Spain 1263


“The Jews furnish our viziers, chancellors and most of our officers of our army and we simply cannot do it without them.” This was answered by Alfonso VI in response to Pope Gregory VII”s complaints about rising Jewish prominence in Spain (Sachar, 1994). By the middle of the eighth century, the eastern half of the Byzantine Empire, Persia, North Africa, and the southern Iberian Peninsula, were ruled by the Moslem caliphs. Because of their love for science and the spread of knowledge, the Moslems employed Jews as poets, doctors, and scholars in both secular and religious contexts. Jews even occupied some of the highest positions in Moslem Spain, as prime ministers to the caliphs, for example (Gilbert, 1990). This time was the beginning of the Jewish golden age in Spain. It was in Moslem Spain when the Jews experienced the height of their golden age. After the Jews fled southern Spain because of the Almohad uprising in 1149, the prosperity of the golden age followed the Jews into northern Spain. However, the Jewish success in northern, Christian Spain was an artificial and temporary one. Jews found success there only because the cruel, anti-semitic Christians were still preoccupied with the reconquest of southern Spain and had not yet focused their efforts on destroying the Jews, a favorite occupation of Medieval Christians (Wein, 1993). After the immigration to northern Spain, Jews soon began to feel the decline of their period of success and, not for the first time, experienced persecution and exile from the rule of a foreign country. The events of the year 1263 in Spanish-Jewish history signify the point at which the Jews of Spain entered the inexorable downward spiral from the height of their golden age.


From the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, there existed two very distinct sects of European Judaism. One was in Christian Europe. The other was in Moslem Spain. The differences between these two communities were dependent upon multiple factors. Religion played an important role in determining how the two sections of European Jews developed. Islam was much more tolerant of Jews than was medieval Christianity. While, in Spain, Jews may have been denigrated for refusing to accept the teachings of Mohammed, they were not persecuted for this choice. The Moslems were content to live harmoniously with the Jews so long as they were willing to stay low-profile in terms of the affirmation of their religion. Christians, however, forced Jews to participate in religious debates, confiscated holy writings, and coerced many Jews into professing their faith in the Christian religion. The Moslem society was much freer and open-minded that of the insular Christian communities. (Wein, 1993)


Weather, too, was a factor in creating the drastic difference between the Moslem and Christian communities among which the European Jews were dispersed. Spain experienced favorable weather throughout the year and, therefore, a year-long growing-season. The fact that Spain did not have to cope with the harsh winters that Christian Europe was exposed to, allowed for less time to be necessary to be spent in agricultural pursuits as opposed to more intellectual occupations. Because of this, the rate of literacy in Moslem Spain was far higher than the Christian world. This, in turn led to Moslem Spain becoming filled with professional scholars, large libraries, schools. Philosophy, science, poetry, literature, song, and architecture all experienced major advancements during this time in Moslem Spain (Gerber, 1992). The positions that opened because of these newly developed fields of study were readily filled by Jews (Sachar, 1994), whose intellectual and reasoning skills had been honed over the years by the study of the Bible and Talmud.


A major cultural development of the Jews during the golden age was in poetry and literature. Jewish poetry was par-excellence for contemporary poetry. The Jewish poets of Spain not only used Arabic metrics as a foundation for their work, but they developed their own genres of poetry, as well. The Jews published their poetry professionally and also worked as translators and linguists. They made progress in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary (Ben-Sasson, 2002). The Jewish translators made significant accomplishments in translating Arabic Scholarship into European languages and they quickly developed into the most prolific and honored translators of their time period. (Sachar, 1994) Once again, the Jews ended up