Past and Present

At the intersection between the historical past and the political and cultural issues of the present day.

Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

The Birth of a National Disgrace: Medievalism and the KKK

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Part XXXIV in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Amy S. Kaufman. You can find the rest of the special series here


Medieval historians are deeply frustrated by white supremacist appropriation of the Middle Ages. In the face of an alarming rise in hate speech and violent acts that rely on medieval memes, medievalists have risen up to reclaim the past from racists in popular media, in their classrooms, and even in the academy.

But although the symbols embraced by the far right may seem medieval—from Ku Klux Klan titles like “Grand Dragon” to the pseudo-medieval shields carried by “alt-righters”—their version of the Middle Ages is often filtered through contemporary medievalism in film, television, fantasy fiction, and video games. Medievalism is different from an interest in medieval history: it’s the appropriation, and often revision, of the medieval past. Thus, scholars may be pushing back with facts, but medievalism’s practitioners are more likely to get their “history” from Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.

It’s easy to dismiss the random nature of white supremacist symbolism as ahistorical, lazy, or ignorant: after all they’re wearing polo shirts and carrying medieval heraldry in defense of Robert E. Lee and the First Amendment. (Wasn’t America supposed to be all about throwing off the royal European yoke?). But medievalism’s real currency is myth, not history. The men who shout “You will not replace us!” (and the anti-Semitic variant, “Jews will not replace us!”) brandish shields and medieval banners in American streets because medievalism has long soothed white male anxieties about their place in the world.

Today’s American far right is, in fact, carrying on a long historical tradition by embracing medievalism, just not the one that they think. Instead of replicating the Middle Ages, they’re replicating the medievalism of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Chivalric Fantasies

A black and white engraving of a group of men in robes with tall hoods surround another man in a suit on his knees.
A 1906 engraving of Klan costumes after an 1870 photograph. Held in the New York Public Library collections. Click for original.

We often imagine that racial progress in America has been linear, improving in an unbroken upward trajectory ever since Emancipation. But that simply isn’t true. The KKK itself was founded to roll back racial progress, and for many years, it was disturbingly effective.

The first incarnation of the Klan formed just after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction period in which Congress attempted to give former slaves civil rights. In fact, when the original Ku Klux Klan first donned their hoods, over 2000 black men held political office. Women’s rights groups also became a formidable force in the nineteenth century, as women campaigned for suffrage and equality. Suddenly, white men who believed they had been born atop a hierarchical ladder of race and gender found themselves competing with black men in the workplace and politics, and having their authority challenged at home.

For such men, the myth of a white, patriarchal Middle Ages became a fantasy and a refuge. Southern men nursed on the chivalric tales of Sir Walter Scott and William Morris yearned to imagine themselves as knights and heroes. They believed their medieval “heritage” had been stolen from them by those agitating for civil rights and women’s rights, and they were determined to get their power back.

The Klan deployed violent terrorism, political maneuvering, and a cloak of “heroic” medievalism in its attempt to restore white supremacy to the South. Calling themselves “The Invisible Empire,” they considered themselves knights but dressed as ghosts to terrorize black citizens. Congress eventually passed laws to limit the Klan’s violence, and infighting led to disorganization, both of which contributed to the first Klan’s decline. But as the Southern Poverty Law Center explains,

The laws probably dampened the enthusiasm for the Ku Klux Klan, but they can hardly be credited with destroying the hooded order. By the mid-1870s, white Southerners didn’t need the Klan as much as before because they had by that time retaken control of most Southern state governments.

As Reconstruction came to an end, civil rights were snatched away through successive waves of voter suppression, intimidation, poll taxes, and Jim Crow laws. The first Klan didn’t go underground so much as it went mainstream: when they succeeded at seizing power, there was no need to hide behind their hoods.

Illustration by Arthur I. Keller from the first edition of The Clansmen by Thomas Dixon, p. 326a.

Most people are more familiar with the Klan’s second incarnation, which formed in the same early-twentieth-century white backlash that gave rise to America’s Confederate statues and monuments. Like the statues, the second Klan sprang into being based on myth rather than history: primarily, nostalgia for the first KKK “knights,” which, according to southern legend, had slain the twin dragons of racial equality and Reconstruction.

In 1905, novelist Thomas Dixon romanticized the terrorist actions of the first KKK as a story of “medieval” vengeance in his novel The Clansman. His book imagines Reconstruction as a kind of living hell for white people in which former slaves destroy the government, banks, and police force, driving the South into violent chaos. The last straw for the novel’s protagonist, Ben Cameron, is the rape of a young white woman by a freed slave.

Cameron, who will become the Klan’s fictional first Grand Dragon, uses the young woman’s rape and her resulting suicide to mobilize his fellow white men into creating an “Institution of Chivalry” inspired by their ancestors, the knights of “Old Scotland,” for the sole purpose of protecting white women’s virtue:

In a land of light and beauty and love our women are prisoners of danger and fear. While the heathen walks his native heath unharmed and unafraid, in this fair Christian Southland our sisters, wives, and daughters dare not stroll at twilight through the streets or step beyond the highway at noon.

Dixon medievalizes many aspects of the KKK, including the burning cross that would be a hallmark of white terrorism in the twentieth century. He calls it “The Fiery Cross of old Scotland’s hills.” His narrator also drones on about his heroes’ knightly appearances and their supposed ancestry as the descendants of medieval Scots:

The moon was now shining brightly, and its light shimmering on the silent horses and men with their tall spiked caps made a picture such as the world had not seen since the Knights of the Middle Ages rode on their Holy Crusades.

For Dixon, his heroes’ made-up medieval birthright validates their superiority and right to rule. His Ku Klux Klan launches a bloody campaign of violence, intimidation, and murder to restore white supremacy to the South. Not only does Dixon’s fantasy KKK destroy civil rights, but it also wipes out that pesky feminist movement as the women in the novel learn they must submit to white Southern men for their own protection.

Homegrown American Terrorism

Theatrical poster advertising The Birth of a Nation.

Dixon’s fantasy about the founding of the KKK might have faded into obscurity if it hadn’t been for D.W. Griffith, who turned The Clansman into a film that would shake the United States to its core: The Birth of a Nation. Thanks to Griffith’s influential connections—including President Woodrow Wilson, who had been friends with Dixon in college and screened The Birth of a Nation at the White House—Dixon’s dream of white masculinity run rampant went mainstream. And countless black American lives were sacrificed to his racist nostalgia.

The Birth of a Nation helped inspire the second Ku Klux Klan, which became both far more popular and more destructive than the first Klan. The second Klan committed decades of terrorism against black citizens. And by 1925, millions of Americans had joined the KKK.

The same nostalgic medievalism that drove Dixon’s novel also fueled the Klan’s recruiting power, from its regalia and heraldry to its rhetoric of white knighthood and faux chivalry.

For example, in 1921, the Charlottesville Klan advertised (right) for members by asking potential “knights”: “Can you take a MAN’S OATH?” An unpleasant preview of today’s white supremacist talking points, the ad calls for “law and order” and promises “protection for the good and needy, especially for women,” while announcing that the KKK is specifically seeking “native-born white Americans” who believe in “Christian religion,” “Free Speech,” “Liberty,” and “White Supremacy.”

The myth of white female frailty and white male chivalry not only obscured rampant existing white violence against black women, but neomedieval fantasies about protecting white female bodies also led to a new epidemic of violence against black Americans. Whites with delusions of heroism formed lynch mobs in Omaha, Nebraska, massacred families in Rosewood, Florida, and decimated an entire black business district in Tulsa, among many, many other tragedies. And this twisted “chivalric” white male anxiety over white female bodies is far from ancient history: in 2015, Dylann Roof declared, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. You have to go,” just before he murdered the black Americans who had welcomed him into their Wednesday night Bible study.

A Medievalism of Her Own

Although the second KKK relied on the myth that they were “protecting” white women to motivate its members, plenty of white women were complicit in Klan violence. The “Women of the Ku Klux Klan,” which formed just after white women won suffrage, had, at one point, over half a million members. Groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy supported the Klan and sponsored the very Confederate monuments we’re still fighting about today. Their publication, The Southern Magazine, published screeds that called the Ku Klux Klan “the bravest and best men of the South” and tried to justify Klan violence as the protection of white womanhood:

The South was in the clutches of a veritable “Black Death,” for every morn, it seemed, brought news of another outrage upon white womanhood… What would you have done, men of the North? Would you have arisen, in spite of laws, in spite of Federal troops, in spite of impending imprisonment and possible death, in defense of a mother, a sister, a wife or a sweetheart? There can be but one answer, for manhood still lives, the blood is red, and the hearts are pure.

Racist white ladies also enjoyed imagining themselves as medieval warrior-women. The WKKK adopted Klan names and regalia for their own rituals and drew on medieval women like Joan of Arc for inspiration. In fact, the tradition continues to this day: as a recent exposé by Seward Darby reveals, the women of today’s new “alt-right” movement imagine themselves as “lionesses and shield maidens and Valkyries” who can “inspire men to fight political battles for the future of white civilization.”

FOAK This

Kyle Chapman (center), founder of the self-described “Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights” assaults a protester in Berkeley, CA. Chapman was later charged with five felonies. This image has become a meme used by the so-called “alt-Right” online.

Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center is tracking American hate groups with names like “Wolves of Vinland,” “Rebel Brigade Knights of the True Invisible Empire,” and “The Holy Nation of Odin” alongside the unfortunately enduring “Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” The Proud Boys, one of the alt-right groups that invaded the liberal bastion of Berkeley, California this spring, even formed its own pseudo-medieval militia: they call it “The Fraternal Order of Alt Knights” (FOAK).

No one who studies the history of medievalism will be surprised that an oversimplified, Eurocentric, patriarchal Middle Ages comforts men who are terrified of being “replaced.” In their fantasy world, they can pretend to be brothers, knights, and heroes serving a higher purpose. But their real battle is against reality.

The white supremacists who pretend to be knights crusading in defense of American history get both medieval history and American history wrong for a reason: because facing the truth means admitting that they are not different or special, not the chosen descendants of a past full of heroism and glory. It means facing the fact that they’re not carrying on noble, chivalric traditions, but are instead spreading the murderous revisionist history of monsters.

That might be a hard truth for them to swallow, but it’s one the rest of us have had to suffer under for far too long.

Further Reading

Susan Aronstein, Hollywood Knights: Arthurian Cinema and the Politics of Nostalgia, Palgrave, 2005.

Kelly J. Baker, The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, University Press of Kansas, 2011.

Tison Pugh, Queer Chivalry: The Myth of White Masculinity in Southern Literature, University of Virginia Press, 2013.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

The View from the Road: Were Medieval People Racist? III

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


The medieval European understanding of “race” was quite complicated. It certainly was not the same as the modern one. As we have explored previously, “race” is a complicated social construct that invovles far more than the colour of a person’s skin. That being said, skin colour has been one of the central components of the modern idea of racial difference. As Director of the Center for Race and Gender at Berkeley Evelyn Nakano Gleen wrote in her book Shades of Difference, Why Skin Color Matters, despite race and colour (and thus racism and what she terms “colorism” being distinct and different,

at the symbolic level, the meanings of skin color and race are inextricably linked.

So, in order to understand how medieval people understood the concept of race, it can be quite useful to see how they described people of color, and whether this link between colour and race existed then.

We have also explored some of the facets of the European understanding of the wider world and its people in previous articles in this series: skin colour was sometimes thought of as a manifestation of the soul in some texts; some authors certainly thought of skin color as mutable and able to change based on circumstance. Much of this thinking about race stems from the romance literature and theology of Northern Europe. But that is not where this story ends: there is a branch of medieval writing which deserves a greater exploration—particularly when considering what Europeans in the Middle Ages understood about “race”: the travelogue.

One of the biggest misconceptions about medieval Europe is that it was a static place, that most people would never leave their hometown or village. The reality is, as per usual, more complicated.

If someone wasn’t a serf bound to the land, travel was quite common. Even if you were a serf, movement was not unheard of. And merchants, churchmen, craftsmen, nobles, and students were all particularly mobile, and have left us quite a lot of writings documenting their journeys. Some are more famous than others. Some left little to mark their passing other than Islamic coins in Anglo-Saxon England, or Old Norse runes carved into the Hagia Sophia. But others have become household names; people like Marco Polo have left a legacy that survives to this day. Those who ventured out of Europe and experienced the rest of the world can give us a certain insight into how they understood other people, and how they reported that back to Europe.

John of Plano Carpini and William Rubruck: Only Skin Deep

The route of Guillaume de Rubrouck

One of the pieces of “evidence” used to support the inaccurate assumption that Europe was racially homogenous in the Middle Ages is that skin colour doesn’t crop up often in European medieval texts.

The problem with this line of thinking is that Europeans who travelled outside of Europe—amongst people who looked quite different from them, also did not talk about skin colour much. Nor did they talk much about any of the other physical characteristics that modern people point to to describe racial difference: facial features or hair colour, texture, or style. During the renaissance, Europeans obsessed on these details when depicting the ‘scary’ or ‘strange’ world they explored, conquered, and enslaved. Yet for medieval European writers, this does not appear to have been the case.

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An audience with Möngke Khan. BNdF, Supplément persan 206, fol. 101.

Take, for example, John of Plano Carpini and William Rubruck. Both were friars, and both travelled—separately—over the north edge of the Black Sea, through Persia, and along the Asian interior. They even reached as far as Karakorum, in Mongolia, in the 1250s. Along the way both describe meeting many people, both those local to the regions they travelled through, and other travellers from all over Eurasia.

Both completely omit any mention of skin colour.

Benedict the Pole, who wrote a slightly more embroidered version of John of Plano Carpini’s journey, also failed to mention any variation in skin tones, even amongst the ambassadors of China and India (who John and William encountered several times). Both John and William also visited the courts of several lesser khans as well as the Great Khan in Karakorum. These courts were populated with men and women from all over the Asian continent. But never a mention of what we, today, would think of as physical signifiers of race.

This omission isn’t from a lack of physical descriptions of people, either. William in particular described people in great detail. He just didn’t mention any differences in skin or obvious features that would visually distinguish men from different parts of the world (the only exception being a single mention that the men of China had smaller eyes than he did). For example, he described Khan Batü, a fearsome Mongol warlord who conquered great swathes of the West Asian steppe, and devastated much of Eastern Europe, as ‘roughly the height of his lord John de Beaumont, and his face was covered in red spots at that time.’

Similarly, Möngke, the Great Khan—probably the most powerful man in the world at that time—was described as:

seated on a couch, and was dressed in a skin spotted and glossy, like a seal’s skin. He is a little man, of medium height, aged forty-five years, and a young wife sat beside him.

The steppe peoples of central Asia were also described, at several points, in great depth. He details the furs and clothes they wore, their riding habits, the layouts of their yurts, their hospitality customs, and their religious practices. Conspicuously absent is a physical description that sets them apart from anyone in Europe.

Marco Polo and Race

People burning a shrouded corpse outside ‘Cyanglu’ (Chengdu, China), in a 14th century copy of Marco Polo’s “Li Livres du Graunt Caam”. MS. Bodl. 264, part III Marco Polo. 161C, 27.

Marco Polo spent about 25 years living outside of Europe. According to his autobiography, he travelled all over Asia, especially in China and India. Polo describes several hundred different kingdoms, tribes, and regions.

He mentions the skin colour of the people living there exactly 10 times.

Almost all of these mentions were in his travels in or near India. In one example, after having described the city of Kayal, the royal family, the city’s cultural practices, and the religious habits of the people, Marco describes a judicial trial-by-combat. It could be group combat, but if

the combat was man to man they will both be naked, just as they are normally, and each will have a knife. They are very skilled at defending themselves with these knives, for they are adept at paying a blow with them as well as attacking their opponents. This, then, is the procedure. As you may have gathered, they are a dark-skinned people. So one of them will draw a white circle wherever he chooses on the other’s body, saying to him “Know that I will strike you in this circle and nowhere else; defend yourself as best you can.” And the other will do the same to him.

The travel route of Marco Polo. Click to enlarge.

In this description, the mention about the colour of the combatant’s skin appears to exist solely to justify the colour of the circle drawn on them, rather than for any other purpose. In all, out of a 342-page translation, Marco off-handedly mentions the skin colour of people only ten times. That is a lot of people he did not do so for.

These mentions of skin colour don’t appear to be generalisations the reader is supposed to make about the other places nearby. All ten of these mentions are specific to that place and carry no suggestion that they apply to other places; the next place description sometimes also mentions skin colour, but often it does not.

Furthermore, they do not correlate skin colour to any moral or personal traits. One city in India where the population was described as ‘black’ is described as prosperous and civilised. Another tribe labelled ‘black’ was said to be wicked and deceitful. The only South-East Asian kingdom where the people were described as ‘brown’ were noted as ‘exceptionally beautiful and handsome’. The people of Japan are described as ‘white’, and ‘very polite’. But the vast majority of the time, there is simply no mention of skin colour.

John Mandeville’s Fantasies of Race

Portrait of “John Mandeville”. NYPL, Spencer Collection, Ms. 037.

Perhaps the European writer most interested in skin colour was also the most fanciful (and least trustworthy) of these authors: John Mandeville. John Mandeville wrote his Travels in the 1350s, detailing wild adventures around the world. But it is generally accepted by scholars that John never went anywhere, and his account of the globe is based almost entirely on other sources. ‘John’ may not have even technically existed; we have no record of anyone of that name aside from his travelogue, and many scholars believe that “John Mandeville” was a pen name, or a fictional travelling character, like Lemuel Gulliver, Phileas Fogg, or Dora.

“John” (whoever he was) was more interested in the skin colour of people than other writers, but even he did not mention it very much. And importantly, he did not mention it consistently, or ascribe character traits to it.

When he did talk about skin, much like Marco Polo, it did not correspond to any particular physical or intellectual trait, and he does not see it as lesser, or an indication of evil. One problematic thing that can be said is that he seems to assume that dark skin was less attractive than white skin.

Marco also seems to bear this prejudice (though not consistently—many of the people for whom he omitted a description of their skin colour he describes as beautiful, even if they would have had dark skin, and even some of the dark-skinned people he describes were praised for their beauty). But he does make a few cringeworthy comments about beauty and dark skin. For example, Marco says the people of Kashmir were ‘dark and slender, and the women are very beautiful, as dark women go.’

Mandeville makes it worse. For example, he describes the women of Chaldia (in Arabia), as ‘swarthy and ugly.’ Mandeville makes a number of other plenty of disparaging remarks on the appearance of foreign people. But it’s comparatively rare that these are tied to what we would consider racial features. For example, he suggests that the testicles of the men of India dangled so low (due to the heat, of course) that they had to be bound with tape to ensure their survival. Sweaty balls may be a curse, but they don’t seem to be tied to race in this case.

Overall, John’s book hints that Europeans’—or at least his—impressions of other skin colours weren’t particularly positive. But it also seems clear that it wasn’t important enough to draw regular attention to. These examples are very much the exception, not the rule, and the vast majority of the time physical descriptions carry no racial markings at all, or just aren’t even there.

 Race for the Medieval Traveller

So, in summary, the travellers out of Europe in the Middle Ages were—by comparison with modern people—surprisingly disinterested in the skin colour of most of the people they met. When they do refer to it, it is largely as a curiosity of appearance, rather than carrying any specific meanings, or placed within a racial framework similar to those present in today’s society. People described as ‘black’, ‘brown’, or ‘white’ seem to be described with about as many positive and as many negative traits as anyone else. ‘Black’ is not pejorative here; there was no link between skin colour and wickedness. Many of the ‘black’ people of Africa they were describing were Christian; the descriptions of their bodies are were not substantially different to any other ‘black’ people described in India or Africa.

The way their non-physical characteristics were described is very different indeed. But these had little to do with skin colour or other physical features, and much more to do with something medieval Europeans were obsessed with: their faith.

That’s a topic for another article. But it’s important to stress that medieval Europeans were quite able to demonstrate a wide range of prejudices. And it’s also important not to impose later-European ideas of race on the Middle Ages too much. For the authors here, who were some of the Europeans who had the most contact with other races, the physical markers of “race” were not very important. They barely get a mention. And when they do mention these physical features, it has no particular associations. And it particularly is not connected with worth in a moralizing way as it was centuries later, and, for many, remains so to this day.


Editor’s note: This article has been slightly revised from its original form. Originally it seemed to imply that skin colour was equated with race; that is neither true nor was it the intent of the author. The article has been revised to better reflect some of the complexities around this idea.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

The Arc of Jewish Life in the Middle Ages

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

If you are interested in learning more, Prof. Chazan expands on these ideas in his 2010 book Reassessing Jewish Life in Medieval Europe.


The term “medieval,” when used in contemporary parlance, tends to be synonymous with “cruel and barbarous,” conjuring up imagery of religiously grounded hatred, persecution, and bloodshed. The Jews of medieval Christian Europe are often referenced as one of the central reasons why the period is projected this way: they purportedly suffered at the hands of Christian warriors during the crusades, Christian churchmen during the inquisition, and Christian rulers who confiscated their property and expelled them.

This vision of the Middle Ages in general, and of Jewish fate in particular, is the legacy of Enlightenment thinkers’ backlash against medieval European civilization. Like all such backlashes, this one is a combination of truth and fiction, and an oversimplification of a complex subject. This is the case for generalizations about medieval civilization overall as well as about the Jews in particular. In reality, neither medieval society, nor Jewish life within it, was always dire; there were many times and places in which medieval Jewish people and Jewish culture thrived.

A Balanced View of Jewish Life in the Middle Ages

A more-balanced perspective on the treatment of Jews during the Middle Ages must begin with a simple, but important awareness: The medieval world was much more than the Roman Catholic sectors of Europe. This is true both geographically and religiously.

The medieval period is generally defined as extending from roughly 500 to roughly 1500 (although some scholars now extend the Middle Ages down to the end of the eighteenth century, the point in time when Enlightenment ideals of social equality began to be actualized in the creation of new-style polities and societies). Over this period of a millennium or more, Jewish societies extended from Mesopotamia westward across Europe and North Africa. During the central centuries of the Middle Ages (roughly the ninth through twelfth centuries), the largest expanse of this vast area was ruled in the name of Islam; other sectors were ruled in the name of Greek Christianity; the smallest and weakest segment of this vast territory was ruled in the name of Roman Catholicism.

The Enlightenment’s rejection of medieval civilization took place in the Roman Catholic sectors of Europe. As a result, it reflected the realities of that area during the closing centuries of the Middle Ages. By that time, these territories had overcome their earlier weakness, had achieved leadership in the world, and had come to harbor the largest portion of worldwide Jewry. But the concentration of Jews in Roman Catholic Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages (to which we shall return) was by no means the norm throughout the medieval period. Jewish population distribution during the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages was quite different.

A map illustrating the many major Jewish communities and rabbinical academies in the Islamic medieval Middle East.
Map of Jewish communities and Rabbinical academies in the high medieval Middle East. Source: Judaism: History, Belief and Practice, by Dan Cohn-Sherbok. https://www.amazon.com/Judaism-History-Practice-Dan-Cohn-Sherbok/dp/0415236614

During the central period of the Middle Ages (c. 800–c. 1100) the vast majority of worldwide Jewry was found in the Islamic lands, which stretched from Mesopotamia westward across the eastern, southern, and western shores of the Mediterranean. The dominant Jewish community at the time was in Mesopotamia—it had a large Jewish population, a flourishing Jewish economy, and a vigorous Jewish intellectual life. The Jewish community in Palestine—once the center of the Jewish world but by then considerably reduced—was also part of the realm of Islam. But newer Jewish communities also sprang up across the southern and western shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

Medieval Jewish Life under Muslim Rule

A segment of Exodus, written in Hebrew using Arabic script, from 10th-century Palestine or Egypt. This simply indicates a degree of multiculturalism and religious integration within the medieval Islamic world.
A segment of Exodus, written in Hebrew using Arabic script, from 10th-century Palestine or Egypt. This simply indicates a degree of multiculturalism and religious integration within the medieval Islamic world. MS. BL Oriental 2540, ff. 18v-19. http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=49577

If “medieval” implies cruel and barbarous, then Jewish circumstances under Islamic rule were by no means medieval. Let us begin on the doctrinal level. The Islamic perspective on humanity divided the peoples of the world broadly into three groups: the realm of idolatry (defined as completely erroneous); the peoples of the book (namely Jews and Christians), who were viewed as the bearers of genuine, albeit incomplete, divine truth; and Islam, the final and full revelation of divine truth.

This was hardly a message of human equality; Islam was understood as the full truth and Muslims as the privileged bearers of that truth. Nonetheless, other monotheists—which meant, essentially, Jews and Christians—were honored for their reception of a significant level of divine truth. This translated into an Islamic policy of full protection of these alternative monotheisms and monotheists. Jews and Christians as private individuals were not to be persecuted for their beliefs and practices. The corporate institutions of Jews and Christians were likewise to be respected and protected.

Beyond this Islamic theory, there were social realities that positively affected Jewish life throughout the realm of Islam. In the first place, Jews were long-time residents of these vast areas. Their presence long predated the emergence of Islam—and indeed the emergence of Christianity as well. These Jewish inhabitants of Islamic territories were viewed by others and by themselves as simply a given part of the terrain. Moreover, the population of the Islamic realm was highly diverse racially, ethnically, and religiously. The relatively small Jewish minority was thus in no sense conspicuous. Indeed, of the two respected monotheisms, the Jews tended to be favored by the Muslim ruling class. In many areas (for example Spain and Italy), Christians had been in power, but had lost their power to Muslim conquerors. Thus, the local Christians were inherently suspected of harboring anti-Muslim aspirations. Nowhere was this true for Jews, who were generally deemed cooperative and trustworthy.

Thus the Jews of the realm of Islam in its heyday (c. 800–c. 1100) were by no means regular victims of mob violence, religious persecution, or exploitation by the ruling class. The Jews of the Islamic sphere grew in numbers, flourished economically, interacted vigorously with their creative non-Jewish milieu, fashioned major institutions of Jewish intellectual and spiritual activity, and produced great intellectual and spiritual leaders and works. These were aspects of Jewish life and achievement unknown to the Enlightenment thinkers for whom the Middle Ages as they knew it—i.e. medieval Roman Catholic Europe—constituted a period of unrelieved religious bigotry and a set of Jewish experiences that exemplified, and indeed highlighted, such bigotry.

The Rise of Catholic Europe and its Jews

Toward the end of the first millennium, a process of slow change began, which would result in a massive redistribution of power throughout the medieval world. Roman Catholic Europe—until then the weakest of the sectors of the medieval world—slowly began to develop in ways that would eventually transform it into the most powerful area on the scene.

A map of medieval Jewish migration. Note in particular the movement from Baghdad across Northern Africa, to the Iberian and Italian Penninsulas and then into Northern and Eastern Europe. Source: Judaism: History, Belief and Practice, by Dan Cohn-Sherbok. https://www.amazon.com/Judaism-History-Practice-Dan-Cohn-Sherbok/dp/0415236614

This slow but steady change involved, above all else, the maturation of northern Europe from a relatively backward hinterland into the dynamic center of medieval life and civilization. Arable lands in the north were extended; populations grew; cities expanded; trade and commerce matured; governance became increasingly effective; security improved; the Church became better organized; cultural institutions and creativity flourished. By the end of the fifteenth century, Roman Catholic Europe led the way in the discovery and exploitation of far-off areas of the globe, which served to enhance even further its newfound dominance. This dominance lasted well into modernity.

These changes had enormous implications for Jewish history. Up through the end of the first millennium, the Jewish population of Roman Catholic Europe was miniscule. There were minor Jewish enclaves across southern Europe—in northern Spain, southern France, and Italy. But there were hardly any Jews across backward northern Europe.  But as Roman Catholic Europe surged, its Jewish population began to grow.

In part, this Jewish population growth was the result of accelerating Christian conquests of Muslim territories, especially on the Iberian peninsula. As the Christian re-conquest of Spain proceeded from north to south, towns with large Jewish communities were added to Christendom. The conquering Christian rulers were keen to keep these Jews in place rather than have them flee to other Muslim-controlled lands, in order to preserve the advanced level of their economies. Slowly, Jews from areas of the Mediterranean Basin that remained under Muslim control were attracted by the burgeoning opportunities in the southern areas of an expanded and vitalized Roman Catholic Europe, and so they migrated.

From the perspective of Jewish history, the truly monumental change involved northern Europe. An area that had never been home to a significant Jewish population slowly began to attract Jews from the southern lands. Only those Jews with the mobility provided by business and trade could make the move; these Jewish immigrants were strongly supported by the northern political authorities, who were anxious to bring to their domains new settlers that could introduce the more advanced economic techniques of the older and better-developed south.

A New Branch of the Jewish People

Nicholas of Lyra contrasts Jewish and Christian understandings of the table of the shewbread and the Menorah. Captions under the Menorah distinguish that drawn by “Rabbi Salomon” (Rashi) at left from that drawn “according to other learned men” at right. Nicholas of Lyra, Commentary on the Bible,
France, late 14th century, MS. Bodl. 251, 49v. http://bodleian.thejewishmuseum.org/?page_id=149

Slowly and fitfully, a new branch of the Jewish people was created across northern Europe. This new branch of world Jewry (now called Ashkenazi Jews)  eventually became the majority world Jewish population and created new patterns of Jewish material and spiritual life. This was the group that also saw the emergence of new forms of anti-Jewish thinking and behavior. The roots of the medieval anti-Jewish animus and persecution highlighted in Enlightenment rejection of the European Middle Ages lie in the origins and evolution of northern European Jewry during the High and Late Middle Ages.

The successful migration of Jews northward was fully supported by the political authorities, who were eager to utilize the Jewish economic skills and knowledge gained in the more-advanced southern sectors of Europe. The Church maintained what was, by that time, a well-established policy:  Church leaders insisted on the rights of Jews to live securely and peacefully in Christian society. They equally insisted on limiting any Jewish behaviors that they thought might impinge on Christians.

Despite the eagerness of the local rulers and official support of the Church, the populace of northern Europe resisted these Jewish newcomers for a number of reasons. The most prominent was the common human antipathy toward recent immigrants—a lamentable phenomenon observable in all human societies at all times. Exacerbating this normal tendency, Christian Europe was—unlike the realm of Islam—relatively homogenous religiously. Thus, those who saw themselves as the indigenous inhabitants of northern Europe viewed the new Jewish settlers as a religious disruption. These grounds of opposition activated a dormant prejudice: the negative portrayal of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries and their purported responsibility for his crucifixion. The consequence of all this was the emergence of significant hostility towards the new Jewish settlers in the north by many of their neighbors.

As a result of the popular resistance in northern Europe, the new Jewish settlers were not able to create for themselves diversified economic outlets. Most of them had come with skills in business and trade. As the Church attempted during the twelfth century to prohibit Christians from taking interest on loans from other Christians—which it saw as the sin of usury—it opened the way for these Jewish businesspeople, who were not governed by the prohibition of taking interest from Christian borrowers, to specialize in moneylending.

Once again, the rulers of northern Europe were supportive. The rapid economic development of their domains required an ongoing smooth flow of capital, and they themselves found that borrowing money was often useful. But, once again, this created a potent source of popular animosity. Moneylenders—like newcomers—are never popular. Out of the combination of multi-faceted discontents with the new Jews of northern Europe emerged a series of slanders, prejudices, and hatreds that plagued Jewish life from the twelfth century until today.

Medieval Anti-Jewish Violence

As a result of the complex circumstances described, Jews did suffer deeply in medieval Roman Catholic Christendom during the latter centuries of the Middle Ages. Religious difference was surely a factor in this suffering. But there were—as we have seen—other and more complicated factors as well. Some of the Enlightenment imagery of Jewish suffering is accurate; some is not. Jews were attacked by Christian crusaders. But the anti-Jewish violence associated with crusading, as examined in previous articles in this series, was fairly limited in scope. Moreover, such violence was soundly repudiated by the ecclesiastical authorities that created and provided spiritual guidance for crusading. The impact of the inquisition on Europe’s Jews was similarly limited. In fact, the inquisition had no direct jurisdiction over Jews; it was a court system designed to eradicate heresy from Christian society, not Judaism. Since a major form of heresy involved formerly Jewish Christians suspected of returning to their prior Jewish faith, the inquisitorial courts often dealt with Jewish thinking and behaviors on the part of Christian defendants. But these defendants were formally defined as Christians. Fully professing Jews rarely appeared before the inquisition.  [ed. note: The question of these converts to Christianity (“Conversos,” in Spanish), is complex, not least because many had been forced to convert under threat of violence. We hope to address the complexities of their lives, violence in medieval Spain, and the inquisition more fully in a subsequent article.]

The most harmful suffering of Jews in Roman Catholic Christendom during the Middle Ages involved, first of all, the popular antipathy that arose as Jews migrated northward into new territory. This anti-Jewish hostility did not abate over the course of the medieval centuries; instead, it intensified markedly.

As a result, at points of intense stress, Jews became the scapegoats for broader societal malaise. During the mid-fourteenth century, for example, the world was suddenly struck by the devastating bubonic plague. As a result, many European Christians—utterly disoriented and terrified by the natural calamity—attacked Jews as the alleged source of the catastrophe. Similarly, during the late fourteenth century, when societal dislocation erupted throughout Spain, Jews again suffered popular violence. The same happened again in seventeenth-century Poland.

This popular anti-Jewish animus created a need for special support of the Jews on the part of the ruling class. Such supportive relations were characteristic of feudal Europe altogether, but Jewish dependence on Europe’s rulers was especially profound. During the early centuries of the second millennium, most of the northern-European political authorities provided the requisite support. Without that support, successful Jewish settlement could never have taken place. By the late twelfth century, however, the crucial support from the ruling classes became less certain. As the economy matured, the Jewish contribution to it became less crucial; rulers could weigh the advantages of expelling their Jews—which would provide economic resources through confiscation of Jewish property, ecclesiastical approval, and popular approbation. Expulsion of Jews from the more-advanced northwestern areas of Europe led the way to a new societal development destined for a long history—the expulsion of entire Jewish communities from European states.

A Balanced View of the European Jewish Experience

While some of the traditional targets of Enlightenment criticism of medieval European mistreatment of Jews—for example crusading and inquisition—are somewhat overblown, others—e.g. broad societal hostility, occasional eruption of widespread violence, and the novel phenomenon of group expulsion—are not. Looking at the overall history of the new, exposed, and often persecuted Jewry of northern Europe, however, one final observation is appropriate. Despite all the negativity in their circumstances, the northern-European Jews did proceed from the humblest of beginnings to become the largest branch of the Jewish people. In terms of their numbers, Northern-European Jewry reached parity with the older Jewries of the south by the early-modern centuries; subsequently they came to surpass decisively these older Jewries. Clearly, the negative aspects of Jewish experience in medieval Roman Catholic Europe, especially its northern sectors, were balanced by the stimulation provided by the rapidly developing and vigorous societies of Roman Catholic Europe.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Deggendorf, and the Long History of Its Destructive Myth

Harley 7026 f.13

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


A portrait, in black and white, of a man wearing a priest's collar and a black suit.
Joseph Ratzinger, professor at the University of Regensburg. Photo taken September 14, 1965. Ratzinger would go on to become Pope Benedict XVI. Click to enlarge.

In 1968, the Bishop of Regensburg, Rudolf Graber, made a momentous decision. He found himself in the position to shape the future of the College of Catholic Theology at the newly founded University of Regensburg, in southeastern Germany. As one of his decisions, he changed the plan to create a professorship in Judaic Studies; instead, he created one in Dogmatic Theology. The call to fill this professorship was accepted by a brilliant theologian from the University of Tübingen: Joseph Ratzinger. Ratzinger would then become first Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the successor to the Roman Inquisition, in 1982. And, of course, he would become Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. However, Graber’s decision to change the professorship’s focus from Judaic Studies to Dogmatic Theology may also have had another, less-well-known consequence.

One year after his strategic appointment of Ratzinger, an article in Der Spiegel exposed two things about Graber. First, that he had been a supporter of national socialist ideology and Hitler’s leadership.

Ratzinger (left) and Graber (right).

But the paper also pilloried his outspoken support for something called the “Deggendorfer Gnad” (“Deggendorf Grace”).

The Deggendorfer Gnad was an anti-Jewish pilgrimage tradition in the small city of Deggendorf (in Lower Bavaria), which originated in the first half of the fourteenth century.

Specifically, Graber objected to calls for the removal of a cycle of early eighteenth-century paintings in the small city’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher that memorialized a long disproven narrative about how the pilgrimage came about—as an anti-Jewish “miracle”.

A Massacre, an Exoneration Myth, and Opportunism

Images depicting origin of the “Deggendorfer Gnad”. The text and images are similar to the fourteen panels, which hung in the church from 1710-1969. Source: Bavarian State Library.

The 1710 paintings (the above print versions of them were published in 1749) tell a lurid story. The story goes something like this:

In 1337, the Jews of Deggendorf enticed a Christian woman to steal hosts (the bread that represents the body of Christ) during Holy Communion. They, according to this story, attempted to desecrate these hosts by driving nails into them, by cutting them, hammering them, and burning them. To their surprise, each attempt apparently made a youthful Jesus appear—who then soared over the host. Discouraged, the Jews then apparently tried to cover up their crime by throwing the hosts in a well. The Virgin Mary then appeared miraculously to the citizens, exposing the crime, and the citizens burned the Jews in their anger. Subsequently, the citizens walked in procession from the well to their church to place the saved hosts in a beautiful monstrance, where they were forever preserved in immaculate condition. The narrative ends by depicting additional miracles, making a claim that a papal bull approved the sacred nature of the site, and recording the beginnings of a tradition of pilgrims coming to the site.

The actual historical record offers a very different version of events. Scholars, especially church historian Manfred Eder’s publications on the topic, demonstrate that, in 1338, the citizens of Deggendorf settled an economic crisis, which had been caused by a series of catastrophic harvests, by murdering the town’s Jews and stealing their property. The myth about a pre-1338 Jewish desecration of the host was clearly invented to exonerate, after the fact, the city’s Christian citizens. Some of them might have felt guilt about killing their Jewish neighbors, or they might have come under criticism by their neighbors. This was a wholesale rewriting of their history.

The massacre in Deggendorf was widely known. It spurred similar murders of Jewish people in more than a dozen other towns in the region. One of those places, according to the 15th-century Nuremberg Martyrologium, was Braunau, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.

From Murderous Myth to Moneymaker

An early modern engraving memorializing the Deggendorf host desecration myth.

If the medieval mass-murder and property theft had “solved” a short-term economic problem for the Deggendorf citizens, the miracle myth, and the pilgrimages that it inspired, became a major source of recurring and reliable income for the town in the early modern and modern eras. Soon after 1338, sources began to claim that a host desecration had preceded, and thus justified, the citizens’ massacre of the Jews. By 1710, when the paintings were commissioned for the pilgrimage church, several conflicting local legends were consolidated and edited into one official narrative. In 1721, as many as 40,000 visitors are said to have traveled to Deggendorf; numerous religious rituals (processions, indulgences, litanies) and cultural practices (poems, plays, prose narratives, paintings) were created, and succeeded in (re)memorializing various aspects of the alleged host miracle over the subsequent several centuries. These practices successfully adapted to various new historical contexts. But the miracles surrounding the saved and miraculously preserved hosts (which have been proven to have been replaced with new ones several times when they showed visible decay) remained connected with their alleged cause: the desecration of the hosts by medieval Jews.

The Nazis, who were otherwise keen on suppressing Catholic pilgrimage traditions, permitted and even supported the Deggendorf pilgrimage because it easily connected with their own anti-Semitic agenda. In the 1980s, the priest of the Holy Sepulcher parish made a final attempt at revivifying the gradually waning tradition with a well-funded marketing campaign. But, when he removed the references to the false medieval accusations against the Jews, he found that the remaining (mostly conservative) supporters of the pilgrimage showed little enthusiasm for a ‘cleansed’ narrative. And so, finally, a full three decades after the Second Vatican Council—which officially condemned “hatred and persecutions of Jews, whether they arose in former or in our own days”—all official religious rituals and practices related to the pilgrimage were finally discontinued by the Bishop of Regensburg in 1992.

Projective Inversion

The genesis and reception of the Deggendorfer Gnad (numerous similar examples exist) show that there is an undeniable continuity between medieval and modern attitudes and actions toward members of the Jewish people in Europe. Fabricated, false accusations against Jews in the Middle Ages (of host desecrations, ritual murder, well-poisoning, usury, etc.), were a defining feature medieval Christian identity. Although accounts of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism (for example, if you can read French, see Léon Poliakov’s Histoire de l’antisémitisme, 4 vols, 1955-1977; rev. edn. 1991) claim that all this changed with the onset of scientific modernity, there is ample evidence to suggest that this is not true. For medieval Christians as well as for post-medieval Christians (and non-Christians), Jewish otherness offered an opportunity to accuse the Jewish people of falling back into pre-Christian or pre-modern stages of civilization.

For example, from 1213 to 1215, the Catholic Church held a council of much of its entire leadership to decide many of the rules that remain part of Catholic orthodoxy today. One of these was the doctrine of transubstantiation, claiming that the bread and wine of communion literally become Christ’s flesh and blood during mass. However, after this, medieval Christians began to project their own fears about falling back into archaic forms of sacrificial anthropophagism—consuming Christ’s actual flesh and blood—onto the Jews, accusing them of ritual murder and desecration of the host. It is classic psychological projection: taking what you fear most about yourself and projecting it onto a scapegoat, which you can then hate and persecute freely.

Modern Christians continued to believe in the deceptively timeless nature of anti-Semitic myths with medieval origins because they were sustained by powerful narratives and rituals like the ones that sustained the Deggendorf Gnad. Their continued beliefs were then easily coopted and exploited by other individuals and groups in need of political scapegoats during times of increased insecurity and fear. In many of these cases, public health officials, butchers, and animal protectionists played a role. For example, numerous participants of the International Congress on the Protection of Animals in Vienna, in 1929, condemned the traditional Jewish slaughtering of animals in accordance with the Kosher laws (without stunning or anesthetizing the animal first) as a regression into premodern cruelty and unhygienic filth. These toxic views entered into easy alliances with Christian prejudice.

The politically motivated ritual murder accusations of Jewish people like Tisza Eszlár (in Hungary in 1883) and Mendel Beilis (in Kiev, Russia, in 1913) reveal exactly this kind of scapegoating of Jewish beliefs and practices. So do the opportunistic hate campaigns seen during the Third Reich, which featured ritual murder narratives in Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer. So too did the Hungarian nationalist “Jobbik” party’s anti-Semitic slogans, which claimed, as recently as 2008, that the Jews had “desecrated our [country’s] Holy Crown, [and] ridiculed the [medieval Catholic relic] Holy Right Hand.”

Complicity, and Resistance to Change

Had Bishop Graber appointed a chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Regensburg, the Deggendorfer Gnad would very probably have lost the official support of the Catholic Church as early as the 1960s. A chair in Judaic Studies, together with the strong movement to finally reform the Church’s medievalist teachings about the Jewish people—which was codified in the Second Vatican Council—would have led much earlier to the good scholarship on regional Jewish-Christian relations that emerged in the early 1990s. It was this scholarship that provided the overwhelming documentary evidence that exonerated the Jews and forced the hands of the religious authorities.

With hindsight, Graber’s decision now seems to be an active attempt by him at slowing down, or even thwarting entirely, the Council’s far-reaching decision to accept responsibility for the Church’s role in the suffering and eventual destruction of the European Jewry that began in medieval times and helped enable the Holocaust during the Third Reich.

Graber’s own national-socialist sympathies provide a plausible explanation for his anti-Jewish thoughts and actions. But his successors’ decision to keep the pilgrimage in place until after Graber’s death is different. It must be seen as another way in which far too many Catholic dignitaries have been resisting any criticism of the church, its practices, and its leaders, through the lens of history. History, after all, reveals traditions and rituals as grown, constructed, and time-bound. History thus challenges many religious beliefs, which claim a timeless bridge between, let’s say, Christ’s supper and every remembrance and reenactment of that supper.

We should remind ourselves that the stigmatization, demonization, and killing of Jews cannot be linked to any of Christ’s actions or views in the Biblical texts. It is the responsibility of those humans who claim to act in his name years and centuries later. Their actions, including the ones of church leaders, can and should be exposed for what they are, not cloaked as religious or cultural practices.

Deggendorf, Post-pilgrimage

If your travels lead you anywhere close to the region where Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic meet, a visit to Deggendorf (situated along the Autobahn A3 between Regensburg and Passau) is a good investment. The city that has managed to transform its historical past—from the Middle Ages through the modern era—into a thoughtful learning experience. The Stadtmuseum Deggendorf, and its permanent exhibit on the Deggendorfer Gnad (opened in 1993), is a great way to see some of the texts and artwork that was created to celebrate and sustain the pilgrimage. The printed guide offered there was authored by Manfred Eder, a scholar whose doctoral dissertation provided the final incentive to discontinue the religious pilgrimage. Sadly, it is currently only available in print.

Another public sign of change is the plaque added to the outside of the Holy Sepulcher Church, seen above. It reads:

Lord have mercy.

In the year 1338 the Jews of Deggendorf were murdered. A decade later, to justify this crime, a legend was created in which the Jews desecrated the host, which is false.

Over the centuries, the slander continued to damage not only the memory of the Jews of the Middle Ages, but also to create a caricature that damaged the name of their descendants all the way into the recent past.

We ask the Jews, “our older bretheren” per Pope John Paul II, for forgiveness for the injustice done to them.

Deggendorf, in Advent 1993

It is only by publicly accepting the wrongs of the past, asking forgiveness, and making amends for them, that we may truly be able to surmount the injustices of our ancestors.

Coda: There and Back Again

The Heiligenblut pilgrimage, based on a Jewish host desecration myth, resuscitated in 2005.

Deggendorf has successfully engaged with its gruesome heritage. But the myth of Jewish host desecration has reared its ugly head again elsewhere. In the Bavarian diocese of Eichstätt, the “Heiligenblut” pilgrimage, also based on an alleged desecration of the host, made a comeback in 2005, when the diocese attempted to increase tourism to its places of worship. In its official communication on the reawakened event the diocesan leaders simply hush up the tradition’s troubling origins.

We must do better.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Perfect Victims: 1096 and 2017

Nuremburg Chronicle Jews Burning

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


The horrific events in Charlottesville began as a dispute over the interpretation of history. The dispute itself began over what, exactly, monuments to Confederate leaders mean, what lessons they convey, and what their presence in our public spaces tell us about today.

The “story” told of the Civil War—at least that which rests in much of the public’s imagination—is, as Ta-Nehisi Coates rightly argued in The Atlantic, a sanitized version of history. That story struggles to erase slavery; it is designed to benefit certain Americans’ views of themselves and to justify Jim Crow and its legal and social descendants.

The call to remove Confederate statues is part of an effort to repeal that toxic narrative.

History, in all of its details, can rarely support simple interpretations—and given all we have seen in the past weeks, we can see how misinterpretations of the past can lead to—and prop up—bigotry, hatred, and violence.

By way of demonstrating how important it is to complicate the narrative, I want to look more closely at the historical event discussed in one of The Public Medievalist’s recent installments: the massacres of Jews in the Rhineland in 1096. My introduction as an undergraduate to the texts recording these events led to some self-reflection that I believe is useful in our current time. Yes, this essay is about a white guy learning a lesson from the suffering of others. But clearly, as we can see, white guys still have lessons they—we—need to learn.

Narratives: Historical and Modern

It is easy, as human beings in the present, to create moral narratives out of past events. This is especially true when all we know about a historical event is from a simplified account in a textbook, a summary in a secondary source, or—increasingly—a movie, a TV show, or another piece of media. Such bare-bones accounts usually present conflicts as simple binaries, with easily identifiable villains and heroes. This allows us, or even requires us, to fill in the gaps with our own assumptions about the past and its people. A common quality of these narratives, consequently, is a kind of condescension toward the past. They promote the belief that we modern people are better than those who came before—more moral, more ethical, less prejudiced. “Oh, can you believe what used to be acceptable back then? Such a shame that bigotry and superstition held such sway. Thank goodness we know better!” This attitude is so common that I have found it to be many people’s default attitude when confronted by the past.

Such certainty evaporates when we face today’s controversies, however. If we were to encounter a rash of officer-involved shootings in the historical record, for example, we would likely not hesitate to diagnose it as an abuse of authority, or an imbalance between security and freedom in American society. I sincerely hope that people fifty years from now can smugly say of us: “Can you believe what used to be acceptable back then?”

Likewise, knowing the identities of those lost—Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and others—we would likely conclude that race, including personal as well as structural and institutional racisms, is a significant factor. (“Such a shame that bigotry and superstition held such sway. Thank goodness we know better!”) In reality, of course, these conclusions are frequently deeply politicized and disputed. If the old aphorism, that “journalism is the first rough draft of history” is true, the New York Times and Breitbart are drafting entirely different histories. The disparity between the two accounts crafted by these outlets is due, in part, to outlets like Breitbart telling a story that is more easily digestible for those drawn to simple narratives of good and evil in such circumstances—assumptions which are frequently self-serving. Identifying racism as the cause behind contemporary events casts blame upon a portion of the population—the police specifically, or white people more generally—and many are not willing to accept that explanation. Despite its obvious truth, they will go to great pains to reject it.

As a professor of medieval literature and culture it is my job to bring the past and present together. I do it in order to help us bridge this gap; to better understand our own prejudices by examining those of the past. It is even possible for us to better understand incidents of racial injustice today by looking at medieval examples. One of my profoundest moments of this sort of epiphany was when reading about the events of 1096.

The First Pogroms

The events of the Rhineland Massacres have already been recounted in this series, so I will only give some basic facts. On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II gave a speech at the Council of Claremont which inspired the First Crusade. Caught up in the furor of reclaiming Jerusalem from the infidel, groups of armed pilgrims made their way to the Holy Land. Several of those traveling through the Rhineland attacked Jews in multiple German cities. Many were killed, many martyred themselves, and many others were forced to convert or die.

The most detailed accounts of these attacks come from Jewish writers, such as the anonymous author of The Narrative of the Old Persecutions (also known as the Mainz Anonymous) and the author (or authors) of the Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson. Christian accounts of the First Crusade, if they mention the events in Germany at all, do so briefly. And they are not typically sympathetic to the Jews.

The attacks spread along the route of the advancing armies, hitting the cities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz. In both Worms and Mainz, the bishops gave the Jews shelter within their own buildings. But in both cases, their protection proved ineffective: the attackers gained access and slaughtered those inside. The perpetrators of the massacres—or at least those among them who were Crusaders and not local agitators—never made it to Jerusalem, and never even joined bulk of the Crusading army. As they travelled east, they continued to attack Jewish communities in Regensburg, and in Prague. But when they got to the Kingdom of Hungary, they found their way barred. The authorities were prepared for them, and clearly had no desire for the Crusaders to bring their chaos within Hungarian borders. The bands were compelled to pillage for supplies, and when local forces mustered a defense, the Crusaders were defeated and dispersed.

“Difficult” Victims

This broad sketch of the massacres offers a straightforward story of good and evil. While many people may not be familiar with this specific moment in history, its telling conforms to an expected pattern of evil oppressors and noble victims. But when reading the primary sources, we encounter details that may trouble our expectations. What do we do when the actors in our historical dramas refuse to play their roles? And seeing this, how do we understand them as people, rather than one-dimensional characters?

This was the dilemma I faced as an undergraduate when I first read the primary sources that describe the massacres of 1096. I was prepared, when I started my reading for a history class, to encounter a simple narrative that reinforced my assumptions about the past, about the nature of prejudice, about the conduct of persecuted minorities. I did not expect to be intellectually challenged. Instead, once I finished reading the Jewish accounts of the massacres, I was unsettled. This was because the people who I instinctively labelled “heroes” in these stories were not acting the way I expected.

One of the troubling aspects of the massacres was, for me, the willingness of the Jews to kill themselves pre-emptively. In this, these narratives differ from Christian accounts of martyrdom, which do not encourage suicide—quite the opposite. In stories of Christian martyrdom, the atrocities committed against the saint’s body and their willingness to endure them are typically the longest and most graphically detailed portions of those works. In contrast, many of the assaulted Jews in 1096 killed themselves instead of allowing the Crusaders to murder or convert them. Some of those unwilling or unable to do so, such as children, were killed by their family or community members. The acts are understandable. They were efforts by the Jews to retain control over their fates rather than relinquish it to their persecutors, as well as to save their souls from forced conversion. It was also part of a long tradition of Jewish martyrdom that goes at least as far back as the siege of Masada in the first century CE. Nevertheless, it is one thing to accept something intellectually and another not to react viscerally to passages such as this one from Anonymous of Mainz:

There was a notable lady, Rachel the daughter of R. Isaac ben R. Asher. She said to her companions: “I have four children. On them as well have no mercy, lest these uncircumcised come and seize them and they remain in their pseudo-faith. With them as well you must sanctify the holy Name.”[…] She took Isaac her small son—indeed he was very lovely—and slaughtered him. She…said to her companions: “Wait! Do not slaughter Isaac before Aaron.” But the lad Aaron, when he saw that his brother had been slaughtered, cried out, “Mother, Mother, do not slaughter me!” He then went and hid himself under a bureau. She took her two daughters, Bella and Matrona, and sacrificed them to the Lord God of Hosts, who commanded us not to abandon pure awe of him and to remain loyal to him. When the saintly one finished sacrificing her three children before our Creator, she then lifted her voice and called out to her son: “Aaron, Aaron, where are you? I shall not have pity or mercy on you either.” She pulled him by the leg from under the bureau, where he had hidden, and sacrificed him before the sublime and exalted God. She then put them under her two sleeves, two on one side and two on the other, near her heart. They convulsed near her, until the Crusaders seized the chamber.

This episode is written to create a dramatic and emotional narrative of Jewish martyrdom. And it is not alone: that parents killed their children to spare them from the Crusaders was widely reported in these chronicles. In the context of these chronicles, for these medieval Jewish people (and many other medieval societies) the integrity of one’s faith and the faith of their children—even at the cost of their lives—was paramount. And they may have feared that their fates at the hands of the Crusaders would have been much worse, that death in this manner was merciful. Such actions which to us at first might seem heartless—possibly even fanatical—make perfect sense in the context of their time, and the horror of the moment.

Another aspect of the martyrdom stories that caught me off guard was much less lurid. Probably it is because I was both Catholic and familiar with medieval Christian texts; I was accustomed to a particular type of rhetoric surrounding descriptions of the Christian faith—almost always complimentary. In contrast, The Narrative of the Old Persecutions and the Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson are defiantly anti-Christian texts. You can see, in the passage above, where the author describes Christianity as a “pseudo-faith.” Elsewhere, Christ is referred to as “a bastard and a product of sin and menstruation,” and that he is not a god and so “cannot profit and cannot save for he is worthless.”

My initial reaction to this was something that deserves introspective examination. I was prepared for the violence and anti-Semitism that I found in the texts; they fit a narrative that I was prepared to accept. But I was not prepared to have my own identity attacked. I had assumed, with no reason to do so, that medieval religious minorities would respect the beliefs of the majority—even when dying at the hand of sectarian violence. But why should they? But even upon thinking through that, I remained disturbed at the anti-Christian words in these Chronicles—which disturbed me anew.

Bringing the Past to Today

As a (white, Christian, straight, male, cisgender) undergraduate in the early 2000s I did not have this terminology at the time, but it is clear to me now that I was reading from a place of privilege. Even while reading about people whose beliefs and lives were attacked in ways that mine never would be, I was offended at even the smallest expression of disapproval on their part. I was upset that they were not living up to my expectations of how the targets of persecution conduct themselves. I was shocked by their anger.

Even then, I knew that this expectation was deeply unfair. But I didn’t know what to do with that knowledge. I knew I was foolish to expect anything else from historical texts that detail oppression. And medieval Jews, of course, would not (and do not) believe in Christ. Furthermore, these particular Jewish writers were recounting Christian mass-murders, inspired by Christianity, upon their community, their loved ones, and their religion. To expect anything other than rage and scorn for Christianity is a monstrous double-standard, an attitude which perpetuates injustice as much then as it does today.

It is a position of privilege, as well, that allows us to take a step back and think critically about accounts of other people’s suffering. My introduction to the massacres—and the way I initially reacted to them—has never been far from my mind. This is likely why I have applied it to my own understanding of public reaction to prejudice today—particularly in the case of the police shootings of African-Americans. It may seem awkward to transition from medieval anti-Semitism to the rights of African-Americans today, but in truth prejudices against both these groups have often intertwined. Now, 2017 is not 1096; but, we bring our expectations of today to our reading of the past. Many of the expectations we have for minorities are the same both for then and now.

Two photos of Michael Brown, who was killed by police in 2014. Media outlets, especially conservative media outlets, came under criticism by activists for portraying Brown with the image on the right, rather than the one on the left. The media doing so fed into a narrative that painted Brown as a “thug,” and therefore less deserving of sympathy.

When, in 2014, the killing of young black men began to bring more open scrutiny to policing standards, the persistence of racism in America, and the role of governmental institutions in perpetuating it, many sought to pre-empt criticism by attacking the characters of those who had been killed. Conservative commentators argued that they didn’t dress right; that they had criminal records; that they were “no angels.” The implication was that these individuals did not deserve sympathy, and, by extension, rights. This of course goes against the principle of equal protection under the law; we do not need to find someone sympathetic for them to be eligible for human rights. But it remains a constant tactic to describe someone at the center of an incident like these as someone who is, or is not, a good person. Our ability to identify with them becomes the standard by which we decide whether we should care.

Respectability Politics

This has been one of the key strengths of nonviolent resistance. During the Civil Rights Movement, for example, the optics of peaceful protest were considered extremely important for bringing public opinion over to the side of African-Americans. As Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center explains,

The violence was being perpetrated by the oppressors, not the oppressed and that was an incredibly powerful message and an incredibly important tool during the movement.

They presented people on the fence with images of peaceful protesters who were less-easily dismissed as violent, uncivilized troublemakers. The attempt to smear present-day targets of racism and brutality is a mirror image of this tactic—instead of presenting a picture of someone with whom the general public can sympathize, they provide them with a person they can despise and fear.

We see in this the trap of respectability politics. The American public, as a whole, has developed an archetype of the deserving victim: their suffering is silent, and noble, and they are manifestly better people than those who persecute them. Our images of great civil rights leaders of the past conform to these expectations, even when reality was much more complicated—and this is why threats to undermine these images are seen as effective countermeasures. Any deviation from the expectation of respectability is grounds for the rescinding of sympathy. But this is a trap: if rights are contingent upon being sympathetic, they are not rights. And I fell into this trap. That is why, when I encountered the Jews of 1096 in my class texts, I responded how I did. They were not conforming to my unfair expectations.

Such an attitude becomes a mockery, however, when faced with the insurmountable cruelty, violence, and outrage of the massacres. Clearly, many of the Jews of the Rhineland were deeply angry at the way they had been treated. They hated the religion of the people that persecuted them and were not afraid to write it. And some believed so strongly in their faith that they were willing to destroy their lives and those of their children rather than give it up. Such sentiments might appear outrageous to us today, at least when we see them put into practice. But the price paid by the Jews was far too high to let our squeamishness stand in the way of recognizing where the real wrong lies in this event.

Difficult Histories for a Difficult Present

This is the value of historical study. It is one of the reasons that professors like me present difficult texts to our students—so that they might come to grips with the actuality of the past, rather than our popular narratives. Being able to confront one’s unexamined assumptions in the classroom, as I did, with an event safely in the past, empowers us to do the riskier and more necessary work of confronting them in our present. After all, if we cannot be brave enough to interpret the past fairly, what hope can there be for the present?

Nearly every historical text has some surprise in it for the uninitiated. It is this surprise that I try to include in all of my syllabi and class discussions today. Didn’t the women of the past “know their place” and acquiesce to their husbands? Meet Margery Kempe. Were the people of the Middle Ages completely in awe of the Catholic Church and dare not criticize it? Read The Pardoner’s Prologue (or numerous other portions of The Canterbury Tales). Was the Middle Ages a period in which people of racial, religious, or national difference were completely segregated? What do you think? Confronting all of these contradictions to our lazy assumptions about the past teaches us how infrequently gross generalizations about groups of people prove to be true. And it is a principle which should be carried over into our conduct today. How often do we read things from the perspective of someone unlike us in the present day? It has the potential to be as unfamiliar as anything written far in the past, and it carries the same lessons.

Critiquing prejudice today is hard. It is especially hard because it involves critiquing yourself. Yet it takes quite a bit of lying to yourself to see a world of clear-cut heroes and villains in most of our world today. Those sinned against almost always have messy, complicated lives, and have made mistakes; no one should expect that their persecutors have no redeeming qualities. This is precisely what we find when we examine nearly all of the incidents of racism, police brutality, or institutional blindness raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. We want heroes, we want villains, but what we get are people. A too-easy reading of history can lead us to believe that this is something we can expect. But the Jews of the Rhineland put the lie to that narrative. They may not meet our expectations. But they deserve our sympathy nonetheless. And if we can identify this problem in the past, we should be able to apply the lesson to the present. We only need be courageous enough to act.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Leaving “Medieval” Charlottesville

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Part XXIX 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


At the beginning of this series, I cited an article in The Atlantic that exposed, for their readers, a link that medievalists have understood for years: white nationalists, white supremacists, anti-Semites, and neo-Nazis seem to love the Middle Ages. Or, more accurately, they love their race-fueled fantasies of the Middle Ages, which have nothing to do with the actual Middle Ages. Their version though does have something to do with the ways in which medievalists have studied the past and represented it to the public (with several medievalists recently arguing, with significant merit, that white supremacy is infused into the very bones of this academic discipline). But today, I want to focus on those of us—like me—who engage in medievalisms for fun in their spare time.

This is a call to action. It goes out to those who participate in re-enactment societies, in live-action role-playing games, or who play medieval games online. We know a love of the Middle Ages doesn’t inherently breed white supremacist sentiment, but we do know that they sometimes travel together. You have the opportunity to banish it from the circles in which you travel and the medievalisms you enjoy. You have a responsibility to ensure that the Middle Ages the white supremacists cling to is not the one you revel in.

White supremacists laying claim to the Middle Ages is a fantastical appropriation by a group desperately seeking an origin myth—and naturally, they found it in the period most often used for fantasies both benign and toxic.

In Charlottesville, white supremacists’ vile love affair with the Middle Ages was on full, horrifying display.

White supremacist groups carry flags and banners emblazoned with heraldic symbols and Old Norse runes in Charlottesville, VA. Credit: Charles Butler.

I don’t know where my own love for the Middle Ages came from. By elementary school I was building castles out of balsa wood and canisters of Crystal Light. For fun. As you do. In high school I joined the Society for Creative Anachronism for the first time. Since then, I sewed costumes in order to attend countless Renaissance Festivals in full regalia, participated in a wide range of Live Action Role Playing games to blow off steam, went to Medieval Times restaurants, read and re-read Tolkien and his descendents, and lost a fair bit of my life to World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, Crusader Kings II, Medieval: Total Warfare and many other video game medievalisms. My love affair with the Middle Ages has been lifelong.

I look at the faces of those people pictured at Charlottesville, and I wonder whether I’d met any of them. And I wonder how their love of the Middle Ages could manifest so disgustingly differently.

The second man from the left allegedly drove his car into counter-protesters, murdering one and injuring nineteen. Credit: Lidia Jean Kott

I wonder whether I did meet those charismatic bigots in my travels in medievalism. I probably did. The vast majority of the people I met, and the friends I made, were, like me, delightful nerds. But I remember more than one occasion around a campfire where someone made a racist joke. I know several people in these groups who had confederate flags on their trucks. I remember hearing that a couple of them had some weird politics, said with eye rolls and in hushed tones. I also remember how overwhelmingly white almost all of these activities were. The armor worn in Charlottesville looks ever so slightly familiar, the symbols on the shields ring a bell.

Credit: Edu Bayer for the New York Times.

I do not share these personal reflections to elicit compassion for the white supremacists, the white nationalists, the neo-Nazis. They deserve none.

I share this to speak to those of you in our audience who, like me, swim in the rich and joyful waters that playful medievalisms can offer. We know that white supremacists love the Middle Ages. It is now on us to understand this, recognize it at home, and banish it from our ranks, regardless of whether we are medievalists professionally or personally. This series has been about highlighting a different vision of the Middle Ages, one based in the best contemporary scholarship, that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that a whites-only, white-supremacist Middle Ages is a ludicrous, childish fantasy on so many levels.

I would call upon you to encourage the adoption of this more-inclusive, more-historically accurate vision of the Middle Ages into even your playful medievalisms. As Wajahat Ali recently said, now is the time to “stand up and be the hero.”

Find ways of expanding your, and your group’s, repertoire and purview. Look beyond medieval England, and beyond medieval Europe. Be vigilant; look out for racist interpretations of the medieval past, and push back against them. Do not accept it if your compatriots push back; their sources and interpretations are undoubtedly incomplete, ridiculously out-of-date, or just bunk. They may call our Middle Ages “presentist”, or “revisionist history.” It is only “presentist” in that it is up-to date. It is only “revisionist” because it is cutting-edge. Accept the smears with a smile.

If you are in charge of one of these groups, or have voting rights within them, institute zero-tolerance policies for racism and racist abuse. I know several who already do. And don’t accept the usual excuse—that it’s just a “reflection of the Middle Ages.” It’s not. It’s modern, it’s toxic, and it doesn’t deserve a safe harbour in your community.

Take this more-inclusive, more-accurate vision of the Middle Ages into your heart as well. Read the stories of people who you might not before have read—read A Thousand and One Nights, read the story of Ser Morien, pick up a biography of Maimonides or Mansa Musa. Imagine yourself, empathetically, in their story. Realize that their history is your history too, that you do not need to have the same skin color as them to see their past as yours.

We know that white supremacists love the Middle Ages—at least, their toxic misinterpretation of the Middle Ages. And the fantastical Middle Ages have provided an ample breeding ground for white supremacists. It is on us now to take the medieval world back from those who use it to support their hate, their violence. It is on us to ensure that the people in our groups, who play our games, or who craft garb alongside us don’t become tomorrow’s torch-wielding bigots.


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Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Resisting the Anti-Semitic Crusade

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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. https://goo.gl/ofaJGm

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

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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

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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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