It must be said that being Jewish in the medieval period was challenging – to put it mildly.
The fortunes of Jews at this time varied dramatically but on the whole, things were not good. From the late Roman period, those who had framed the theology of Christianity – the so-called ‘doctors of the church’ – made it quite clear that Jews were going to be held to account for the crucifixion of the Son of God for all time.
What that meant however – was open to interpretation.
Ambrose of Milan and Saint Jerome, both revered by the Catholic church, in the fourth century openly condoned attacks by mobs in the eastern empire on synagogues. When the emperor demanded the reconstruction of these places of worship, they condemned him.
Nevertheless – Jews survived and played a valuable economic role in medieval society. So much so – that by the Norman period, they were protected by the king and could not be molested. At least that was the theory.
But you can’t keep a good prelate down – and by the 12th and 13th centuries, good Christian leaders were whipping up any number of scare stories against the Jews. I think it’s fair to say their position deteriorated through the 13th century to the point where even the king could no longer stand between them and their enemies.
So let’s look at some examples – starting with the ‘blood libel’ of ritual murder. It was circulated among the people that the Jews needed the blood of a Christian child in order to perform their Passover rituals.
This story became quite elaborate claiming that Jews met secretly to decide which city would provide the next innocent victim. There were voices against this nonsense including Bernard of Clairvaux and pope Innocent IV who pointed out in 1247 that the Jews were forbidden by the Torah to use blood in any ritual.
Pope Gregory X wrote in 1272:
And most falsely do these Christians claim that the Jews have secretly and furtively carried away their children and killed them and that the Jews offer sacrifice from the heart and blood of these children.
I’ve blogged previously about the child martyr William of Norwich, claimed to have been killed by the Jews in that city and canonised by the local church. Harold of Gloucester was another – a boy of eight years of age who a contemporary chronicler claimed had “scars of fire, the thorns fixed on his head and liquid wax poured into the eyes and face”.
It should be pointed out that in Iberia – modern Spain and Portugal – not only Jews but their Moorish (Muslim) neighbours were accused of such behaviour. Their accusers were more often than not the growing Dominican order of monks – a leading force in the early Inquisition.
What is incredible is that blood libel continued to be believed in Spain right through to the seventeenth century. Even when the inquisitors were taken to the alleged burial place of a tortured child and nothing was found, they surmised that God had decided that this should be the case and the child had been assumed bodily into heaven! On this occasion, four Spanish Jews were tortured and burnt alive.
Jews may have found blood libel both horrifying and perplexing – but they also had to contend with the accusation of host desecration. In 1215, the pope delivered the doctrine of transubstantiation… the idea that the bread in the Eucharist actually becomes the physical body of Christ.
No sooner had this been promulgated than Jews were accused of stealing hosts. Why? Because it amused them to stab, beat and boil the piece of bread that the ignorant Christians thought could become God. But – according to the accounts of the period – as the Jews performed this terrible act, the host would bleed or even, on occasion, Christ would appear!
Somewhat airbrushed out of medieval history was the emergence of Christian cults around the host where it would be processed through the streets and a knife displayed that – it would be asserted – Jews used to stab at it!
Surely things couldn’t get worse. Oh yes they could – because along came the Black Death between 1348 and 1351. A quarter of Europe’s population died in this massive outbreak of bubonic plague. It was typical in this period to ascribe medical conditions to God’s will. Far easier to understand that than get to grips with the science. Mobs – often led by local clerics – ran amok. It’s believed that about three hundred Jewish communities around Europe were completely wiped out.
The real motive was often a cynical attempt by cancel out debts to Jewish moneylenders and to seize their property. At Strasbourg, the carnage was so complete that there were no Jews in the city until the 18th century. One account says that two thousand Jews were condemned to be burnt in the Jewish cemetery – unless they agreed to be baptized.
By the end of the Middle Ages – things in Spain and Portugal got pretty hideous for the Jews. The two relatively new nations were being forged and having been lands of three faiths – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – the church was most insistent that only one faith should prevail.
The Catholic rulers of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, willingly snuffed out the remnants of Islam and Judaism in their domains. Many Jews fled to Portugal where things seemed more tolerant for a while. But in 1497, king Manuel ordered that all Jewish children must be baptized in the “General Conversion”.
This created a whole new layer of “New Christians” who were still persecuted right up to the nineteenth century. In 1774, the king of Portugal suggested that those Christians of Jewish ancestry should wear special yellow hats. His wily prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal, produced three yellow hats – one for himself, one for the Inquisitor-General and one for the king! The point being made was by then – who knew who had Jewish blood and who did not.