Doctors – Medieval Jewish

A seventeenth century French historian recorded the following anecdote:

“King Francis I [of sixteenth century France] sent to Spain to ask of Charles V a Jewish physician for a malady of which the court physicians could not cure him; but [Charles V] finding none, and having sent him a newly converted Jewish physician, he no sooner learned that he was a Christian than he dismissed him without even allowing the man to take his pulse, nor even speaking to him of his sickness, and sent for another to Constantinople who restored him to health with the milk of she-asses.”

Whether accurate or not, this story exemplifies the preference many had for Jewish doctors in Medieval Christian Europe, a preference even royal and church decrees never managed to extinguish.

Jewish Doctors Proliferate

During the High or Late Middle Ages (1250 onward), medicine probably became the most common Jewish profession after money lending. Jews, a minority group of less than one percent of the overall population — and only five to eight percent of the population in large cities — sometimes accounted for fifty percent or more of a town’s doctors.

The proliferation of Jewish doctors was spurred by a growing demand for doctors in Christian Europe between 1250 and 1450. Universities were providing too few doctors and Jews leaped to fill the gap. Generally prohibited from attending universities, Jews studied the medical curriculum from family members or through private tutors.

On occasion, a father would even specify medical tuition as part of his daughter’s nedunya. In 1432, Master Crescas Creysent of Aix enProvence promised to teach his future son-in-law, Boniaquet Durand, “all the sciences that he acquired” and especially medicine.

A smaller number of Jews studied medicine in universities, particularly inItaly. Outside of Papal control, thePaduaUniversityestablished in 1222 permitted Jews to enroll and qualify for degrees. Its medical school, regarded as the best inEurope, attracted Jews from many countries and produced 325 Jewish physicians between 1409 and 1816.

A 1426 document mentions Guillelmo son of Isaiah of Urbino who studied medical subjects at the universities of Bologna, Padua, and Siena and was conferred the laurea,a doctorate, that allowed him to “read, teach, dispute, and interpret” at institutions of higher learning. Although the doctoral ceremony was generally held in a cathedral and conducted by church officials, a special exception was made in his case. The local bishop was represented by the chancellor of the university and the ceremony took place in one of the university’s halls.

To facilitate the study of medicine for Jews, Jewish translators rendered many important works into Hebrew to the extent that by 1400, all the most important medical books of the Arabs and many contemporary Latin medical works were translated into Hebrew. Jews also wrote original medical works such as Avraham Caslari’s Pestilential Fevers that suggested various theories to explain the spread of the Black Death.

A Good Parnassa

Many doctors in Christian Europe enjoyed highly successful careers, drawing close to kings and rulers, receiving privileges, becoming involved in politics, and helping their brothers in times of distress. Royal doctors were the heroes of Jewish society.

In addition to lucrative incomes, doctors also received privileges such as being appointed supreme judge over the Jews of the king’s realm and exemption from taxes. Doctors sometimes also received exemptions from wearing compulsory Jew hats or badges, sometimes in order to help them travel safely on their medical journeys of mercy. In November1330, aking exempted the doctor Era Alacar from these items because “you have to travel on various routes by day and by night, and if you wear on your vest the sign or the roll that Jews have to [wear] on their external vest, you risk being molested by unknowing Christians.”

Other favors included shul honors. Junez Trigo, a surgeon of Saragasso, Aragon, and his relatives were granted the right to daven at the amud and receive aliyos whenever they pleased, regardless of what the rav or anyone else might say about it.

Of course, doctors also used their high contacts to help their brethren. In 1427 when the Franciscan inquisitor Giovanni da Capistrano was oppressing the Jews of Naples, a Jewish papal doctor threatened to leave Italy for Sicily, resulting in Pope Martin V ordering the zealot to leave the Jews alone. Another Italian doctor, Moshe Bonovogla used his influence to exempt Jews from having to attend Christian services in 1431.

The Dark Side

The dark side of the story was that Jewish medical incompetence could endanger whole communities. In the introduction to his Hebrew translation of the Arabic medical work al-Zahrawi, Shem Tov of Tortosa wrote about how an unskilled doctor almost endangered an entire kehillah in 1261:

“An ignorant, foolish man, a fellow Jew, arrived in the city of Marseilles claiming to be a physician, although he was estranged from that science. Worse, he really had no medical knowledge at all. His patient had been bedridden for a long time, suffering from arthritis. In his ignorance, he ordered the root of a certain herb to be boiled and that he should drink the liquid from it…. As a result of this treatment… he died suddenly….

“[The “doctor”] left the city, escaping on the second day of Pesach 5021. Had it not been for Divine mercy and for the fact that the Christian [patient] happened to be a foreigner, we all would have been in great danger on his account.”

Because of such considerations, the thirteenth century mussar work Sefer Hayoshor warns Jewish doctors to be properly skilled in order to avoid this danger.

“We Jewish doctors in the galus have to possess extraordinary knowledge, for the Christian doctors envy us and challenge us, so that at times we have to provide explanations about our procedures,” he writes. “And if they discover any ignorance on our part they say, ‘He kills non-Jews.’ This is the reason I advise each and every Jew not to touch a non-Jew if he is not able to answer [such questions] in natural sciences.”

Jews whose patients died at their hands were at risk of being accused of murder.

According to old legends, two rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne the Great (742-814) and King Charles the Bald (823-877), along with King Hugh Capet ofFrance(939-996), were among the victims of Jewish doctors.

In the fifteenth century, a 24-year-old Jewish Palermo doctor, Moshe Rimos, wrote in a Hebrew poem composed on the eve of his execution, “Know, my friends, that I am not slain for some dire offense that I have committed. Poison they assert, I planned to be put in the dregs of the cups of trembling, for non-Jews who died. I was not guilty. They have crushed out my life on this false charge.”

Legislation often warned against using Jewish medicines and doctors. The famous thirteenth century Castilinian Code, Las Siete Parditas,warned, “We forbid any Christian from receiving medicines or cathartics made by a Jew, although he may obtain it on advice of a knowledgeable Jew as long as it is prepared by a Christian fully aware of its content.” In 1397, Queen Maria ofAragon decreed, “We ordain and establish that no Jew, in any case of a Christian’s infirmity, should dare to exercise his office of medicine unless a Christian doctor will take part in the cure.” In 1349-1350, shortly after the Black Death, a Provencal law legislated that “a Jewish surgeon has to taste from the wine given to sick ones… notwithstanding your custom not to drink with Christians, which your law and your Jewish Scriptures oblige you to follow.”

The Church also enacted decrees against Jewish doctors. One of the first promulgated at the 1227 Synod ofTrevesordered rulers to ensure that no Jew offered help or medicine to Christians. The 1246 Council of Beziers forbade Christians to resort to the care of Jews, “for it is better to die than to owe one’s life to a Jew,” a prohibition that was repeated by the councils of Albi (1254),Vienne(1267), and by numerous councils of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Count Charles of Provence tried to do away with Jewish doctors altogether in an edict of May 1306: “We order that no one, when stricken by a form of illness, should turn to a Jewish doctor or any other infidel or get from him, or through his counsel, any medicine. Neither in the future, will any license to practice among the faithful be awarded to any Jew by the seneschal or any other official. And if it was awarded to anyone before this date we revoke it and declare it not valid…”

Popularity of the Jewish Doctor

King Charles’s decree was annulled a few months later. In general, anti-Jewish doctor policies failed due to reasons of “urgent necessity,” the “scarcity of Christian doctors,” and other such reasons.

Papal dispensations were sometimes issued for towns to retain individual Jewish doctors. In 1464, Pope Pius II issued a dispensation for Doctor Benjamin Salamonis to practice in the city ofMassa, while not forgetting to mention that to call on a Jewish doctor “cannot be done without committing a sin.” Another dispensation of the 1450s enjoins the Jewish doctor to remind his Christian patients to take their last rites.

A major reason church decrees against Jewish physicians were ineffective was that evenChurchofficials loved Jewish doctors. According to Jewish sources, Master Gaio the Jew was the personal doctor of Pope Nicholas IV (died 1292), and few medieval or renaissance popes after him did not retain Jewish doctors. Bishops and lower clergy were much the same. Arnold of Villanova complained in a letter to King Frederick III ofSicilythat there was not one convent that did not hire Jewish doctors. “We see that the custom is for no other physician to enter cloisters unless he is Jewish. Such is the case not only of cloisters for men but for women as well.”

Western Europediscovered that when it came to Jewish doctors, they couldn’t live with them and they couldn’t live without them.

(Source: Joseph Shatzmiller, Jews, Medicine, and Medieval Society,University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1994)

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