Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Heritage Civilization and the Jews
About the Series Historical Timeline Resources Lesson Plans Episodes
sidecurve1 The Crucible of Europe
Interactive Presenation
Interactive Atlas
Historical Documents
Video Resources

Crucible of Europe Collage In the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. When I wished to make a city out of the village of Speyer, I Rudiger [...]bishop of Speyer, thought that the glory of our town would be augmented a thousandfold if I were to bring Jews.

[...]I have accorded them the free right of exchanging gold and silver and of buying and selling everything they use [...] throughout the city.

Bishop Rudiger of Speyer, Charter, 1084, from Robert Chazan, Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages (Behrman House, 1980)

From the 8th to the 15th centuries, during the era that later observers would call the Middle Ages, new centers of civilization and patterns of life evolved out of the ruins of the ancient world. During these years, European civilization acquired some of the basic characteristics that have lasted until our time.

Western civilization in this period was divided between the world of Islam and the world of Christianity. Islam thrived in Spain and part of southern Italy. Christianity held sway in England, France, Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe, and from the late 10th century, in reconquered Spain.

When the Muslims conquered the Iberian peninsula in 714, they imported there the radiant Arab culture of Baghdad and other capitals of the East. Islamic civilization in Spain reached its zenith in the 9th and 10th centuries, when the Muslim polity, the Caliphate of Cordoba, declared its political independence. Iberian Jewry blossomed and enjoyed what later came to be known as "the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry"—an era marked by extensive Jewish participation in public life and a symbiosis of Arabic and Jewish culture. This golden age came to an end when Spain’s Umayyad rulers were usurped by the repressive North African Almoravid dynasty. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Spain gradually returned to Christian rule, as Castile and Aragon, the two preeminent Iberian Christian states, led the Reconquista (Christian reconquest). Granada, the last Muslim outpost in Spain, was finally conquered in 1492.

In the early Middle Ages, the sparsely populated territories of Northern Europe were organized according to the feudal system, in which serfs farmed the lands of lords in exchange for protection. The Church was an integral part of daily life. By the 10th century, cities were beginning to grow in size and importance. Merchants and artisans helped develop a new, urban economy. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, Europe enjoyed something of a cultural renaissance. Architectural advances enabled the construction of magnificent cathedrals. An intellectual revolution took place as universities were established and scholars, such as Thomas Aquinas, sought to reconcile the teachings of Christianity with the principles of classical Greek philosophy.

Local rulers, seeking to promote commerce in the towns and cities, invited Jewish merchants to settle in their principalities. Eventually, Jews were viewed as economic competitors by the rising urban class. The Church, worried that the Jews' non-acceptance of Christianity would encourage doubts about Christian doctrine, began preaching anti-Jewish sermons. Jews became subject to persecution, which ranged from being forced to wear special costumes and badges to being massacred (especially during the First Crusade and during the years of the Black Death). When the state rulers consolidated their power and the Jews’ financial services were deemed no longer necessary, the Jews were expelled en masse from England, parts of France and Germany, and Spain.

About the Series    |   Historical Timeline   |   Resources   |    Lesson Plans   |   Episodes