places in Palestine. However, the pillage and slaughter committed by Christian mobs against Jews on the way linger long in Jewish memory.
The Jews of Germany were subjected to many indignities after the crusades, including accusations of poisoning of the wells and ritual murder. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, these slanderous charges often led to massacres. Many German Jews fled eastward, bringing with them a particular dialect (Jüdisch, hence Yiddish), possibly of Bavarian origin.
Several Polish noblemen of the Middle Ages showed special favor to Jews who immigrated because of persecution in Germany, coupled with a Polish desire for Jewish expertise in commerce. Autonomous systems of Jewish community government (the kahal) flourished in Poland, while the lower or grade school (heder) and Talmudic academy (yeshiva) were found everywhere. A deterioration of Jewish life set in during the long reign of Sigismund III (at the turn of the seventeenth century), partly as a result of measures taken in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The previous centuries were certainly the high point of Jewish intellectual life in Europe, a fact that made more recent Polish anti-Judaism the more tragic.
The long reign of German-born empress Catherine the Great (d. 1796) saw the influx of perhaps a million Jews into Russia, and was marked by her giving them their first political rights in Europe. She settled them on land, however, as a device to keep them out of economic occupations and the professions. The Orthodox Church subjected them to conversionary sermons, leading to riots and slaughter later in the century. Many an older U.S. Jew has heard vivid tales from grandparents of repressive measures in the old country, including the need to lock oneself in one’s house on Good Friday against marauding ruffians.
Returning to Germany, we find Martin Luther in his early days naively imagining that the Jews, to whom he was attracted by his studies, would flock to the Church in his reformed version. When nothing of the sort happened, he denounced them in a set of pamphlets written in vituperative fury. He had produced the early, favorable "That Christ Was Born a Jew" in 1523, but after he turned on this so-called "damned, rejected race," he wrote Against the Sabbatarians (1538) and On the Jews and Their Lies (1543).