Did Jews and Christians interact in thirteenth century Europe?

The simple answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. In this extract from The King’s Jew – Book One we see young Cristian Gilleson visiting the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña near Burgos in Castile. I have researched this extensively. Here you will meet Yehuda ben Moshe, a real person and a Jew. This piece gives an insight into the life of a Jew of high status at the court of King Alfonso X. I hope you get the ‘feel’ of the times. In the following chapter (not shown here) Sir Alan la Zouche, a great knight of the time, treats Yehuda the Jew with contempt instead of courteously like our young hero Cristian Gilleson. A classic case of ‘different strokes for different folks”.


Alfonso X

Thursday. 22nd October 1254.

Cristian had hardly seen Edward since entering Burgos castle; the final preparations for Edward’s knighting seemed to take up so much time, with rehearsals and lessons and the memorising of sacred words. Cristian was happy to be left to his own devices and had wandered around breathing in the atmosphere of this strange land and today had ridden out from Burgos with the justice of Chester and of the four cantrefs in North Wales, Sir Alan la Zouche.

They made an unlikely couple; the great knight and the much younger Cristian, yet Sir Alan had taken an interest in the youth and, even though he was to officiate at Edward’s knighting ceremony, Sir Alan had felt the need for change and time away from the general hubbub and frenzy at the castle.

The pair had left Burgos in the early morning with a retinue of two men-at-arms and a servant for the ride to the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, the last resting place for over one-hundred-and-fifty years of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar the Castilian nobleman and military leader, known as El Cid by the Moors and El Campeador by Christians. Sir Alan looked upon this visit as a pilgrimage undertaken by one warrior to salute and honour another, and he extolled the virtues of the great military man at every turning on the trail explaining to Cristian the eminence of the Cid and that his wife Doña Jimena was buried with him, as well as a separate memorial for Babieca the Cid’s favourite horse that lived to a ripe old age of forty summers. Cristian listened with awe to the tales of this remarkable man and by the time they reached the Benedictine monastery had decided to live his life as bravely and honourably as the Cid.

Cristian left Alan la Zouche talking with the Abbot and made his way to the Romanesque tower that housed the library on its top floor. He noticed two splendid horses tethered at the East side of the cloister and wondered why they were there, unattended and not housed in the stables. One was a fine grey with expensive accoutrements, it gazed at Cristian as he passed, the other was smaller, a servant’s mount, the owners nowhere to be seen. Puzzled, Cristian walked on to the tower.

Opening the door he encountered a black-robed monk, who pushed past him in obvious haste, closing the door behind him. When almost at the top of the winding steps Cristian heard a noise below as the outer door opened and then the sound of footsteps climbing towards him, he paused, was somebody following him and if so who? He pushed on silently and entered the library proper, closing the door as quietly as its warped timbers allowed he silently secreted himself behind a shelf of books. The person climbing the steps now stood without the library door, all was quiet, and then a cough and the door slowly scraped open. Cristian leant his back hard against the stone wall and stilled his breath as he heard soft footsteps approaching the middle of the room. Then; a low, throaty, chuckle,

“I trust the book you require is in the right place? If you cannot find what you seek you need but ask for I know every record stored here and would be happy to assist.”

Cristian quickly plucked a book from the shelf, opened it and walked out from his hiding place, with what he hoped was a nonchalant expression on his face, to see a man dressed in fine clothes observing him with an amused smile.

“You are interested in the writings of Adelard of Bath? Your kinsman I believe. You are English, yes?”

Cristian had never heard of Adelard of Bath, he looked down at the book in his hands and, with a sheepish frown, slowly turned it the right way round.

That chuckle again; “A wondrous piece of work ‘De Eodem et Diverso’ written over two-hundred years ago.”

Cristian looked at the book again, “On the same and different,” he replied, “though I must admit I have never heard of Adelard before this day.”

“Refreshingly honest, and your Latin is good, for an Englishman. I am here for another of his works, ‘Questiones Naturales,’ it deals with his experiences in Antioch and bears facts on meteorology I would confirm for a piece I am occupied with. Adelard studied with the Benedictines in the Cathedral at Bath and his works have followed the monks wherever they go. It seems they have finally found you master…?”

“Cristian. I am Cristian Gilleson, and you?”

“Oh, I am many things to many people but to you I am Yehuda ben Moshe.”

As Cristian considered this man he became confused; one moment Yehuda looked young and in his prime, but his face was ingrained with wisdom far beyond his years and as he moved about the library, in and out of the sun-dappled shadows, he suddenly seemed old, yet his face was imbued with the eagerness of youth.

Cristian bowed to him and retraced his steps to replace the book on the shelf. When he emerged it was to see Yehuda sat at a desk littered with writing paraphernalia; vellum, inks, knives for sharpening quills and pots of sand to soak up any extraneous ink.  Yehuda motioned to a stool by his side,

“Come join me and tell me of your great town of London, for I have never visited there. Is it as filthy as men say? Do you really slaughter animals in the street outside your King’s palace? Do dragons roam in faraway mountains and devour the flesh of virgins? Indeed, are there any virgins left in London?”

This last part was accompanied by a wry smile and Cristian knew he was being teased. He sat down.

“How did you know I am English?”

“Apart from your strange accent and clothes you mean? I have seen you at Burgos Castle, I was on the battlements beside my King when your royal party rode through the town, up the hill and entered. I watched your noble Earls, Knights and Prince smiling as they entered the gate. Your Prince looked like the cat that got the cream so eager was he to lay claim to the lovely Eleanor.”

“You have met Eleanor? What is she like; will she make a good Queen for my Lord Edward?”

“Met her? I schooled her and can vouch for her intellect and learning without any qualms. She is a lovely child and I trust Lord Edward will bind himself close to her throughout their lives together.

“But you; you are an enigma to me. I have seen you with these men of England, you are companion to Edward yet, cuckoo-like, you skirt around the others. You visit the armoury and the library with equal measure, you engage with the high-born yet often have a good word for the servants, you ride like a man and fuss over Edward like a girl. What are you Cristian Gilleson?”

Cristian was taken aback by Yehuda’s subtle, erudite observations.

“Why say you I am like the cuckoo?”

“Simply put, it is because you are with these people but not of them. It is as if your mother laid you down in a different bed and you have been nurtured by strangers not of your clan or tribe. I have a feeling you will have to elbow some men aside and send them crashing to the ground below for there is only room in your nest for one, perhaps two if you stay with the Prince Edward.”

Cristian felt he was being read like an open book by this Yehuda, but, for some unknown reason, he took no offence,

“Who do you serve at Burgos?”

“My first master is the One True God; my earthly master is King Alphonso.”

“How do you serve him?”

“I praise God every day. As for the King, I translate manuscripts for him, from Arabic to Latin and from Latin to Castilian or, often, Arabic to Castilian. Do not look so surprised master Cristian, I do not undertake the task by myself, and there are many of us that deem it an honour to carry out the wishes of our enlightened King, for only in this way can we disseminate knowledge that would otherwise be lost to us, for the Arab physicians and astronomers were indeed wise men.”

Yehuda picked up a sheet of vellum; passed it to Cristian asking,

“What do you see there?”

Cristian looked at the page; it was blank as was his face.

“Nothing, There is nothing written here.”


“It has been scraped clean so it can be re-used.”

“Ask yourself this; what wisdom has been removed from our sight? Knowledge and learning has been eradicated so that some trainee scribe may practice his letters. It makes me want to shout out to the heavens above and weep salty tears at this desecration I see so often in your Christian places. Knowledge is power and there you sit unaware of what is lost to us. Ah well; pay no heed to the ranting’s of a humble man of letters for you are not to blame for this sacrilege we see before us.”

“You are not a Christian then?”

Yehuda’s face broke into a wide smile,

“No, master Cristian, I am a Jew, un-recanted, unashamed and thankful I dwell not on England’s shores. Why, only last year your King Henry ruled the Jew could only live in certain towns and so yet another exodus took place as my tribe left one village and town to take up residence in another. The Jew in England is merely a chattel of King Henry. Will there be no end to our persecution and wandering?”

“Yet you serve King Alphonso?”

“Alphonso is an enlightened King. He realises the worth of a man is more important than the man’s beliefs or religion. It has not always been so, but we now live a good life and a far better one than our brothers and sisters in your land.

“I see your companion lingered long at the tomb of the Cid. He has knowledge of his deeds?”

“Yes, he came to pay homage as one Knight to another. Was this Cid indeed such a great man as the legends would have us believe?”

“That and more; he fought the Moors and respected Jew and Christian alike. Well mostly.”

“You say that with caution, Yehuda. Did you really live in peace in the Cid’s time?”

“Let me tell you a tale of the Cid and his dealings with the tribe of Israel. It came to pass that the Cid was forced to take his army away very quickly and he had not the money to pay his vast host to hand. So he did what many Christians do in such circumstances; he sought a loan from the Jew. He arrived at the house of a moneylender with a huge chest, bound with iron and closed with three great locks. The Jew asked him just what was in the chest and the Cid replied it was full of gold cups, candlesticks, plate and jewelled cups of great worth, silver and precious metals. The Jew called three of his retainers to lift the chest and they could hardly move it, so heavy it was. The Cid said he needed money quickly and he would leave the chest with the Jew as surety if he would give him gold and silver in return for to pay his men and keep them fed and armed in the field. The Jew agreed and piled gold upon gold onto a blanket until the Cid said it was sufficient, though the contents of the chest were worth much more. There was just one proviso; the chest must not be opened for a year-and-a- day and if the Cid did not redeem the loan within that time the Jew could keep the chest and all its contents. The deal was done, a bargain struck and hands shaken; the Cid left with his gold. He returned before the agreed day to find the Jew had opened the chest to check on his investment only to find it filled with the sands of the river. The Jew reproached the Cid for his cunning and the Cid smiled into his face and declared the deal default for the chest had been opened before the appointed day and thus the Cid owed the Jew not one penny piece. Yes, Cristian, we lived in peace in the Cid’s time but still we were treated badly. Enough of this, shall we join the monks in the refectory for our meal and we can continue our talk.”



One thought on “Did Jews and Christians interact in thirteenth century Europe?

  1. Hi Darius – absolutely love your illustrations here – and enjoying reading extracts from your novel and the associated snippets re research. (and wish I could find as catchy a title as ‘The King’s Jew’) – wishing you much success with this. I find Yehuda a very appealing character from the taster here.


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