Past and Present

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Resisting the Anti-Semitic Crusade


Part XXVIII in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Paul B. Sturtevant. You can find the rest of the special series here

The year was 1096, and the drumbeats of war were echoing all throughout the Rhine valley. This wasn’t, on its face, that unusual; small wars among petty landowners were part of the cultural landscape of the high Middle Ages. But this time, it was different. It was different because only a few months before, in November of 1095, Pope Urban II had held a council in the center of France, and given a speech. Everyone’s account of the speech differed; nobody (as far as we know), wrote it down at the time. And afterwards so many different preachers carpeted the countryside—each spreading their version of the Pope’s message—that the Pope’s exact words didn’t matter all that much, even then. But the core message was clear: take up arms, go East, conquer Jerusalem, and all your sins will be forgiven.

The results of the Pope’s speech were immediate, and shocking: thousands of people from all walks of life armed themselves and went East toward Constantinople, and then (those who survived) to the Holy Land. They went seeking salvation, and they were spoiling for a fight. Only centuries later was this given a name: The First Crusade. And the Jews of Germany suddenly had good reason to be very afraid.

The Rhineland Massacres

Medieval manuscript image of two kings about to kill two praying Jews with swords as God and Jesus look on.
Execution of the Faithful. Illustration in “Bible Moralisée”, 1250 (source: Gallica, BNF).

Anti-Jewish violence had sprung up occasionally in Western Europe for the previous three hundred years. But these anti-Jewish attacks were all fairly localized and small-scale (not to downplay the horror of any violence of this kind, of course).

The First Crusade changed that.

The anti-Jewish violence that erupted in 1096 in response to Pope Urban II’s call has been given several names by historians. But largely, they are called “The Rhineland Massacres.” The broad brushstrokes are this: as clergymen travelled from place to place preaching the Crusade, several of them went off-script. Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) preaching the Crusade, they starting preaching violence against the Jews. One of them, a fanatic Cistercian monk named Rudolf, was particularly effective at whipping would-be crusaders into an anti-Semitic frenzy.

And so mobs of crusaders swept over France and Germany travelling from city to city looking to murder Jews. Three particularly large gangs—two led by priests named Folkmar and Gottschalk, and another led by a particularly nasty person named Count Emicho of Leiningen—spread across the country and massacred all the Jews they could find.

This wasn’t part of Urban II’s call. But neither did he condemn the violence against the Jews. And to some degree, you might think that the Pope should have anticipated that this might occur. When calling the Crusade, the Pope issued a “plenary indulgence”—total forgiveness of all sins (probably familiar to fans of the film Dogma)—to those who went to fight:

Whoever for devotion only, not for the acquirement of honor or of wealth, shall proceed to Jerusalem to free the Church of God, to him let that expedition be accounted in lieu of all penance.

Those people who took the Pope at his word had been offered, essentially, a religious clean slate. And some may have taken this as leave to commit any sins they wanted along the way. And more, the Pope had just represented an inherently violent venture against non-Christians as a holy one. So, for some, this gave the structural anti-Semitism and lingering anti-Semitic resentments teeth and a blind eye from none other than the Pope himself, speaking, ostensibly, on God’s behalf.

As a side note, to some degree, this is why “anti-Semitism” is a good word to use here, since the word puts Muslims and Jews in the same hate-filled basket. Not to be glib, but we actually have several accounts of Crusaders’ outlooks roughly being “why should I have to walk thousands of miles to kill God’s enemies when I’ve got plenty of them right here? And I owe these ones money!”

Shifting Focus

A medal given to those designated “Righteous among the Nations.”

Thus far in our series we’ve explored the details of terrible anti-Semitic prejudice, rhetoric, and violence. So, I’m not going to go into yet another description of those horrors. I’m not going to give you a biography of Rudolf or Count Emicho; frankly, they don’t deserve our time. I’m going to tell you about the resistance.

It’s important, in moments of great tragedy, not just to focus on the perpetrators or the victims. In Nazi Germany, it is of course appropriate to talk about the evil of the Nazis and the millions of lives they took. But to leave the story there would do a great disservice to those heroes who resisted—from the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto who fought back against their oppressors, to the non-Jews who opened their homes and, in so doing, risked—and sometimes gave—their lives protecting their Jewish friends, neighbors and fellow people.

The nation of Israel gives a special honorific to those people. They are the “Righteous among the Nations.” So, who were the medieval Righteous Among the Nations?

Finding them isn’t easy. Little is written about some of them—and for a great many of them, nothing is written at all. The Crusader chronicles that cover the German pogroms don’t spend much time on them. And even the chronicles written by the Jewish survivors and their descendants often don’t focus on them, since their core purpose was to preserve the tales of the heroic Jewish martyrs who had died in the onslaught. Neither of them were especially interested in telling the stories of either the Jewish survivors, or the Righteous Among the Nations who stood against the tide.

But they’re there.

Reading a Chronicle against the Grain

Finding these stories as a reader sometimes means reading history “against the grain”—intentionally interpreting an historical text in a way that’s different from what the original writer would have expected.

Literature scholars are very good at this. They’ve been disregarding the intentions of the author at least since French Philosopher Roland Barthes declared the proverbial “Death of the Author” in his essay of that name in 1967. But this is somewhat newer and a bit more fraught for historians.

Reading history against the grain can be fairly dangerous to do if you’re not very, very careful; at an extreme, reading historical texts in such a contrarian manner can give rise to all manner of historical misinterpretations, which can give (and have given) rise to wild conspiracy theories. But if done carefully, sometimes you can reanimate just a few of those people who their contemporaries didn’t particularly care to record, or who they actively tried to erase from history.

For one example, let’s turn to the city of Cologne.

One chronicle of the events of 1096 has this passage:

It was on the fifth of Sivan, the eve of Pentecost, when the news came to Cologne […] The enemy began to slay them from Pentecost until the eighth of Tammuz. Upon learning of the annihilation of the communities, each Jew fled to a Gentile acquaintance and remained there during the two days of the festival. On the morning of the third day, there was a great clamor; and the enemy arose against them and broke into the houses, looting and plundering. They destroyed the synagogue and removed the Torah Scrolls, desecrating them and casting them into the streets to be trodden underfoot. […]

That very day they found a pious man, named Issac, son of Elyakim, who had gone out of his house; the enemy seized him and brought him to their house of idolatry [note: probably a Church]. He spat at them and at the object of their idolatry and he reviled and ridiculed them. And they slew him then and there in sanctification of the Name of God, because he did not desire to flee, out of respect for the festival, and also because he was happy to accept the judgement of Heaven.

They also found a distinguished woman, Mistress Rebecca. The enemy encountered her as she left her house bearing gold and silver vessels concealed in her sleeves, intending to bring them to her husband, Solomon, who had left his house and was now in the home of a Gentile friend. They took the money from her and slew her, and there the righteous woman died in sanctity.

At the same time another woman, Mistress Matrona, and the rest of the community were saved in the homes of acquaintances to which they had fled. They remained there until the bishop went to his villages on the tenth day of Sivan and dispersed them amongst his seven villages, in order to save them.

That was from the Chronicle attributed to Samson son of Simon, written in Hebrew around the year CE 1140. There’s a lot loaded in this passage, even though this covers just a few small episodes.

A little background: mobs of crusaders had already begun attacking Jews in the area. At this point, two cities, Worms and Mainz, had already seen brutal massacres. That’s what the author is referring to when he says “Upon learning of the annihilation of the communities.” The Jews had heard what was going on. Then the attacks came to Cologne, and the mob desecrated the synagogue there.

A large gold earring studded with multiple gemstones, with a large etched blue gemstone in the centre, held by a person wearing white gloves.
The spectacular “Cologne Earring,” excavated from Cologne’s Jewish quarter and likely hidden away by a Jewish person during the pogroms of 1096. Click to enlarge.

But thankfully, unlike in the other cities, in Cologne there are only two deaths reported: that of Issac bar Elyakim and of Mistress Rebecca. This is, presumably, because the attackers couldn’t find the rest of the Jews. The remainder saved themselves by taking refuge within the community of Christian friends and neighbors—people who clearly stood in opposition to the violence. The resistance was real. Allies put their homes and lives on the line stepped up; the Jews and their allies, almost entirely, managed to outwit the mob.

It is clear that this represents longstanding relationships between the Jews and Christians of Cologne. In the accounts we have of other cities, we know that Jews often paid Christians to protect them. There is no indication of that here.

The bishop named in the chronicle—who we know to have been Archbishop Hermann III—had a good enough relationship with the Jews who lived there that he was able to find those hiding in the city, even when the mob could not. And the Jews trusted him with their safety; they agreed to spread out among several of the fortified villages under his control. Clearly, within those villages, there were people who the Archbishop could be confident would be willing, and able, to hide the Jews of Cologne. In short, it shows that anti-Semitism—especially the violent anti-Semitism preached by Rudolf and enacted by Emicho—was far from universal. We have no way of knowing what proportion of people fell to each side, but we do know that there were enough dissenters to the violence to carry out the Archbishop’s plan.

Sadly, the plan didn’t work. The chronicle then goes on to describe how six of the seven villages were attacked by the mob, with many of the Jews hiding there either being killed, forced to convert to Christianity, or martyring themselves as a final act of resistance.

We don’t know exactly how they were found out; the chronicles don’t tell us. Maybe they were ratted out by someone in Cologne. Maybe they were sold out by someone in the villages, or someone in the Bishop’s employ. Maybe the Crusaders just went looking from village to village. I’ll leave that to a novelist’s imagination.

But the faintest of silver linings is that, for some Jews, the plan did work. Unlike in Mainz or Worms, one-seventh did survive. And while the Hebrew chronicle takes great pains to commemorate the lost, it also unintentionally honors their ability to survive, and those among the Christians who helped.

What This Means

We tend to think of people in the past—especially in the medieval past—as being intellectually and culturally monolithic; all believing the same thing, and thinking the same way. When we do, that’s a failure of empathy on our part. Racists and demagogues often try to paint the world in terms of a monolithic “us” versus a monolithic “them”, but no matter the age, there is always complexity, disagreement, and resistance.

Throughout our series, we’ve shown that over the Middle Ages, pervasive and recurring anti-Semitism became knit into much of the fabric European culture—especially in the later Middle Ages. But then, as now, it would be a mistake to assume that every European Christian subscribed to that idea.

For example, at this point in history, the Catholic Church’s hierarchy—which obviously has a very spotty reputation when it comes to anti-Semitism—was actually staunchly against the anti-Jewish violence. There were Archbishops and priests who worked against the Crusading mobs just as there were clergymen who led them. Until the end of the thirteenth century, the Papacy was typically a supporter of the Jewish people (with a few notable exceptions). But at the lower echelons, Church officials often tolerated or encouraged the abuse of Jewish people. It’s complicated.

As such, the Middle Ages should not be regarded as a time of universal, un-challenged anti-Semitism, but as a time of vast intractable disagreement among Europe’s Christians over the Jews living in their midst. This does not mean that anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages was not as bad as scholars have described. As many members of marginalized groups today will attest, it is deeply oppressive to live in a society that is openly debating whether you have a right to exist. What this does mean is that the Middle Ages may have, in some ways, been more like our current era than we wish to believe. Those among us who strive for a better, more just world can look there and find not just villains, but heroes too.

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

The Sainted Toddler Who Sparked a Pogrom


Part XXVII in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Bianca Lopez. You can find the rest of the special series here

On the sixth of July, 1475, Cristoforo di Leonardo journeyed southward from his town of Termeno, in Northern Italy. He was going to the cathedral of Trent, because Cristoforo thought he was going to die, and was seeking help. Cristoforo had gotten into a fight with two of his neighbors. They stabbed him, threw him on the ground, hit him with a chunk of wrought iron, and left him for dead. The doctor had amputated three of his fingers, but the wound never fully recovered.

Cristoforo, like many medieval people in dire circumstances, prayed for help. He prayed to the little martyr Simon of Trent, and made a pilgrimage to Simon’s home town. Once there, Cristoforo bought an enormous candle, as heavy and tall as Cristoforo himself, to be given to the little saint. And as it turns out, Cristoforo did not die; after making his supplication to Simon, he emerged from his bed completely healed. Everyone who saw him proclaimed his sudden recovery a miracle, attributed to the little boy who had been murdered by the Jews.

Let’s rewind a bit. In 1475, in the city of Trent, located in a southern Alpine region in modern-day Italy, the body of a two-year-old Christian boy was allegedly found in the cellar of a local Jewish elder. Within hours, authorities under the command of the city’s bishop-prince, Johannes Hinderbach, arrested twenty-three Jewish men and women. They constituted almost half of the Trentine Jewish community. While the Jewish prisoners awaited sentencing, the little boy who was found dead, known as Simon, almost instantaneously became venerated as a Christian martyr. Trent’s residents became convinced that their Jewish neighbors killed Simon and used his blood to make Passover matzot—what we now call the “blood libel”. In the end, eight of those convicted were executed by hanging, despite a written warning from Pope Sixtus IV himself to Bishop Hinderbach ordering him to cease all legal proceedings against the city’s Jewish community. And it only got worse from there.

The Anti-Semitic Template

To twenty-first-century observers, this story seems to be a tragic example of typical medieval anti-Semitism. However, accusations of ritual murder directed towards Europe’s Jews did not appear out of nowhere. Preachers and princes fanned the fire of anti-Semitism in the later Middle Ages, causing relatively peaceful relationships between Christians and Jews to turn deadly. By doing so, Christian religious and civic leaders created a template for hatred Jews and encouraged ordinary people to participate in the spread of hate. This template belonged to a very deliberate project to turn people against minorities. Cultural historians have revealed the motifs of the ritual murder accusation narrative. Indeed, the narrative appears again and again across Europe at the end of the fifteenth century, with only slight variations. But how could a narrative inspire Christians to accuse their neighbors of murder? What convinced the Christians of Trent that Simon died as a holy martyr—not just the victim of an unfortunate accident, whose body was planted in the cellar of a Jewish resident?

The answers to these questions can be found in the ways that Christianity was practiced at the end of the European Middle Ages. Between 1300 and 1500, cities became increasingly socially fragmented and chaotic places. This had devastating consequences for European Jews. The bubonic plague continued to kill urban dwellers after 1348, and warfare and rebellion became the norm. Economic competition between those who had resources and those who did not turned people against each other. Through it all, many city mayors and magistrates forced Jewish communities into a serf-like role; Jewish householders were forced to pay exorbitant taxes to fund wars and to make up for local economic losses accrued through the labor force dying off from plague or war.

Not only that, but Jews also had financial obligations to the Holy Roman Emperors and the popes, who promised to “protect” Jewish communities from local persecution. Jews were forced into undesirable occupations that Christians either could or would not perform, such as money lending. This, as we explored in a previous article, naturally led to accusations of usury and violence.

In northern Italy and southern Germany, Christians regularly turned on their Jewish neighbors. Many of these incidents can be traced to the people being whipped into a frenzy by traveling preachers. As a result, over this time, Christian practices such as celebration of feast days, devotions to saints, pilgrimages, and fulfillment of sacraments like baptism and confession began to incorporate anti-Jewish elements. In certain locales, anti-Judaism even came to define what it meant to be Christian.

An Anti-Jewish Saint

Trent’s Christian residents directed an overwhelming amount of religious devotion towards Simon because they were convinced that he had been ritually murdered by Jews. After his death, supporters of the little martyr treated him as a saint, a soul that had ascended immediately to heaven after death. Local church officials accommodated, and even encouraged, the enthusiastic supporters that greeted those who venerated him (which historians typically call a “cult”). When the city’s priests prepared Simon’s body for the grave, they dressed the deceased in ornate funerary clothes and surrounded his body with sweet-smelling herbs. Most importantly, they made it accessible for city dwellers to visit and pray over in the local cathedral. As a result, the cathedral where his body was placed quickly became a site of local pilgrimage. In the months following his death, church notaries recorded hundreds of miracles—out of which over 200 survive—giving testimony to the enthusiasm for Simon’s worship that spread through Trent, and beyond to its mountainous hinterland.

However, Simon did not appeal to all local Christians in equal numbers. According to the miracle accounts, devotees of Simon tended to be male and Italian-speaking, even though Trent was primarily German-speaking. For instance, out of the first thirty-eight miracles recorded, Italian men from as far away as southern Italy reported the first twenty-eight. So for news of Simon’s saintly power to have that reach, it must have travelled through male networks: merchant affiliations and lay religious brotherhoods. This is the epidemiology of anti-Jewish hatred.

Pilgrimage and Religious Enthusiasm

Many of the men—and the fewer women—who travelled to Trent did so to try to get relief from a myriad of physical maladies. Some had been injured and feared imminent death, like Cristoforo at the beginning of this article. Others were paralyzed and hoped to miraculously walk. Some were blind. Some had broken bones. All of them came seeking help from a boy who had allegedly been murdered by the Jews.

Spontaneous healing attributed to a saint’s intercession was common in late-medieval Europe. Often a sick person’s last recourse was a prayer and some sort of material offering to a beloved, and usually long-dead, patron saint of one’s family or town. If the supplicant were healed, naturally, it would then be conserved a miracle attributed to the saint. This is a sort of a holy quid pro quo—pilgrims would give saints, like Simon of Trent, a gift in the hopes that those saints would intercede on the pilgrims’ behalf.  If a pilgrim was healed, that only helped further cement a saint’s reputation.

In one example, Margherita, a woman from a town near Verona, travelled to Trent by foot in the hopes that Simon would heal her hernia. Fighting through immense physical pain, she made the overnight journey northward to the Alps and slept at Trent cathedral. One morning she awoke and her hernia was gone. She left her crutches behind as a sign of thanks, and returned home.

Interactions with the Simon even took place unconsciously, while the supplicant was deep in prayer or asleep. One military doctor from southern Italy came to Trent suffering from immense pain. He described the miraculous intervention:

“Sleeping, [the doctor] saw in a dream a boy that touched him on the right side and removed his pain and waking he found that he was cured. Thanking the martyr, he made his way to Trent…” [My translation. Unedited sources, state archives, Trent.]

Such accounts were repeated again and again. Bishop Hinderbach’s officials carefully recorded every word.

Andreas Caranti, Martirio del Beato Simonino, Trent, ca. 1475. Click to enlarge.

Intercessory healing was not the only heavenly quid pro quo—and so pilgrimages and saints became big business in the Middle Ages. Pilgrims frequently would give a saint’s church expensive candles, oils, food, or money. By giving a gift, people felt they were entering into a relationship with a saint—one which, of course, they believed to be two-sided. In turn, the saint was believed to listen to prayers and requests and grant them. By the late Middle Ages, the church, especially in urban areas, was heavily bound up in the “saint relationship” economy.

Every pilgrim who came to the cathedral in Trent left something in thanks. Most gifts were inexpensive. But some of Simon’s patrons orchestrated grander gestures, such as public works of art and altarpieces for churches. One example, a monumental stone carving was commissioned depicting Simon’s supposed martyrdom; it was sculpted by Andreas Caranti and placed in the middle of the city in Piazza Salvadori, on a crowded residential street, where it hangs today. The carving dates to 1476, while the Jews of Trent still sat in jail awaiting their fate a year after the boy’s death. The carving depicts the story of the moment of Simon’s death. Obviously, this is not how it actually happened—the depiction is clearly meant to draw a link between Simon’s death and the old anti-Semitic chestnut that the Jews killed Christ.

The Tinderbox Ignites

Accusations against Jews of ritually murdering Christians also occurred in other parts of the Alps; these were often linked to the events in Trent. For example, under torture, a Jewish painter named Israel broke down and “confessed” to Trent’s mayor that that Jews from Regensburg, Bavaria, also used blood from Christian boys to make matzoh. Upon hearing this, Bishop Hinderbach wrote to the Bishop of Regensburg, who promptly rounded up the Jewish community of that city. The men and women of the Jewish community of Regensburg were tortured and executed in 1476.

The accusation in Regensburg had extra force since not only were ordinary Christians convinced

Giovanni Pietro da Cemmo, San Simonino, Brescia, ca. 1475. Click to enlarge.

of supposed Jewish evil (as happened in Trent), it was actively promoted by the religious and imperial authorities of that city. The Christians of Regensburg embraced the anti-Semitic narrative as part of their local devotions. Spontaneous pilgrimages to the cathedral occurred; word spread to nearby valleys. Votive gifts were given to the cathedral, and paintings of the—completely fictional—little Christian martyrs of Regensburg were given as tokens of devotion and to incur favor from these new saints.

And then another domino fell: the Jews of Regensburg “confessed” under torture that the Jews of Passau, another Bavarian town, stole the host from the city’s cathedral, desecrated it for their amusement, and plotted to kill Christian boys. The story metastasized, and accusations across the Alps led to the persecution of one urban Jewish community after another, all within a twenty-year time frame.

Resisting the Spread of Hate

But not all cities in the region were convinced by the ritual murder narrative, or even by the story of Simon of Trent. Christian Venetians, for example, did not venerate Simon; anti-Judiasm in general does not seem to have infected their local Christianity. The Doge of Venice condemned Simon’s cult and forbade any resident to construct a shrine to him within the city, or in any of Venice’s tributary towns. In the city of Rovereto, the doge’s officials outlawed devotions to Simon with the following decree:

“Under the protection of the most illustrious lordship of the doge of Venice, where justice was and would always be dispensed, where innocent people are not killed, where Christians do not plunder Jews, as it was in Trent.” [translation by historian Ronnie Po-chia Hsia]

Venetian ducal leadership successfully quelled the cult’s spread and prohibited the institutionalization of anti-Jewish saints. In so doing, they protected their local Jewish communities. The Jews of Venice remained under the protection of the doge while those to the north faced the torture chamber and the hangman’s noose.

In the end, what warped the minds of late medieval Christians to the point where ordinary Jewish people became a monolithic enemy of Christ? Some of it can be attributed to the distrust of others that came after the onslaught of plagues, fears about the end of the world fueled by itinerant preachers, and increased population density in central European cities. Yet, the rise of the ritual murder narrative, which began as a rumor and developed into a parable used by preachers, ended up as a legally-binding accusation. The accusation, in its final form, had enormous influence on Christian devotional practice, which made the narrative so compelling to ordinary people. And it linked neatly with the powerful economic interests of the Church by establishing lucrative local saints.

Trent’s Jews, a minority group that practiced a different faith, but who celebrated marriages and funerals with their Christian neighbors were transformed into an abstract evil presence poisoning European cities. In this case, the wheels of “progress” did not save Trent’s Jews. In the age of the Renaissance, Christian rulers and their subjects targeted minorities more than in earlier medieval centuries. Acting on false righteousness, the Christian majority spread hate and justified it through religious means, destroying lives and creating a system that perpetuated a cycle of violence for the next hundred years.

Epilogue: Rejecting the Project of Hate

Ordinary Christians in Trent did not initially hate their Jewish neighbors. That result only came after many years of anti-Jewish preaching and political machinations on the part of the Bishop of Trent and his advisers. When the authorities found little Simon stabbed to death in a Jewish man’s cellar, all of the groundwork had already been laid to immediately accuse the Jews of ritual murder.

We can learn something from this horrifying episode. We need to better recognize the signs of a template that might turn us against each other. Persecutions and pogroms do not come out of nowhere: politicians, religious leaders, and other hate-peddling zealots set the stage for persecutory violence through propaganda and cultural dogwhistles. Unlike Trent’s Christians, we can say no to those who might provoke animosities by refusing to accept the project of hate. We must.

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Game of ThronesRace, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Game of Thrones’ Racism Problem


Part XXVI in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Helen Young. You can find the rest of the special series here

This promotional image of the ensemble cast of the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones features only one actor of color: Jason Momoa who played Khal Drogo.
This promotional image of the ensemble cast of the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones features only one actor of color: Jason Momoa who played Khal Drogo.

Game of Thrones doesn’t just have a “diversity problem,” it has a racism problem. The casting and the lack of well-developed characters of colour that attract most critical attention are the visible tip of the iceberg of racism that lies under the surface of the show. That iceberg doesn’t just reflect the race problems of modern-day America, it reflects white privilege and a racist Eurocentric way of thinking about the world that goes back to the Middle Ages.

The tip of the racism-berg is important, and it’s a good place to start. Game of Thrones doesn’t even pass what Manohla Dargis called the “DuVernay test” (modelled on the Bechdel test). The Bechdel test offers a simple way to gauge whether women are represented as full and complete characters; the DuVernay test (named after Selma director Ava DuVernay) does the same for characters from racial minorities.

Although they didn’t call it “the DuVernay test,” Nadia and Leila Latif outlined what such a test might look like in an article for The Guardian during the #OscarsSoWhite controversy:

Are there two named characters of colour? Do they have dialogue? Are they not romantically involved with one another? Do they have any dialogue that isn’t comforting or supporting a white character? Is one of them definitely not magic?

Missandei and Grey Worm, the only two remaining significant characters of color in Game of Thrones. They are also in (something of a) relationship, and the vast majority of their dialogue is about Daenerys.
Missandei and Grey Worm, two remaining significant characters of color in Game of Thrones. They are also in (something of a) relationship, and the vast majority of their dialogue is about Daenerys.

After six seasons, Game of Thrones has yet to pass. Missandei and Grey Worm, the only remaining notable characters of color (who were called “really deep characters” by casting director Nina Gold recently), are not “deep” enough to cause the series to cross the basic threshold that the Latifs offered. And change does not seem to be coming; they didn’t have so much as a line between them in the first episode of season 7.

Grey Worm, Missandei—and before them Khal Drogo—are some of the most developed characters of colour in the show. But they exist as bit-players in the story of Daenerys Targaryen, the (possibly) last member of a family that Nina Gold, the Game of Thrones casting director, described as “in the books [they are] these white, white people.”

Daenerys’ travels in Essos are the main vehicle for characters of colour to be included in either the show or the books (the Dornish story arc is the other, and it has its own problems). The problem is that her narrative is essentially a “white saviour” plot, a common trope where a white outsider saves a community of colour from some sort of terrible plight, gaining prestige, power, and self-awareness in the process; think the movies Lawrence of Arabia, Dances with Wolves, and Avatar.

Although Daenerys’ problems governing in Slavers’ bay have been taken as a subversion of the white saviour plot, by the end of season six she had established at least a gesture towards resolution and sailed for Westeros with her dragons and army. It’s here that the structural racism—the part of the ice-berg that’s under water—comes in. Everything that Daenerys has done in Essos is in the service of her goal: claiming the throne in Westeros. The people of color of Essos become her army—a tool to be used in achieving her ends.

A medieval illumination in a manuscript of Guy of Warwick, featuring two armies with knights at their head, facing off.
Guy of Warwick. Illumination in BL Royal MS 15 E v.

The white saviour plot device goes back to at least the crusading romances which emerged in the late twelfth-century. In just one of them, the legendary English knight Guy of Warwick (or Gui de Warewic as he was called in the original Anglo-Norman poem) saved the Christian kingdom of Constantinople from a Saracen army (the real crusaders sacked it).

This is where some white savior narratives might end. But Guy’s story goes on, just like Daenerys’ does once she’s freed the people of Slavers Bay. Guy defeats a dragon and a giant, gaining power in the Middle East before returning home to England to save the nation from invaders from the north (Vikings) and found a dynasty. He begins life as an archetypal ‘squire of low degree,’ unable to win his lady or have any real power in England, but gains both through his adventures overseas.

Is this sounding familiar? Daenerys hasn’t actually saved Westeros from the white walkers (yet), but in the latest episode we found out that she’s literally sitting on top of a mountain of dragon-glass, the only weapon we know of that works against them. Her attention, like Guy’s in the medieval romance, was always focused on “home.” Everything else that happened, and everyone else they encountered on the way, is a tool for getting back there and accumulating power.

I’m not suggesting that Daenerys is deliberately modelled on Guy of Warwick or any other specific medieval figure fictional or historical. The point is that western culture has seen “Other” places and people as a source of power to be used for its own ends for centuries—in the case of Guy, going on a millennium. That perspective is what underpinned European colonisation and imperialism for centuries, with devastating effects that are still ongoing around the globe.

The idea that Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin’s novels depict “the real Middle Ages” is often used to try to deflect criticism for the lack of racial diversity (and high levels of violence, especially against women). But as we have been exploring throughout this series, the idea that the “real Middle Ages” was an all-white affair has more to do with modern fantasies about racial purity than it does with historical reality. If we’re going to look to the Middle Ages to explain race relations in Game of Thrones, it’s medieval literature not medieval history that we should read.

Game of Thrones and Martin’s novels aren’t aberrations, they reflect a way of thinking about the world that centres on Europe and Europeans and sees Others as either tools to serve the needs of a white person and their power, or irrelevant. It’s a way of thinking that is at least as old as the Middle Ages. Game of Thrones has racism problems because the world has racism problems.

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

“Anti-Semitism” Before “Semites”: The Risks and Rewards of Anachronism

Or. 1404

Part XXV in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Matthew Chalmers. You can find the rest of the special series here

“It’s anti-Judaism!” they barked. “There is no “anti-Semitism” until 1879.” The seminar at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies in Philadelphia had taken a gladiatorial turn. The cause? A terminological concern—something fairly common among Jewish Studies specialists. The critic’s objection? An offhand reference by the speaker to “anti-Semitism” in the sixteenth century.

True enough, prior to its emergence in late nineteenth-century Germany, no term with the root “Antisemit-” existed in common use (this is a complicated topic, so for more see chapter 2 of the book Rethinking European Jewish History). Even the term “semites” only emerges in the eighteenth century. “Semites” were defined (according to the best linguistic science of the time) by grouping together those who spoke languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic—as opposed to those languages called “Indo-European” (or sometimes, even more problematically, those with cultures designated as “Aryan”).

Many therefore argue that talking about “anti-Semitism” in the Middle Ages is anachronistic. So, what is it doing in a series dealing with medieval Jews and Jewishness? How helpful is it to talk of “anti-Semitism” before, as far as we know, anyone discriminated against Jews as semites—or even knew what a “semite” was? And how can thinking about that question let us think more deeply about the larger issues this series has concerned itself with—that is, race, racism, and the Middle Ages?

“There’s No ‘anti-Semitism’ Before 1879”

The issue of Allegemeine Leitung des Judenthums in which the first known usage of antisemitismus appears (2 Sep. 1879). Click to enlarge.

There are two main schools of thought about the term “anti-Semitism.” Those in the first camp tie “anti-Semitism” to its linguistic occurrences—namely, when ordinary people used the words. They (correctly) note that the neologism “anti-Semitism” emerges onto the German literary scene around the 1870s and 1880s. To my knowledge, the first recorded use is in the Jewish newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums (2 Sep. 1879, p.564), which deployed it to criticize friends of a certain Wilhelm Marr, who planned to produce an “anti-Semitic weekly.”

Some, moreover, argue that while anti-Judaism has a long history, it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that racism—and hence “anti-Semitism”—became a primary principle of social organization. This, they suggest, was catalysed by internal European nationalism and the so-called scramble for Africa. For example, historian David Engel writes:

…no necessary relation among particular instances of violence, hostile depiction, agitation, discrimination, and private unfriendly feeling can be assumed. Indeed, none has ever been demonstrated. Historians who, by treating some or all instances as part of a general ‘history of antisemitism’ and theorizing about how the subject of that ostensible history should be defined, have nevertheless made such an assumption have done so on the basis not of empirical observation but of a socio-semantic convention created in the nineteenth century and sustained throughout the twentieth for communal and political ends, not scholarly ones.

In other words, as Engel argues, mashing together instances of anti-Jewish behaviour into “anti-Semitism” is misleading. It fails to reflect the situation on the ground in terms that those involved would have recognized. Thus, it forces often very different events into an artificially connected series, which inflates—and maybe even distorts—the significance of such events. The category of “anti-Semitism” ends up driving the history, not the other way around.

These scholars also suggest that it makes little sense to import a chronologically foreign term, “Semitic,” into any time or space in which its partner term, “Aryan,” was not used. This pair resonated in a specific political context. “Anti-Semitism” as a term became meaningful in debates about the assimilation and emancipation of Jewish communities throughout the developing democracies of nineteenth-century European nations—especially Germany. How, therefore, could the word have comparable meaning prior to those political and social settings which give it its documented, traceable historical content?

From anti-Judaism to “anti-Semitism” in the Middle Ages

Frontispiece of 1596 republication of Martin Luther’s Vom Schem Hamphoras (1543), depicting the Judensau on the façade of the Wittenberg Stadtkirche.

Other scholars, in the second camp, trace the origins of anti-Semitic behaviour to the Middle Ages. Some scholars even trace the origins of anti-Semitism back to ancient Greece and Rome. That said, in general, specialists have been wary to extrapolate “Jewish” as a stable religious identity back before the collation and editing of rabbinic literature; the Mishnah (c.200CE) and the Talmud (c.600CE). After all, many of the characteristic practices of Jews that their opponents targeted (such as synagogue liturgy, festival observance, and halakha) rely on this literature and its interpretation.

Many scholars therefore follow a timeline similar to the one laid out in the 1960s and 1970s by historian Leon Poliakov in his monumental four-volume History of Anti-Semitism and explored by historian of Judaism Gavin Langmuir over the course of his thirty year career. This timeline argues that “anti-Semitism” kicked into high gear in the twelfth century, riding the wave of anti-Jewish violence in the wake of the First Crusade (1095-99). The medieval transformation of anti-Jewish imagery into a “staple” of European thinking vis-à-vis Jews then, as Professor Robert Chazan has talked about at length, results in modern “anti-Semitism.”

This transformation goes hand in hand with various arguments that the eleventh to thirteenth centuries saw the emergence of what R.I. Moore called a “persecuting society.” That “persecuting society” organized itself by grouping together those perceived as deviant (heretics, Jews, lepers) under a shared set of idioms for exclusion. It also more and more consistently portrayed the demonic in feminine form. It increasingly contrasted its own Christian identity to an imagined enemy of Christendom that sometimes took the form of a Jew and sometimes that of a Muslim.

By the convergence of these factors, Jews came to feature heavily in European Christian imaginings, both about contemporary Christendom and its future decline and fall. One of the most fascinating stories which the period produced is that of the ferocious Jewish lost tribes, becoming in Germany the “red Jews.” This race of monstrous destroyers would, it was feared, burst from behind the mountains of the far east and crash down onto Christian Europe. The Book of John Mandeville from the middle of the fourteenth century provides the Sparknotes version:

Men say that they will issue forth in the time of Antichrist, and that they will carry out great slaughter of Christian people. And for this reason, all the Jews that dwell in all lands always learn to speak Hebrew, in the hope that, when those of the Caspian mountains issue forth, the other Jews will know how to speak with them, and will conduct them into Christian lands, to destroy Christian people.

Propaganda slide c.1936 entitled “Throughout history, the nations defended themselves against Jewish usury,” reproducing three medieval depictions of Jewish economic activity.” This is how the medieval is pulled into a durable trend of anti-Semitic thought.

Such a story departed from the Christian scriptures and from the history of scholastic exegesis, the interpretation of the Bible as taught in universities like Paris, Bologna, or Oxford. Rather, it constituted a durable “extra-Biblical system,” combining three sets of old stories into a fresh anti-Jewish cocktail. First, old stories around Alexander the Great, in the traditions of the Alexander Romance, told of how the conqueror had imprisoned monstrous races behind a massive mountain chain in the east. This then merged with legends of the ten tribes of Israel lost after the conquest of the northern Kingdom by the Assyrians in 722BCE. Third, the biblical motif of Gog and Magog, the destroyers at the end of time, was added to the mix, tinged with viciously anti-Jewish rumors about ritual murder and child sacrifice.

Faced with such a sophisticated set of interlocking hostile attitudes and consequent pogroms, scholars from this camp have argued that such narratives are symptoms of a systemic fear of Jewishness: monstrous bodies, social threat, wielded as a weapon against the European Christian. This looks rather like an equation of blood, body, ethnicity, and religion. Doesn’t it thus make sense to include such systematic prejudice along with the “anti-Semitism” of later periods?

Medieval “anti-Semitism”: A Useful Tool?

The key point turns, in part, on whether “anti-Semitism” is more appropriately thought of as a linguistic term—as the first academic camp holds—or a concept—as the second does. This academic debate is ongoing; there’s no chance of us resolving it here. Instead, steering away from the debate for a moment, what are the stakes of approaching pre-modern Jews with “anti-Semitism” in mind? Is it helpful to do so? What are the problems inherent in doing so?

On the one hand, there are some benefits to using “anti-Semitism” to refer to medieval anti-Judaism. Extending “anti-Semitism” back to the Middle Ages helps short-circuit arguments that modern anti-Semitism emerges without any causal or ideological precedent. It shows, in other words, anti-Semitism’s history.

Doing so also helps avoid overly rigid divisions between religious anti-Judaism and racial anti-Semitism. This type of division relies too much on separating the pre-modern from the modern, or the religious from the political, or the sociological from the psychological. People in the past, and the sources they left behind, do not chop these things up in the same way as we do—we should be careful in assuming they did. There was nothing inevitable about modern “anti-Semitism.” It resulted from specific, contingent ways of thinking, behaving, and fearing. And nor can it be bundled away as reliant on the religious past, or outdated racial thinking. It is a much more pervasive ideology; it conflates race and religion, and draws on both.

Moreover, “anti-Semitism” is admittedly an anachronistic term. But deploying tactical anachronism, as professor of Medieval Literature Kathy Lavezzo points out, can help us understand what type of ideas we are dealing with. In this case, it helps signal that the history of Jews (and their identities) relies in equal measure on historical sources, their present-day relevance, and our own habits of language and conceptualization. In other words, it isn’t just about what really happened. Our histories of Jewishness work best when they account for the effects of Christian anti-Judaism If they don’t, then they underestimate the effects of the past on our present ways of thinking about history.

Paying attention to this is particularly important when it comes to Jewishness. As Jewish Studies scholar Cynthia Baker has recently argued in her book Jew, to talk more generally about identity in America or Europe uses a vocabulary of difference reliant on past interactions with Jewishness. Professor of Religious Studies Annette Yoshiko Reed teases out the ramifications in a recent Marginalia forum addressing Baker’s book:

Jewishness functions for Christianness perhaps akin to what Frank B. Wilderson III notes of blackness with respect to “the racial labor that Whiteness depends on for its unracialized ‘normality’”: it is the particularity without which a claim to universality cannot be articulated.

In other words, whiteness—and white supremacy—can behave as it does because it has learned to point away from itself, and instead point at black people as particular, different, as things worth pointing at. Without this act, whiteness could not function as a universal default; it might come to be seen itself as a thing worth pointing at.

In the same way, Reed suggests, it matters that Christians could point at Jews. Without that act of pointing, Christianity might never have become capable of being the assumed default position of many Europeans and Americans. This all implies that past interactions with Jewishness lurk semi-submerged under many of our assumptions about the European Christian past—and our own identities in the present.

So, the question is not just whether such concepts and the terms relating to them are accurate. The issue at stake runs deeper than utility. Rather, how and to what degree, if used carelessly, do terms like “anti-Semitism,” “Jewishness” or “whiteness” have the power to quietly rewrite our histories? How much can these words veil, rather than reveal, the details? And how much do we care?

Drawing attention to the negative treatment of Jews in European history using a term that jars us, that stands out as anachronistic (i.e. “anti-Semitism”), rather than a more general term (i.e. “anti-Judaism”) can, perhaps, help train us to continually question which words we use, and consider how anachronistic they may or may not be. Such attention also helps us take a long hard look at what, therefore, we want to get out of the past.

Medieval “anti-Semitism”: Obscuring the Past?

Lucas Cranach’s woodcut for the 1534 Luther Bible of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, with the foremost horseman outfitted as an Ottoman Turk.

On the other hand, interpreting all anti-Jewish activities as signs of “anti-Semitism” has its dangers. We have developed a robust rule-of-thumb for what “anti-Semitism” means: discrimination against Jews as a whole group. But stretching this “anti-Semitism” back into the Middle Ages risks implying that the story of those later classified as “semites” is a story only about Jews. This spurs us on to scrutinize the darker parts of the European Christian past—not a bad thing in itself. But narrowing our view leaves out another piece of the puzzle: it threatens to obscure Islam from discussion, when European Christian identity formation cannot be understood without examining the ways that both Jews and Muslims were treated and imagined. As Edward Said writes, Arab and Jew were inseparable in constructing the category of “semitic”:

the transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target was made smoothly, since the figure was essentially the same.

Often, as Dorothy Kim (and others) argue, Muslims were even fundamentally connected with Jews in fraught relationships with medieval Christians. In his Dialogue of Peter and Moses, the twelfth-century Jewish convert Petrus Alphonsi inserted a heretical Jew into the backstory of the prophet Muhammad. The dress code “recommendations” in Canon 68 of the Fourth Lateran Council (another large church council, this time in 1215) targeted both Jews and Saracens. It notes that they could blend and become, to Christians, threateningly indistinguishable both from one another and from Christians themselves—even mistakenly resulting in prohibited sex:

In some provinces a difference in dress distinguishes the Jews or Saracens from the Christians, but in certain others such a confusion has grown up that they cannot be distinguished by any difference. Thus it happens at times that through error Christians have relations with the women of Jews or Saracens, and Jews and Saracens with Christian women. Therefore, that they may not, under pretext of error of this sort, excuse themselves in the future for the excesses of such prohibited intercourse, we decree that such Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress.

Jews identified with a yellow badge are burned at the stake, in the Bildchronik of Diebold Schilling (1515).

Furthermore, detaching “anti-Semitism” from its modern race-scientific core and its specific Euro-American history risks reintroducing an “eternal Jewish victim,” a character that slips out of our historical control. Anti-Semitic ideology often relies—like other modes of racial thought—on a hyper-realized Jew, whose characteristics are frozen in time. By losing the modern core of the ideology, we risk letting Jews become a stable constant around which history changes, and thus permitting this ideology in the back door.

In a review essay of three recent monographs on early modern Jewishness and race, scholar of religion Gil Anidjar makes a similar point. By stretching race—and racial “anti-Semitism”—back in time:

…the seat of progress, the center of this newfound and militant search for racism everywhere, is thereby washed clean of one of its most striking specificities: “the formation of a scientifically buttressed system of racial hierarchy,” the invention of a juridical and scientific mode of government which by way of military and bureaucratic (and scholarly)  measures, transformed the populations of the world into mere instances of a narrow series of political categories: race or religion, caste or class, culture or gender.

Anidjar here reminds us that racism and thus “anti-Semitism” have their own concrete historical past. “Anti-Semitism” depended for its meaning on specific scientific and academic developments. Stripping away that concrete history implies that there is something about Jews in and of themselves, in any place and at any time, that solicits hatred. It freezes a fixed object, Judaism, as if what is important about Judaism when discussing “anti-Semitism” is that Christians victimize Jews—rather than giving any complex agency to Jews in history—and as if Judaism has been the same type of thing for over a thousand years. As Albert Lindemann writes, this can turn the Jew into a universalizable moral fable, turning both Jews and their antagonists into one-dimensional moral tales resistant to the more cautious tools of the historian—and even erasing any specific reference to their Jewishness:

Violent episodes against Jews burst forth like natural calamities or acts of God, incomprehensible disasters, having nothing to do with Jewish actions or developments within the Jewish world but only with the corrupt characters or societies of the enemies of the Jews. Even Jewish victims themselves in these accounts are implicitly denied their full humanity and often appear one-dimensional, passive and blameless, or heroic in a way that lacks a sense of human frailty and corruptibility under stress. Rather than tragedies, with often confused, inscrutable mixtures of motivations, conflicts between Jew and non-Jew emerge as simple stories of good and evil, innocence and guilt, powerless and powerful, heroes and villains.

To Think with “anti-Semitism”—or Not

Cover of the 1937 publication of “Der ewige Jude [The Eternal Jew],” advertising a travelling anti-Semitic exhibition. Note both the whip—for bourgeois oppression—and the hammer and sickle—for communism.
So, on the one hand, it can be unhelpful to think in terms of medieval “anti-Semitism.” An “anti-Semitic” Middle Ages massages the medieval past into the shape—and limits—of our present concerns. An “anti-Semitic” Middle Ages dangerously risks ironing the Islam out of “anti-Semitism.”  And an “anti-Semitic” Middle Ages risks letting modernity—and its specific racial and scientific attack on Jewishness— off the hook by tracing genuine “anti-Semitism” into times and places before the consequences of modernity were felt. As the infamous Nazi image of “Der ewige Jude” demonstrates, much of the imagery of anti-Semitism relies on collapsing anti-Jewishness into other forms of political anxiety at which we tend to look less askance, such as fear of communism or capitalist conspiracy.

On the other hand, thinking about the Middle Ages through the lens of “anti-Semitism” can be a good thing. Scrutinizing how the term “anti-Semitic” strays back in time similarly provides an opportunity to light up a different path through the mazes of the past. By making the process of concept-formation visible, we see more clearly what affects our own assumptions—and the behaviours helpful to us in making sure we write our histories, rather than letting our inherited assumptions speak for us. And it acts as an easily recognizable shorthand, a hook on which our thoughts can wriggle around.

In short, whether we want to use “anti-Semitism” or not, thinking about what is at stake in our choices can concentrate our attention on what we want to get out of the past. We—all of us spending time with the past, not just professional historians—remind ourselves of a somewhat awkward fact: our main historical challenges often come not from anachronism, which we are often rather good at spotting, but from taking for granted that we know exactly what’s at stake in the concepts and questions with which we approach history. Paying attention, instead, to how concepts like “anti-Semitism” distort or describe the past helps equip us to sensibly and sensitively negotiate our shared and contested pasts—especially on topics as fraught and urgent as “anti-Semitism” and race.

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

“Bad Hombres”: How to Hate Someone You’ve Never Met


Part XXIV in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Richard Cole.

You can find the rest of the special series hereThis article is split into two parts; you can find the first half, “The Importance of Being Absent”, here.

Imaginary Enemies, Then and Now

One way to understand the medieval Scandinavian interest in stories about Jews, and how a total lack of Jewish immigration might have shaped that interest, is to turn to similar situations from other times and places. Medieval Scandinavia had no Jews. Yet its art and literature display every indication that Christians were very attracted to and emotionally affected by anti-Semitic images.

This might sound a little strange, but as an Englishman, I can’t help but think about the town of Clacton-on-sea.

The sun sets over Clacton-on-Sea. Photo:
A sleepy street in Clacton-on- Sea, United Kingdom. Image courtesy of Robert Edwards.

In 2015 Clacton-on-Sea was one of the economically challenged towns in Britain where there was phenomenal support for right-wing (arguably even far-right) populism. Different aspects of the right-wing worldview appeal to different people. Some may appreciate its economic arguments and dislike its racist obsessions. Others may feel the opposite way. But it still seems largely uncontroversial to say that serious hostility to immigration—particularly non-white immigration, particularly immigration by Muslims—is integral to the sort of politics which was (and likely still is) popular in Clacton-on-sea.

Mona Chalabi, a data journalist, analysed figures from the Office for National Statistics and professional polling companies ( to suggest what might indicate that a place is more likely to vote for the right-wing populist party, UKIP. Chalabi found that, as ever, there were lots of factors at play. But, there was a significant correlation between a lack of non-white people and a support for strongly anti-immigrant politics.

A graph indicating a strong correlation between a low non-white population and a high projected support for the UKIP party in the UK.
Correlation between number of ethnic minorities present in a given parliamentary constituency, and what percentage declared they would vote for UKIP. Image courtesy of Mona Chalabi /

There is an Olympic-swimming-pool-sized amount of caveats to be made here, of course. Note the cluster of constituencies (British electoral districts) in the bottom left corner of Chalabi’s graph, where the non-white population was minuscule and so was UKIP support. There are also places where the ethnic-minority population was as high as 20%, and support for UKIP was nearly as high as in largely mono-cultural Clacton. So we absolutely cannot say that a lack of immigration automatically makes people excessively worried about immigrants they’ve never met. But we can say that it sometimes does. In multicultural communities, frictions can intermittently arise when two cultures live alongside one another. But in monocultural societies, people’s fantasies about other cultures can run riot, with prejudice and folklore undisturbed by actual experiences of foreigners who, it turns out, aren’t fundamentally all that different from ourselves. It is much easier to believe that all Jews are greedy or all Muslims are scroungers if your only experiences of Jews or Muslims come from distorted fables.

Something similar may occasionally have played a role in the recent elections in America. The victorious candidate promised many things, but one palpable theme in his campaign was hostility to Mexican (read: Hispanic) immigration. He won the state of North Dakota with 64.1% of the vote, even though only 3.5% of the state’s population identified as Hispanic at the last census. Similarly, he took the state of Montana with 56.5% of the vote, even though only 3.6% of the state identified as Hispanic. Perhaps voters in North Dakota and Montana were uninterested in his anti-immigration rhetoric and voted entirely on economic grounds. Just as Chalabi carefully noted with Clacton, there must have been a number of other factors at play, including fears about the decline of manufacturing, traditional voting patterns, dislike of the opposing candidate, etc. But if there was a portion of the populace swayed by anti-Mexican sentiment, those voters must have had very little experience—if any—of actual Mexicans. The point is worth repeating: in the aforementioned states, most of the people whose vote was decided on account of their dislike of persons of Hispanic descent did not actually live anywhere near Hispanic people.

A Medieval Clacton Effect

An image of Visby, in Sweden, including a field of flowers and the spires of an old church.
Visby, capital of Gotland (now a part of Sweden). Image courtesy of the Städtebund die Hanse.

Was something like the “Clacton effect” also going on in medieval Scandinavia? Were images of Jews more compelling because the overwhelming majority of people had never met one? The brief miracle stories that arrived in “booklings” (Old Norse: bæklingar) are usually understood to have been objects for spiritual meditation. But, in remote Iceland in particular, when they were being read aloud to congregations by preachers, they may have also functioned like news bulletins. They are concise reports of things happening in the wider world, far from the frozen north.

Indeed, Old Norse miracle tales which tell of the latest supposed misdeeds of medieval Jews almost always begin by making clear the setting is some foreign metropolis, as in:

The events inspiring this festival are those which happened in Constantinople […] In that town in Germany which is called Güstrow […] This Lord, the crowned one, is your namesake William, whom the Jews crucified in Norwich in England on Good Friday.

When the city is left unnamed, it is often introduced with the formula: “In a city” or “In a certain populous city” (í nǫkkuri fjǫlmennri borg). It feels almost as though the Old Norse translators of these tales are stressing to their audience: “we’re lucky, it couldn’t happen here in nice, quiet, rural Iceland—yet”.

Fantasy becomes Nightmare: The Death of Tidericus

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism in medieval Scandinavia was not bloodless. Even though, so far as we know, no Jews came to any harm in the Nordic region during the entire Middle Ages. In the summer of 1350, in the city of Visby on Gotland, nine men were burnt at the stake. We know that two claimed to be Christian priests (they may have been properly ordained, or they may have been wandering lay preachers). We only know the name of one of the men: Tidericus the Organist.

In Europe as a whole, burnings like these were fairly common. The Black Death was ravaging the continent, and in many cities the local Jewish population was being accused of causing the sickness by, allegedly, poisoning wells. But Visby had no Jews to get the blame.

So instead, they burned Christians on the charge of being agents for an imaginary Jewish conspiracy. In fact, the details of the Visby accusations were eerily close to modern global conspiracy theories—the sort of unhinged anti-Semitism which thrives across the world (particularly in certain corners of the internet) to this day:

What’s more, at the same time he [Tidericus] admitted that there are many who belong to a certain society which consisted of rich merchants and all the kinds of people who hold office all over the world, as many people know they do, and each of them goes around with silver belts, and they are all half mad or crazed in some other way. Also, they are all marked with a letter written in Greek or Hebrew. In his last moment he said “Need I say more? All Christendom has been poisoned by us villains and the Jews”. [My translation]

” … how he would poison all the wells in the cities of Stockholm, Västerås and Arboga, and every lake, fresh water source, and various wells as he travelled around Sweden …”. Letter B from Mscr. Dresd. A 59, 232r (Northern Germany, 1428-1434). Image courtesy of SLUB Dresden.

According to the accusations preserved in two letters, Tidericus was supposedly given his poisoning equipment by a Jew in Dassel, Germany, called Aaron, son of Solomon the Wealthy. A Jew by the name of Moses is said to have given him even more poison while he was in Lübeck. Of the two letters, one is clearly aimed at a German-speaking audience; let’s call it Letter A. Letter A claims that Tidericus had poisoned the cities of Hanover, Baden, Gronau, Berne, Bockenem, Serstadt, and Hildesheim—all cities in Germany. The other letter, Letter B, appears to be aimed at a Scandinavian audience. In the latter letter, Tidericus is said to have planned to poison “Stockholm, Västerås and Arboga, and every lake, fresh water source, and various wells as he travelled around Sweden”.

If Letter A is an example of Hanseatic administrators telling familiar lies, then Letter B is arguably an example of Scandinavians participating in the fantasy of a Jewish war against Christianity.

A Glimmer of Hope?

The absence of Jews across Scandinavia during the Middle Ages did not mean that they were universally regarded as monsters. Perhaps the Clacton Effect was no more reliable then than it is today. The Icelandic bishop Brandr Jónsson (d. 1264), who also visited Norway and possibly France, wrote a saga which narrates Jewish history from the Maccabees up until the fall of Jerusalem in the year CE 70.

The work is largely sympathetic to its Jewish characters, especially to the parents of Judas Iscariot. As folklorist Thomas DuBois puts it, this Saga of the Jews (its post-medieval title) stands out against a backdrop of European anti-Semitism as “a strange expression of Nordic curiosity”. Perhaps Brandr had particular liberty to be positive about Jews; unlike in England, where the Jewish population could even be “mortgaged” as though it were a commodity, the absence of Jewish people from Norway and Iceland meant that nobody in Brandr’s audience would be personally invested in penalising Jews through taxes or physically attacking them. Brandr’s understanding of Jewish history is free of the bilious and bawdy stereotypes of anti-Semitism. Consider, for example, these stories of derring-do, adapted from 1 Maccabees:

There was a man called Eleazar, the son of Saura; he was a great champion in the army of Judas.  He sees that one elephant was better arrayed than the others, and he thought that the [Seleucid] king himself must be there in the tower … He goes forward boldly and leaps into the enemy’s battle-line and hews on both sides with no pause, and clears himself a path up to the elephant. The elephant was all armored, and Eleazar finds no place to cut him. Then he leaps under him and stabs the elephant in the belly with this sword, because there the elephant was bare. With the stab the elephant falls on him, and both he and the elephant die … and now the greatest portion of Judas’ army falls. When Judas sees this, he rushes forward in the midst of his enemies, as fierce as a wild beast, hewing with both hands both men and horses. But since no one can stand against many, and no man is more than a man, Judas Maccabeus falls along with most of his army [find the original here]

An Icelandic depiction of an armored elephant. AM 673 a II 4to, 7v, the Icelandic Physiologus (Iceland, c. 1200).

There were limits to Brandr’s sympathy, of course. He was still a medieval person. Respectful interfaith-dialogue was not commonly practised in his age. For example, his account of the siege of Jerusalem has a few clumsily anti-Jewish overtones, where the destruction of the city is posited as divine punishment for the Crucifixion (a staple of medieval Christian belief). But, in the overwhelming majority of the saga, Brandr does something that even a minority of contemporary Christians still fail to do: he understands Jews to be human beings living their own lives, rather than being servants of his own theological preoccupations.

Tragedy and Hope

The tragic case of Tidericus is one instance where people accepted an idea, given to them by their social superiors, that a group of people they’ve never met is their enemy. The people of Visby in 1350 were scared and demoralised. The German-speaking half of the population was probably already used to the proposition that Jews employed Christians to perform well-poisonings. When the Scandinavian-speaking half of the population was sold the same lie, they do not appear to have questioned it. Innocent people were murdered as a result.

The case of Brandr is, for me, a more uplifting story. He was a man who refused to accept strangers as scapegoats, despite the prevailing ideological climate of his age. We have been offered the same choice. We  told that we are under attack by a particular religion, and that only through cruelty can we be made safe. In the face of calls from our rulers for religious war, I hope we have the brains and the heart of Brandr Jónsson.


Recommended Reading (restricted to English language scholarship)

Adams, Jonathan. Lessons in Contempt. Poul Ræff’s Translation and Publication in 1516 of Johannes Pfefferkorn’s The Confessions of the Jews. (Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2013)

Ashurst, David. “Kings, Bishops, and Laws: The Old Norse-Icelandic Version of 1 Maccabees” in Myths, Legends, and Heroes: Essays on Old Norse and Old English Literature in Honour of John McKinnell . Ed. by Daniel Anlezark. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011) pp. 133–147.

Fersch, Annabelle. “Gythinga Saga: A Translation and Source Study”, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Tulane (1982)

Heß, Cordelia & Adams, Jonathan (eds.). Fear and Loathing in the North: Jews and Muslims in Medieval Scandinavia and the Baltic region. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015) [freely available here]

Wolf, Kirsten. “An Old Norse Record of Jewish History”, The Jewish Quarterly Review 77, 1 (1986) pp. 45–54.

Wolf, Kirsten. “The Judas Legend in Scandinavia”, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 88, 4 (Oct 1989), pp. 463–476.

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

The Importance of Being Absent


Part XXIII in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Richard Cole.

You can find the rest of the special series hereThis article is split into two parts; return on Thursday for part II: “How to Hate Someone You’ve Never Met”.

The Judensau in Uppsala Cathedral; it is an antisemitic stone carving depicting Jews suckling on a pig.
The Judensau in Uppsala Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Stephen Mitchell.

If you visit Uppsala Cathedral in Sweden, keep your eyes aimed at the tops of the pilasters—the flat, decorative columns in the walls. If you do, you will be confronted with a ghastly sight: A sow is greedily shoveling food from a trough into her mouth with her front trotters. Under her belly, two crude caricatures of Jewish faces (you can tell they’re supposed to be Jews because of their pointy hats) are sucking at her teats. Behind the tail, an emaciated body protrudes. Does it belong to one of the faces? Or is this body a third Jewish man, his face buried in the sow’s nether regions? Another Jew tugs on the pig’s tail, pulling on it with a frenzied grimace. In his apparent delirium, his hat has fallen off.

A fifteenth-century woodcut Judensau. Kupferstichkabinet, Munich, ca. 1470. Click to enlarge.

This hateful stone carving belongs to the type known as a Judensau “Jews’ sow”. It was particularly popular in the German lands during the Middle Ages. The typical Judensau displays cartoonish Jews worshipping, and being as physically intimate as possible, with pigs. Sometimes, as in the case of Uppsala, they are inside religious buildings. Sometimes they are found on the exterior of those buildings, or even on bridges and gates. In other words, they were placed  in public places. As such, they are intentionally designed to cause as much offense and humiliation as possible to any Jewish person who would encounter them.

But the strange thing is, there were no Jews in Uppsala for this to offend.

Jews in the Medieval North

Even if the Uppsala Judensau had been on the outside of the cathedral, there is virtually no possibility that it would have upset any Jewish observers, because everything indicates that neither Sweden nor any other Scandinavian nation had a single, settled Jewish inhabitant before the sixteenth century.

That is not to say that there were no occasional adventurers who may have passed through. Around 962, one Ibrāhīm ibn Yaʻqūb al-Ṭurṭūšī visited Hedeby in Denmark (and wrote rather unflattering things about the Danes’ singing). Scholars have speculated that he was either a Muslim person with a Jewish background, or an Arabic-speaking Spanish Jew—who would have gone by the name Abraham, son of Jacob, of Tortosa (a city in Catalonia, Spain).

In 1340, a man named Moses appears to have visited Bergen in Norway, and attempted to rent lodging for the princely sum of “eighty English pounds and one mark of burnt gold”. Despite offering very good money, it appears that Moses was denied by a local official, Ole Hælghason, who instead insisted on payment in  “dried fish, flounder jerky, amber, white furs, grey furs, martens’ furs, and falcons” (we’ve all been there, right?).

Moses does appear to have been a foreigner. He carried a foreign currency, and he lacked the “son of”/“daughter of” surname which were usually used by Scandinavians at the time. Moses was not an unheard of name for medieval Scandinavians, though it was more proportionally popular amongst European Jews. Was Moses a Jewish visitor, and was Moses’s Judaism the real reason for Ole’s bureaucratic intransigence? We cannot be certain.

Medieval Red Tape

But despite these travelers, the main reason we can be quite confident that there were not indigenous, multi-generational Jewish communities in medieval Scandinavia is that such communities, whenever they did exist, left behind a significant paper-trail. Firstly, the medieval Christian imagination was very much excited by the idea of the presence of non-Christians. Therefore chroniclers and authors often left multiple records of actual (and imagined) interactions with the Jewish community. Only one such “interaction” is preserved from medieval Scandinavia: the Historia Norwegie (c. 1150-1200) contains the following vignette, which is sufficiently fantastical that we can discount it as evidence of a real Jewish settlement:

[The Orkney Islands] were first inhabited by the Picts and the Papar […] the Papar got their name from the albs they wore, like clerics, for all clergy are called papæ in the German tongue. There is moreover an island still today called Papey after them. It is seen, however, from the character and script of the books they left behind them that they were Africans who practised Judaism. When Haraldr hárfagri ruled in Norway some vikings of the kin of a very mighty prince, Rǫgnvaldr, crossed the Sólund Sea with a large fleet, drove the Papar from their long-established homes, destroyed them utterly and subdued the islands under their own rule.

Secondly, unlike migrants today, medieval Jews could not apply for visas or refugee status and then migrate as private citizens. Many Christian kingdoms did not, officially, tolerate Jews at all, unless there were a special role which it was felt that Jews could fulfil. As non-Christians in countries with a Christian legal identity, Jews required a dedicated governmental effort to invite them into the kingdom, to offer them suitable protection, and to arbitrate in legal matters concerning Christians.

While medieval Jews often lived in peace with their Christian neighbours, this extreme degree of control which the state held over them meant that if the authorities turned against them, the results were disastrous. In medieval England, a ministry was established called the “Exchequer of the Jews”. Its surviving documents are an important source for our understanding of Jewish life in medieval England. No such documents survive from anywhere in Scandinavia.

It is probable that no Scandinavian state during the Middle Ages had sufficient power to organise and oversee Jewish migration. For example, as the historian Sverre Bagge has pointed out, all of the surviving correspondence generated in medieval Norway across five hundred years is equal in size to the amount generated in medieval England across just a few decades in the 1200s. It would appear that Scandinavian rulers lacked the bureaucratic sophistication necessary to establish Jewish communities.

One might protest that there was nothing stopping Jews migrating to Scandinavia on their own initiative, but this seems unlikely: if, as a non-Christian in medieval Europe, you’re looking to move from one Christian country to another, you’re more likely to choose a place where the state can offer a degree of protection (or perhaps even incentives, as King Bolesław the Pious of Poland did in 1264). The place that barely has a state at all by contemporary standards will probably be a lot further down your list.

The Sphere of Influence of the Hanseatic League around 1400.

Moreover, by the middle of the 1300s, the sort of technological, administrative, and mercantile roles which were elsewhere sometimes filled by Jews were instead being filled by Northern Germans. These Germans arrived as part of the increasing domination of Scandinavia by the Hanseatic League—the Northern German trading confederation that controlled trade routes in the North and Baltic seas in the late Middle Ages.

These Hansa men (the term for people from the Hanseatic League) not only substituted Jewish migration—they may have actively sought to prevent it. Anti-Semitism thrived in the Northern German cities; Hansa men did not permit Jews to join their trading organisation (by the way, for the purposes of this article I am not distinguishing between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, although it’s a distinction that I otherwise agree with). All of these factors combined explain why Scandinavia was surrounded by areas that did have Jewish communities (England to the West, Germany to the South, the Baltic Coast to the East), but apparently never had any Jewish settlement of its own.

Prejudice on the Periphery

Bishop Jón the Holy of Iceland, of the eponymous saga. Image from a nineteenth-century Icelandic manuscript.

Despite not having any native Jewish population to persecute, Scandinavians eagerly reproduced anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish images and stories. The Uppsala Judensau is not the only sculpture of its kind in Sweden. There are plenty of anti-Jewish church paintings of Jews to be found in neighbouring Denmark too. Some of these cases (probably including the Uppsala Judensau) can be attributed to travelling German artists so one might protest that these are unfortunate, accidental imports, and not really indicative of any native interest in anti-Semitism.

But in the case of medieval Iceland you cannot really use that excuse. Depending on how one counts such things, there are 53 distinct episodes in Old Norse-Icelandic literature which discuss Jews in medieval Europe (as opposed to Jews in the Bible, of which there are many, many more). They are not complimentary.

References to Jews typically are included in short miracle stories, or sometimes in sagas, which were written in Old Norse and, copied out again and again by Icelandic scribes across the Middle Ages. You can’t pin that on the Germans. One episode in the Icelandic Saga of Bishop Jón the Holy (c. 1320-1340) contains the following spitefully anti-Semitic episode:

Once when the saintly Jón had laid down to sleep one night a vision occurred before him. He appeared to be at his prayers before a great crucifix. And the next thing he knew, the figure on the cross bowed down to him and said some words in his ear, and we don’t know what those words were. He told this vision to the priest Rikini, and there was nobody who could interpret this. But the next day some men came to meet the saintly Jón who had just arrived from Norway, bringing him a little ‘bookling’ [i.e. booklet, Old Norse: bæklingr], in whose pages was written this event of which men were most ignorant: how the Jews mocked the crucified, tortured likeness of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the same way their forefathers had done to Himself. These accursed Jews struck the likeness with grievous slaps, spitting on it and giving it great punches, and a hateful decapitation. After that they crucified it, walking around the cross and its head with a great mockery, trembling hatefully … And when the saintly Jón and Rikini the Priest had read over the aforementioned event, the priest said to the saintly Jón: “Look at this now, sweet father, [here is] the vision and the wisdom which God showed you last night!”. They praised God for this marvellous event. [note—the original can be found here in old Icelandic, but the translation to English is my own]

What purpose did gruesome stories like these serve? It was not to justify the persecution of native Jews, since there were none. To be sure, the answer is to be found, in part, in the nature of medieval Christianity.

Medieval Christian Structural Anti-Semitism

By the year 1000, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland had all adopted the Christian faith as their official religion. By 1100, Sweden in the east and Greenland in the west were Christian too. By the 1200s, nobody would have thought of Scandinavians as “Baby Christians”. Young men from all the Scandinavian nations were reading Latin, writing Latin, and even attending the University of Paris—the Harvard or Oxford of its day. In other words, Scandinavians were fully plugged into the machinery of medieval Christian culture. Meditating on the significance of the alleged cruelty of the Jews during Christ’s crucifixion, for example, was simply what a good Christian did—regardless of whether one had ever met an actual, contemporary Jew or not. In this way, stories involving Jews did not necessarily have to be about Jews.

But this explanation can only account for part of the Scandinavian interest in anti-Semitic images and stories. As Freud is famously supposed to have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Sometimes a spiteful caricature of a Jew is just a spiteful caricature of a Jew.

No doubt, educated Scandinavians seem to have thought of Jews as symbols more than as actual people. But there are only so many times a story can be told about how hateful and deranged Jews supposedly are—and how it might be a good idea to kill them—before somebody starts to take the story at face value. One of the Old Norse stories which communicates precisely these ideas can be read below. From the sound of its deliriously anti-Semitic content, particularly the theme of Jews supposedly attacking an effigy of Christ, it’s probably very close to the story that Bishop Jón heard above:

It is said that in Toledo, which Scandinavians call Tolhús (this city is in Spain and a third of the town’s population are Christians, the second third Jews, the third heathens [i.e. Muslims]) … a voice was heard in the sky […] which thus spoke with a piteous tone: “Ha! Ha! An affliction, what an affliction, that Jews with such cunning and evil should live so near to God’s flock and these sheep which are marked with the protecting symbol of the Holy Cross, because now the Jews wish to scorn and mock and crucify my son for a second time”. This prompted much fear and concern amongst the Christians. And after the mass the Archbishop consulted with the common people what course should be taken, and everyone agreed to go to the houses and homes of the Jews as search them as carefully as possible for whatever might be going on. First they went to the hall which the rabbi owned and searched there. And when the archbishop came to their synagogue there was found a statue made of wax, in the likeness of a living man. It was battered and spit-drenched, and there were many people of the Jewish race falling on their knees before the statue, some slapped it on the cheek. Also, there stood a cross nearby, and the Jews had intended to nail that statue to the cross for the mockery and insult of Our Lord Jesus Christ and all who believed in Him. And when the Christians saw this, then they destroyed that statue and killed all the Jews who were present. Now, because of this event and all the others which the Blessed Queen Mary does for her honour and glory, and our joy, we have to give praise to Our Lord and His mother, who live and rule forever and ever. [note: as above, here is the original, the above is my translation]

Miracle tales like these (not all of them quote so hateful as this) appear to have been used in preaching in Scandinavia. Some Old Swedish collections of such stories have notes in the margins recommending the appropriate times for reading them aloud to congregations of monks. One Icelandic miracle tale even explicitly states that “Bishop Páll had the habit of telling this miracle when he was presiding over the Assumption, and he said it was told to him by Archbishop Absalon”.

So we know that there was mass consumption of these stories, by at least some major clergy members. They weren’t curiosities to be squirrelled away in manuscripts. It would be hopelessly optimistic to assume that an ordinary Icelander who had never met a Jew for themselves would always be able to separate rhetoric from reality. When the only images you have ever seen of a Jew are of frenzied pig-sucklers, or snouted canine monsters such as the example from Ål church in Norway which forms the cover to this article, how long before the mind’s eye automatically imagines that this is how Jews really look?

In Part Two, we’ll be looking at how Jews came to be imaginary enemies, and how we are still falling for the trick of hating those people who we don’t encounter.

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

A Tale of Two Europes: Jews in the Medieval World

13th c Jew and Muslim play chess Al-andalus

Part XXII in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages. You can find the rest of the special series here.

I grew up in a racially and religiously diverse area, but my Jewish father had to travel to some less-cosmopolitan places for work. Once, in a small, southern town, he endured a painful interrogation from a client who was excited to meet a real, live Jew. The client’s most pressing question was when Jews stopped sacrificing animals.

A Jewish friend of mine moved to a small Midwestern town, then wrote to tell me that her classmates constantly demanded to see her horns.

Once, in the southern city where I attended university, a dinner date exploded at me, demanding to know how Jews could read “the Bible” and deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. I patiently explained that the New Testament was not, in fact, part of the Jewish bible. Pickings were slim in that area, dear reader, but that was our last date.

These incidents seem mild compared to the more familiar anti-Semitic harassment I experienced—thrown pennies, threats that I would burn in hell, friendly reassurances that I am not like “those other Jews”. But I bring them up because of what they have in common: they reflect the strange myths and misunderstandings that fester in the absence of actual Jews. Hatred often has an inverse correlation to familiarity with its victims; ignorance, more than anything else, breeds paranoid fantasies and strange ideas. The relative diversity and integration of your community—whether you have Jewish friends, neighbors, and colleagues you actually spend time with—determines how likely you are to believe the Jews “run Hollywood,” think they control “the banks,” or suspect them of any of the old “Elders of Zion” conspiracy bullshit.

In this regard, medieval people were the same. In fact, studying the drastically different situations of Jews across medieval Europe shows us why diversity and integration are so important today. Segregation and homogeneity—of faith, of race, and of thought—breed violence. By contrast, science, theology, philosophy, literature, and the arts flourish when more people have a voice. This is as true today as it was in the so-called ‘Dark Ages.’

Nobody Likes the Taxman

Jewish poet Süßkind von Trimberg (right) wearing a typical "Jewish hat" in the Codex Manesse from 14th century Germany. These hats were originally worn by Jewish men by choice, but in many Northern European countries beginning in the 12th century, became part of the mandatory garb for Jews.
Jewish poet Süßkind von Trimberg (right) wearing a typical “Jewish hat” in the Codex Manesse from 14th century Germany. These hats were originally worn by Jewish men by choice. But in many Northern European countries, beginning in the 12th century, they were made part of the mandatory garb for Jews.

Scholars like Miriamne Ara Krummel have argued that nefarious fantasies about medieval Jews tended to spread most aggressively in areas where Jews were segregated from Christian populations. Many medieval laws kept Jews isolated and oppressed, particularly after the 1200s, when the Catholic Church decreed that Jews could not hold public office or appear in public on Passion Sunday and the last three days of Holy Week. The official Church “Canon on Jews” also ruled that Jews and Saracens had to be marked by special clothing to set them apart so that they didn’t mix with Christian women—particularly in the ‘biblical’ sense:

In some provinces a difference in dress distinguishes the Jews or Saracens from the Christians, but in certain others such a confusion has grown up that they cannot be distinguished by any difference. Thus it happens at times that through error Christians have relations with the women of Jews or Saracens, and Jews and Saracens with Christian women. Therefore, that they may not, under pretext of error of this sort, excuse themselves in the future for the excesses of such prohibited intercourse, we decree that such Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress.

Jews in many medieval European countries, such as England, France, and Germany, were forbidden from holding public office and restricted to practicing only a few professions. One of those was lending money, since usury laws prohibited Christians from lending money with interest. Thus, Jews could be used as intermediaries by medieval kings to lend money and collect debts and taxes without any formal stain on the king’s sinless conscience.

Clifford's Tower, in York, England, site of the massacre of York's Jewish population in 1190.
Clifford’s Tower, in York, England, site of the massacre of York’s Jewish population in 1190.

However, Jews were sometimes forbidden from having any other profession. In many cases, they were only allowed to collect money. Needless to say, this both led to resentment from borrowers and fed the stereotype that Jews were obsessed with money. That resentment had violent consequences. For instance, in 1190 in York, England, nobles used the anti-Jewish fervor whipped up around the Crusades in order to get revenge on Jewish debt collectors. The fact that the Jews were direct vassals of King Richard did not protect them: the city’s entire Jewish population was massacred, and the insolvent nobles burned all records of their debts.

Jews also became convenient scapegoats for any leader who wanted to increase his political power or get himself out of trouble, and many rulers won political capital by ‘cracking down’ on Jews or expelling them. Edward I exiled Jews from England in 1290. Philip II of France—already in serious debt at the ripe old age of 15—kidnapped Jews and held them for ransom, then confiscated Jewish property and expelled them from France. Phillip II allowed the Jews to return to France in 1198, but imposed heavy taxes on them. In 1306, Philip IV of France arrested 100,000 Jews, seized their property, and expelled them on the grounds that they represented “a state within a state.” Jews were invited back by Philip’s successor once he found that when his own agents tried to collect debts, his people didn’t like them so much either. French Jews would be banished and then readmitted in repeated cycles for nearly 200 years.

Secret Rituals and Sleeper Cells

Paranoid fantasies about Jews, stoked by religious and political leaders, resulted in violence all over medieval Europe. People saw Jewish conspiracies everywhere. The Crusades provoked multiple massacres of Jews across Germany, France, and England. In the mid-1300s, Jews were even accused of causing the Black Death. They were slaughtered throughout Switzerland and Germany. These paranoid anti-Jewish fantasies also make their way into medieval literature, with almost too many examples to recount. Even some medieval Christian texts that exhibit a degree of tolerance toward other faiths—like Mandeville’s Travels, which suggest that Christians and Muslims have much in common—exhibit fear and loathing of Jews. Mandeville repeatedly asserts that Jews are “wicked,” and asserts that Jews “of ten lineages” are enclosed between the Scythian mountains and guarded by Amazons. One wonders what Gal Gadot would think about all this.

Mandeville explains:

And now know that the Jews have no land of their own to live in in all the world except among those hills. Even so they pay tribute to the Queen of the Amazons, and she has those hills guarded very well so that they do not cross into her country, which borders those hills. Nevertheless it sometimes happens that one of them climbs over those hills and gets out…

But Mandeville reassures readers that the only path a rare escaping Jew can take

is about four miles long, and then there is a great desert where no water or shelter is to be found for men because there are dragons and snakes and other poisonous animals, so except in winter no man can travel that way.

But apparently, not even dragons, snakes, or Amazons can hold Jews back forever. Mandeville reveals that,

Folk in the country nearby say that in the time of the Antichrist those Jews will sally out and do much harm to Christian men. And so all the Jews in the different parts of the world learn to speak Hebrew, for they believe that the Jews who are enclosed among those hills will know that they are Jews (as they are) by their speech when they arrive. And then they will lead them into Christendom to destroy Christian men. For those Jews say they know by their prophecies that the Jews enclosed among the hills will issue out and the Christians will be under their sway, just as they have been under Christian domination.

Clearly, Jews in Mandeville’s imagination were an apocalyptic threat, aligned with the Antichrist and awaiting vengeance for the abuses they endured at the hands of Christians (which may, or may not, suggest some kind of latent guilt on medieval Christianity’s part). However, not all medieval anti-Jewish conspiracies involved Hebrew-speaking sleeper agents awaiting activation by the Antichrist. Jews were frequently the villains of medieval ‘horror’ stories, like Chaucer’s infamous Prioress’s tale, in which Jews murder an innocent child and cast him into a pit “where these Jews would purge their bowels.” Popular ‘Passion Plays,’ which traveled from town to town recreating the torment and crucifixion of Christ, regularly whipped up anti-Jewish fervor. And a favorite topic of medieval writers was the very same ancient Roman siege of Jerusalem I discussed in a prior article. The Jerusalem siege appears in many medieval texts, and this rarely bodes well for Jews. For example, the brutal Middle English Siege of Jerusalem seems to relish their slaughter:

The false Jews fell in the field as thick

as hail from heaven, heaped over each other.

The field was covered over, running with blood,

dead bodies all over the broad valley.

As you can see, literature and history paint a grim picture of Jewish life in medieval Europe. But despite the constant threat of violence, repeated exile, and relentless anti-Jewish rhetoric in popular culture, plenty of medieval Jews pursued science, literature, and the arts. In fact, southern Europe—which was a diverse, cosmopolitan, and innovative region—gave many Jews a place not only to survive, but to thrive. 

Convivencia in the South

In Muslim Spain, Christian Italy, and even parts of France, Jews were mathematicians, doctors, philosophers, poets. Many of them worked as translators because they spoke Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin. In fact, Jews translated some of the groundbreaking Arabic treatises on philosophy and astronomy that made their way into northern Europe.

The Muslim-ruled section of the Iberian peninsula, known by its Arabic name, al-Andalus, was a thriving center of interfaith art, literature, philosophy, science, and medicine. Governed from the 8th to 11th centuries by the Umayyad Caliphate,  al-Andalus was a center of religious tolerance—at least relative to much of the rest of Europe. I stress relative, since there can be a tendency either to describe the situation of Jews in al-Andalus as a “Golden Age” of perfect religious harmony or a dark age of violent religious persecution. But although modern people often see medieval culture in unrealistic, black-and-white terms, neither the utopic or dystopic vision of al-Andalus’s past is completely true.

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonedes, one of the greatest medieval thinkers.
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonedes, one of the greatest medieval thinkers.

What we can be certain about, however, is that many Andalusian Jews flourished intellectually and professionally. Famous figures include Judah ibn Tibbon, “father of translators,” Abrahan Ibn Ezra, whose work ranged from biblical commentary to mathematics and astrology, and Maimonides, one of the medieval world’s most influential scholars. And although the ruling class was Muslim in al-Andalus, Jews could be promoted as high as vizier—the key advisor to a Muslim ruler. Samuel HaNagid (also known as Samuel ibn Naghrillah) was even made a general in the Muslim army.

Jewish poets and writers provide an extraordinary window into this diverse medieval world. Poets like Moshe Ibn Ezra commented on everything from wine to death and slavery:

Ancient graves weathered by time,

where people now are sleeping forever:

they have neither hate nor envy within them;

they know no love or fear of their neighbor.


And seeing them so, I couldn’t discern

The different between a slave and his master.

Jewish poets also exchanged literary influences with Muslim writers, and there’s a clear record of exchange between Andalusian poets and the rest of medieval Europe. Likewise, Christian Italian city-states, as Clare Vernon, Luca Asmonti, and Paul Sturtevant have discussed in previous articles in this series, were more diverse and tolerant than their northern neighbors. Many had thriving Jewish communities. In fact, there’s even a Hebrew Arthurian legend: King Artus, written in 13th century Italy. The anonymous poet begins with an apologia, explaining that he translated an Arthurian legend to “prevent melancholy” (a medieval medical condition):

No intelligent person can rebuke me for this, for we have seen that some of our sages of blessed memory, such as Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, did not disdain the knowledge of fox-fables, washers’ parables or the speech of palm trees. And this is done so that a man who is steeped in Torah-study or in worldly pursuits may derive from the knowledge of these tales a measure of relaxation and relief.

However, life in southern Europe was hardly all sunshine and fox-fables for southern Jews. They were also the victims of raids and mass murders, particularly when religious movements attempted to homogenize the population and wipe out difference and dissent. For instance, when the more-orthodox Muslim Almohad movement invaded Spain near the end of the 12th century, they overturned the Umayyad policy of religious tolerance and forced Jews and Christians to convert to Islam. Many Jews, like poet Avraham Ibn Ezra, fled to Rome. Ibn Ezra records his sorrow in the poem, “Lament for Andalusian Jewry.” The first stanza reads:

Calamity came upon Spain from the skies

and my eyes pour forth their streams of tears.


I moan like an owl for the town of Lucena,

where Exile dwelled, guiltless and strong,

for a thousand and seventy years unchanged—

until the day she was expelled,

leaving her like a widow, forlorn,

deprived of the Scriptures and books of the Law.

As the house of prayer took folly in,

some men murdered and others sought shelter.

For this I weep and, mourning, wail:

If only my head were a fountain of water.

Jews also found themselves in the middle of violent clashes between Christians and Muslims during repeated Christian efforts to ‘re-conquer’ Spain. Indeed, as Judah Halevi, poet and court doctor in Córdoba, said of such religious wars: “When they are locked in battle, we fall as they go down.” Unfortunately, as southern Europe became more religiously homogenous, whether Muslim or Christian, it became more hazardous for Jews. In 1391, pogroms in Seville—provoked, some scholars have argued, by a rabidly anti-Jewish cleric—spread to all of Spain. A rising tide of anti-Jewish hatred, massacres, and mass conversions in the fourteenth century lay the groundwork for the Inquisition launched by Ferdinand and Isabella along with their final “reconquista” of Spain for Christianity. As the Middle Ages drew to a close, the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, when Christians conquered the remaining Muslim regions of Spain. Spain officially welcomed Jews back in 2012, offering citizenship to Sephardic Jews whose ancestors were driven out at the end of the Middle Ages. Hopefully this welcome will be an enduring one.

A Lukewarm Homecoming

Title page of On the Jews and Their Lies, by Martin Luther, published in 1543.

As the Middle Ages ended, the Protestant Reformation changed Europe’s relationship to Jews for a time. For instance, England’s tolerance of Jews increased under Oliver Cromwell. But his motives were not entirely benevolent: he believed he needed Jews nearby in order to usher in the apocalypse, which would require mass Jewish conversion. If you’ve ever wondered how some contemporary members of the radical religious right can be anti-Semitic but pro-Israel, similar apocalyptic fever dreams are your answer. Despite this official “welcome,” the situation of Jews throughout the Renaissance was still incredibly precarious. Jews became vulnerable during shifts of power and even vacillations by individual religious figures. Martin Luther, for instance, who was initially sympathetic to Jews and argued that they should be converted through “love,” turned on them. He even wrote a treatise entitled, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” which recommended that Jewish synagogues, schools, homes, and writings should all be burnt.

Like many Jews, my family’s story was one of near-death experiences and escapes. The Inquisition forced my ancestors to flee from Seville to Italy. A century later, anti-Jewish violence moved them north to Prague, then on to Germany in the 1700s to escape anti-Jewish riots. Our records include the chilling detail that as his family escaped Prague, one of my ancestors, then thirteen years old, “caught with his naked hand the sword thrust intended to kill his father.”

Southern medieval Europe may have been more diverse, but mere diversity of a population didn’t prevent violence in the Middle Ages. Diversity alone won’t solve violence now. People have to be ready and willing to learn from one another, to exchange ideas. It is worrying that today, despite the broad access we have to a panoply of beliefs and perspectives, people seem increasingly inclined to self-segregate by retreating to homogenous enclaves online and in the real world. We close our ears, our hearts, and our minds. Although it’s entirely ahistorical to call this kind of ignorance “medieval,” as many seem inclined to do, today’s ignorance is nonetheless just as dangerous as the medieval version.

And ignorance may look like innocence, but it still leaves blood on your hands.

Look at the Jasmine, whose branches are green,

as topaz, and its stems and leaves—

while its blossoms are white as bdellium.

With carnelian red in its shoot

it looks like a pallid boy who’s shedding

the blood of innocent men with his hand.

—Shmu’el (aka Samuel) Hanagid, 11th century, Spain 

Further Reading

Here are a few easily accessible online resources for beginners, but this list is by no means comprehensive. I invite readers to add additional links in the comments.

The Medieval Jewish History Resource Directory

The Sephardic Studies Project

Fordham’s Internet Jewish History Sourcebook

Jeffrey Cohen’s series of posts, “Stories of Blood,” at In the Medieval Middle

Dean Irwin’s Bibliography of Medieval Anglo-Jewry

Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski’s bibliography in progress on Race and Medieval Studies.

Editor’s note: The article originally stated that the 1391 pogroms against Jews were incited by a “rabidly anti-Jewish Muslim cleric”. This was in error; the perpetrator, Ferrand Martinez, was a Christian. The article has been amended to reflect this. It also originally stated that England’s Jews were officially invited back in 1656; contemporary scholarship now shows that there was no official invitation, but that tolerance increased under Cromwell. Thanks to Michael Vinegrad for this correction.

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Anti-Semitism Is Older Than You Think


Part XXI in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages. You can find the rest of the special series here.


The word is synonymous with the worst inclinations of the human race: horrific death camps, genocide, and a hatred that spared no Jewish man, woman, or child living under the Nazi regime.

Some think that violence against Jews was contained to this single event, carried out by a rogue leader for a few terrible years in the distant past. Few people realize just how long anti-Semitism, and the violence that comes with it, have endured. But violence and angry rhetoric against Jews have existed for millennia, prevalent not only throughout the Middle Ages, but well before it.

In 2017, anti-Semitism is on the rise again across the globe, and it isn’t enough to remember one awful moment in human history. We have to examine the deep, long-ranging pattern of anti-Jewish hatred across the centuries: the people who suffered, the people who resisted, and the fanaticism, paranoia, and petty political agendas that have always allowed it to persist.

The Ancient Roots of a Modern Problem

A first-century CE Roman portrait bust said to be of Jewish scholar Josephus. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark.

A 2016 article in The New Statesman titled “The Longest Hatred” traces the origins of anti-Jewish discrimination to the rise of Christianity. But in fact, anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence have a far longer history, beginning in the pre-Christian ancient world. Many of the still-persistent stereotypes about Jews were invented to slander their resistance to polytheism, emperor-worship, and the colonizing endeavors of ancient empires.

In the first century CE, the Jewish scholar Josephus wrote Contra Apionem, in which he collected and refuted several examples of anti-Jewish rhetoric in ancient philosophy. Some of this rhetoric was sparked by conquest of, and rebellion by, the Jewish people—in Egypt, for instance. Other examples come from a few Greek philosophers who were agitated by the spread of Judaism. The texts Josephus is responding to are (perhaps thankfully) lost to us, but seemed to have been diffuse, scattered, and limited to individual writers.

It would be Roman writers, and the Roman state, who fused anti-Jewish sentiments into a unified political doctrine. That very doctrine has undergirded the long-lasting entanglement of ethnic and religious hatred that is central to modern-day anti-Jewish prejudice.

Our records begin with Cicero. Known as one of Rome’s greatest orators, lawyers, and writers, Cicero is also considered one of the founding fathers of anti-Jewish rhetoric. This is thanks to his writing in Pro Flacco, a legal defense of one of his clients. While defending L. Valerius Flaccus, who was governor of Asia, from charges of corruption and embezzlement, Cicero attacks the Jews. He blames them for conspiracies against his client and demeans Jewish religious customs as

“very much at variance with the splendor of this empire and the dignity of our name and the institutions of our ancestors.”

He also suggests that despite Jewish resistance to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem,

“the gods showed how little they cared for this people, suffering it to be conquered and made a tributary.”

Cicero’s insults against Jews, which represent a minor portion of a long speech, had rather cynical motivation: one of the charges against Flaccus was that he had diverted the tributes that Jews sent to the Temple in Jerusalem into his own coffers. The alleged ‘misbehavior’ of the Jews under Flaccus’s governance was likely resistance to his criminal activities. But the Jews, as they so often would throughout history, served as a convenient scapegoat.

Pious Romans and “Superstitious Foreigners”

Cicero uses an important phrase to describe the Jewish religion. His phrase stems from a common xenophobic Roman concept, one that would become foundational for future anti-Jewish rhetoric.

That phrase is “barbara superstitio.”

Barbara superstitio does not translate into ‘superstitious barbarians’ as easily as you might think. To understand the insult, you have to grasp its opposite: the ancient Roman concept of pietas. Pietas is a more complex concept than our modern religious idea of “piety”; it required duty and loyalty to the gods, to family, and perhaps most of all, to Rome itself.

Rome’s commitment to its deities—particularly after the emperors were made into gods—was inextricable from Roman patriotic duty. Thus, superstitio was considered not just sacrilegious, but specifically anti-Roman; it made a person an enemy of the state. Meanwhile, barbar, taken from the Greek barbaros, meant “foreign,” though it could carry connotations of the primitive. Thus the phrase barbara superstitio, when attached to the Jewish religion, renders both the faith and its followers unpatriotic, sacrilegious, backwards, and alien.

Cicero’s anti-Jewish views—or perhaps, as some speculate, the performance of such views on behalf of his client—were unusual for Romans at first. In Cicero’s time, Jews living Rome were relatively protected and were permitted to practice their religious customs, such as observing the Sabbath. But Cicero’s arguments against the Jews would eventually catch on, especially when Rome needed them to promote a bellicose agenda. A century later, when Rome besieged Judea, the seeds Cicero planted flourished into a full, and poisonous, propaganda campaign.

The Jewish Revolt

Close-up relief of the Arch of Titus in Rome, depicting the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
Close-up relief of the Arch of Titus in Rome, depicting the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

In the first century CE, Judea rebelled against its Roman conquerors. The local, Roman-installed governors had confiscated money from the Temple and had allowed their cronies to plunder Jerusalem. Though the rebellion was centered on Jerusalem, it spread throughout the Middle East. Roman efforts to reclaim these lands took years, beginning with Emperor Nero and lasting well into the reign of his successor, Vespasian.

Vespasian allowed his son (and future emperor) Titus to lead the army in an infamously brutal siege on the city. Graphic accounts of the Jerusalem siege include Titus starving the Jews, burning a temple with Jews trapped inside, slaughtering between 600,000 to 1.1 million Jews, and selling the rest into slavery.

A coin commemorating the conquest of Judea, depicting a roman soldier and a captive woman.
A coin commemorating the conquest of Judea, depicting a Roman soldier and a captive woman.

The conquest of Judea was deeply important to the Roman Empire’s dreams of world dominance and, hence, its image of itself. Titus took the golden menorah from the Second Temple as a trophy—an event immortalized on the Arch of Titus, which still stands in Rome today. Crushing the Jewish rebellion was considered such a triumph that Rome even issued commemorative coins to celebrate its victory.

The Roman Empire often made state violence palatable to its citizens by eviscerating its enemies in propaganda as well as on the battlefield. Master Roman propagandist and historian Tacitus provides a window into the way Rome weaponized anti-Jewish xenophobia to justify the attack on Judea. Tacitus’s Historiae (written in CE 70) begins by providing multiple theories about the origins of the Jews. The one he seems to prefer is that Jews were refugees from Crete who fled when Saturn was “driven from his throne” by Jupiter. He speculates that “the primitive elements of their religion”—the dietary restrictions and the holy significance of the number 7— might be attributable to their prior worship of Saturn.

It is clear, however, that associations with a Roman god did not save the Jews from Tacitus’s vicious pen. He calls Jewish customs “base and abominable” and elsewhere, “preposterous and mean.” His anger stems from Jewish resistance to Roman religion, including the emperor worship that had become entangled in Roman pietas after the death of Julius Caesar. For instance, as Tacitus writes:

“…when the Jews were ordered by Caligula to set up his statue in the temple, they chose rather to resort to arms.”

Tacitus doesn’t just demonize the Jews for rejecting Roman religion; he also targets them as a “race” that is “hateful to the gods,” laying the groundwork for an anti-Semitism that consistently conflates race and faith. Moreover, his screed against the Jewish people resounds with some painfully familiar anti-Semitic stereotypes.

The Roman Pillars of Anti-Semitism

  1. Jews are wealthy.

 Tactius suggests that Jews prosper by becoming a magnet for the rejected races of the ancient world. He argues that,

“The worst rascals among other peoples, renouncing their ancestral religions, always kept sending tribute and contributions to Jerusalem, thereby increasing the wealth of the Jews.”

This implication that Jews have, and care about, other people’s money is entangled in Roman colonial custom: colonized lands were forced to pay tribute (i.e., taxes) to Rome for the privilege of being governed by them. For Jerusalem to take tributes that could have gone to Rome, if this allegation was even true, would be a slap in the face to their Roman conquerors.

  1. Jews are cliquish and perverse.

They sit apart at meals, and they sleep apart, and although as a race, they are prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; yet among themselves nothing is unlawful. They adopted circumcision to distinguish themselves from other peoples by this difference. Those who are converted to their ways follow the same practice, and the earliest lesson they receive is to despise the gods, to disown their country, and to regard their parents, children, and brothers as of little account.”

Note Tacitus’s implicit invocation of pietas to levy these insults: not only does he falsely claims that Jews reject the very foundation of Roman morality—the patriotic trinity of state, gods, and family—but he also claims that Jews seduce other people into doing the same, as though their religion were a contagion.

In addition, he conjures up a fantasy of deviant sexuality among Jews. This is a frequent Roman trope used to destroy a victim’s credibility—in fact, this is how they slandered  Cleopatra. But the difference here is that Tacitus attaches “perversion” to an entire race, making it sound as though aberrant sexuality is an inherent racial quality.

  1. Jews are out-breeding “real” Romans, probably on purpose.

Despite his assertion that Jews are essentially eternal foreigners who want to be left alone, Tacitus feeds on a common Roman fear that foreigners will grow to outnumber “true” Roman citizens by asserting that Jews

“…take thought to increase their numbers; for they regard it as a crime to kill any late-born child, and they believe that the souls of those who are killed in battle or by the executioner are immortal: hence comes their passion for begetting children and their scorn of death.”

Despite the fact that many Jews were born and raised in Rome, Tacitus portrays them as a racial Other, an ‘alien’ group that threatened to destroy the nation by replacing its ‘real’ people. Americans are used to this kind of hysteria about “foreign babies” among racist politicians, but they may not realize that this paranoia went all the way back to the ancient world. (It is, perhaps, worth noting that the Roman people—if not the Roman Empire—seem to have survived that looming demographic winter intact.)

  1. Jews practice sacrilegious rituals.

Tacitus claims,

“The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor.”

Although nearly all ancient religions practiced animal sacrifice, Tacitus asserts that Jewish sacrifices are specifically designed to degrade and offend other religions. He describes them “sacrificing a ram, apparently in derision of Ammon” and adds,

“They likewise offer the ox, because the Egyptians worship Apis.”

Steeped within Tacitus’s accusations against Jews are assertions not just of their difference, but of their malice. The mythology he creates around the Jewish people paints them as perpetual corrupters, luring people away from their religions, their families, and their patriotic duties on purpose, as though Jews had a singular devotion to destroying all civilizations but their own.

Cracks in the Foundation

Tacitus’s complaints that Jews are naturally opposed to pietas had another motivation besides the war in Judea. Tacitus was one of the quindecimviri sacris faciundis: a group of men who oversaw foreign religions in Rome. In the time that Tacitus was railing against Jews, Roman pietas had serious competition from ‘foreign’ faiths, which were increasingly attracting Rome’s cosmopolitan citizens. So Tacitus’s anti-Semitism isn’t just aimed against Jews in Judea: he is also targeting Jews who live in Rome.

And increasingly, the Roman Empire targeted Jewish Romans and their religious freedom as well. In the first century CE, Roman citizens were forbidden from practicing Jewish customs. Jews, though they had some rights in Rome, were not allowed to be citizens, and any Roman citizen caught practicing Judaism was charged with “atheism”—which could carry a death sentence.

Christians in Rome would be targeted by the Empire for some of the same reasons. But when Christianity became Rome’s official religion, it absorbed the Roman state’s position against barbara superstitio as its own. During the latter years of the Empire, Rome would promote some of the very same religious conspiracy theories against Jews that were once used against Christians themselves. Ancient rhetorical devices against Jews that accused them of being untrustworthy, isolationist, corrupt foreigners merged with new accusations that designated Jews as scapegoats for the death of Jesus Christ. This would eventually form an even more pervasive, violent, and destructive anti-Semitism that spread throughout medieval Europe, pervaded the Renaissance Inquisition, and reached a horrifying peak in Nazi Germany.

Never Forget

A Neo-Nazi protester in the streets of Berkeley California on April 15, 2017.
A Neo-Nazi counter-protester in the streets of Berkeley, California on April 15, 2017.

Perhaps ironically, people who aware of the long lineage of anti-Jewish rhetoric today are not always allies in the battle against it. For example, Cicero and Tacitus are both popularly quoted in neo-Nazi forums. The Daily Stormer posts articles about “The Roman Empire’s Jewish Problem.” Neo-Nazis even use ancient Roman testimony to argue that anti-Semitism isn’t religious discrimination, it’s ethnic, which—in their warped view—makes it justifiable.

To this day, ancient writers have a sort of intellectual cachet; we tend to see them as unusually enlightened—often more than they deserve. We forget that, like many modern politicians and rhetoricians, Romans had selfish agendas. They were more than willing to sacrifice the safety of a resistant, rebellious group of people if it would earn them power, wealth, or the favor of fervent supporters.

Today, anti-Semitism is more often encoded as screeds against “global powers,” “globalist media,” or “international bankers” than blatantly trumpeted in outright Holocaust denial. But anti-Semitism remains a tool employed by the powerful to gain power and influence, and to rile up the angry masses for their own gain. This is one truth that, particularly in our “post-fact” environment, we must never, ever forget.

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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Introduction: Jews, Anti-Semitism, and the Middle Ages


This introduces a special focus in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages. You can find the rest of our special series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages here.

Thus far in The Public Medievalist’s series on Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages, we have looked at how those on the far-right—both today and in the past—have had a “vile love affair” with the Middle Ages. We have looked at some of the multicultural and multiracial melting-pot societies that existed in the Middle Ages (and their extraordinary accomplishments). We have examined Arab Muslims and sub-Saharan Africans and their previously lesser-recognized presence in the Middle Ages. We have even explored some of the fundamental questions of what race actually is (and is not), how medieval people thought about race, and how our present-day ideas of race came to be.

But thus far, we have yet to really delve into the experiences and contributions of Jewish people in the Middle Ages. Jews, Anti-Semitism, and the Middle Ages is a complex subject, and not one to be taken lightly.  You might wonder why, in a series fundamentally about race, we are discussing Jews. We are discussing them  because the Jewish experience in the Middle Ages—and the oppression that the Jews faced—was instrumental in the formulation of how race is understood today, not just for Jews, but for all races. 

There is open debate even today among Jews and others as to whether Judiasim is a religion, a race, or both. Some note that since there is nothing barring a person from converting to Judaism if they are so inclined and no reason a Jewish person might not convert to Christianity or Buddhism it is purely a religion. Race is seen to be a far more permanent, inherent characteristic—something Rachel Dolezal ran up against when she identified and represented herself as a black person despite having white parents. Converting to blackness is not as simple as converting to Judaism. On the other hand, there has been avid debate among Jewish geneticists over whether the Jews can be understood as a singular people.

And further complicating matters, the rise of the racist neo-fascist “alt-right” and the election of Donald Trump has renewed anxieties among some Jews and caused them to openly wonder whether they are—or should consider themselves—“white” anymore. The Atlantic published an article whose title  bluntly asked “Are Jews White?” As Sara Weissman wrote in Scribe back in January 2017:

Now that our President-elect won on campaign promises to deport “bad hombres,” ban Muslim immigration, and expunge crime with stop and frisk, it’s high time for American Jews to side with minorities. People of color aren’t blessed with a choice—but, as far as we know, at this moment in history, we are. We can embrace the label recently bestowed on us by the whims of the white privilege fairy, or we can realize what her transient gifts deny others. We can stand with power because it makes us feel safe, or we can find more steadfast solidarity in standing with other communities that face discrimination under this administration.

So, as a white-looking Jew, am I white right now? In Trump’s America, I have no idea. But I’m choosing to answer, “Not anymore.”

As a previous article in this series has explored, racial concepts and categories are fundamentally arbitrary, social and historical (meaning that they have changed over time). They lie somewhere between an identity that you claim for yourself, and an identity that others in society ascribe to you. Jews have represented themselves—and been understood and treated by others—as a separate people since Antiquity. Interestingly, in the ancient world it was far more common for religion and race (or, since “race” was not exactly a concept, the sense of an identity that defines a group as a cohesive “people”) to be closely linked. But the fundamentally evangelizing nature of Islam and Christianity helped decoupled race from religion over time.

A Special Focus

Aaron pouring oil into the tabernacle menorah. Detail of a 13th century French miscellany, which collected a wide range of religious texts in Hebrew. British Library Additional 11639 f. 114. Click for a link to the original.

Over the next several weeks we will feature articles about the deep roots of anti-Semitic (or perhaps more accurately, anti-Jewish) thought, the troubled history of the Jews in medieval Europe, and how medieval anti-Semitic ideas are recycled in racist discourses today.

It has also always been the goal here at The Public Medievalist to offer a counterbalance to the prevailing narrative—to reveal past worlds in all their nuance and complexity. And so, we will also be discussing those places and times where Jews thrived and were treated just as anyone else. We will reveal the stories of several medieval Jewish people who made an indelible mark on the world.  And we will lift up those non-Jews who placed themselves in harm’s way in order to protect the Jews in their communities.

Anti-Semitism remains a crucially important topic. Since 2016 and now into 2017, the Anti-Defamation League has been tracking a sharp spike in anti-Jewish vandalism and assaults across the US. In the UK, the Community Security Trust reported a record number of incidents of anti-Jewish hate in 2016. In Hungary, the Central European University has been shuttered by the government in large part because its chief benefactor, George Soros, is a liberal Jew.  This is one of the parts of the Middle Ages that we should have left far behind. Sadly, that is clearly not the case. But we hope that through our work, The Public Medievalist might help to enlighten our readership to the deep roots of this monster that has once again reared its disgusting head. It is only armed with this knowledge that we can hope to finally to slay this monster once and for all.

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