A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Recent excavations have transformed our understanding
of the lives of European Jews during the Middle Ages
For centuries, the Jews have been one of Europe’s most widely persecuted minorities—conventional wisdom identifies them as a well-defined network of communities set off from the rest of the population by official exclusion, their religious laws, and a narrow range of occupations and intellectual pursuits. Yet a new trend in archaeology is addressing some key questions about Jewish life in Europe through the ages. When were Jewish communities founded in various cities? How did they—or did they—distinguish themselves from the general population? Have Jewish religious customs and symbols changed? What can Jewish archaeology teach us about the condition of ethnic minorities in the Middle Ages and today?
According to Samuel Gruber, director of the Syracuse, New York–based International Survey of Jewish Monuments, the stereotypical “otherness” of European Jews in the Middle Ages is based on written sources (both Jewish and Christian) whose clear-cut theological agendas mask the true complexity of Jewish life. “Most of the medieval Jewish sources about the Jews are rabbinic writings,” he says, “either legal rulings, religious commentary, or pious poetry. Christian documentary sources were usually influenced by church teachings and were often biased and polemical. All of these sources are generalized and ahistoric, in the sense that they describe Jews and Judaism as something fixed.” The sources describe religious ideals rather than day-to-day realities—unswerving faithfulness to Mosaic Law on the Jewish side, and unrelenting hostility toward Jewish unbelievers from the Christian side. This shaped a vision of the Jews as set apart from mainstream medieval Christendom, which came to be identified with a largely uniform feudal system characterized by Christian religious art, architecture, armor, tapestries, half-timbered urban dwellings, and coats of arms. Jews, as well as Muslims, Roma, heretics, visionaries, beggars, wanderers, migrant workers, and even the rural worshipers of the traditional nature cults of Europe—were placed emphatically on the outside.
But archaeological protection laws in Europe over the last 60 years have helped reshape our vision of medieval society. The physical devastation of World War II laid bare areas that had for centuries been crowded with standing structures. Beginning in the 1950s, the nations of western Europe funded large-scale urban digs and enacted strict requirements for archaeological excavations before reconstruction could begin, a trend that has continued as development has accelerated in the last 20 years. Organizations such as France’s National Institute for Preventative Archaeology (INRAP) have employed thousands of archaeologists to undertake tens of thousands of excavations, bringing to light a huge new body of data about the archaeology of France from the Paleolithic to the twentieth century.
Like cultural resource management digs in the United States, the location of these excavations is often determined by development projects and accidental discoveries. They have unearthed previously unknown histories of forgotten groups gleaned from house walls, food remains, graffiti, and other discoveries, rather than from the “official” records of secular or ecclesiastical elites. According to Paul Salmona of INRAP and Laurence Sigal-Klagsblad, director of the Jewish Museum of Art and History in Paris, the archaeological rediscovery of Jewish sites throughout France contributes to nothing less than “a rewriting of the national history.” Archaeologists across Europe are also demonstrating the diversity and cultural interactions of members of Jewish communities with “mainstream” medieval society.
This is not just a matter of Jewish interest. According to Max Polonovski, chief curator of Jewish Heritage for the French Ministry of Culture, the main goal of this emerging trend is not merely to address the veracity of medieval texts, but to “discover ways of life, intercommunal relationships in the heart of medieval cities, and to trace social changes over the centuries.”
Neil Asher Silberman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.