The Jews are an ethnic group originating in the Mesopotamian region and having spent much of their history in Israel. They spread throughout Europe after the revolt of Bar Kochba in AD99. The Jews also form a religious grouping following the Jewish religion. The spiritual focus of the Jewish religion is the synagogue, although by and large Jews tend to treat attendance at a synagogue differently to the way that catholics treat attendance at church.
Jewish History in the Middle Ages and Renaissance
(a very brief and mildly inaccurate outline).
Early Middle Ages
In western Europe, the early medieval life of the Jews was established by Gregory the Great and later Louis the Pious who in turn rejected forced baptism, encouraged favours for the Jewish people, and placed the Jews under the protection of the King. The Catholic Church had prohibited usury amongst christians, and so the Jews were handed a monopoly in the loaning of money. This made many Jews relatively wealthy.
In one part of Southern France the Jews established what was effectively a statelet in the area between Provence and the Pyrenees. Septimania, formerly a Roman province, came under the authority of one Theoderic, whose dynasty lasted for 70 years, and his administration appears to have been if not controlled then led by Jews.
Until about 1150 or so, the Jews were variously required to wear particular clothing, constrained from wearing various clothes or types of cloth, banned from bearing arms, banned from participating as wars, classed as unfree, etc. For the money sometimes it wasn't such a bad deal.
Later Middle Ages
Between the 11th century and the 13th century things took a drastic turn for the worse. The first great persecutions of the Jews took place during the crusades, and greater restrictions were placed on apparel.
The Jews were expelled from England in 1209, France in 1306 and again in 1394, subject to the inquisition in Spain from 1391, expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1496. Modern historians rate the expulsion of the Jews from Spain as the single act that was most greatly to blame for the economic decline and later collapse of Spain.
Things got a lot better in the early Reformation. The humanist and Hebrew scholar Johann Reuchlin became the spokesman of the Jews, succesfully arguing with the Emperor Maximilian that the Jews should provide Hebrew chairs at every German university for which the Jews should furnish books.
The primary language associated with the Jews is Hebrew. While it has been and remains the standard liturgical language, Hebrew was not spoken in day-to-day life by Jews from the 10th to 20th centuries A.D., exccept in a religious or scholarly context. Variously throughout the Middle Ages they were also prohibited from reading, writing, and/or speaking Hebrew, and so other languages came into existence. There are several dozen known Jewish dialects, usually pidgin versions of the local toungue. The most well known are:
- Yiddish, an amalgm of Hebrew, German, Russian and some Polish, most commonly spoken by Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern and Central Europe. It is normally written with the Hebrew alphabet, although the Latin alphabet can be used.
- Ladino (Judeo-espanol), essentially a Romance dialect, spoken by Jews in Spain, Turkey, Italy, and later The Netherlands.
Firstly you need to do a fair amount of reading and research into the time period. The SCA covers from the early medieval period until the late Renaissance of 1600 and the life and times of the Jews changed remarkably during that time period.
- Pick a time period and place. The Jews were widespread throughout Europe, with the main concentrations being in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, and amongst the Khazars.
- In doing your research, bear in mind that how non-Jews in the Middle Ages (and largely in modern times) viewed Jews and how they actually lived and viewed themselves can two radically different things. Consider this when evaluating your sources.
- Find a noted Jewish scholar and quote his works. Often. Consider all other scholars to be mere shadows of his great self. Remember, where two Jews are gathered together, there are at least 3 opinions.
- Research the clothing restrictions of the day and area your persona inhabits, and follow those closely. The 4th Lateran Council might be a good place to start looking.
- Common occupations: The vast majority of Jews were poor: labourers, farmers, scholars, etc. There were occasionally wealthy merchants, doctors, and especially bankers amongst the Jews, however, and these are good target occupations for the Jewish SCA persona. The Jews tended not to be lawyers, and were rarely of the noble or other arms-bearing classes, except amongst the Khazars where even the King was Jewish. One occupation that Jews in the Middle Ages were particularly known for was long-distance traders.