Jews and neophytes in Trani

In the first half of the 11th century Trani was home to a large Jewish community. Various sources lead as to believe that they had originally come from Spain after fleeing from the Almohadi, rigorous Muslims of Berber origins.

The Jews from Bari, probably sought shelter in Trani after William the Bad destroyed the city in 1156 as a punishment for rendering to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenus.

In his journey from Europe to Asia from 1156 to 1166, Benjamin bar Jonah, a Jew from Tudela (Navarra), kept a travel diary (Sefer Massa’ot). He wrote:

“It takes two days to arrive from Ascoli to Trani.
The city is situated on the seaside, where all the piligrims gather to go to Jerusalem; for the port is a convenient one. The Israelite community is of about two hundred, at their head being Rabbi Elijah, Rabbi Nathan, the expounder, and Rabbi Jacob. It is a grate and beautiful city”.

The Emperor Henry VI, in 1195, confirmed the Church rights dating back to the reing of King William.
That is the tithes of Trani and Barletta and the jurisdiction on the Jews of Trani, specifying that their annual tax wasn’t to be over 37 and 2/3 ounces of gold and weren’t obliged to pay anything else.

The privilege was confirmed in the year 1221, when Fredrik II Hohenstaufen prohibited Christians and Jews to testify against one another. In 1231 the emperor granted the kingdoms entire silk monopoly to the Jews of Trani Curulia and his associates.

In the Costitutions of Melfi (Liber Augustalis, 1231) the Jews were also granted the monopoly on interest loans, prohibited for Christians By Church laws.

In 1238, after an accurate investigation which followed an infanticide charge in Fulda, Germany, the Emperor prohibited Christians to accuse Jews of murdering them in order to obtain blood for the Passover rituals or for remedies.

The Normann-Hohenstaufen era was the most serene for the Jews in Trani. The jurist Cesare Lambertini (1475-1561), tells us that they had four synagogues, the last of which was completed in 1247.

There was a bloom of successful Talmudic studies and scholars as shown by the name Mi-Trani “from Trani”, given to two of the most important teachers of the 12th-13th centuries: Isaiah ben Mali “the elder”, born around 1180 (he was rabbi in Venice) and his grandson Isaiah ben Eliyah, “the young one”, rigorous and contrary in using Greek philisophy when explaining Torah.

The serenity of the Jewish community in Trani was upset with the beginning of the Angevin domination and when the teacher Manuforte converted to Christianity in 1267.

The Court assigned him with six ounces of gold, to be obtained from the earnings of the dye-works.

Manuforte had revealed curses against Jesus and Mary in the Talmud and in the prayer books. He was given the assigment to find these texts and send them to the Court.

The ruthless proselytism of the Franciscans and Domenicans supported by the Angevin Court during the last decade of the 13th century destroyed much of Trani’s Jewish community. In 1294 the neophytes were 310.

Their conditions didn’t get any better becuse the Friars continued oppressing them and the Archbishops continued on demanding the same annual pecuniary contribute asked before the conversion.

The Court intervened many times in defence of the Jews and their descendants, in1413 King Ladislaus decided that two of the sixteen citizens elected to be the city’s administrators every four months were to be neophytes.

Photo: Seal of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen in red wax datable to 1197-1212.

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