Antisemitism in the Middle Ages


One feature of this antisemitism was laws which restricted Jews freedom. This painting shows one such law, where Jews were forced to wear specific clothing to identify themselves as Jews. / Wikimedia Commons

The medieval period saw Jews experience intense antisemitism.


Introduction

The roots of antisemitism can be found in ancient history.

Antisemitism existed prior to Christianity, as the work of Manetho from the third century BCE shows.

However, antisemitism increased considerably following the rise of Christianity in Europe. This was partly due to the differences in belief, and partly due to anti-Jewish stories.

According to the Christian Gospels, approximately 2000 years ago there was a Jewish preacher called Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was a Jew. Followers of Jesus believed he was the Messiah and the son of God. Jews did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah or the son of god.

These differences in belief eventually caused the religion of Judaism to split, and those who worshipped Jesus formed the religion Christianity.

Anti-Jewish stories intensified the differences between the two religions. One example of such a story can be found in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.

The Christian Bible states that Jesus was crucified for treason by the Roman Empire. However, throughout medieval history, it was widely believed by some Christians that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

This belief stems from teachings of St. John, who repeatedly used the phrase ‘the Jews’ when describing Christian events, although this was not specifically in reference to the crucifixion of Jesus.

Despite this, the phrase and the accusation, stuck. ‘The Jews’ started to appear in several Christian stories. Eventually this led to Origen writing in the fourth century ‘the Jews…nailed Christ to the cross’. Origen’s words were taken literally, and this story became the common belief for some Christians.

This story, amongst many other factors, was part of a long history of tension between Christianity and Judaism that led to significant antisemitism throughout medieval history.

Medieval Laws

Intermarriage between Christians and Jews was forbidden by Canon Law / Wikimedia Commons

Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe, and various laws were introduced that discriminated against the Jews. These laws limited Jews’ freedom. They stretched into almost every area of Jewish life, from work to clothing.

Jews were not allowed to own land, and therefore could not become farmers. Jews were also banned from joining Christian guilds, and so as more and more craftsmen formed guilds, the choice of work for Jews was dramatically reduced.

Many Jews were traders. This was one of the few professions to handle money. As Europe became more prosperous in the twelfth century, money became an essential key to survival. Christians were banned from moneylending and so Jews often were involved in the banking trade. This ‘choice’ of work added to the stigma and negative stereotypes surrounding Jews.

Anti-Jewish Stories

Many Christians believed that Jews were to be feared, and linked them to the Devil. This negative connection and image was reinforced through literature, plays, arts and more. However, perhaps the most effective way of spreading this message of fear in medieval times was through word of mouth.

A very damaging slander told about Jews was the Blood Libel. This accused Jews of murdering Christian children in order to use their blood in religious ceremonies.

Banishment

A miniature from Grandes Chroniques de France depicting the expulsion of Jews from France in 1182 / Wikimedia Commons

The final result of the medieval antisemitism discussed above was the banishment of Jews from many countries throughout Europe from the late thirteenth century onwards.

In 1290, King Edward I expelled all Jews from England, and was swiftly followed by France in 1306, Switzerland in 1348 and Germany in 1394.

In England, Jews were not permitted to return until 1656. However, many of the other countries and towns temporarily allowed Jews to return, only to expel them again a few years later.

The most common reasons given for these banishments were the need for religious purity, protection of Christian citizens from Jewish money lending, or pressure from non-Jewish citizens who hoped to profit from Jews absence. Frequently, however, no reason was given at all.

The common attitude of officials was summed up by a declaration made by the Holy Roman Emperor Louis VI in 1343, ‘You belong to us, body and belongings, and we can dispose of them and do with you as we please’.


Originally published by The Holocaust Explained, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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