Coercion in the Service of Christian Truth
In 1240, as we have seen, the convert Nicholas Donin orchestrated a trial of the Talmud in Paris. Utilizing his knowledge of rabbinic literature, he leveled a series of charges against the Talmud, succeeded in winning papal and some secular support, and staged a trial in which the literature of the Jews was found guilty on a number of counts. The result of this verdict was a massive burning of the Talmud and related literature outside Paris in 1242. Quite by coincidence, it is from the same year that we have the first firm evidence of the new-style Christian missionizing among the Jews. This evidence comes from a papal letter of 1245, which encloses an earlier royal edict of King James I of Aragon. The edict addresses a series of issues related to conversion to Christianity and stipulates a number of forms of protection for the convert: (1) he is not to be impeded in the process of conversion; (2) he is to suffer no property loss as a result of conversion; and (3) he is to suffer no social rebuke as a result of conversion. The edict closes on a different note:
Likewise we wish and decree that, whenever the archbishop, bishops, or Dominican or Franciscan friars visit a town or a locale where Saracens or Jews dwell and wish to present the word of God to the said Jews or Saracens, these must gather at their call and must patiently hear their preaching. If they [the Jews or Saracens] do not wish to come of their own will, our officials shall compel them to do so, putting aside all excuses.
This last stipulation establishes an important ongoing technique for bringing the message of Christianity to the potential convert. It is significant, of course, that the Dominicans and Franciscans are mentioned so prominently in the ordering of compulsory Muslim and Jewish attendance at conversionist sermons. As we have seen, these new orders were committed to stemming internal backsliding in
Christendom and to reaching out for converts from non-Christian society.
Forcing Jews or Muslims to attend conversionist sermons was not unprecedented in Christendom. We have already noted sporadic efforts in this direction. What is new in 1242 is institutionalization of the practice. Jews and Muslims are henceforth to be forced in a regular manner into hearing the message of Christianity. In fact, there is good evidence that, during the middle decades of the thirteenth century, such regularized preaching did occur. How common the new practice was is not clear; it was certainly no longer a random and highly unusual phenomenon.
To be sure, there were theoretical problems associated with the new practice. Given the fundamental safeguards established by the Roman Catholic Church for Jewish life, in particular the prohibition of forcible conversion, it could be asked whether compelling Jews to attend conversionist sermons did not represent an abrogation of the traditional protections. The point is a fine one. From the Christian side, it could be claimed that conversions achieved through forced sermons would not constitute conversion under duress. While Jews might be compelled to hear the truth, they would ultimately assent to it only by an act of free and independent will. From the Jewish perspective, it could be argued that compulsion was being used at the outset of a process whose culmination might be conversion, thereby abrogating the traditional safeguards erected for Jewish religious liberty.
It is interesting that these considerations are not reflected in Christian sources of the period. There is, however, a revealing echo of these issues in an important mid-thirteenth-century Jewish source from southern France. This text, the Milhemet[*]Mizvah[*] (The Obligatory War), is an extremely valuable mélange of materials written over a number of decades, from the 1240s through the 1270s, and rich in the social history of this crucial epoch. The opening section of this diverse collection includes a reference to the new practice of forced sermons, which had obviously reached the area of Narbonne. The Jewish author is aware of the practice and vigorously opposes it. The issue of forced preaching is raised in the context of a literary discussion between a Christian and a Jew. While this particular dialogue seems fictitious, much of the material in it, including the discussion of forced sermons, depicts accurately new Christian initiatives and the Jewish responses evoked.
Unfortunately, the extant manuscript of the Milhemet[*]Mizvah[*] begins well into this particular dialogue. The opening statement by the Christian protagonist has been lost; the first material available comes from the middle of the lengthy rebuttal of the Jewish spokesman. From this response, it is fairly easy to reconstruct the arguments attributed to the Christian. How far these Jewish statements reflect Christian thinking of the period is conjecture. In general, however, the Milhemet Mizvah is distinguished for its accurate reflection of the real issues agitating mid-thirteenth-century southern French Jewish life. The Jewish author presents three Christian arguments for compelling Jewish attendance at conversionist sermons. Not surprisingly, the first two were drawn from biblical sources, with the third simply an appeal to reason. The first argument was drawn from Deuteronomy 23:8: "You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman." It is difficult to know how seriously such an argument should be taken; it may reflect no more than semihumorous jousting or the Jewish author's suggestion of the low level of Christian argumentation. Taken at face value, the Christian protagonist argues that there is nothing wrong with Jewish contact with Christians, popularly associated in the medieval Jewish mind with Edom and Edomites. Put differently, there is nothing that would prohibit such contact. The second biblically grounded argument is more positive. From the precedent of Jethro's advice to Moses and the Israelites and their full acceptance of that advice, it can be inferred that much of value may be gleaned from the teaching of non-Jews. Thus, compulsory sermons might be a source of genuine enlightenment. The final argument is really the decisive one. This last argument, as reconstructed from the Jewish rebuttal, simply suggests that Christian preaching represents the truth and that Jews should be exposed to it, in the hope that they might accept this truth. This seems to represent the position I have earlier surmised: the means of delivering the truth is irrelevant; it is the truth itself that is decisive.
The Jewish responses to these three arguments—like the purported Christian arguments—range from semi-jocular jousting to intense seriousness. The first Christian argument required little refutation; the Jewish spokesman merely points to the end of the verse cited: "Children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of the Lord in the third generation." What this means is that the injunction not to abhor the Edomite does not address itself to hearing his religious message; it simply put a temporal limit on his exclusion from the Israelite
community. No sanction for hearing the Edomite's religious message is embodied in this verse.
While neither the first Christian thrust nor the first Jewish parry has an air of deep seriousness about it, the second Christian claim is treated much more carefully. The Jewish disputant contends that, at the time Jethro gave his advice, he had become a worshiper of the God of Israel.
For earlier it is written that Jethro said: "Now I know that the Lord is the greatest of all gods." And it is said: "And Jethro said, 'Blessed be the Lord who has saved you from the power of Egypt and of Pharoah.' " And he offered sacrifices, as is written: "Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, brought a whole-offering and sacrifices for God."
A second rebuttal suggests that the counsel proferred was qualitatively different from that of Christian preachers. Jethro was advising in the area of administrative efficiency, while Christian preachers were advocating a fundamental change of faith. Finally, the Jew concludes by noting that Jethro's proposals could be checked directly with the divine through the prophetic faculties of Moses. In thirteenth-century Jewry, where prophecy had long since disappeared, no such outside counsel could be countenanced.
Although there is much seriousness about this exchange, the real issue lay in the third Christian claim, and the Jewish rebuttal strikes at the heart of the matter. Again, the Jew responds with a series of answers. These varying replies all rest on one common assumption, however, that Jewish status in medieval Christendom is rooted in the majority's absolute guarantee of the minority's right to live according to its own understanding of its religious heritage.
Indeed you are commanded to protect us and to preserve us in your midst by guarding our religion according to our faith, so that you not cause us to transgress one of the commandments of the Torah according to our understanding of its meaning.
Given this fundamental assumption, the Jew sets out to prove that listening to Christian preaching does in fact constitute a breach of Jewish law and hence is not to be forced on his brethren. The first assertion of such a breach is striking. The Jew contends that, according to Jewish tradition and even according to the Gospels, the Pharisaic contemporaries of Jesus viewed him as a sorcerer. Since the biblical injunction against heeding the sorcerer is strict and Christians ac-
knowledge that they are the followers of Jesus, Jews are therefore forbidden by their own religious tradition from hearing the Christian message. The negative force of this statement is mitigated somewhat by the author's emphasis on its relativity: according to the Pharisees, Jesus was a sorcerer and hence Jews must not heed his disciples. This is not an absolute indictment. Nonetheless, it is a jarring accusation, and one wonders whether it could be voiced in actual Jewish-Christian discussion. In any event, the conclusion the Jewish disputant reaches is that his coreligionists are prohibited from listening to Christian sermons and Christian law itself forecloses the option of forcing the Jews to trespass their own commandments.
A second contention in the same vein, albeit less derogatory, flows from an important verse in Ezekiel: "No foreigner, uncircumcised in mind and body, shall enter my sanctuary, in order to serve me." The Jewish spokesman asserts (1) according to Jewish law, Christians surely fall into the category of "uncircumcised in mind and body"; (2) preaching is a form of "service"; and (3) the synagogue is a "sanctuary." The inescapable conclusion is that Christian preaching in the synagogue contravenes the prohibition of Ezekiel, as Jewish tradition understood it, and, consequently, that Christendom had no right to enforce such violations on the Jews.
The third counterclaim abandons biblical moorings and is in many ways the most interesting. The author sets forth an elaborate parable of a woman married to a man who has seemingly disappeared. She is subsequently besieged by the attentions of a suitor who is convinced of the husband's demise. The question posed is what advice should be given to such a woman. Should she be counseled to hear the ardent plaints of her suitor, lest she offend him and lose the benefits conferred on her and her children, or should she be required to cease all contact, lest she be seduced into sin? The Jew's decisive conclusion is that all men of good faith would urge such a woman to avoid exposure to temptation at all cost.
Now then understand the parable. For in the Bible you will find in many places that we, the people of Israel, are designated in relation to the Holy One as a woman to her husband, as is written: "For your husband is your maker, whose name is the Lord of Hosts." It is further said: "Your God shall rejoice over you as a bridegroom rejoices over the bride." When they sin, they are likened to a woman who behaves improperly toward her husband, as is written: "Their mother is a wanton; she who conceived them is shameless. . . . Plead my case with your mother, for she is
no longer my wife nor I her husband. Plead with her to forswear those wanton looks, to banish the lovers from her bosom." And when they return in repentance, it is said: "I will betroth you to myself for ever; I will betroth you in lawful wedlock with unfailing devotion and love; I will betroth you to myself firmly; and you shall know the Lord." It is likewise said: "The Lord had acknowledged you as a wife again, once deserted and heart-broken; your God has called you a bride still young though once rejected. On the impulse of the moment I forsook you, but with tender affection I will bring you home again." In sum, there are many verses that attest this. Therefore anyone who wishes to seduce us and to cause us to sin against the divine according to the dictates of our faith, we must not heed him; rather we must even flee if we can be saved in no other way. Indeed if you exert force in this matter, you yourselves will transgress the commandment of your Gospel, in which you are bidden not to cause us to transgress one of the commandments of our Torah according to our faith.
This, then, represents a direct confrontation with the key issue. Forced sermons present the possibility of luring Jews from their ancestral fold. The use of coercion for such a purpose is, to the Jews, a flagrant violation of the basic safeguards historically assured by Christendom.
We have focused thus far on the theoretical issues associated with the new phenomenon of regularized compulsory sermons. This new technique did not remain a matter of theory alone, however. There is substantial evidence for extensive utilization of this new technique during the middle decades of the thirteenth century. Such preaching clearly took place in southern France. Early on in the report of Rabbi Moses ben Nahman on the proceedings in Barcelona, he quotes himself as saying the following to Friar Paul Christian:
Before we debate this, I wish that he would instruct me and indicate how such a thing is possible. Indeed since he journeyed in Provence and in many places, I have heard that he said such things to many Jews and I am astounded at him.
A second attestation to the reality of compulsory sermons in mid-thirteenth-century southern France is found in the Milhemet[*]Mizvah[*] , which we have already cited. One of the most interesting segments of this useful mélange opens as follows:
This is the beginning of the sermon which I preached after the Dominican friar—not of our faith—spoke in the synagogue before the congregation.
With him was a multitude large and distinguished. Within my sermon were replies to those statements which he made against us on that occasion.
Similarly, there is evidence for exercise of the same compulsion in Spain, particularly in the kingdom of Aragon. The most famous incident of this kind was the historic confrontation in Barcelona in 1263, which I shall analyze fully later. Clearly, however, this was not an isolated incident. There is reference in Nahmanides' report to an earlier colloquy between the rabbi of Gerona and Friar Paul Christian, and, slightly after the proceedings in Barcelona, the synagogue of that city was the site of a set of compulsory sermons, one delivered by Friar Raymond of Penyafort and the second by none other than the King of Aragon. Subsequent to the completion of the Pugio Fidei in 1278, Pope Nicholas III issued a bull ordering preaching to the Jews throughout western Christendom. This call was supported by King Peter III of Aragon, who, on April 19, 1279, ordered his royal officials to aid the preachers by forcing the Jews to receive them in their synagogues. A series of royal letters from June and October of the same year treat at length the untoward side effects of the new preaching campaign, indicating quite clearly that the edict of April 19 was extensively carried out.
While the initial scene of this new-style preaching was southern Europe, the newer Jewish communities of the north were not spared completely. Particularly noteworthy was the support extended by the pious King Louis IX of France to such conversionist efforts in the last years of his life, prior to departure on a second crusading venture, during which he met his death. In 1269, Louis followed the lead of James of Aragon by enacting the following edict:
Since our beloved brother in Christ, Paul Christian of the Order of Preaching Brethren, the bearer of the present letter, wishes and intends, for the glory of the divine name, to preach to the Jews the word of light, in order, we understand, to evangelize for the exaltation of the Christian faith, we order you to force those Jews residing in your jurisdiction to present themselves to hear from him and without objection the word of the Lord and to present their books as the aforesaid brother shall require. You shall compel the Jews to respond fully, without calumny and subterfuge, on those matters which relate to their law, concerning which the aforesaid brother might interrogate them, whether in sermons in their synagogues or elsewhere.
A valuable Parisian chronicle indicates that this edict was enforced almost immediately.
On the same year , close to Pentecost, a certain brother of the Order of Preaching Brethren . . . came from Lombardy. He had been a Jew and was the highest authority in Mosaic law and in our law. Publicly, in the royal court in Paris and in the court of the Preaching Brethren, he preached to the Jew, who came there by royal order—showing them that their law was null and worthless, that they had in fact not observed it for a long time, that indeed they daily diverted from all its precepts.
In England as well, a decade later, royal support was elicited in the form of an order by Edward I in 1280 requiring Jewish attendance at conversionist sermons. Across both the southern and northern tiers of western Christendom, the new practice of forced Jewish attendance at missionizing sermons was fully in evidence by the end of this period.
In all these instances, compulsion was exercised on the Jews at the behest of the Church by the reigning authorities, as reflected, for example, in overt notice of the papal bull of 1278 in Peter III's order of 1279. Where the secular authorities failed to lend their support, the program of compulsory sermons could not be realized. These authorities were not always models of consistency in their support. Thus, for example, King James I of Aragon, in the wake of the Barcelona confrontation, issued two edicts supporting the new preaching campaign. The first, dated August 26, 1263, was addressed to royal officialdom and simply repeated the provision of the king's earlier legislation of 1242, ordering his royal officials to enforce Jewish and Muslim attendance at sermons preached by Dominican friars. Three days later, the king addressed the Jews of his realm directly, mentioning Friar Paul Christian explicitly as the key figure in the missionizing effort and spelling out more fully some details of the new preaching campaign.
We firmly command and order you that, when our beloved Friar Paul Christian, of the Order of Preaching Brethren, whom we send to you in order to exhibit the path of salvation, comes to you in your synagogues or your homes or other locales, for the proper purpose of preaching the word of God or of disputing or of conferring with you concerning sacred scriptures, in public or in private or in personal conversation, together or separately, you must come to him and listen gently and favorably and humbly and reverently and without calumny and subterfuge answer his
questions concerning faith and sacred scriptures, according to your knowledge. Your books—which he will need for showing you the truth—you must present to him.
Interestingly, the Jews were to pay for the expenses incurred by Friar Paul and deduct the sum paid from their regular taxes, in effect, making the king responsible for them. On the next day, however, the king seems to have reversed himself in a decree addressed once more to royal officialdom.
We order you that you not compel nor permit to be compelled the Jews of our cities, towns, and locales of our rule nor their wives or their children to exit to any place outside the Jewish quarter for the purpose of hearing a sermon of any of the Preaching Friars. Rather, if any friar of the Preaching Friars wishes to enter their Jewish quarter or their synagogues and there to preach to them, they shall hear him if they wish. For this we have conceded to those Jews, that they not be required to go outside of their Jewish quarter for the purpose of hearing the sermon of anyone nor be required by force to hear a sermon anywhere. This we concede to them despite any document conceded by us to the contrary to the Preaching Friars.
Precisely what transpired to alter royal support is not known. This complex case does indicate the potential for a shift in position on the part of the authorities and the critical impact of such shifts. In general, however, an increasing number of rulers in western Christendom began to back the ecclesiastical program of forced sermons during the middle decades of the thirteenth century.
A number of questions must be raised with regard to this evidence for compulsory sermons during the 1240s, 1250s, and 1260s. The first two concern the physical site and the Christian presence at the sermons. Since these issues were intimately linked, I shall treat them in tandem. Looking back over the incidents of conversionist preaching, we note the following locales: (1) major centers of secular authority, for example, the royal palaces in Barcelona and Paris; (2) major ecclesiastical institutions, for example, a large monastery in Barcelona and the Dominican priory in Paris; and (3) Jewish houses of worship, for example, the synagogues of Narbonne, Gerona, Barcelona, and a large number of Aragonese cities reflected in the royal edicts of 1279. In a number of instances, large retinues of Christians are mentioned (e.g. in Narbonne, Barcelona, Paris, and again the locales reflected in
the Aragonese documentation of 1279). The specifics of these circumstances were of utmost importance to the Jews. Part of the impact of the compulsory sermon was psychological, stemming from the sense of powerlessness on the part of the Jewish auditors. An overwhelming setting certainly augmented this psychological impact. This is clearly reflected in a Hebrew report of a forced sermon delivered in Paris.
Know that each day we were over a thousand souls in the royal court or in the courtyard of the Dominicans, pelted with stones. Praise to the Lord, not one of us turned to the religion of vanity and lies.
Here we see both the pressure of a Christian as opposed to a Jewish setting and the harassment of a large Christian audience. Given the alternative of hearing a Christian preacher outside their own community or within, the Jews surely preferred to host the preacher in their own setting. This is reflected in the pro-Jewish edict of James I of Aragon cited above. Moreover, it was of course in the Jewish interest to be confronted with as small a Christian contingent as possible. From the Jewish perspective, the less impressive the Christian presence, the better. The royal edicts of Peter III indicate some of the specifics of Christian harassment that went well beyond mere physical presence. There is reference to intimidating behavior, about which the Jews obviously lodged complaint. The result was a series of royal letters upholding the Jewish complaints and strictly limiting the number of Christian auditors allowed at the missionizing sermons.
The question of language utilized in this preaching is an intriguing one. While the records of these sermons have come down to us only in Latin or Hebrew, it is impossible to envision such proceedings in either language. Latin would certainly not have provided a vehicle for reaching large numbers of Jews effectively. While some of the preachers, perhaps Friar Paul Christian among them, might have known enough Hebrew to address an audience in that language, others, like Friar Raymond of Penyafort or King James I of Aragon, would not have been so equipped. Moreover, avid following of the proceedings by Christian observers would not have been possible had they taken place in Hebrew. It is thus fairly obvious that the missionizing sermons and most of the Jewish responses were in the local vernacular. While this is plausible, it does leave one problem, and that is the pan-European activity of a preacher like Friar Paul Christian. How was it possible for him to preach to Jewish audiences in so many dif-
ferent areas of Europe, using the local vernacular? No ready answer is available, other than to suggest that language proficiency was an integral part of the equipment of such professional preachers.
Thus, during the 1240s, the intense new atmosphere of Christian Europe—suffused with a deep-seated commitment to controlling patterns of thought among Christians, to limiting potentially harmful self-expression on the part of Christendom's non-Christian guests, and to spreading Christian truth among the infidels—created a powerful new tool for propagating Christian teaching among nonbelievers within the orbit of Christian society. A militant Church sought, and often received, the support of the secular overlords of the Muslims and Jews in forcing them to hear Christianity's message delivered by trained, learned, and eloquent preachers. Forcing physical presence at such conversionist sermons and debates constituted a first step in confronting these non-Christians with Christian truth. More crucial was the content of the message delivered, and it is to this key element in the new campaign that we must now turn our attention.