Jews and the Reformation

Posted on November 17, 2011 by


In the year 1555, Pope Paul IV of northern Italy wrote the decree Cum Nimis Absurdum. This decree was a set of laws issued against the Jews, enforcing their separation from Christians. His target was mainly the Jewish population, but we can also speculate that the decree was aimed at the Christians because it strongly discouraged interaction with the Jews. Why did Paul IV suddenly issue this decree?
Around the early 1500’s Catholicism was the predominant religion across all of Europe. Because the people knew little about reading or writing, they relied on the Church’s ability to deliver the word of God. In the year 1517, two men, Martin Luther and John Calvin became two of Europe’s most influential men. They encouraged Catholics to break away from their trust in the Church, and interpret the word of God for themselves. Martin Luther and John Calvin sparked  the Protestant Reformation, a time in which reformers broke away from the Catholic Church and formed their own separate churches. The upheaval of the rebellion against the Catholic Church was in full motion. I wondered what Paul’s motives could be. I believe the Pope, and in particular the Catholic Church, was in great danger of loosing their power.
Prior to the Reformation period the Jews had been seen with indifference but not hatred. In the early 1520‘s Martin Luther briefly encouraged people to treat the Jews as “models of common sense”, in an attempt to bring them into developing sub-sects of Christianity. However in the later 1540’s Marin Luther turned against the Jews and portrayed them as a demonic people whom God did not approve of. The prevalent attitudes towards the Jews at this point, has made them vulnerable.
Paul IV was in control of the Northern Italian papal states. For centuries the people had invested their trust in the Catholic Church, and in the Pope. Therefore one can imagine the fear Pope Paul IV felt as he saw the rebellion and conversion of former Catholics. I can therefore infer that one of his motives for issuing the decree could have been an attempt to reestablish his power by picking on the easy target; the Jews.
I interpreted the first part of the decree as being a “holy” explanation for why the Jews were of lower status than the Christians. This first paragraph is providing what Pope Paul IV feels is completely valid reasoning for the provisions and harsh laws he is about to inflict upon the Jewish community. He begins by stating that the Jews are naturally bound to the duty of serving Christians because, “their own guilt has consigned them to perpetual servitude”. Although the Pope seems confident in his rash reasoning, the statement does not provide any kind of sufficient background as to why the Jews are guilty. He goes on to say that the Jews, “attempt to exchange the servitude they owe to Christians for dominion over them”. The reasoning here states that instead of serving as slaves, the Jews are trying to get paid by the Christians for their work, and will therefore have power over the Christians. The Pope then by draws reader’s attention to the decree’s main point: Jews invading the community of Christians. Paul argues that to, “have nurses, housemaids, and other hired Christian servants [brings] many other things in ignominy and contempt of the Christian name.” He argues that essentially the dwelling of Jews near Christians brings public shame and disgrace under the Christian name. In a way, he is attempting to protect the destruction of the reputation of Christianity. I concluded the essence of the first paragraph of the decree was to build a platform, explaining to readers, Christians as well as Jews, the reasons for the administration of various laws against the Jewish people. The next 15 sections are the separate, more specific laws enforced upon Jews. In the eyes of Paul IV, the laws are his way to rebuild the reputation and pride of the Catholic faith under the upheaval of the Reformation.
After the introduction, Paul goes on to address each of the individual problems he feels are under the larger context of Jewish intrusion of Christian territory. In his second paragraph he states that, “with the help of god, as in all other holdings, and territories belonging to the Roman Church, all Jews should live solely in one and the same location”. Here, Paul is once again stating the importance of having Jews as far away from Christians as possible. He makes the subtle and convenient argument that god is supporting his ideas about how Jews should live. The idea of Jewish segregation is the basis for even more specific laws concerning the dwellings of Jews within their designated land holdings, made later in the decree.
After Paul tackles the task of separating Jews completely, he begins to address the symbolic buildings reflecting Jewish culture. He states that, “they shall have one synagogue alone in its customary location, and they must construct no new synagogue. They will own no real property and must demolish all synagogues except for this one alone”. In the next section, much like During world war II, all Jews are forced to wear a blue hat identifying them as Jewish. By taking away the Jew’s holy place, not allowing them to own land, and the forcing them to dress the same, the Jews are stripped of almost all their rights and power. By Paul’s oppressing of the Jews in such a harsh manner, I a can infer he is attempting to regain and spread Christianity as the sole religion.
Another interesting group of law are in sections 4-7, which relate to the bigger picture of forbidden Jewish-Christian social interaction. In section 4, “[Jews] shall not have nurses or serving women or any other Christians serving them”. Referring back to the introduction paragraph we see the same dominant theme; “Jews have been made slaves, while Christians have been made free through Jesus Christ”. I think the overriding belief that Jewish slavery was made by divinity, (God), is why having a Christian serve a Jew is sinfully wrong in the eyes of Paul IV. Section 6 is also closely related to section 5 as it states that “Jews may not oppress Christians in any manner especially by fictitious or simulated contracts [of debt]”. Also tying back into the broader theme of Paul’s introduction, is the fact that Jews are naturally (by God) under Christians, and owe them eternal servitude (or debt). Therefore, it would be a crime for Jews to even attempt the oppression of Christians.
Perhaps Paul IV has planted the first seeds of the Holocaust, establishing a base grounded with firm beliefs and reasonings towards the hatred of the Jews. Even though this decree is not as widely publicized as the Holocaust it presents us with similarities that lead to speculation that it must have had some profound and far reaching influence. Just as Paul IV has unified a group of people using hatred of the Jews, Hitler eventually rallied his people on a much larger scale using the same means as Paul IV.

Works Cited:

Cum Nimis Absurdum (Bull establishing the Roman ghetto in 1555), translated by Kenneth Stow, in Stow,Catholic Thought and Papal Jewry Policy 1555-1593 (New York: JTS, 1977), 294-298.

Magda, Teter. “Jews, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.”Early Modern Jewish History. (2008): n. page. Web. 17 Nov. 2011. <;.

“Protestant Reformation.” Web. 17 Nov 2011. <;.

“Western Schism.” Web. 17 Nov 2011. <;.

Salembier, Louis. “Western Schism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 17 Nov. 2011 <;.

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