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Reflections on the Jewry Oath in the Middle Ages*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Joseph Ziegler*
Merton College, Oxford


The Jewry Oath (juramentum Judaeorum, Judeneid) was the judicial oath demanded from Jews involved in legal litigation when summoned to appear in a Christian court both as plaintiffs and defendants. The special formulae which were created for the Jews, who could not use the Christian formulae, usually included two parts: a ceremony and a verbal part. The ceremony could be long and elaborate, but was usually short and simple. The swearing Jew was asked to lay his right hand on a scroll of the Torah, the Pentateuch, or from the later thirteenth century, though more rarely, even on the Talmud. Sometimes more specific instructions were given, and the hand had to be laid on the page of the Ten Commandments, or even specifically on the commandment prohibiting the taking of the name of the Lord in vain (Exodus 20. 7). The verbal part included an invocation of God, a judicial declaration regarding the nature of the obligation corroborated by the oath, and a list of maledictions which would be inflicted in the case of perjury. The oath itself could be taken in a synagogue or at its gate, but usually it was conducted in the court itself on a Jewish holy book kept there specially for that purpose.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 1992

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This paper is based on research done for an MA thesis which was submitted to the Faculty of Humanities in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1988 under the supervision of Professor A. Under.


1 See Kisch, G., The Jews in Medieval Germany (Chicago, 1949), pp. 27589 Google Scholar: on the various circumstances under which Jews appeared in Christian courts see pp. 173-4.

2 Zimmermann, V., Die Entwicklung des Judeneides; Untersuchungen und Texte zur rechtlichen und sozialen Stellung derjuden im Mittelalter (Frankfurt, 1973), p. 81.Google Scholar This is the most detailed compilation of the Oath’s formulae, and it should be used cautiously, for the texts are not always edited accurately and the explanations are sometimes dubious. See the criticism of Roell, W., ‘Zu den Judeneiden an der Schwelle zur Neuzeit’, in Haverkamp, A., ed., Zur Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland des spaeten Mittelalters und derfruehen Neuzeit–Monographien zur Gescliichte des Mittelalters, 24 (Stuttgart, 1981) [hereafter Roell], pp. 1634.Google Scholar

3 Levitas, Isaac, in EJ, 12, pp. 13023 Google Scholar; Blumenkranz, B., Histoire des Juifs en France (Toulouse, 1972), p. 50 Google Scholar; Kische, G., Forschungen zur Rechtsgeschichle der Juden in Deutschland waehrend des Mittelalters (Sigmaringen, 1978), p. 164 Google Scholar, where he rejects Baer’s argument that one could not force on the Jews the formula of an oath which they would regard as absurd. Arguing for the Spanish region, Baer claimed that the anachronistic perspective of the Enlightenment distorted the interpretation of the phenomenon: I. Baer, Die Juden im Christlichen Spanien; Urkunden, 1.1 (Berlin, 1929), pp. 1029–35, 1031, 11. 3.

4 Zimmermann, , Die Entwicklung, pp. 100, 1201, 12930, 1867.Google Scholar

5 Boretius, A., ed., Capitularia Regum Francorum, MCH, Leges, 2 (Hanover, 1882), pp. 2589.Google Scholar

6 The Spanish towns also included in their law books versions of the Jewry Oath. See Rios, J. Amador de los, Historia social, politica y religiosa de los judios de Espagna y Portugal (Madrid, 1960), pp. 897912.Google Scholar

7 Thus canon 18 of the Fourth Lateran Council, which eliminated the sacral basis for the ordeal by prohibiting clerics to participate in it, was not a call for a revolutionary change, but a legal institutionalization of an existing reality. See Kadding, C. M., ‘Superstition to science: nature, fortune and the passing of the medieval ordeal’, AHR, 84 (1979), pp. 94569 Google Scholar; Bartlett, R., Trial by Fire and Water (Oxford, 1986 Google Scholar), ch. 5.

8 Fischer, H., Die Verfassungsrechtliche Stellung derjuden in den Deutschen Staedten (Aalen, 1968), pp. 12340 Google Scholar; Isenmann, E., Die Deutsche Stadt im Spaetemittelalter 1250-1500 (Stuttgart, 1988), pp. 848, 101.Google Scholar

9 Stenton, D. M., English Justice between the Norman Conquest and the Great Charter, 1066-1215 (Philadelphia, 1964), p. 120.Google Scholar

10 On the Oath in the Middle Ages, see Bartlett, , Trial, pp. 303 Google Scholar; Erler, A., ed., Handwoerterbuch zur Deutschen Rechtsgeschichte, 1 (Berlin, 1971), pp. 86171 Google Scholar; Lasch, R., Der Eid (Stuttgart, 1908 Google Scholar); Lea, H. C., Superstition and Force (Philadelphia, 1892 Google Scholar); Hofmeister, P., Die Christlichen Eidesformeln (Munich, 1957 Google Scholar); Lexikon des Mittelalters, 3 (Zurich, 1986), pp. 1671-92. On the Oath as a major tool for producing evidence during the Middle Ages, see the various articles in the special issue entitled La PreuveRecueils de la Société Jean Bodin, 17 (1965), especially pp. 9–70, 99–165, 519-46, 691–753; Levy-Bruhl, H., La Preuve judiciaire (Paris, 1964), pp. 85107 Google Scholar; Nottarp, H., Cottesurteilenstudien (Munich, 1965 Google Scholar). On the question of the rationality of the medieval system of divine justice and its social function see Bartlett, Trial, chs 4–5; Brown, P., ‘Society and the supernatural: a medieval change’, Daedalus, 104 (1975), pp. 13351 Google Scholar; Colman, R. V., ‘Reason and unreason in early medieval law’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 4 (1974), pp. 57191 Google Scholar; Hyams, P. R., ‘Trial by Ordeal: the key to proof in the early common law’, in Arnold, M. S. et al., eds, On the Laws and Customs of England. Essays in Honour of Samuel E. Thorne (Chapel Hill, 1981), pp. 90126 Google Scholar; Morris, C., ‘Judicium Dei: the social and political significance of the ordeal in the eleventh century’, SCH, 12 (1975), pp. 95111.Google Scholar

11 The Jews were exempt from providing proof by ordeal from the time of Louis the Pious. See Zeumer, K., ed., Formulae Merowingici et Karolini aevi, MGH.L, sectio iv (Hanover, 1886), p. 310.Google Scholar The exemption was renewed by the Emperor Henry IV in 1090; MGH.DR, 6.2, Henrici IV, ed. D. von Gladiss (Weimar, 1972), p. 547, and by Frederick I in 1157: MGH.DR, 10.1, Fridericil, ed. H. Appelt (Hanover, 1975), p. 286. See also Bartlett, Trial, pp. 53-4; S. Eidelberg, ‘Trial by ordeal in medieval Jewish history: laws, customs and attitudes’, American Academy for Jewish Research, 46-7 (1979-80), pp. 105-20.

12 Kisch, The Jews, p. 276.

13 Amador de los Rios, Historia, pp. 902-6, 910-12.

14 Zimmermann, Die Entwicklung, pp. 63, 81, 136.

15 Nottarp, Cottesurteilenstudien, p. 31; Lasch, Der Eid, pp. 34, 36; Zimmermann, Die Entwicklung, p. 38.

16 E. Patlagean, ‘Contribution juridique à l’histoire desjuifs dans la Méditeranée medievale: les formules Greques de serment’, REJ, 4 (1965), pp. 138-43, 149-50.

17 Rabbi Israel Ben Petachia Isserlein was confronted with a question from the Jews of Breslau who asked how should they accept the new oath which compelled them to swear by the Tetragrammaton, publicly and bareheaded. He responded that the intention of the authorities should be checked. If it is not their intention to force conversion on the Jews, but they exact these demands only because they believe that thus the oath will be made more binding for the Jews, then one can petform it as demanded, and no blasphemy is caused: Terumat ha-Deshen le-Rabbi Isserlein (Jerusalem, 1959), pt 2, p. 203.

18 R. van Duelmen, Theater des Schrec Uens: Gerichtspraxis und Strafrituale in derfruehen Neuzeit (Munich, 1985).

19 L. K. Little, ‘La Morphologie des maledictions monastiques’, Annales, 34 (1979), pp. 43-60; ‘Formules monastiques de malediction aux IXe et Xe siècles’, Revue Mabillon, 58 (1975), pp. 386-99.

20 Little, La Morphologie, pp. 50-2. Zimmermann, Die Entwicklung, p. 38.

21 J. Rainackers, ed., Papsturkunden in Frankreich, 5 (Gottingen, 1956), pp. 344-5. Compare the ending of the Aries version of the Jewry Oath—one of the fundamental twelfth-century oaths—with the ending of the Christian Anathema rites: Roell, p. 178. Little, La Morphologie, pp. 48-9.

22 Gregory of Tours, Libri Historiarum X, ed. B. Krusch and W. Levison, MGH. Scriptores rerum Merowingicarum, 1, 1 (Hanover, 1951), p. 223.

23 See Pakter, W. J., ‘Did the canonists prescribe a Jewish Oath?Bulletin of Medieval Canon Law, 6 (1976), pp. 817.Google Scholar The canon Movet te, Decretum, c.22, q. 1, c. 16 (cols 865-6) recognized the fact that Jews swear on the True God (per Deum verum), and thus made it theoretically possible to accept a simple Jewish oath.

24 See the Augsburg versions in Zimmermann, , Die Entwicklung, pp. 1912, 194.Google Scholar The earlier version from 1285 demanded that the Oath be taken in the synagogue, that thejew lay his right hand on the Pentateuch, and that he swear in the name of the God and the Torah which had been given on Sinai. At the end of the fourteenth century a new formula was given, and it added the demands that the Pentateuch be open where the Ten Commandments are written, and that the hand be laid on the book as far as the wrist. Towards the middle of the fifteenth century the city adopted a formula which included a long list of maledictions and was influenced by the Schwabenspiegel formula. See a similar development in Nuremberg, in Roell, pp. 190–5.

25 Radding, , ‘Superstition’, pp. 9557.Google Scholar

26 Zimmermann, , Die Entwicklung, pp. 63, 823.Google Scholar

27 Ibid., pp. 104-5, 111.

28 Ibid., pp. 136, 139-40.

29 Stern, M., Die Israelitische Bevoelkerung der Deulschen Staedte, 3 (Kiel, 1894-6), pp. 2367.Google Scholar

30 Schmidt, R., ‘Judeneidc in Augsburg und Regensburg’, Zeilschrift der Savigny Stiftung für Reclitsgeschichte: Germanistische Abt., 93 (1976), p. 332.Google Scholar A similar image of the Jew as a liar who cannot be trusted is conveyed by John Bromyard in an article ‘on the Oath’ in his Summa Praedicantium (Nuremberg, 1518), p. CLXXVIv. The Jews are depicted as arch-liars from the time of Jesus. Their blasphemy towards God is compared with the blasphemy of the perjurer, who like them uses God as a false witness. In practice, Bromyard tells us, the Jews do not swear frequently, but when they do it the oath is taken according to their law.

31 Kafich, Y., ed., Sheelot u. Teshuvot ha-Rilbah (Jerusalem, 1959), ch. 186, pp. 2234.Google Scholar See also Baer, Diejuden, p. 210, where a Jew is accused of having cheated a Christian court by swearing on a different book from that containing the Ten Commandments.

32 Sheelot u-Teshuvot Maharam Ben Baruch me-Rotenburg (Levov Printing) (Jerusalem, 1986), 2, p. 246.

33 Freimann, Y., ed., Leket Yosher (Berlin, 1903), pp. 1367.Google Scholar

34 Hershler, M., ed., Sheelot u-Teshuvot Mahari Bruna (Jerusalem, 1960), ch. 83, p. 120.Google Scholar

35 Zimmermann, , Die Entwicklung, pp. 1478 Google Scholar; Kisch, G., Jewry Law in Medieval Germany. Laws and Court Decisions Concerningjews (New York, 1949), pp. 4950 Google Scholar, 70ff., 120–1, 131, 134, no. 17.

36 Kisch, Jewry Law, pp. 159, 179, 199, 253; Kisch, , The Jews, pp. 1901 Google Scholar; Zimmermann, , Die Entwicklung, pp. 136, 13940.Google Scholar

37 See, for example, the charter in MGH.DR, 6.1, Henrici IV, ed. D. von Gladiss (Hanover, 1952), p. 527, no. 471; MGH. Constitutiones, 1, Friderici I, ed. L. Weiland (Hanover, 1893), p. 227; Chazan, R., Church, State and Jews in the Middle Ages (1980), pp. 857, 8993 Google Scholar; Rymer, T., ed., Foedera, 1.1 (London, 1816), p. 51.Google Scholar In all of them the Jews are asked to swear simply according to their law or on it (secundum or per legem suam). Kisch, Forschungen, pp. 123–8, argued unconvincingly that the expression sua lex denoted not thejewish Law but the special Jewry Oath formula.

38 The evidence comes from various places: see, for example, Baer, , Diejuden, 1.1, p. 110, 1.2, pp. 3001 Google Scholar; Leroy, B., The Jews of Navarre in the Middle Ages (Jerusalem, 1985), p. 31 Google Scholar; Assis, Y., The jews of Santa Coloma de Queralt (Jerusalem, 1988), pp. 1234, 1301 Google Scholar; Steinberg, A., Sludien zur Geschichte derjuden in der Schweiz waehrend des Mittelahers (Zurich, 1903), pp. 2931.Google Scholar

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