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June 17, 2005

Medieval Jewish achievement

The following was written before I saw Razib's post below, but I will post it as drafted, as I think it complements Razib's data:

As there has been much discussion lately of Jewish intelligence and achievement, I was interested to see the following passage in Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment:

Jews make their first appearance in the annals of the arts and sciences during the centuries when the Middle East and Moorish Spain were at their cultural peak. When science historian George Sarton set out to enumerate the top scientists across the world, including East Asia, South Asia, the Arab World, and Christian Europe, from 1150 to 1300, he came up with 626 names, of whom 95 were Jews - 15 per cent of the total, produced by a group that at the time represented about half of one per cent of the world’s population that was in a position to produce scientists.

To support this Murray cites Sarton’s Introduction to the History of Science, 1927-48, volume 2, pp. 323-3, 533-41, and 808-18. I have checked this out, and Sarton gives some more detailed information. He aims to identify leading figures in ‘science and intellectual progress’, not just science in the narrow sense. He gives data for three 50-year periods: (1) 1150-1200, (2) 1200-1250, and (3) 1250-1300, which can be summarised as follows:




By my count there are 94, not 95, Jews, but this does not significantly affect their percentage of the total. Of course, compilations of this kind must be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. Almost certainly there are biases of available data and selection. Sarton was a great historian of science, but his book is old - for one thing it predates Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China - and a modern survey would probably include more East and South Asian figures. Nevertheless, the high proportion of Jewish figures is impressive. The fairest comparison is probably with Muslims, as in this period Jews were mainly living in Islamic countries. There are nearly three-quarters as many Jews as Muslims in the list, yet Jews can hardly have been a tenth of the population in these areas. Also note that the Jews were relatively more prominent in the west than in the east. This may reflect differences in numbers, in cultural circumstances, or both.

As the emphasis of recent discussion has been specifically on Ashkenazi Jews, it is worth noting that few of the Jews in Sarton’s list were Ashkenazim. Sarton does not give a breakdown into different ‘sects’ of Jews, but he does specify their countries of activity. Only 13 of the 94 came from countries north of the Alps (Germany, Northern France, Bohemia, and England). The largest number of ‘western’ Jews of course lived in Spain.

Following the completion of the reconquista, and ultimately the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) Jews were scattered through Europe south and west of the Alps. It is my impression that the Sephardim remained more prominent in intellectual and cultural life than the Ashkenazim at least until the 17th century. The Ashkenazim produced relatively few intellectual notabilities until the second half of the 18th century [see Note], then exploded into extraordinary prominence in the 19th.

Note: There are of course some difficulties in deciding who is Jewish. For example, the astronomer Sir William Herschel is sometimes listed as Jewish, but it seems he was at most half-Jewish by ancestry. Some of those mentioned as Jewish by Charles Murray seem to be simply erroneous. I can find nothing to suggest that Johannes Herder was Jewish, not to mention the Nuremberg cobbler-poet Hans Sachs. Wagner must be spinning in his grave!

Added June 19

As I mentioned in comments on another thread, when Jews were allowed back into England in the 17th century, Sephardim (Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent) were the first to arrive, and formed a cultural and economic elite. When Ashkenazim began to arrive in the 18th century, they were mostly poor and lower-class, and the Sephardi elite would have little to do with them. Only in the 19th century, when Sephardi numbers were depleted by apostasy and intermarriage with gentiles, did the barriers between Sephardim and Ashkenazim begin to break down. The wealth of successful Ashkenazim also made it difficult for the Sephardim to feel so superior. (I base these remarks on Cecil Roth’s books on the history of Jews in England.)

I find that there was a similar position in 17th century Holland: according to Simon Schama ‘by 1690, however, this delicate balancing act [between wealthy Sephardim and the Christian population] was threatened by the arrival of Ashkenazi Jews in much greater numbers. Of the 7,500 Jews in Amsterdam at that time, 5,000 were immigrants from Germany, Poland, Bohemia and Lithuania… They settled thickly in streets like Leprozenburgwal, the Nieuwe Kerkstraat and the Nieuwe Houtmarkt, which became known as the milieu of poor Jews… And they turned to the menial ‘ghetto’ trades disdained by the Sephardim like hawking, peddling, and old clothes dealing…’ (Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, p.594.)

I mention these points because some modern commentators tend to assume that the Ashkenazim are an elite and the Sephardim a kind of underclass! This is the reverse of the historical position.

In modern times the achievements of Sephardic Jews have been overshadowed by the Ashkenazim, but are not negligible. I find that at least 5 Nobel Prizes have gone to Sephardic Jews: Baruj Benacerraf, Salvador Luria and Rita Levi-Montalcini (all in Medicine), Claude Cohen-Tannoudji (Physics), and Elias Canetti (Literature). This may not seem many compared with the Ashkenazi ‘score’ (over a hundred), but in relation to the small size of the Sephardic population - probably less than a million worldwide, if we interpret the term strictly as meaning Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent - it is very respectable.

Posted by David B at 02:53 AM