Being Jewish in medieval Europe

close up of a book in hebrew

The fervour of the Crusades often saw public anger turn against Jewish people in medieval Europe. There were brutal assaults and even murder. Though the horror experienced by medieval Jewish people would not equal the industrial scale nightmare that we saw in the 20th century.

At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise – let’s look back at the roots of this evil in the medieval period. How did Jewish people manage to survive in an era of superstition?

Jewish people attacked by early Christians

Jesus was Jewish but you’d never have known it from the pens and mouths of early Christians. Those who developed 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 Roman 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.

Medieval Jewish people and the ‘blood libel’ myth

By the 12th and 13th centuries, Christian leaders whipped up scare stories against the Jews. Their position deteriorated through the 13th century to the point where even the king could no longer stand between them and their enemies.

The worst example of what we would now call ‘hate speech’ was the accusation of ‘blood libel’. That is ritual murder of Christian children by medieval Jewish people. The claim was garbage. But it took hold. It was asserted by demagogues 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.

William of Norwich was a child allegedly 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 committing these child murders. Increasingly, Dominican friars took the lead in directing this bile against Jewish communities. In Lisbon, Portugal – at the start of the 16th century – they incited a mob to murder Jewish people by offering them remission from their sins!

Incredible that the blood libel myth was still 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 that occasion, four Spanish Jews were tortured and burnt alive.

Medieval Jewish communities falsely accused of desecrating the host

Medieval Jewish communities in Europe were persecuted and subject to lies like the blood libel myth and desecrating the host

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!

The Disputation of Paris

In the 1230s, a convert from Judaism to Christianity – Nicholas Donin – made a whole string of accusations against his former co-religionists. He told Pope Gregory IX that the Talmud (the source of Jewish law) was filled with blasphemies. He claimed that it described Jesus being boiled in excrement in hell for all eternity. And so the lurid claims went on and on.

This got to the ears of King Louis IX of France (pictured below) – the saint king who would later die on crusade. He was always keen to show his ultra-Catholic credentials and so organised a debate at his court that was more like putting the Talmud and the medieval Jewish community of Paris on trial. Rather predictably, Donin convinced everybody that the Talmud was a wicked document and thousands of copies were burnt in public.

Black Death – guess who gets blamed?

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 medieval 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.

….and then the Spanish Inquisition!

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.

9 thoughts on “Being Jewish in medieval Europe

  1. Interestingly, many of the voices speaking up against the slaughter of Jews were people who believed the second coming would be along any day now, and the Jews should be alive to witness this re-birth of the truth they had denied.

%d bloggers like this: