Rewriting Ashkenazic History: An Early Medieval Non-Textual Jewish Community in Cologne?

Gefördert durch das CONNECT-Programm der Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung

Bearbeitung: Dr. Ephraim Shoham-Steiner (Beer Sheva) & Prof. Dr. Elisabeth Hollender (Frankfurt)


The cradle of Jewish Ashkenazi existence according to the established narrative were the ShUM communities (Mainz, Worms, Speyer) thought to have evolved in the mid tenth century. Tradition and scholarship agree that soon after their establishment Talmudic academies evolved in these towns and texts that were produced their recorded names and deeds of the Jewish learned elite. These Jewish scholars, whose work and remarks were recorded in text, are the earliest known individuals in these Jewish communities. The current narrative and timeline are traditionally based on critical textual analysis of the written accounts and traditions record both from internal Jewish sources as well as from extra-communal non-Jewish sources.

Already in 1956/57 the excavations of the medieval Jewish quarter in Cologne, conducted by O. Doppelfeld, and more recently the more thorough and further reaching excavations of the same and additional areas conducted by S. Schütte (and most recently by M. Trier) provide non-textual evidence that a Jewish community with a synagogue existed in Cologne already in the ninth century. Our joint research project seeks to explore the role of Cologne Jewry as the possible earliest Jewish community north of the Alps in the Middle Ages. We explore the possibility that the Cologne Jewish community, in its earlier phases was a traditional non-textual Jewish community unlike its later southern neighbors in the Rhineland. By "non-textual" we mean that unlike the ShUM communities that were extremely inclined towards learning and the production of texts and that had brought from southern Italy and possibly from Palestine and Babylonia a very elaborate textual tradition, both oral and later written, Cologne was not a text-producing community with another kind of Jewish identity. Established probably before the arrival of the Babylonian Talmud to northern Europe it may have retained in its practices and in the communal institutions traces of a different form of Judaism that most probably did not survive the encounter with the very self-confident Judaism that arrived later from Italy. We explore the possibility that as a thriving mercantile community situated in the prime location enabling trade with the low countries, Anglo-Saxon and later Norman England northern Frankia and the upper Rhine area, the Jewish community of Cologne was geared up to a different kind of Judaism.