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Medieval Ashkenaz (1096-1348)

by Elisheva Baumgarten
Last updated

In Brief

The Jews of medieval Ashkenaz are known for their prolific Jewish rabbis and for the Ashkenazic custom that became characteristic of many European Jewish communities. During the High Middle Ages, the women of these communities had many important roles within the family and in the community, the economy, and religious life. Marriage was generally a business transaction between two families. Marriages occurred at an early age, and children became the main focus of women’s lives; women were expected to care for young children, and responsibility for boys was transferred to their fathers when they began school. Women’s domestic responsibilities included running the household and taking care of its daily needs. Many women were also involved in business ventures and were enthusiastically committed to the religious lives of their communities.


Ashkekaz is how modern scholars refer to the Jews who lived in the larger area that includes the Jewish communities of Northern France, England, and the Holy Roman Empire (German-speaking regions of Europe) in the High and Late Middle Ages (1050–1450). During this era of urban growth and cultural renaissance in the surrounding Christian culture, Jews prospered economically and centers of Jewish learning and trading expanded.

The Jews of Ashkenaz experienced sporadic persecutions during the High Middle Ages (1050–1300), including attacks on communities along the Rhine River during the First Crusade of 1096 and further outbreaks of violence in the succeeding decades and centuries. Nevertheless, despite these tragedies, Jewish life continued to flourish.

During the fourteenth century, however, as a result of monetary crises, food shortages, political turmoil, and the Black Death, the prosperity and physical security of Jewish communities were severely undermined. The Jews of England were expelled in 1290. The Jews of France were expelled in the early fourteenth century, readmitted, and finally decisively expelled in 1394. During the period of the Black Death (1348-1350), many Jewish communities in Germany were also expelled (although some later returned), while many Jews moved eastward, joining growing Jewish communities in Poland (Chazan; Stow, Alienated).

Medieval Jewish society, like all of traditional Jewish culture, was patriarchal. Women’s position in society was secondary to that of men and philosophical, medical, and religious views supported the conviction that men were superior to women both in nature and in deeds (Barkai, Gynaecological Texts; Grossman, Pious 31-43). At the same time, many positive statements appear in Jewish writings about women’s essential enabling and supportive roles. According to these sources, admirable women were God-fearing and true partners of their husbands. A good marriage was a blessing in which God played a part.

Medieval Jewish writings express a range of views, positive and negative, about women; these polarities are evident, as well, in medieval Christian writings about women. This dueling rhetoric of positive and negative attitudes derives from earlier Jewish sources, as well as from contemporary non-Jewish literature. It is also important to remember that critical literary and religious expressions often have little to do with women’s actual activities and lives.


To a large extent, our knowledge of medieval Jewish women depends on the sources that report their deeds. Jewish women are mentioned in many surviving medieval Hebrew writings and scholars have found information about different aspects of women’s lives and of attitudes toward women in a range of literary genres. The most plentiful source material from the Middle Ages in Ashkenaz is responsa literature, which compiles questions and answers written to and answered by the leading rabbinic authorities of the time. Many of these questions deal with women and domestic problems, especially divorce and inheritance, as well as with women’s involvement in business, ritual, and other legal issues. These inquiries often reveal what some women were actually doing, while the responses demonstrate how legal authorities thought women should behave.

Another important source of information about women in medieval Ashkenaz is exegesis on the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic writings, as well as comments on kinot (liturgical poems). Many medieval commentators remark on women in their own times, as well as on their understandings of the lives of women in biblical or late ancient times. In addition, stories and exempla, like those found in moral literature such as Sefer Hasidim, a late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century book written by R. Judah ben Samuel he-Hasid (c. 1150–1217) and others, illuminate different aspects of medieval life and beliefs, including women’s activities. Other literary works from the period, such as chronicles, lists of martyrs, poetry, medical literature, and legal and economic records of various kinds, provide insight into the mentalities of medieval Jewish men and the roles women fulfilled in society.

Medieval sources provide multiple perspectives on women and their lives. The more programmatic sources relay stereotypes of women, including wicked women, temptresses, righteous women, good wives, bad wives, and others. Some of these stereotypical portrayals originate in literary sources that developed outside of Jewish culture (Grossman, Pious, 31–62). Other narratives, which may be called documents of practice, provide information about the lives of actual medieval women —the wives, daughters, mothers, and neighbors of the authors.

Many medieval accounts about women are deeply embedded in more ancient traditions, such as legal precedents and earlier discussions from the Codification of basic Jewish Oral Law; edited and arranged by R. Judah ha-Nasi c. 200 C.E.Mishnah, Lit. "teaching," "study," or "learning." A compilation of the commentary and discussions of the amora'im on the Mishnah. When not specified, "Talmud" refers to the Babylonian Talmud.Talmud, and other earlier rabbinic writings. One of the challenges scholars face is the need to differentiate among the layers of a given text and distinguish novel information that refers specifically to medieval times. At the same time, in order to understand medieval Jewish society, its structure, and its institutions, the scholar must be aware that in some cases little had changed from when rabbinic traditions were formulated.

In addition to Hebrew sources from medieval times, many of which have never been published, Latin documents also contain important information about Jewish communities; these include both stories and legal rulings that mention Jewish women. For example, moral exempla preserve many narratives about Jews, and a fair number of these are about Jewish women. Legal literature originating from Church sources (canon law) is another useful source, especially since the Church was deeply concerned that many Jews employed Christian women as servants and tried to limit those contacts by statute. Latin and vernacular sources also provide evidence of everyday activities, taxes paid by women, court cases in which women were involved, and properties they rented and purchased.

Women are mentioned in many texts but it is not easy to hear their voices. A central difficulty is that all of the extant sources were written by men and, in most cases, for men, since few women could read Hebrew on a level that enabled access to complex rabbinic material. Moreover, even in writings that allude to women, they are rarely the main subject. The problem is even greater when trying to integrate women into a broader picture of medieval Jewish social life, since all of the documentation provides male outlooks on society and its organization.

The men who wrote the Hebrew sources are, on the whole, well-known scholars, such as Rashi (R. Solomon b. Isaac of Troyes, 1040–1105) and the Tosafists (Talmudic glossators, mainly French, twelfth to fourteenth centuries). Few women, on the other hand, are known by name. Amost all of those we do know about as individuals fit into Rashi’s definition of an “important woman” (isha hashuva)—the wife, daughter, mother, or sister of a scholar, clear evidence that women were usually perceived in relationship to the men in their families and lives. A good example of such a woman is Dulcea (sometimes Dolce), the wife of R. Eleazar b. Judah of Worms (c. 1165–c. 1230), whose husband eulogized her after her death. In fact, she is the only woman for whom such a full portrait is available (Baskin, “Dolce of Worms”; Marcus, ”Mothers, Martyrs, and Moneymakers”).

Other women known by name are identified by their deaths, cited in lists of Jews killed during various attacks on Jewish communities during the High Middle Ages; these include the names of many women, as do surviving medieval gravestones. These lists often tell us something about the women’s family members who were killed with them—husband, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—or about the women’s piety and devout character. Only two professions are mentioned in these lists and on the gravestones—midwifery and women’s prayer leader. In addition to the women who belonged to scholars’ families, or died as martyrs, Female Martyrdom some women are famous for their business enterprises (Berliner; Güdemann). However, most medieval women are not known by name, and even those who are, for example those who appear on tax lists, court cases, or martyrologies, are mentioned only briefly, so that it is impossible to construct a sketch of their lives and biographies. As a result, current research can most often only discuss women as a group, attempting at times to distinguish among social classes and/or geographic regions.

Wives and Mothers

All Jewish women in medieval Ashkenaz were expected to become wives and mothers. The option of not marrying was certainly not an admired model in Jewish society, in contrast to the ideal of celibacy that existed in surrounding Christian culture. Nevertheless, some Jewish women did remain single.

Women were often promised by their parents or other relatives in early childhood and then were betrothed and married after reaching the age of twelve, which was considered the age of majority. A woman had the right to refuse to marry the man chosen by her father or parents (Grossman, Pious, 71–81). It remains unclear to what extent child brides were a common phenomenon. Couples who married at a young age often lived with the parents of the bride or groom for the first year or two after the marriage. In this way the couple could be supported at the beginning of their married life while they learned to run a household and business on their own.

Marriage was a business transaction between two families. While some sources, such as Sefer Hasidim, instruct fathers not to marry their children off against their will and discuss the importance of a fulfilling conjugal relationship, these same sources also suggest that parents should forge alliances based on social, political, and economic considerations. Parents provided their daughters with dowries, and the quality of the match depended on the size of the dowry. The sources indicate that supplying a sizeable dowry and arranging a respectable match for daughters was a central concern for parents.

Some of the rabbinic principles around which medieval marriages were arranged changed during the Middle Ages. Two of the earliest and most important changes were implemented during the period preceding the First Crusade and are attributed to R. Gershom ben Judah Me’or ha-Golah of Mainz (950/960–1048), the leading authority in Ashkenaz of that era. The first change (takkanah) is a ban on bigamy, while the second is a ban forbidding a man to divorce his wife against her will. It is unclear how common polygamous marriages were in Ashkenazi society before this ban, but after it became accepted, they were increasingly rare. At first, the ban was not implemented when a couple was childless and the wife had never been pregnant after ten years of marriage (the time required according to Talmudic law to determine whether a couple was infertile). In such cases, her husband was allowed to marry another woman. After the twelfth century, R. Gershom’s statute was more strictly enforced, and even in cases where the woman appeared to be infertile, the husband could remarry only if he divorced his first wife (Grossman, Status).

While it is hard to determine the impact of the ban against bigamy on Ashkenazi society, it is certain that R. Gershom’s second ban was highly influential. Divorce was not a rare occurrence in medieval Jewish society. In fact, both Israel Yuval and Avraham Grossman have suggested that divorce was widespread. Based on figures from fifteenth-century Nuremberg, Yuval has suggested that close to one-third of Jewish marriages ended in divorce. Grossman has suggested a similar divorce rate and has argued that it was the result of marriage at a young age and a strong social stigma against breaking engagement agreements made by parents for their children. In many cases, women initiated these divorces by declaring that their husbands were physically distasteful or by refusing to immerse in the mikveh (ritual bath), in effect rebelling against their husbands by refusing licit sexual relations. Grossman has noted that there was no stigma attaching to divorce and that a woman who had financial support from her family could easily marry again. Perhaps because of this high rate of divorce, over time, and especially in the thirteenth century, legal authorities tried to make it more difficult for women to demand divorces from their husbands R. Gershom’s edict had already made it much more difficult for husbands to divorce wives, and further legal practice made it more difficult for women to demand that the court coerce their husbands to divorce them (Grossman, Pious, 398–458; Yuval, An Appeal; Baskin, “The Taqqanah”).

During the pre-crusade period, the family of the bride usually provided a dowry, while the family of the groom promised money in the future, most notably in the form of an inheritance their son would eventually receive. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw the emergence of new marriage negotiation strategies that enhanced the position of the bride’s family. Previously, money was transferred to the husband’s family once the marriage had been contracted and nothing would be returned to the bride’s family, even if the bride died the day after the wedding. According to a new ruling enacted by Rabbenu Tam (R. Jacob Tam 1100-1171) in the twelfth century, if the bride passed away within the first two years of marriage and no children had been born to the couple, prorated portions of the dowry would be returned to the bride’s family depending on the length of the marriage.

By the mid-thirteenth century, double marriage payments seem to have become the standard; not only the bride’s family but also the groom’s family contributed to the young couple’s economic position. Some scholars have suggested this double marriage payment was necessary because the Jewish economy relied so heavily on money lending and couples needed a larger initial capital when they started out (Yuval, Monetary).

Once the couple was married, the emphasis moved to procreation. Children were the expected product of all marriages, and they were to be a main focus of every woman’s life. Barren women are described as miserable and medieval compilations of amulets and charms devote pages to aiding childless women. Although couples often married young, they apparently either refrained from sexual relations until the woman was old enough to deliver a child safely or they used some form of contraception. Gynecological treatises state that at age fourteen a women’s passages were still too narrow to deliver children safely; they suggest that a midwife who fears God should instruct these young women in the womanly art of contraception.

The average number of a woman’s surviving children in medieval Ashkenaz has been estimated at between two and four. This conclusion is based on lists of Jews killed during the Crusades and on the biographies of some of the well-known scholars of the period. Unfortunately, no other demographic evidence exists. In any case, even if we accept this figure, it is likely that most women delivered many more than two to four children, since infant mortality was so high during this era (Stow, “Jewish Family”; Grossman, Early Sages).

While few sources discuss the relationships between parents and their offspring, it is clear that women were expected to care for young children and that the responsibility for boys was transferred to their fathers when they began school. Women were responsible for their daughters’ educations and although there is evidence of male involvement in the educational process, women were the ones who directed the daily details. This female involvement in the upbringing of daughters is also reflected clearly in legislation concerning custody in cases of divorce. According to Jewish law, daughters always remained in the custody of their mothers, whereas sons were transferred to their fathers once they reached the age of education at five or six.

If a woman survived her many childbirths, she had a good chance of living into her sixties. Women’s young age at marriage, not infrequent marriages to an older spouse, and their general longevity in comparison to men, meant that widowed women were common in medieval society. Widows were in a unique position since they were not under the authority of any man and were completely independent. In addition, women were usually appointed as executors of their husband’s wills and as such they had, in some cases, substantial capital to live off and with which to conduct their businesses (Furst).

The fact that widows in medieval Europe benefited from a relative social and economic independence has led some scholars to argue that the status of a widow was a favorable one. Yet widowhood was not a simple position for women. The sources indicate that widows, especially widows with young children, who were probably rather young themselves, were usually interested in remarrying, at times quite rapidly. In addition, the families of younger widows were often uncomfortable with the idea that their daughters—often eligible and attractive women—would remain unmarried, since a certain degree of suspicion and fear of sexual promiscuity accompanied this status. Thus, Jewish society encouraged remarriage for widows, widowers, and those who had been divorced.

Jewish Women and Their Chrisitan Neighbors

Jews in medieval Ashkenaz lived in close contact with their Christian neighbors. In this era, when ghettos had not yet been established, Jewish areas of residence in urban settings were rarely separated from those of other inhabitants. Moreover, while Jews tried to live close to each other and to their centers of worship, they sometimes lived in courtyards with their Christian neighbors, often sharing wells, cisterns, and ovens. The close contact characteristic of medieval towns was magnified in the many small villages where a handful of Jewish families lived among Christians. Despite the religious tensions between Jews and Christians, they were in contact for business and as neighbors. This propinquity was a normal part of women’s daily lives.

Dealings between Jewish and Christian women are mentioned especially in the contexts of domestic activities and medical consultations. During the Middle Ages, many women grew and prepared medicinal herbs as part of their daily tasks. Sources documenting the lives of medieval Christian women who lived in various urban centers make clear that women were responsible for treating daily ailments and afflictions, and there is no reason to think Jewish women did not do the same. There are many reports of neighbors regularly advising each other on methods and medicines.

Jewish doctors and medical practitioners also often sought the advice of Christian physicians, while Jewish families might require the help of non-Jewish practitioners. However, Jewish authorities frowned on such intimate interactions and sources from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries forbade medical assistance provided by Christian practitioners, especially the services Christian midwives provided to Jewish mothers. (Baumgarten, “Midwives”).

Another site of contact between Jews and Christians was inside the home. In many cases, Jews employed Christian women as domestic servants, as childminders, and as wet-nurses. Despite the persistent efforts of the Church, this practice was never eliminated, and Christian women continued to work in Jewish households throughout the Middle Ages. These servants, especially the wet-nurses, were usually hired by Jewish men, who secured the terms of employment with the husband or family of the Christian woman. Once the agreement was made, the men usually had little to do with the woman’s employment and most of the daily contact was conducted between the women. Little information about the nature of these interactions has reached us, but one can assume that even though this association was an employer-employee relationship, Jewish women and Christian women became familiar with each other’s customs. Although Christian women working in Jewish homes certainly learned more about Judaism than their employers did about Christianity, their daily interactions made each woman aware of the other’s food habits and worship practices (Grayzel, The Church and the Jews).

This link between Jewish and Christian women is especially important for assessing Jewish-Christian relations in the High Middle Ages. Both close relationships and tensions between Jews and Christians stemmed, at least in part, from these daily contacts.

Women and Work

Women’s domestic responsibilities included running the household and taking care of its daily needs; among these were laundry, cooking, and cleaning, as well as producing or obtaining the cloth needed for clothes and sewing them, making candles to light the household, and ensuring that there was water for drinking and bathing, as well as a fire for warmth and for cooking. It was virtually impossible for one woman to perform all of these chores alone and the sources suggest that almost all homes, even poor ones, had servants.

Over and above the running of the household, numerous Jewish women were involved in business ventures, many of them working from within their homes. Moneylending was a common and well-documented profession of Jewish women. Records from Northern France document disputes concerning loans between Jewish women and their Christian neighbors, shedding light on the business relationships between them. Although there are a small number of sources that tell of women who were powerful money-lenders, such as Marat Minna of Worms, who dealt with the authorities in her city, or Pulcellina, who was often in the court of Count Thibaut V of Blois (reigned 1152–1191), most women lent small sums to their neighbors, female and male. This is another area in which Jewish and Christian women were in frequent contact (Jordan, “Women and Credit”; Einbinder, “Pulcellina of Blois”; Keil,“‘She Supplied Provisions’”).

In addition, Jewish women bought and sold merchandise, and some women are known to have traveled frequently for their business, be it moneylending or trading. Jewish women also wove cloth and embroidered, skills that were considered part of a girl’s education, and it is possible some women made a trade out of their needlework. Other women worked as midwives and medical professionals—helping women during birth and helping men, women, and children during illness. While no women were called “doctors,” many were recognized as “wise women” (nashim hakhamot) and were famous for their healing abilities.

Many of the women who were active merchants and moneylenders were part of a family business, sometimes in partnership with their husbands, or with their siblings or children. It was not rare for a woman to have a business separate from her husband, nor was it unusual for her to have her own profits that were not shared with him. The activities of these businesswomen demonstrate the extent to which women were part of the public sphere, whether they conducted their business within or outside of the perimeters of their homes. In addition, despite rabbinic rulings that forbade Jewish women to conduct business alone with non-Jewish men, the medieval rabbinic authorities permitted such activities, arguing that the women of their era often traveled alone with men and took care of customers on their own and, in any case, would likely not listen if they were forbidden to do so (Grossman, Pious, 198–209).

As a result of their visibility and involvement in business ventures, women were frequently parties in legal disputes. Some of these proceedings had to do with differences that arose in the course of business, while others were marital disagreements and arguments over wills and inheritances. Given women’s considerable business undertakings, at times independently of their husbands, the prevalent Ashkenazi rabbinic opinion was that women were able to swear in court on matters involving their business deals. As Raban (R. Eliezer b. Nathan of Mainz, c. 1090–c. 1170) stated in his book Even ha-Ezer:

… and certainly in these days when women are legal guardians and vendors and dealers and lenders and borrowers and they pay and collect and withdraw and deposit money, and if we say they cannot swear or affirm their business negotiations, then you will forsake these women and people will begin to avoid doing business with them.

Women and Education

Little is known about the education of Jewish women. While there an abundance of information concerning the education of Jewish boys, from the beginnings of their studies through the higher echelons of learning, a paucity of sources discusses the education of girls (Baskin, Some Parallels; Güdemann, 1: 228–238; Zolty; Grossman, Pious, 277–303). What can be said is that until the age of five or six, when Jewish boys began their schooling, boys and girls were together at home, under the supervision of their mothers. During these early years they were taught their first prayers and began to learn through practice about Jewish observance and tradition.

At about age six, boys were taken to the local synagogue or to the house of the melammed (teacher) to begin their formal educations. After an elaborate ceremony that included licking honey from the letters of the alphabet written on a slate and eating special foods, they began to study the Bible (Marcus, Rituals; Kanarfogel, Jewish Education). Unlike the boys, girls did not undergo an elaborate ritual to symbolize a new stage in their lives. Nevertheless, like many of the boys, some were taught by hired tutors. The sources that discuss these tutors suggest that they were male and contain warnings against employing single men who might be left alone with their female pupils. Girls were supposed to be taught what they needed to know in practical terms. As the author of Sefer Hasidim explains:

One is obligated to teach his daughters the commandments such as the legal rulings…. [I]f she doesn’t know the commandments, how will she keep the Sabbath and, in this way, all the commandments? … But a young man should not teach the girls even if the father is standing there watching lest they be alone together.… They have no business with the Torah, with the depth of the law, and commandments which they are not commanded to keep they are not commanded to learn, but they must be taught the commandments that they are commanded to keep in whatever language they know. But the man is commanded to study in Hebrew and he has to learn everything. (Sefer Hasidim, Parma, Wistenetski edition, # 1502).

This passage points to a number of principles that were recommended in girls’ education: they were not to be taught Hebrew, nor were they to be taught the deeper ramifications of the law. Rather, they should become familiar with the practical issues of how to observe the Sabbath, prepare Term used for ritually untainted food according to the laws of Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws).kosher food, and keep the laws of ritual purity. They should also learn to pray and be acquainted with biblical stories and characters.

Based on this and other sources that discuss women who prayed in the vernacular, or were worried about their lack of ability to understand the Hebrew texts of prayers, scholars have concluded that most women did not know a significant amount of the Hebrew language, although some could read vernacular documents written in Hebrew characters. A few sources, however, suggest that girls were taught to read Hebrew just like the boys. This is indirectly confirmed by manuscripts of medieval siddurim (prayerbooks) that survive from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy, some of which were commissioned by women or copied for women as gifts (Riegler and Baskin,“May the Writer”). It should also be noted that those men who did not continue scholarship after their first years of education probably knew little more than their wives and female neighbors about the “depth of the laws and the commandments”; like the women, they could follow the prayers in Hebrew and read biblical passages, but little more.

Women are described as knowledgeable about Jewish practices in a variety of sources and a number of women are known for teaching legal rulings to their female neighbors, as well as to some men. Some of these women, who are mentioned by name in the sources, instructed men and women on the laws of The Jewish dietary laws delineating the permissible types of food and methods of their preparation.kashrut, as well as laws connected to lighting the Sabbath candles, making zizit (fringes attached to the prayer shawl [tallit]), and laws of ritual purity. Many of these women acquired their prominence and authority due to their family connections as the wives, daughters, or sisters of a great rabbinic authority, and they were, in fact, passing on these men’s traditions and rulings. However, the note made of their roles as transmitters of tradition and as leaders of their communities who instructed other women indicates a central respect for female knowledge. Indeed, a number of women are known to have instructed the women in their cities, teaching them both prayers and legal rulings. The activities of such women, including Dulcea of Worms, point to a network of Jewish education for women that is not mentioned in the sources because it had nothing to do with the men.

Women and Religious Devotion

The medieval sources present women not only as active businesswomen but also as enthusiastically committed to the religious lives of their communities. While some scholars have portrayed medieval women as removed from this sphere because of their limited role in traditional worship, it is important to note that the medieval Hebrew sources present women as involved in different kinds of religious, spiritual, and communal activities. The synagogues in medieval Ashkenaz were the centers of public worship and the archaeological evidence shows that several of the synagogues in Germany consisted of two parts—a central shrine of worship and a second room, at times even a separate building, known as the Frauenschule (“women’s synagogue”). This chamber was often attached to the main sanctuary by small windows on a joint wall or in some cases was situated beneath or above the main sanctuary. The structure of synagogues in Northern France is unclear (Krautheimer, Mittelalterliche; Keil, “Public Roles”).

Women came to services every Sabbath, and some women came to the synagogue daily as well. For example, R. Eleazar b. Judah of Worms reports that his wife Dulcea attended services daily, morning and evening (Haberman, 165). Women’s synagogue worship was led by a woman and a few such women are mentioned by name in the medieval sources. One cannot conclude how women obtained this position, but there may have been such a woman in every large community. Urania of Worms is described on her gravestone as the daughter of a cantor, while Dulcea was the wife of a respected leader and rabbi.

Women were also responsible for part of the upkeep of the synagogue. They made and donated candles, they embroidered the Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah covers and binders, and they are mentioned as making donations. During the period preceding the Black Death, women also participated in some synagogue rituals. For example, they served as ba’alot brit (like a modern sandak) during the circumcision ceremony, holding the infants on their laps while the ritual was performed. R. Meir of Rothenburg (c. 1215–1293) and others in the late thirteenth century objected strongly to a woman performing this role, which the father or parents of the newborn gave to a friend or relative. Subsequently, the role of the ba’alat brit was reduced to being the wife of the ba’al brit, who held the baby on his lap.

Like some of their Christian neighbors, many Jewish women in the Middle Ages were pious and actively searched for ways to further their devotion to God. Women gave charity, fasted, and prayed to further their own personal devotion. In addition, some women chose to accept obligations that were not traditionally in women’s realm. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, some sources tell of women who wore zizit and Phylacteriestefillin and insisted on hearing the Ram's horn blown during the month before and the two days of Rosh Ha-Shanah, and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. shofar and sitting in the Booth erected for residence during the holiday of Sukkot.sukkah. R. Jacob b. Meir Tam (c. 1100–1171), as well as others, such as R. Eliezer b. Nathan (c. 1090--1170), ruled that women could not only perform these commandments, but could also recite the same traditional benedictions as men when performing these acts (Ta-Shma, 262–279; Baumgarten, Practicing Piety, 138-171).

Some of the obligations Ashkenazi women took upon themselves became standard and accepted during the centuries that followed. Others, especially those that were seen as an encroachment on traditionally male roles and actions, or that were connected to the body, such as tefillin and zizit, became less accepted over time and evoked tremendous objection. At the end of the thirteenth century, a number of religious authorities led by R. Meir of Rothenburg rejected these practices (first tefillin and then zizit) and these opinions gradually became accepted over time. From the end of the thirteenth century on, women were increasingly limited in the ritual sphere.

Other expressions of religious devotion are found in accounts of women during the Crusades and other attacks on Jewish communities. Medieval Ashkenazi women are famous for their acts of martyrdom during the First Crusade of 1096 and during various persecutions that followed over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The chronicles written after the First Crusade recount numerous stories of women who encouraged their husbands to fight against their attackers, who led their families to suicide, and who in some cases killed their own children rather than allow them to be contaminated by the baptismal waters to which Jews were being led. The chronicles mention these women by name and praise their steadfast belief in God, singling them out as unusually devoted to their religion and as exemplars to their families and communities.

Scholars are divided as to the extent to which this portrayal of Ashkenazi women applies to the period after the First Crusade. While some have argued that Jewish women were extraordinarily stalwart in times of persecution throughout the High Middle Ages, in part due to their tremendous involvement in economic activities, others have maintained that over the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, their prominence in narratives of persecution declined. These scholars cite later accounts, such as Sefer Zekhirah by R. Ephraim of Bonn (1132--1196) and liturgical poetry written in the wake of persecutions, in which women are no longer mentioned by name and their roles are diminished. However, all agree that the image of Jewish women that emerges from medieval accounts of Jewish martyrdom is one of Jewish women willing to die for God (Einbinder, “Jewish Women”; Grossman, Pious, 369-72).

Perhaps as a result of this emphasis on the devotion of Jewish women, little attention has been paid to women who chose not to die as martyrs, or in some cases not to remain within the fold, but rather to convert to Christianity. This is in contrast to the discussion of men who converted to Christianity. Many sources discuss cases in which men decided to convert to Christianity while their wives decided to remain within the Jewish community. Such cases posed many legal problems concerning inheritance and divorce and as a result were discussed at length. While it is certain that many Jews who converted to Christianity chose to do so as families, the cases of women who converted alone are less prevalent in the records since fewer legal issues existed in their cases. Their husbands could divorce them and their inheritance could be divided in such cases with considerably fewer difficulties. Other sources discuss women who converted to Christianity and then wished to return to Judaism and the problems that arose concerning such a woman’s return to her husband and to the conjugal bed. However, there is no way to estimate how many women chose to convert or how their numbers compare to those of men.

The rich and varied lives Jewish women led in medieval Europe are still being discovered and explored. Further inquiry into women’s lives, as well as into attitudes towards them, will enrich our knowledge not only of women but of Jewish society as a whole. Investigating women’s lives reveals plentiful information hidden in the sources and contributes to a fuller picture of the diversity that characterized the Jews of medieval Ashkenaz—men and women—and of the society in which they lived.


This article was revised and rewritten with the support of the European Research Council Horizon 2020 Grant “Beyond the Elite: Jewish Daily Life in Medieval Europe,” Grant Agreement n. 681507.

Selected Primary Sources (Hebrew)

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How to cite this page

Baumgarten, Elisheva. "Medieval Ashkenaz (1096-1348)." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 3, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/medieval-ashkenaz-1096-1348>.