Overview: Popular Perceptions and Violence


Pope Urban II

Pope Urban II

Popular perceptions of the Jews were heavily negative during our period. This negativity had numerous sources. Perhaps the simplest was the fact that the vitalization of western Christendom attracted Jews to areas of Europe in which Jews had not heretofore settled. Newcomers are rarely welcome, and resistance to immigrants in sedentary societies, such as medieval Europe, was especially intense. As we shall see, many of the rulers of medieval western Christendom saw in the Jews a valuable asset and encouraged their immigration. Such support had little impact on popular opinion; in fact to some extent the support of rulers only served to make the Jews more unpopular.

The medieval Islamic world was characterized by considerable diversity of population, which included a wide range of racial, ethnic, and religious groupings. While medieval Europe was ethnically and linguistically fragmented, it was unusually homogeneous in religious terms. This meant that, in medieval western Christendom, the Jews in almost all areas stood out as the lone legitimately dissenting element. Such conspicuousness can never be positive for a minority community. The uniqueness of the Jews in medieval Europe focused undue and dangerous attention on them.

Initial popular resistance to the Jews meant, among other things, serious limitations on the ways in which Jews might support themselves. Especially in the new areas of settlement, Jews tended to arrive in order to fill limited economic niches and never truly succeeded in diversifying their economic base. From the twelfth century on, the Jewish specialty became money-lending, which meant additional popular hostility, since money-lenders have never been beloved figures in most societies. While popular resistance was grounded in significant measure in the newness of Jews in many areas, in their status as the only legitimate dissenting group in most sectors of Europe, in their obvious alliance with the lay authorities, and in their economic specialization, clearly the most salient factor in negative popular perceptions of Judaism and Jews lay in the imagery regularly purveyed by the Church. As was true for doctrine and policy, see too the basic elements in imagery of Judaism and Jews were bequeathed to the medieval Church from the ancient period, although here too—as in the case of doctrine and policy—there was considerable room for medieval expansion of the prior legacy.

As noted recurrently, the legacy from antiquity included considerable ambivalence, both positive and negative elements. This can be gleaned graphically from the formal medieval representations of Synagoga (The Synagogue, i.e. Judaism) found outside many medieval churches, opposite the contrastive image of Ecclesia (The Church, i.e. Christianity). Synagoga is regularly portrayed as a beautiful and hence dangerous female figure. This figure is often shown with a crown slipping off her head, with a scepter falling out of her grasp, with tablets of the law dropping out of her hands, and with a blindfold across her eyes. The negatives are obvious, yet they are balanced to a degree by the beauty of the female figure and the recognition that she once possessed a crown of royalty, a staff of authority, and the tablets of the law—again evidence of a distinguished heritage, allegedly sullied by obtuseness and loss of that heritage. The Pauline legacy taught that the achievements of the past would result in eventual divine reconciliation with his recalcitrant former people.

Unfortunately for the Jews of medieval western Christendom, perhaps the most formative imagery bequeathed from the past came from the gospel accounts of Jesus’s ongoing struggle with his Jewish contemporaries. In these narratives, Jews function as the enemy—the dominant, indeed only oppositional force to Jesus’ ministry. This image was encountered regularly at every Easter season, one of the two high points of the annual Christian calendar. Recollection of the events that led up to the Crucifixion and of the Crucifixion itself served as preamble to the culminating drama of the Easter season, the Resurrection. Thus, in a highly influential and inflammatory way, Jews were introduced into the most important and moving rituals of the Christian calendar, always in the role of villains and enemy figures.

As western Christendom began to develop during the eleventh century, it almost immediately turned aggressive, engaging Muslims forces on the Italian and Iberian peninsulas. Already during the push on the Iberian peninsula, the battle with the Muslim foe activated the sense of Jews as historic enemies. Pope Alexander II wrote a striking letter to the bishops of Spain, praising them for their protection of Jews in the face of Christian violence that had been sparked by the war against the Muslims. The letter reflects the extent to which the new campaign against Islam sparked anti-Jewish sentiment.

This association—the contemporary Muslim foe and the historic Jewish enemy—was to lie at the core of the limited but intense violence that accompanied the launching of the First Crusade. When Pope Urban II preached the crusade in Clermont in late 1095, he surely never mentioned the Jews, nor did he anticipate any anti-Jewish implication in his message. In fact, the major baronial armies that formed the core of the crusading force and that secured the remarkable Christian victory in Jerusalem in 1099 show no sign of anti-Jewish animus and were not implicated in the anti-Jewish violence. However, the exhilarating papal call resonated widely in Christian society, energizing more than the military elites. Popular preachers absorbed the papal message and spread it among the lower classes. In the process, new themes and hues were added, not the least of which involved Jews. In this popular view, the careful distinctions of the Church leadership as to the target of the new undertaking and as to the proper Christian stance toward Judaism and the Jews were obscured. A simpler and more radical call was created, urging that—given a new engagement with enemies of Christendom—the Muslim far-off enemy was in fact less heinous than the nearby Jewish enemy. Whereas the former merely denied Jesus, the latter had been responsible for his crucifixion. This unwarranted, but potent extension of the crusading enterprise served as the foundation for the limited but radical assaults on Rhineland Jewry in 1096.

Church leadership, as it became aware of this distortion of its message, repudiated the unwarranted extension and reiterated its traditional stance of non-violence toward Jews. There was no major repetition of the bloodshed of 1096, although every new crusade evoked the anti-Jewish slogans and the danger of anti-Jewish attacks. The sloganeering and attendant dangers were minimal when the crusading venture was carefully planned and well organized; they became more pronounced in the spontaneous and populist crusading episodes.

During the twelfth century, the imagery of Jews as enemies—prominent in traditional Christian thinking and praxis and activated during the crusading period—took a dangerous new turn. While the traditional imagery highlighted the Jews as historic enemies, voices in western Christendom began to circulate the notion that twelfth-century Jews were in fact as profoundly hostile as their ancestors had been more than a millennium earlier. In a letter to King Louis VII of France, on the eve of the Second Crusade, the influential abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable, claimed that contemporary Jewish blasphemy was well known, revealing that twelfth-century Jews maintained the hostility of their first-century forebears. Eschewing violence against the Jews, Peter urged nonetheless that Jews be forced to defray crusading costs in recognition of their historic and contemporary enmity toward Christianity.

Peter’s claims were dangerous, but his voice was that of a major and learned Church leader, fully aware of the traditional safeguards to Jewish life promised by Christian tradition. In less learned circles, the balanced doctrines and policies of the Church were less well rooted and understood. In popular circles, the notion took hold that Jewish enmity went beyond blasphemy against Christianity, that Jews were intent upon bringing physical harm upon their Christian contemporaries. The notion of groundless Jewish murder took hold in public imagination in many areas of western Christendom, especially in northern Europe, where the Jewish presence was quite new. Discovery of a body, especially the corpse of a Christian youngster, would regularly elicit the claim that the Jews had committed murder, for no other reason than simply the Christian identity of the victim. Once again, the authorities of church and state rejected the allegations and by and large protected the Jews effectively, but the notion of groundless Jewish murder made dangerous inroads into folk thinking during the twelfth century.

The notion of groundless Jewish murder held the potential for embellishments of all kinds. During the middle decades of the twelfth century, the first of these embellishments suggested that the purported Jewish murders were carried out in a symbolic manner. Attempting to prove that a murdered Christian youngster, William of Norwich, had died a martyr’s death and hence deserved to be venerated as a saint, a Norwich clergyman named Thomas of Monmouth created the motif of Jewish ritual murder, claiming that the Jews of Norwich had in fact crucified the young lad in a repetition of their historic role in the crucifixion of Jesus. Here the sense of contemporary Jewish hatred of Christianity and Christians took even fuller shape. According to Thomas, not only was there ongoing and unabated Jewish hatred, even the format of killing hearkened back to ancient Jerusalem. Association of young William with Jesus as a fellow sufferer at the hands of the Jews made a powerful case for William as martyr, which was Thomas’s avowed goal; in the process he profoundly embellished the imagery of Jewish enmity to Christianity and Christians. In this incident, the authorities of church and state repudiated Thomas’s claim, but the notion of ritual murder penetrated the popular psyche deeply, obviously playing on deep-seated human fears for children.

By the middle of the thirteenth century, the embellishment of the claim of Jewish murderousness took yet another turn, into the allegation that the murders were rooted in Jewish ritual, that Jews required Christian blood for their Passover ceremonies. The combination of the new claim of Jewish murderousness with the centrality of blood in the biblical account of the exodus from Egypt fostered this new turn. The blood libel was destined for a long history, which stretches from the thirteenth century down into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, despite lengthy and carefully documented denials by major figures in church and lay hierarchies.

Mention has already been made of the host desecration allegation that first surfaced in Paris at the end of the thirteenth century. Here the core elements continued to involve alleged Jewish hatred of Christianity and Jesus. The sense of victims shifted, however, from contemporary Christians back to Jesus himself, transubstantiated into the host wafer. Jews were accused of attempting to harm Jesus once again, this time through maltreatment of the host via boiling, piercing, or mutilating. The reports of host desecration were regularly accompanied by tales of miracles accomplished by the maltreated host, exposing the purported Jewish hatred and cruelty. Church leadership was less vigorous in combating the allegations of host desecration than it was in challenging the ritual murder accusations and the blood libel.

Finally, when Europe suffered the disastrous catastrophe of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, the accumulated imagery of Jewish malevolence played into the desperate quest to identify the agents of the unmanageable calamity. In a Europe where death was everywhere and the normal human efforts to control plague seemed to achieve nothing, purported agents of the crisis like the devil and witches were sought out. Given the folklore of Jewish enmity and malevolence, the Jews were added to the catalogue of purveyors of the disease and were regularly subjected to violent persecution. Once again, the efforts of the established leadership groups to protect the Jews were sincere. However, given the level of societal disruption, these efforts were only minimally successful.

The potent anti-Jewish imagery set the stage for recurrent outbreaks of popular violence. In antiquity, the major instances of physical violence against Jews stemmed overwhelmingly from established authorities, e.g. the Assyrian destruction of the Israelite kingdom in the eighth pre-Christian century, the Babylonian assault on Jerusalem early in the sixth pre-Christian century, the Seleucid decrees against Judaism of the second pre-Christian century, Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the first century, and Roman persecution of the second century. In the Middle Ages, anti-Jewish violence came from a different direction, from mobs fired by anti-Jewish sentiment and freed from normal societal constraints by one or another crisis.

The first of these popular outbreaks took place in 1096, in association with the call to the First Crusade. As noted, Pope Urban II almost certainly made no mention of Jews and intended no anti-Jewish implications to his call to a holy war. The major militias that responded to the papal challenge and that successfully conquered Jerusalem in the summer of 1099 seem to have been immune to any anti-Jewish implications of their campaign. In the Rhineland, however, both crusaders and their burgher sympathizers translated the papal call into a justification for anti-Jewish violence, some of it extreme. A number of major Rhineland Jewish communities were destroyed in their entirety. As noted, the Rhineland bloodbath was not repeated during the subsequent major crusades, as the ecclesiastical and lay leadership of Europe were fully prepared for anti-Jewish sentiment and were committed to insuring that it not eventuate in violence.

At the end of the thirteenth century, however, societal disintegration in the German lands coupled with the proliferating anti-Jewish imagery previously depicted set the stage for a massive outbreak of violence that gain cost thousands of Jewish lives. This violence was exceeded by the anti-Jewish assaults of 1348-49. The spread of the Black Plague disrupted normal societal life all through Europe. Unable to cope with the devastation of the plague, frantic Europeans sought all kinds of keys to the calamity, often focusing on alleged henchmen of the devil to explain what seemed inexplicable. Assaults on Jewish communities spread all across the continent, despite the efforts of the authorities to dampen the violence. Again, the proliferation of anti-Jewish imagery in conjunction with societal breakdown set the stage for massive violence.

The last major episode of anti-Jewish violence of our period took place on the Iberian peninsula in 1391. Again, the long-term cause was societal resentment and the spread of anti-Jewish calumnies; the immediate cause was a breakdown in royal authority all across the peninsula. The result was massive violence, with large numbers of Jews electing to convert, rather than forfeit their lives. In many cases, the conversion was insincere, based on the notion that forced conversion was in fact illegitimate and on the assumption that return to normalcy would eventuate in return to Judaism. The latter assumption proved in the event mistaken.

Thus, the medieval centuries saw considerable development of the prior legacy of ecclesiastical doctrine, policy, and imagery with respect to Judaism and the Jews. Doctrine and policy showed considerable evolution, but could be fairly well controlled by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. Not so with imagery of Judaism and the
Jews. During the period between 1000 and 1500, this imagery was widely reinterpreted and expanded by the folk mentality of western Christendom, almost exclusively in negative directions. The result was a set of stereotypes that caused considerable harm to the Jews of Europe, serving as a key factor in the recurrent outbreak of severe anti-Jewish violence across Europe. Indeed, this medieval imagery continued to wreak havoc through the post-medieval centuries as well.

What do you want to know?

Ask our AI widget and get answers from this website