Renaissance and Reformation Ghetto
Benjamin Ravid
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0085


From the beginning of their residence in medieval Christian Europe, Jews usually tended to dwell in proximity to each other, as did members of other groups of foreigners. Usually the origins of such Jewish areas are hidden in the twilight zone of undocumented history and were designated differently in different languages. Some designations consisted of the local word for “street,” “quarter,” or “district,” with a modifier indicating that Jews lived there, as, for example, “vicus Judaeorum,” “Judengasse,” “rue des Juifs,” “carrière juif,” “Judenhof,” “Judenviertel,” “Judendorf,” and “Judenstadt.” Other designations derived from the word “Jew,” as “guidecca,” “juiverie,” “juderia,” “judaismo,” and “judaiche.” On the other hand, sometimes Jewish quarters were not referred to by any designation that reflected a Jewish presence: for example, Leopoldstadt. Unfortunately, these various designations are utilized without differentiating between areas in which substantial numbers of Jews voluntarily lived together and those that were compulsory and enclosed by walls with gates that were locked at night to segregate the Jews. The word “ghetto,” however, is never encountered in any contemporary source prior to the 16th century, although modern authors utilize it indiscriminately to refer to Jewish streets or quarters at any time in any place. The compulsory, segregated, and enclosed Jewish quarter established in Venice in 1516 was the first to be called a ghetto, and until the end of the 18th century that word appears to have been used only to refer to such quarters on the Italian peninsula. During the course of the 19th century, it came to be used (often in a negative sense) to refer to areas of dense Jewish settlement in eastern Europe that were neither compulsory, segregated, nor enclosed. Then the word was applied to new immigrant Jewish communities established in the Germanic lands, western Europe, and the Western Hemisphere. It was soon used to designate communities of other immigrants, often with the connotation of an urban slum and eventually those formed by African Americans migrating to northern cities in the United States. Subsequently, the word gained further currency with the establishment of the so-called ghettos of Nazi Germany. Finally, after World War II, “ghetto” came to be widely utilized in connection with the extensive new urban planning and renewal. Of course, these concurrent but different uses of the word have led to considerable confusion as to what exactly is intended in any given context.

General Overviews

Despite the universal usage of the word “ghetto,” somewhat surprisingly there is no extant comprehensive treatment of its Venetian origin together with the new additional meanings that it acquired after its first association with the Jews in Venice in 1516. Ravid 1992 constitutes a first attempt to succinctly trace the evolution of the word “ghetto” from a geographical location to a historiographical symbol, while Ravid 2008 represents an updated discussion of the origin of the word and its subsequent spread as the designation for compulsory, segregated Jewish quarters. Paradoxically, despite its negative aspects, in a sense the ghetto represented an improvement in the life of the Jews in that it represented a recognition of their place in Christian society. Additionally, mainly because of the negative connotations of the word “ghetto,” the nature of Jewish life in the ghetto is often misunderstood. As shown in Ravid 1992, Ravid 2008, and Ravid 1999, as well as in Bonfil 1994 and Ruderman 1997, ghettos were not hermetically sealed but were always porous and open to Christians in the daytime, and their establishment did not lead to the breaking off of all Jewish contacts with the outside world; furthermore, from the internal Jewish perspective, many evaluations of the alleged impact of the ghetto upon the life of the Jews and their mentality require substantial revision. Indeed, as suggested by Bonfil 1988, by limiting, but certainly not eliminating, contact with the outside world, ghettoization encouraged the Jews to develop their own sources and resources, leading in certain cases to an intensification of their own cultural life (see Bonfil 1988, Ruderman 1997, and Ruderman 2008).

  • Bonfil, Robert. “Change in the Cultural Patterns of a Jewish Society in Crisis: Italian Jewry at the Close of the Sixteenth Century.” Jewish History 3:2 (1988): 11–30.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01698567

    Points out that the ghetto transformed the position of the Jews in Christian society by making their presence unexceptional and natural, while the Jews’ restructuring of their physical space led them to reconstruct their religious and intellectual space, aided by the diffusion of the kabbalah, and to intensify their spiritual and cultural creativity. Republished in Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, edited by David Ruderman. (New York: New York University Press, 1992), pp. 401–425.

  • Bonfil, Robert. Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

    The classic by the leading historian of the Jews in Renaissance and early modern Italy. Deals with the result of the encounter between the Jews and the Christian Renaissance from a completely new perspective. Contains a succinct but very insightful account of the ghettoization of the Jews and its deeper significance. Reprinted from the Italian-language edition of 1991.

  • Ravid, Benjamin. “From Geographical Realia to Historiographical Symbol: The Odyssey of the Word Ghetto.” In Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy. Edited by David Ruderman, 373–385. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

    A first attempt to trace the history of the word “ghetto,” with attention to the fact that residence in a ghetto did not automatically mean a low level of culture: for that depended more on the nature of the environment than on the specific nature of the Jewish quarter.

  • Ravid, Benjamin. “Curfew Time in the Ghetti of Venice.” In Medieval and Renaissance Venice. Edited by Ellen Kittell and Thomas Madden, 237–275. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

    An examination of the curfew provisions in the ghetto of Venice with attention to authorized exceptions and illegal violations, from which it becomes clear that the ghetto was not intended to end all contact between Jews and Christians and indeed could not do so. Reprinted in Benjamin Ravid’s Studies on the Jews of Venice, 1382–1797 (Aldershot, UK: Variorum, 2003).

  • Ravid, Benjamin. “All Ghettos Were Jewish Quarters But Not All Jewish Quarters Were Ghettos.” Jewish Culture and History 10.2–3 (2008): 5–24.

    Up-to-date survey of Jewish quarters. Deals with the Middle Ages before the word “ghetto” was applied to compulsory, segregated, and enclosed Jewish quarters. Also traces the spread of the institution in Counter-Reformation Italy and concludes with a brief survey of the end of the ghettos in the late 18th century and first half of the 19th. Also see The Frankfurt Judengasse: Jewish Life in an Early Modern German City, edited by Fritz Backhaus, Gisela Engel, Robert Liberles, and Margarete Schluter (Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2010).

  • Ruderman, David. “The Cultural Significance of the Ghetto in Jewish History.” In From Ghetto to Emancipation: Historical and Contemporary Reconsiderations of the Jewish Community of Scranton. Edited by David N. Myers and William V. Rowe, 1–16. Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 1997.

    Rejecting the widespread negative assessment of the early modern Italian ghetto as characterized by cultural isolation and stifling isolation, Ruderman proposes the concept of the “open ghetto”: a place where, despite their segregation, Jews could still retain their vital feeling of group solidarity and cultural autonomy while engaging in constant cultural interaction and dialogue with the surrounding Christian world.

  • Ruderman, David. “The Ghetto and Jewish Cultural Formation in Early Modern Europe: Towards a New Interpretation.” In Jewish Literatures and Cultures: Context and Intertext. Edited by Anita Norich and Yaron Z. Eliav, 119–127. Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies, 2008.

    Further develops Ruderman 1997 by adding a very brief survey of some previous historical treatments of the topic, including those of Salo Baron, Cecil Roth, Jacob Katz, and Robert Bonfil. Suggests a somewhat new perspective by elaborating on the cultural significance of the ghetto for Jewish life in the early modern period.

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