Gyðinga Saga - The History of the Jews of Scandinavia

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by Atterdag, Nov 6, 2019.

  1. Atterdag Well-Known Member

    Jun 19, 2018
    In 1994, a runestone was found close to Ribe in southern Denmark. A fragment of it read;

    "Gæjup Apræhöm who came from Sparland* and on his death left all his wealth to King Harald"

    On the stone was carved a figure, presumably Harald Bluetooth, recieving various items from a man, presumably Gæjup. What is more intersting however, is that one of the items appear to be a s seven-armed candleholder. This finding would forever change how the Scandinavian world would understand it's relationship to Judaism.

    Gæjup Apræhöm, who's real name probably was Yaqub ibn Ibrahim, is a mysterious and interesting character. It is known that he worked for the Caliph in Cordoba sometime in the mid 10th century, serving as a diplomat to Europe as well as a succesful merchant and trader. However around 960, he just disappears, no letters are recorded to have been sent to the Caliph and he's not mentioned in any offical records. It's generally accepted he fell out of favour with the Caliph, but for what reason remains a mystery.

    New evidence collected since the Runestone was found suggests that he may have gone to Denmark, in fact he probably already had a trade network established in Denmark long before making it his primary residence. His wife is recorded to have remained in Cordoba, so that could explain why he let his wealth pass to the King who'd taken him in after his exile rather than his family. The large and ornately crafted runestone atleast shows that he wasn't a nobody in Denmark.

    Previously to the finding of the Ribe runestone, it was believed that the first Jews in Denmark came in the time of Cnut the Great. The source is undated, but due to England and Denmark being mentioned together, many assume it comes from the time where the countries were ruled by one King.

    "I offered him to stay with me in Cologne, but he replied that he would rather return to England or Denmark, where the land was poorer but the law was fairer"
    This document was written by a German Jewish merchant who recorded an encounter he had with another assumed Jewish merchant while abroad. Not only does this suggest that already then there were Jews living in Cnut's Empire, but that some already felt that Jews were being treated there than continental Europe.

    In the mid 11th century, finally a Scandinavian source definately mentions Jewish people living permanently there. In Roskilde from 1048;

    "Salme the Gyðing, gave King Sweyn much wealth and Sweyn promised him that he should be a good friend of him and the Gyðingar."
    While many historians have read this as the beginning of the good relationship Jews had with the Danish crown, others have with the rescent discovery of the Ribe runestone questioned if this perhaps was a much older practice of various Jewish merchants giving money to Danish kings to ensure their safety in the Kingdom.

    During the first crusades anti-semitic fervoe swept through much of central Europe and many fled north to Scandinavia. It is in this era the first mentions of Jewish communities in Norway are from, mainly they seem to have settled in Bergen. In this era the Scandinavian Jews appear to have thought of themselves as two different peoples, those who had lived there since the Viking age and those who had only first come in the late 11th century.

    The Jewish position seems to have remain tightly knit to the King for a long time. In the reign of Valdemar the Great, the monarchy acquired lots of new land which no Noble owned. Valdemar employed several Jewish men to oversee the development of these new lands, strengthening his own land without giving up influence to the nobility.

    The first Jews of Sweden were allowed to settle permanently in the mid 13th century, under Birger Jarl's hectic reforms he invited them alongside german traders, Jews became an important feature of early Swedish urbanisation. Also in the 13th century, with the first national laws being written in Denmark, Jews were specifically mentioned as one of the groups making up the danish Kingdom. A recognition that was unequal in the rest of Europe. When the Jews of England were expelled in the late 13th century, many flocked to Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

    In the late 13th and 14th century the importance of Jews grew ever more. German merchants and traders came more and more to dominate the Scandinavian economies and often ignored regulations put upon them by the kings of these countries. A way to counteract this was for the Scandinavian kings to actively promote Jewish merchants. This was one of the reasons why the Hansa was never able to dominate Scandinavia as they did the southern and eastern shores of Scandinavia.

    Culturally, this pitting of the Jews against the German merchants led to Scandinavian Jews seeing themselves as a people of their own, not Sephardic or Ashkenazi, but as a sub-group of their own. It is in this time that the word Gyðing begins to be used by the Nordic jews themselves.

    The Kalmar Union came in the end of the 14th century. Though the Gyðingar tried to stay out of the many civil conflicts it would entail, they did sometimes try to show their loyalty to the union by supporting the King, only when he was relatively accepted in all union countries though, which was a rare occassion. One such was the rule of Christopher of Bavaria, Gyðdingar merchants helped fund his lavish wedding to Dorothea of Brandenburg and in return, he saw that they were given additional protection, not only in danish law but also in Swedish, when the famous land laws of Christopher were written.

    In the late 15th century, the Jews of Spain were expelled, Scandinavia was one of the places they travelled to, bringing with them a wealth of knowledge that helped kickstarting a cultural and intelligent bloom in Scandinavia. Many say that it was the beginning of the Nordic renaisance. In addition, they brought with them knowledge of navigation which saw an increase in Scandinavian activity in the atlantic sea.
    The rise of protestantism saw the Scandinavian kingdoms convert, despite the violent anti-semitic rhetoric of Martin Luther, the position of the Gyðdingar were not hurt. A large reason for this was that the conversions were partially monetary funded and Gyðingar provided the state with large income.

    As Sweden grew to a great power on the shores of the baltics and Denmark acquired colonies in the atlantic, the Gyðingar were at the forefront of these expeditions. Especially in the danish carribean, Gyðingar made up over half the population. In the Baltic, swedish Gyðingar settled in Livonia and Ingria, though most would return with the loss of these provinces in the great northern war, they established further contacts with Russian and Polish Jews.

    The 18th century and the enlightenment saw many Gyðinga thinkers in contact with their continentals brethern in faith. Mostly Scandinavian Jews saw both the point of the liberal reformed jews and the orthodox ones and thus adopted a middle ground. Gyðinga Judaism came to be defined in a dual manner, often seen as being liberal in the open but orthodox in the home. Gyðingar dressed as any other Scandinavians, spoke Danish, Swedish or Norwegian in the streets and tried as best they could to engage themselves in swedish society. But in the homes they strictly observed their holidays, spoke their unique dialect of Yiddish and dedicated themselves to God. Some called it hypocrisy, but for the Gyðingar it was a way to unite their faith with their nationality without having to forsake one or the other.

    In the 19th century, Gyðingar were big supporters of pan-scandinavism, seeing it as an opportunity to unite with their brethern living abroad and strengthen their position in general in the countries. Nothing came of that movement, it was smashed in the second Schleswig war of 1864. Instead the Jews took to working with those Gyðingar who new resided in Germany, supporting them as to not forget their idenitity. The Scandinavian countries managed to stay neutral in the great war and after the plebsites in Schleswig-Holstein, most regions with large Gyðing populations returned to Denmark. This was later used fervently by the Nazi party as proof that Jews were tearing Germany apart. In the 1920's Gyðingar were finally made equal as democratization swept through Scandiavia, many Jews were involved in Social Democracy, believing that it was labour that united their nations, not race.

    Then came world war 2. In 1939 roughly 8% of Denmark's population was Jewish, 2% in Sweden and 4% in Norway. Togehter they made up roughly half a million people. The Nazis were not lenient to them and even as many fled to neutral Sweden, most were captured and rounded up in concentration camps. By the German surrender of 1945, roughly half remained, most of them living in Sweden. The Danish Jews and Norwegian Jews which had survived returned to their countries, but the emptiness of the Jewish quarters convinced many that there was nothing left for the Gyðingar, and so they left for Israel.


    The Jewish population has steadily risen in Scandinavia since the second world war, but never returned to it's pre-war size. In Denmark there lives around 50,000 Jews, a massive decrease since the 30's where there were almost 300,000 and the overall population smaller than today. In Norway there are around 30,000, down from 150,000 in the 1930's. Sweden now has the largest Jewish population in Scandinavia, with 125,000, slightly smaller than it had been in the 1930's. There's a finnish jewish population of roughly 15,000 jews and just above 4000 in Iceland. These Jews today are very much integrated into mainstream Scandinavian society, partly due to Americanization making cultures less distinct and partly due to general secularism, but also because of conformist policies in from the 40's to the 80's encouraging national minorities to be more like the mainstream culture.

    The Gyðingar have left an undeniable impact on Scandinavian society, culure and landscape since Jacob Abraham first arrived, and although the horrors of war have left them much diminished than they otherwise would've been, their part of the global Jewish community sends a striking message to all who agreed with Hitler; he failed.
  2. Atterdag Well-Known Member

    Jun 19, 2018
    This is very much a small draft of a little scenario I've been thinking about. The near absence of Jews from Scandinavian history has always struck me as weird, so I made a scenario where they were quite prevelant. Maybe I'll expand on it one day.

    What I find interesting is how I think Scandinavia could serve both as a destination for Ashkenazi Jews otherwise heading for Poland and Sephardic Jews otherwise heading for the Netherlands. Thus combining the two into something new entirely.
  3. Jürgen Well-Known Member

    Jul 16, 2016
    I love it, I would suggest some small changes.

    1: the name the ð would likely be dropped. Either being replaced by a t/d

    2: I doubt they would speak Yiddish, instead I would suggest that they spoke a Scandinavian language with a lot of Hebrew loan words, as their population have been distinct from other Jewish population so long. Just as Yiddish build on the Swabian dialect, the place with the earliest urbanisation in Germany, I would go with the region in Scandinavia with the earliest urbanisation and go with Southern Jutish as the dialect "Gytisk/Gydisk" should build on. It would likely use a variation of the Hebrew alphabet and it would get a official status in Nordic countries

    3: I would also go with them being less hard hit by the Holocaust, the Germans made exceptions for Karaites based on them being Turkish (which according to the Nazi was Aryans). Here I could see Danish and Norwegian Jews of ancient descent being spared the camps, while Jews of Sephadic and Ashkenazim descent being singled out. Especially as the different Jewish groups didn't really intermarried in OTL. As such I could see the "Gydes" staying in Scandinavia.

    4: I would also place a small population in Reykjavik 500-1000 people, who migrated there under Danish rule.

    5: I would also place place a bigger group of these Jews in Finland and Estonia early on, which would also have the other aspect that Estonia, Livonia and Finland becomes part of the Pale of Settlement (as the Grand Duchy doesn't have the same restriction of Jewish settlement because of Swedish law). This would likely result in a Jewish population of around 6% in interbellum Finland and Estonia (building on the Jewish population in Courland[1]). But while the Estonian and Livonian (Livonia as it was also a old Swedish province) "Gydes" may be spared by the Nazi, the Ashkenazim wouldn't and the Gydisk population would likely be 2% in Estonia and to 1% of the population in Latvia (living in the Livonian part of Latvia), if these didn't flee abroad to Sweden like the Swedish Estonians. There's a risk that Stalin would deport them to Siberia. But a small population of 40.000 Scandinavian speaking Jews in modern Latvia and Estonia would be interesting.

    While in Finland we would likely see a clear split between the Gydisk (2%) and Ashkenazim (4%) Jews survive to modern day. With the "Gydisk" Jews likely seeing themselves as part of the Swedish minority and the Ashkenazim being treated as a third official group. Which would likely make Finland a stonghold of Yiddish.

    That's at least my ideas.

    [1]This may be a little low as Couland wasn't part of OTL Pale of Settlement, but I'm going with a conservative estimate.
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2019
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  4. Atterdag Well-Known Member

    Jun 19, 2018
    Thanks! All very useful advice. You know it's weird, I also imagined that they'd have their own language but then wrote Yiddish for some reason. Maybe because I wrote it all late in the night.

    I gotta read up more on internal Jewish identities, but yeah you're right that the Scandinavian jews wouldn't be a monotonous group.

    Never heard about the exception for Karaites, the Nazis wouldn't see the Gydes as having corruptes the Aryan Scandinavians?
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  5. Ahab Well-Known Member

    Mar 10, 2011
    Ivory palace, Samaria
    Well they could, and probably will. The Karaites were a very small group stack mostly in the crimea, while the Gydes are a huge group living in the homeland of the Aryans, and they seem to always be against Germany. They wouldn't be spared, and I can very much see Hitler pushing the Swedish government the give up their jews
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  6. Jürgen Well-Known Member

    Jul 16, 2016
    I think we need to think how the Gydes would be seen. From what you have desribed they're a very invisible minority. There's no indication that they have been forced to wear specific clothing to make them a visible minority. Next by Gærup coming from Spain in viking age, it also suggest what he traded; slaves. This is important because in slave society with non-chattel slavery it was common for rich Jews to take slaves as concubines and wives, and children born from these unions was recognised as Jews, at the same time while female Christian- male Jewish marriage was likely banned rather early, pagan-Jewish marriage wouldn't be banned, so we likely see marriages between the Gydes and Scandinavian until the late 12th century and influx from Baltic and Wendish pagan slaves a century and a half more. This mean it's only by 1300 they becomes isolated from their neighbours after 400 year of influx from other population in the region likely with a relative small male (and next to no women) founding population, likely making them almost completely similar to other North Europeans. The Ashkenazim while also having intermarried with Europeans seems mostly to have done so in southern and western Europe, already being genetic isolated when they arrived in Poland. Which together with them being forced to carry distinct clothing made them a very visible the Other.

    So while both Ashkenazim and Gydes looks European, they on average will be as visible distinct from each others as a Italian and a Scandinavian. When we also mix this with Gydes using the same clothing as their Christian neighbours and at last while much of the Ashkenazim population was impoverished migrants from Eastern and Central Europe, the Gydes will to large extent be lower middle class. This will make non-Jewish population see these two groups as distinct from each others. At the same time there will likely be limited intermarriage between the two Jewish populations. At last the Gydes will be limited to former Danish and Swedish territories. So in Germany they would likely be limited to Schleswig-Holstein and the former Principality of Rügen (Danish vassal 1168-1325, Swedish 1648-1814). Their main settlements in Germany would be Flensburg, Schleswig, Kiel, Altona, Greifwald and Stralsund. Of course with your description Flensburg ended up in Denmark.

    So the Nazi will likely see the Gydes as a kind of Judaized Germanic people, but that will likely result in attempt to de-judaized them, instead of eradicate them. This will make the Nazi German rule very unpleasant, but not nightmarish as it was for the other Jews. I could see them after the war becoming the third wheel in SSW the Danish-Frisian minority party in Schleswig-Holstein also make the party stand in the entire state (likely under a alternative name) and likely also in Hamburg (which would likely also get votes from the small Danish minority living in the city[1]), because of the Gydes in Altona. If the small surviving Gydish population in Vorpommern doesn't emigrate to Israel or Denmark after the reunification, I could also see them create a similar party in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

    I also imagine that Copenhagen would be seen as the center of the Gydisk world with 0,5 million living in the modern Capital Region (which would be 30% of the population) if they avoided the Holocaust. while another 0,5 million would live in the rest of Denmark. The question is whether a significant part of the population would emigrate to Israel. I suspect emigration would be limited if they wasn't singled out in the Holocaust, as Israel would be something of an alien culture and with such a large population, anti-semitic violence would be less of a concern, not because it wouldn't happen, but because the risk of being a victim of such violence would be smaller with a larger population.

    That's my thoughts at least.

    [1] Mostly Danish South Schleswigian who have migrated to Hamburg.
  7. Jürgen Well-Known Member

    Jul 16, 2016
    I think you make some good arguments, but I think the fact, that the Gydes would be less visible the Other and more geographic limited would make them distinct enough to avoid the same horrifying treatment.
  8. Minchandre Well-Known Member

    Apr 24, 2009
    The Garden State
    Very cool. I've been planning a history of the "Safonic" ("Tzfoni" = "northern") Jews for a while, though mine will be more centered around the North Sea (and I plan to get them into Vinland as well).

    Well...yes and no. Karaites per se are more of a religious movement than an ethnic group, and had large communities in Egypt (and to a lesser extent the rest of the Mediterranean). Their origin lies in the Hellenic period! Though they and Jews tended to get along poorly, outsiders often grouped them together.

    That said, the Crimean Karaites came to be seen as a separate group from Jews proper in Russia in the mid-19th Century, and it was on this ground that Hitler considered them "okay".

    Anyway, again, awesome idea! I look forward to reading more if you develop this further.
  9. Jan Olbracht Well-Known Member

    Apr 9, 2012
    No major butterflies all te way to 20th century?

    ITTL Sweden is either more religiously tolerant in late 16th and 17th century (which would affect things like PU with Poland-Lithuania) or is like OTL (IOTL even non-Lutheran Protestants were not tolerated in Sweden, same with Catholics and Orthodox Christians. So Jews would be forced to convert, leave or hide their faith).
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  10. Ahab Well-Known Member

    Mar 10, 2011
    Ivory palace, Samaria
    Sadly,I think you don't understand how the Nazis view jews. It didn't matter what you looked like, it didn't matter who you are, it didn't matter even if your family was baptized to Christianity two hundred years ago. The Jews of Amsterdam and Berlin were taken just the same as the Jews of Warsaw and Kiev, regardless with how intergated they were and how much time they lived peacefully with their neighbours.
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  11. Jürgen Well-Known Member

    Jul 16, 2016
    I fully get how the Nazi viewed the Jews.
  12. Atterdag Well-Known Member

    Jun 19, 2018
    I'm definitely gonna have to do some more thinking about how protestantism would affect Jewish lives in Scandinavia, I really had no idea when writing this so that's why it was kinda glossed over.
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  13. Jürgen Well-Known Member

    Jul 16, 2016
    Honestly while I loved this idea, yes it have some weaknesses, one being how Scandinavian culture would be affected by the Gydes, the reason that Jews didn’t have access to the Nordic kingdoms in the medieval period was because the Scandinavians pretty much was the most intolerant place in the period. But the lack of contact with Jews resulted in anti-Semitism being intellectualized, instead of being a result of social conflicts, which resulted in when Scandinavia grew more tolerant that Jews was more tolerated there. Here Scandinavians have to deal with another groups living among them for a millennium, that means we will social conflicts or that the Gydes have some clear niche which doesn’t bring them into conflict with other groups (so avoiding banking like it was pure cancer). Which would likely means that the Gydes have to specialize in some specific trades, likely connected to manufacturing or other craft. Early on it would likely be the slave trade with the Muslim world, this could lead the Gydes end up specializing in things connected to the sea. Fundamental ending up as fishermen, sailors, rural woodworkers and boat builders in the medieval period[1], only to grow more urban as the Sephardic Jews come to Denmark with the Gydes surplus population ending up working for Sephardic Jews arriving in the Scandinavian towns as servants and urban workers.

    Of course we would likely see some economic effect if the Sephardics end up in Scandinavian towns, especially if they have access to a work force, we could see a early collapse of the guild system and increase in early manufacturing. Of course here we see some conflict with the burghers, but with a little luck the Sephardics takes the bulk of the blame for that.

    [1] These crafts have some benefit, they’re low prestige but seen as clean work, there’s little competition for them and it doesn’t really bring them into conflicts with either peasants, burghers or nobility. At most it bring them into conflict with the Hanseatic German merchants who dominated the medieval fishing trade. Which honestly could be a good reason for the Scandinavian kings to let the Gydes work in that field. I would suspect that the a Gydes mostly dominate the fishing trade in the Baltic and Kattegat, while the North Sea stay in Frisian, Norwegian and Jutish hands.
  14. Atterdag Well-Known Member

    Jun 19, 2018
    Indeed. I always imagined that the Gydes status would be closely tied to the royal power both since they'd be a useful institution against the Hansa and because they'd be seperate from the feudal system and could be "direct subjects" of the king. In times of the anarchies that hit Denmark and to some degree Sweden they'd probably fare a lot worse.
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  15. Jürgen Well-Known Member

    Jul 16, 2016
    Likely but Jews was in general hit hard in civil wars and foreign invasions, in the Polish Deluge their population was hit harder in percent than the general Polish population. Of course with the Danish Gydes specializing in fishing especially in the Sound, it explain how their population grew to such a large size of the Danish population for several interesting reasons. Let’s say they make up 2% of the Danish population in the medieval period. As we move into early modern period the herring trade becomes less important and we see the arrival of the Sephardic Jews to Denmark (in OTL these ended up going elsewhere) as such the Gydes end up a large minority in Copenhagen and Elsinore still being fishermen, but also working in shipyards and as servants and manual workers for the Sephardics, this result in a slow increase to 4% of the population (with around half of the Gydes living in or near Copenhagen and Elsinore). With the Swedish Wars the more populated Elsinore avoid being occupied by the Swedes like Copenhagen, the population losses and the lost province, result in the population in Denmark proper falling with 50%, the fact that Copenhagen and Elsinore avoided being occupied as such having small population losses and a influx of Gydes refugees from eastern Scania results in the Gydes increasing to 6-7% of the population around half livinmg in Copenhagen. I could see this number stay stable with Ashkenazim and Sephardic making up the last 1 percent point of population.