Medieval anti-Semitism

medieval anti-semitism
A Nuremberg drawing from the late 1400s, depicting the burning of Jews.

Medieval anti-Semitism reached its peak during Middle Ages (c.400-1500). During the medieval period, Jews were scattered across Europe in small populations, ranging in size from a few families to several hundred people. Medieval Jews were religious outsiders in a strongly Christian world.

Local attitudes

Medieval anti-Semitism could be unpredictable and variable, differing from place to place. The attitudes of local kings, lords or clergymen was an important factor in determining how Jews were treated in a particular village, town or region.

In many places, Jews were allowed to remain, to work and conduct business – but they were usually forced to reside separately from Christians, often in unpopular or unsafe locations.

In rural areas, most Jewish families lived on the outskirts of villages or sometimes in their own small separate village. Jews in large cities lived either beyond the city walls or in a ‘Jewish quarter’, usually the least appealing area of a city.

Anti-Jewish laws

Anti-Semitism spiked markedly after the Roman Empire under Constantine accepted Christianity in the early 300s. Laws were passed restricting or removing the Jews from many elements of public life.

These laws varied from place to place and time to time. Jews often were forbidden from holding public office; from employing Christian servants; from doing business; from eating or having sex with Christians. In many regions it was even illegal for Jews to be seen in public during Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter, the commemoration of Christ’s death).

From the 11th century, as European Christians embarked on the Crusades, Jewish communities along the way were used as target practice for the Crusaders. Massacres of Jewish communities occurred from 1096 onward, with entire villages of men, women and children slaughtered.

A chronology of attacks on Jews

Historical evidence records literally thousands of cases where Jews were persecuted or discriminated against during the Middle Ages. Some of the better known examples of the persecution of Jews during this period include:

  • 387: St John Chrysostom writes a series of anti-Semitic homilies, accusing Jews of godlessness, likening them to pagans, claiming that they sacrifice children and informing pious Christians that it is their duty to hate the Jews.
  • 388: A mob in the Italian city of Milan riot and burn the synagogue there, with the support and encouragement of the local bishop.
  • 415: St Cyril, the Christian bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, banishes Jews from the city and distributes their property to other townsfolk.
  • 1012: Henry II, the Holy Roman Emperor, expels Jews from Mainz.
  • 1076: A Catholic synod held in the Spanish city of Girona ruled that Jews must be made to pay taxes to support Christian churches.
  • 1096: Christian warriors en route to the First Crusade begin their journey by massacring more than 10,000 Jews in western Europe, mainly in Germany and France.
  • 1179: Pope Alexander III oversees the Third Lateran Council, which rules that Jews are subordinate to Christians and must not hold any position of authority over them, nor engage in sexual relationships with them.
  • 1182: King Philip of France confiscates all land, money and property owned by Jews and expels them from his lands. He allows them to return 16 years later, though they are required to pay additional dues and taxes.
  • 1190: The Jewish community of York in northern England is massacred.
  • 1215: A papal bull authorised by Innocent II orders all Jews living in Christian countries to wear an embroidered badge or motif, a measure intended to prevent sexual intercourse between Jews and Christians.
  • 1239: Pope Gregory IX orders that all Jewish religious texts be surrendered or confiscated, then publicly burned.
  • 1243: The entire Jewish population of Berlitz, a town near Berlin, is accused of defiling the Host. They are burned alive.
  • 1290: King Edward I of England issues the Edict of Expulsion, which orders that all Jews must leave the country immediately.
  • 1306: The French king also banishes Jews from his country, however they return within a few years. More royal decrees banning Jews from France are passed in 1322 and 1396.
  • 1349: Persecution and massacres of Jews in Switzerland. In Basel, all Jews are rounded up and shipped to a small island, where they are set alight and burned to death.
  • 1478: The formation of the Spanish Inquisition, which begins as a campaign to identify, interrogate and punish ‘secret’ Jews. All Spanish Jews are eventually expelled from the kingdom.
  • 1506: In Portugal, more than 4,000 Jews who had converted to Christianity are murdered, as a result of anti-Semitic preaching by local clergymen.
  • 1543: Religious reformer Martin Luther, the instigator of the Protestant Reformation, pens On the Jews and Their Lies, an anti-Semitic tract accusing the Jews of behaving like “vermin” and encouraging violence against them.

Later Middle Ages

By the 1500s, this violence had begun to ease – though medieval anti-Semitism persisted and Jewish communities across Europe continued to endure persecution and marginalisation.

Jews still served as scapegoats, footing the blame for any problem or adversity, from bad weather to harvest failures. In both religious teachings and popular culture, the presence of Jews was associated with crime, famine, pestilence and simple bad luck.

Jews were often stereotyped as being unclean. A common anti-Semitic image of the late Middle Ages, the Judensau, showed Jews suckling from or having sex with a pig. Passion plays (recreations of the crucifixion of Christ) also depicted Jews in a negative fashion.

In literature and drama, Jews were frequently associated with witchcraft, Satan, Judas Iscariot and red hair (a symbol of dishonesty and treachery).

Economic significance

Despite the social exclusion endured by Jews, many secular rulers tolerated them for economic reasons. Affluent Jewish merchants could be significant figures in the local economy and an important source of capital or loans.

Some Jews became wealthy through money-lending, a business practice outlawed by the Christian church. The Jewish money-lender Aaron of Lincoln, for instance, was probably the richest man in England during the 12th century. Aaron’s wealth was so substantial he even lent large amounts for the construction of Catholic cathedrals and churches.

Local kings and nobles coveted Jewish wealth and often took steps to exploit or extort affluent Jews. Jewish business owners often paid additional taxes or levies.

Jews were sometimes expelled from a particular region but permitted to return, provided they paid a ransom. When Aaron of Lincoln died in 1186, his estate was immediately seized by King Henry II.

A historian’s view:
“There is much evidence that those attacking the Jews were motivated, as in the First Crusade, not only by fear and religious fervour but by greed and envy. There were countless cases of robbery and spoiling. As a contemporary chronicler wrote, the money in the hand of the Jews was also the poison that killed them. Had they been poor, they would not have been burned.”
Walter Laqueur, historian

medieval anti-semitism

1. During the Middle Ages (400s-1500s) Jews were regularly excluded, persecuted, exploited and murdered.

2. This anti-Semitism coincided with the rise and dominance of Christianity, which preached hatred of the Jews.

3. Jews were often banished from regions, subject to restrictive laws or forced to live in remote or unappealing areas.

4. Jews were also scapegoats: they were blamed for disease, crop failures, pandemics or other social disruptions.

5. Wealthy Jews, many of whom were money-lenders, were often exploited by secular rulers, through additional taxes.

Citation information
Title: “Medieval anti-Semitism”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: July 22, 2020
Date accessed: July 19, 2024
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