Joseph Shatzmiller

title.none: Mentgen, Geschichte der Juden im Elsass (Shatzmiller)

identifier.other: baj9928.9804.007 98.04.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joseph Shatzmiller, Duke University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Mentgen, Gerd. Studien zur Geschichte der Juden im mittelalterlichen Elsass. Hannover: Verlag Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1995. Pp. xii, 718. ISBN: ISBN 3-775-25611-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.04.07

Mentgen, Gerd. Studien zur Geschichte der Juden im mittelalterlichen Elsass. Hannover: Verlag Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1995. Pp. xii, 718. ISBN: ISBN 3-775-25611-3.

Reviewed by:

Joseph Shatzmiller
Duke University

From a Jewish point of view the region of Alsace-Lorraine is of high importance in today's France. Only Paris with its 600,000 Jews and more can compete with it. Education, on all levels, is cherished by the local communities, religion is still practiced assiduously, and major scholarly encounters take place in its universities. What is more, the region -- and Strasbourg, its capital, in particular -- serves in times (the observation is that of the late Annie Kriegel) as an "intellectual fountainhead" that enriches France as a whole. It is sufficient to name Raymond Aron and Marc Bloch, just two of many besides Madame Kriegel herself. That much cannot be said about the high and late Middle Ages. With the exceptions of R. Samuel Schlettstadt, the abbreviator of the Talmudic compendium known as "The Mordechai," the famous statesmen and moralist Joselman of Rosheim, and the less known Johanan Luria, the region could not have boasted then of many luminaries. Samuel Schlettstadt may have headed there a rabbinic institute of learning (Yeshivah) but nothing much is known about it (Mentgen 146). The reason for this poor state of affairs had to do with demography and historical geography. Unlike the Iberian peninsula, or Germany of the eleventh century, where we find at times communities harboring hundreds of households, late-medieval Alsace could count on much lower numbers: even the fifty years between 1301 and 1350, which mark the high point of Jewish presence in the region (40) and when only 25% of its 66 cities did not have Jewish colonies within their walls, numbers did not exceed that of a dozen families at the most.

Dr. Mentgen, who obviously invested in the monograph much work and effort, looks "under a magnifying glass" (his expression) at each and every one of these colonies and provides all possible information on their individual settlers. His study took for granted the use of all published materials. The last volumes of the "Germanica Judaica" have been of much help, but also painstaking deciphering of archival materials in all relevant cities. At times, in order to assess his discoveries in their right perspective, our author compares them with similar ones published by scholars in faraway regions like England, the Provence, or even Poland.

The book divides neatly into two parts of equal size. The first 300 pates or so are devoted not only to historical demography and prosopography but follow also migratory patterns from and to Alsace. The second part is unfortunately the more exciting. It includes a chapter about taxation and the famous "Jewish serfdom" in which a quotation from a privilege awarded to the Jews of Goslar in 1252 sheds a new light on the concept, talking about the accepting of the Jews "in a friendly and amiable way as our special serfs of the chamber" (310). But we have side by side also descriptions of persecution and suspicions concerning the Jews, starting in 1309, culminating in 1337/1338 ("King Armleder") as well as the beginning of 1349 (the Black Death) and continuing sporadically all through the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries. Alsace Jews had to face other Christian morbid fantasies like that of ritual sacrifice of Christian children or an intentional desecration of the holy host. Very original, by the way, is Dr. Mentgen's discussion of child and youth anti-Semitism (456-457), a subject that is treated here for the first time in a scholarly manner. As a result, Jews had to endure physical aggression and be subject to volatile decrees of banishment and of invitation to return.

Of particular interest to the present reviewer are the two concluding chapters in which the economic role of the Jews is examined (456ff). Like all medievalists, Dr. Mentgen had to deal with money-lending and, more than the usual, with pawnbroking (552-557). But he gathered information about persons involved in other professions as well (579-584)): physicians, masons, smiths, carpenters, book-binders, glaziers, sword producers, and even technicians specialized in heavy arms production, that is canons (580-582).

As for money-lending, Alsatian archives do not seem to provide the scholars with numerous registers in which hundreds and thousands of transactions are recorded. In this respect, they are much inferior to those of Provence, England, or Navarra for example. On the other hand, they show Lombards, Cahorsins and indigenous Alsatians active, beside the Jews, in the credit economy (574-579). Jews, to the extent that we see them, are involved in "high finances" dealing with counts and princes. Unbelievable yet true: the crown of England was pawned in 1338- 1339 to a consortium which included a Jew, Vivelin "the Red" as a security for an immense loan of 340,000 Ducates (466-603). Other Jews of Strasbourg loaned money to the count of Savoy (551-552) and got pawns which included precious jewelry and even princely crowns. Ecclesiastical institutions did not refrain from dealing with Jews, churches vehement interdictions notwithstanding: the objects of cult which they were willing to pawn (496; 505; 542; 551) did not differ from those we find in other regions of Europe. Noteworthy nevertheless is a deal struck in 1390 between Mennelin and Abraham, son of Gumpelin of Wirzburg, Jews, and the chapter of the Dom of Mainz. A Bishop's mitre served as collateral for a loan of 600 Gulden.

A final word should be said about the series in which this handsome book is published, labeled "Studies (more precisely "Researches") of the History of the Jews." Its mentor, the illustrious medievalist Professor Alfred Haverkamp founded at the University of Trier a "Society for the Study of the History of the Jews." Several books have been published already under the auspices of this society and others are ready to print. As Professor Michael Toch reminds us in a most remarkable book that just reached the market Die Juden im mittelalterlichen Reich: Enzylopaedie deutscher Geschichte, Band 44, (Munich 1998) we need now the German language not only in order to consult the works of the "Wissenschaft des Judenthums" but also to profit from the wonderful scholarship produced from Germany today.