The ill treatment of Jews in medieval Lent

candles burning

Lent and the whole Easter period was never going to be easy for Jews in the Middle Ages. They were characterised as the slayers of Jesus – even though Jesus was Jewish himself of course. And so during the period of Lent – Jewish people were routinely abused as a curious kind of “custom”.

We have to remember this was a time of illiteracy, ignorance and superstition on a scale that’s hard to imagine. That said, my time spent on Twitter in recent years has confirmed my fear that nothing much has changed in the intervening centuries. Idiot opinions based on no evidence are as strong today as they ever were!

But back to Lent and Jews in the Middle Ages. Because according to some texts in the large archive of ancient books, newspapers and documents I’ve accumulated over the years, things could get really grim at that time of year.

In an 1826 almanack bought at a London book fair a couple of years ago, there’s a few pages about a disturbing custom practised in the Middle Ages: the stoning of Jews. It appears that from the sabbath before Palm Sunday to the last hour of the Tuesday before Easter, “the Christians were accustomed to stone and beat the Jews”. Any Jewish person not wishing to be assaulted, just had to pay whatever monies were demanded.

Jews in Lent

This looks suspiciously like extortion under a religious guise. This sort of anti-semitism was pretty rife at the time with Jews seen as the Christ-killers as well as disliked for their role as money-lenders – a role that Christians had more or less forced them into, by excluding them from other professions.

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In 1262, Londoners broke into many Jewish homes and murdered seven hundred people in cold blood. King Henry III handed over their ruined synagogue in Lothbury (a street that still exists) to the friars of the sackcloth. Another synagogue became the church of St Olave in a street called Old Jewry (which you can still see).

So, the treatment of Jews was pretty rough in the Middle Ages. The only respite came when Edward I finally expelled England’s Jews.

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