Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




The course of Jewish history in western Europe is varied. Beginning in small communities located in the Roman provinces at the beginning of the Common Era, the Jews spread northward into Germany and France and slowly increased both their population and the number of towns in which they were settled. The expansion of Christian influence among the Gothic tribes created hardships for the Jews, but the rise of the Carolingian empire, Charlemagne's abilities as a statesman, and his desire to create an empire in the style of Rome, helped to enhance the stature of the Jews.

But the advent of the feudal period provided an obstacle to the development of Jewish culture. Feudalism embodied Christian values, utilized an oath heavily laced with Christian symbolism, and granted landed estates to officials of the feudal hierarchy. These elements of the feudal system excluded non-Christians. Jews presented an exceptional problem, however; Roman tradition and Church policy supported the existence and autonomy of the Jewish people, but the social system froze them out of the landed economy. To keep their culture alive, the Jews had to adapt their lifestyle to these new social conditions.

The Jews responded economically by engaging in trade. Some Jews traded in slaves. Others distributed the products of Europe by peddling merchandise around the continent and by trading at commercial fairs. Jewish businessmen also imported the merchandise of other continents— Africa and Asia— to Europe, and exported European products to these areas. Through these endeavors, the Jews helped to promote commerce among the Europeans and increase their knowledge of other peoples worldwide.

Culturally, the Jews responded by developing institutions to structure and regulate the communities in which they lived. Jewish scholars were instrumental in this process. They established the principle of majority rule, developed an effective judicial system, and strengthened the role of the community in Jewish government. The creativity of these scholars enabled the Jews to adapt to the feudal environment and flourish in northern Europe.

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