Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe

Ephraim Shoham-Stein­er

  • Review
By – July 12, 2021

Con­tem­po­rary Jews do not gen­er­al­ly view their ances­tors as crim­i­nals. Jew­ish mem­o­ry, shaped by images of East­ern Euro­pean shtetls and the wounds of the Holo­caust, con­jures a past filled with meek Jews sur­viv­ing vile accu­sa­tions, cru­saders, and expul­sions. How­ev­er, real­i­ty is always messier than myth, and the most engag­ing his­tor­i­cal work demon­strates that the past was as vibrant and com­pli­cat­ed as the present, filled with much the same prag­ma­tism, vicious­ness, and desperation.

Ephraim Shoham-Steiner’s Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe breaks ground in an area long over­looked by most schol­ars and cer­tain­ly the gen­er­al pop­u­lace. Using a range of sources, but rab­binic respon­sa (case law) in par­tic­u­lar, Shoham-Stein­er has pro­duced an emi­nent intro­duc­tion to the sub­ject. He focus­es large­ly on Jew­ish involve­ment in theft, mur­der, and pros­ti­tu­tion in Ashke­naz­ic com­mu­ni­ties between the eleventh and thir­teenth cen­turies. Lucid­ly, he explores gen­er­al trends, delves into spe­cif­ic cas­es, and con­tex­tu­al­izes Jew­ish crim­i­nal activ­i­ty with­in medieval Christendom.

Although Shoham-Stein­er posits that Jews engaged in crime at a dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly low­er lev­el than their Chris­t­ian neigh­bors, he erad­i­cates any notion that the Jew­ish minor­i­ty had nei­ther the where­with­al nor the incli­na­tion to engage in illic­it activ­i­ties. Jews ped­dled goods stolen by Chris­tians, cheat­ed their core­li­gion­ists, and even bur­gled com­mu­nal syn­a­gogues. They also mur­dered, brawled, and hired non-Jew­ish thugs to mete out phys­i­cal vio­lence, the lat­ter of which led to both delib­er­ate and inad­ver­tent killing. More broad­ly, women had lit­tle recourse against abu­sive, recal­ci­trant, or men­tal­ly unsta­ble hus­bands, lead­ing to trag­ic sit­u­a­tions result­ing in domes­tic vio­lence, des­ti­tu­tion, and ulti­mate­ly prostitution.

Shoham-Stein­er is not mere­ly inter­est­ed in cat­a­loging the under­bel­ly of medieval Jew­ish life. He also delves into the men­tal­i­ty sur­round­ing crime, con­dem­na­tion, and pun­ish­ment, ques­tion­ing the place of crim­i­nals and law­break­ing in Ashke­naz­ic soci­ety. The sources he cites attest to con­cerns about spir­i­tu­al wel­fare and pre­serv­ing com­mu­nal norms after a giv­en crime. For instance, com­mu­ni­ties were appre­hen­sive about how to react to var­i­ous types of thiev­ery or vio­lence. In cas­es of mur­der, rab­binic author­i­ties, lack­ing the author­i­ty to jail or exe­cute, sought to instill pun­ish­ments suf­fi­cient­ly harsh — wan­der­ing the coun­try­side, shack­led and disheveled, fre­quent­ly fast­ing — that the per­pe­tra­tors would suf­fer, repent, and deter oth­ers from behav­ing violently.

Expand­ing on his first book, On the Mar­gins of a Minor­i­ty: Lep­rosy, Mad­ness, and Dis­abil­i­ty Among the Jews of Medieval Europe, Shoham-Stein­er pro­vides insight into aspects of medieval Europe not often dis­cussed. In explor­ing the inter­nal caus­es of and respons­es to Jew­ish crim­i­nal­i­ty, he sheds light on Jews who were nei­ther mar­gin­al nor excep­tion­al, but who in fact par­tic­i­pat­ed in endeav­ors ubiq­ui­tous to all cul­tures. In doing so, Jews and Crime deep­ens our under­stand­ing of Jew­ish fam­i­ly life, eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty, reli­gious sen­ti­ment, and rela­tions with Chris­t­ian neigh­bors. Shoham-Stein­er has also pro­vid­ed a ser­vice to those with a gen­er­al inter­est in Jew­ish law. Although schol­ars have been aware of and used many of the respon­sa fea­tured here­in, this is the first time in Eng­lish they have been mined for their crim­i­nal com­po­nents. The book’s appen­dix, with trans­la­tions of eleven such texts, are espe­cial­ly help­ful in mak­ing the con­tent dis­cussed acces­si­ble for fur­ther study and teaching.

David Sclar stud­ies Jew­ish his­to­ry and cul­ture in the ear­ly mod­ern peri­od. He earned his doc­tor­ate at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, and has held fel­low­ships at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, New York Uni­ver­si­ty, and the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry. He worked for sev­er­al years in the Spe­cial Col­lec­tions of the Library of the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, and present­ly teach­es his­to­ry at the Frisch School.

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