Jews, Christian Society, and Royal Power in Medieval Barcelona

Elka Klein
With a foreword by Thomas N. Bisson
Traces the development of the Jewish community in Barcelona from 1050 to 1300 and its interactions with greater Catalan society and its rulers


Jews, Christian Society, and Royal Power in Medieval Barcelona traces the development of the Jewish community of Barcelona from 1050 to 1300. Elka Klein challenges the common perception that medieval Jews lived in relative isolation from the surrounding society, argues for the existence of significant cultural common ground between Jews and Christians, and proposes a new model for understanding Jewish communal autonomy and the relationship between Jews and their rulers.

Klein traces the development of the Jewish community of Barcelona in two contexts: the parallel development of the city of Barcelona and the changing relationship of the king to urban communities, Jewish and Christian. Until the later twelfth century, the Jewish community, like the Christian city of Barcelona, was left mostly to its own devices by the counts of Barcelona, who had neither the interest nor the power to interfere in internal affairs. Klein draws on both Hebrew and Latin sources to offer a picture of a communal elite whose power, mostly informal, derived from their influence within the community. This system changed in the later twelfth century as a result of the expansion of comitial-royal administration. Four Jewish families used their positions as bailiffs, accountants, and secretaries to consolidate power within their community. The rule of this courtier elite was short lived; two episodes of communal conflict in the early thirteenth century and increased royal activism led to the institution of a new regime of elected officials in 1241. The book concludes with an examination of the new elite and the implications of increased royal interference in internal affairs.

A central argument of Jews, Christian Society, and Royal Power in Medieval Barcelona is that it is necessary to distinguish between autonomy by default, resulting from the indifference of the ruler, who leaves a community to govern itself; and autonomy by design, guaranteed by selective royal interference. Against the view that royal interference undercut Jewish autonomy, Klein argues that autonomy by default left the community with insufficient power to enforce its decisions; because Catalan kings generally interfered in support of existing structures, autonomy by design in fact strengthened the community.

This book contributes to ongoing debates about the relationship between the cultures of the three religions in the Iberian peninsula. It joins a body of recent scholarship arguing that medieval European Jews and Christians shared considerable cultural common ground.

Elka Klein was Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati.

Praise / Awards

  • "A well written and valuable piece of work offering many new perspectives on the history of the Jews of medieval Catalonia. The subject of the book is of considerable importance for our understanding of the co-existence of Jews, Christians and Muslims in medieval Spain, and helps us move away from the 'lachrymose' interpretation of Jewish history that long characterised literature on medieval Jewry."
    —David Abulafia, Professor of Mediterranean History, University of Cambridge
  • "This is a unique book and will make a significant contribution to the fields of medieval Sephardic history, medieval Jewish history, and medieval Spanish history. Historians are conscious of a need to write a new kind of medieval Jewish social history based on contextualized local studies, studies that ultimately will enable us to rewrite the narrative of Sephardic history from the ground up, and Jews, Christian Society, and Royal Power in Medieval Barcelona is a valuable, crucial contribution to this enterprise. This is a superb, well conceived work."
    —Mark Meyerson, Department of History, University of Toronto

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Copyright © 2006, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 334pp.
  • 12 figures, 6 tables.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2006
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11522-8

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  • $90.00 U.S.