The history of Antisemitism Part 2: The Middle Ages

by J van Rooyen

The following article has been adapted from Luana Fabry's website in Australia

The traditions and foundations laid by the Fathers of the Church continued into the Middle Ages and created great intolerance and suspicion toward the Jews. The founders of the Church promulgated a number of doctrines to theologically invalidate the Jew’s continuing existence. These doctrines were given the greatest possible significance and divine authentication resulting in the introduction to the world a concept that had never before been present in humanity: theological slander against another religious group. An example of such doctrine and theological slander can be read in the writings of many of the Church Fathers. John Crysostom, possible the early Church’s most powerful and influential orator stated:

The Jews have assassinated the Son of God! How dare you associate with this nation of assassins and hangmen! The Jews are the most worthless of all men. They are lecherous, greedy, rapacious. They are perfidious murderers of Christ… The Jews are the odious assassins of Christ and for killing God there is no expiation possible, no indulgence or pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance, and the Jews must live in servitude forever. God always hated the Jews. It is incumbent upon all Christians to hate the Jews.1

The result of such statements, which condemned Jews, all Jews for all time to be the assassins of Christ and spawn of the devil, caused intolerance and suspicion of Jews not only as individuals, but as a race. We cannot say that Christian persecution during the Middle Ages was constant in all countries and that Jewish intolerance came from the Church alone.  Neither can we say that the Jews lived in peace until the birth of Christianity. Jews were enslaved by the Egyptians for hundreds of years and were battled by many empires.  However, the Egyptians enslaved a people who happened to be Jewish, not because they were Jewish.

By the 11th century, the Church had converted to Christianity virtually all the inhabitants of Europe. In 1215 AD, the Church’s Fourth Lateran Council settled the social destiny of the Jewish people in Christian lands for many centuries. At this Council the whole of western Christianity many have well be represented. There were present 71 archbishops, 412 bishops, 800 abbots and a host of other Church dignitaries and priests.2  It was decided that Jews were forbidden to walk in public on Christian feast days and also had to wear a distinctive badge on their clothing. They were to wander over the earth without rights, without a home or security and treated at all times as if they were beings of an inferior species. The Council’s Canon 68 states:

Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province must be distinguished from the Christian by a difference of dress. Moreover, during the last three days before Easter and especially on Good Friday, they shall not go forth in public at all…3
Canon 3 was devoted specifically to the suppression of heresy. Heretics found guilty were to be handed over to the secular arm for punishment and feudal lords were expected to expel heretics from their lands. Thus began a new era for the Jews as hostilities against them intensified.

By the 12th century, one of the main outcomes of Church doctrine was the demonic stereotyping of the Jews. The popular literature of the Middle  Ages was almost entirely dominated by the point of view of Christianity. Morality plays, stories, legends, poems, sermons and songs all painted the Jew as the fount of all evil, deliberately guilty of unspeakable crimes against the founder of the Christian faith and Church. No sin was beyond him – his intention was to destroy Christendom. Sunday sermons portrayed the Jew as belonging to his father the Devil, the incarnation of the antichrist. We find this concept in the graphic arts of the time. One of the earliest dated sketches of a medieval Jew, from the Forest Roll of Essex (1277) bears the superscription Aaron fil diaboli – “Aaron son of  the devil”. Such was the Jew stereotyped, that in 1267 AD, the Vienna Council decreed that Jews must wear a horned hat.4  

Millions of Christians came to believe that the Jews were not actually human beings, but creatures of the Devil, allies of Satan and personifications of the antichrist. Repeatedly during the Middle Ages, Jews were accused of possessing attributes of both the Devil and witches and that they emitted a foul odour as punishment for their ‘crime against Jesus’. It was said that this odour would only leave them through baptism. Ignorant ‘Christian’ preachers taught that the Jew was Satan’s partner in all his financial dealings, fleecing poor Christians without mercy. This image of the Jews became part of Western culture and rendered plausible every accusation against them. Therefore, when the “ritual murder’ and “blood-libel” accusations were brought forth, as ridiculous as they were, the ignorant Christians did not question these. Motivated by belief in the demonic power of the Jewish people, a number of clergymen encouraged the persecution of Jews.

The strange charges of ritual murder and host desecration were based on the alleged  profanation of the consecrated communion wafer known as the Eucharist. The Catholic doctrine of ‘transubstantiation’, which claimed that the Eucharist was the literal, physical body of Jesus, was first officially recognised at the Fourth Lateran Council.5  This official doctrine left the Jews legally vulnerable to charges of host desecration. It was imagined in Christian circles that the Jews, not content with crucifying Christ once, continued to renew the agonies of his suffering by stabbing, tormenting or burning the host.  It was said that such was the intensity of their hatred, that when the host shed blood, emitted voices or took flight, the Jews were not deterred. (It was not considered, however, that Jewish law forbids the eating of human flesh and drinking of blood.)

The charge of host desecration was levelled against Jews over the entire Roman Catholic world, frequently bringing large scale massacre. The first recorded case of alleged host Desecration was at Belitz near Berlin in 1243. The city’s entire Jewish community was collectively accused of attacking a monk carrying a host. Large mobs of Christians surrounded the Jewish neighbourhood, offering the Jews the choice of baptism or death. Refusing to be baptised, 3000 Jews were put to death.6  The accusation of Host Desecration was so prevalent, that in 1267 the Council of Vienna decreed that Jews must withdraw to their homes the instant they heard the bell ringing announcing that a host was being carried through the streets.  They were also to lock their doors and windows.

The first distinct case of ritual murder or ‘blood libel’ was in 1144 at Norwich. It was said that the Jews had bought a Christian boy before Easter and tortured with ‘all the tortures brought upon our Lord’ and then crucified him on Good Friday. Another famous case was that of Hugh of Lincoln in 1255. When the body of a boy was discovered laying in a cesspool, the Jews who were in Lincoln attending a wedding, were accused of murdering the boy. It was said that the child was first fattened for ten days on white bread and milk, and then almost all the Jews in England were invited to the crucifixion.7 A Jew was forced to confess that the boy was crucified, resulting in the hanging without trial, of nineteen Jews. Ritual murder of Christian children was seen as token of Jewish eternal enmity toward Christendom. Since Jews were unable to crucify Christ as their fathers did, they expressed their hatred on innocent Christian children.

On the eve of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, there occurred a blood libel case of the ‘Holy Child of La Guardia.’  Conversos were made to confess under torture that with the knowledge of the chief Rabbi, they had abused and crucified a Christian child.8

The ritual murder accusations further reinforced the theological stereotypes of the demonic Jew and the Synagogue being the ‘Church of Satan’. Christians had no problem with imagining human sacrifices taking place in the Synagogue for magical and demonic purposes. Totally ignorant of Jewish Law, the masses were easily inflamed by anti-Jewish preachers. If the Jews were capable of crucifying God, then they were capable of anything. It was also believed that Jewish men menstruated and therefore required Christian blood to replenish themselves, or alternatively, that they needed to make up for the blood they lost through circumcision.9

By the 14th century the blood libel charge had become associated with the Jewish holiday of Passover, the reason being, that Jews used the blood of Christian children to make the Passover bread and wine. The Inquisitor, John of Capistrano, went throughout Europe leading a campaign against the Jewish population and initiating a series of trials for ritual murder which resulted in Jews being burned at the stake.10  The accusations of ritual murder followed the Jews throughout Christendom for generations. Countless thousands of Jews were tortured, massacred and dispersed because of this libel. The accusations and massacres reached such high proportions, that Popes became alarmed and in numerous papal bulls forbade them.

Conspiracy theories were also levelled against Jews. When the disasters of plague and famine swept the 14th century, the Jews found themselves vilified as well-poisoners and sorcerers. Rumours of Jewish well poisoning began to circulate in Southern France where, in May 1348, the Jews of a Provencal town were burned on this charge.11 This ‘poisoning’ accusation had particularly tragic results during the Black Death which also began in 1348. The plague, which killed about one third of Europe’s population, was blamed on the Jews despite the fact that the plague also killed Jews. The Jews were accused of poisoning Christian wells, as they used separate wells for themselves. (The reason they used separate wells was because they were forbidden to use Christian wells.)   Under torture, Jews confessed to spreading the Black Death, which resulted in a verdict stating that “all Jews from the age of seven cannot excuse themselves from this crime, since all of them in their totality are guilty of the above actions.”12   Jewish children under the age of seven were ten baptised and raised as Christians after their families were murdered. To the horrors of the plague itself were added the wholesale massacre of thousands of Jews across Europe.

The negative projection of Jews continued for centuries. Even the Reformation did not improve the situation for the Jews. At the beginning, the great reformer, Martin Luther, expecting mass conversions of the Jews, wrote to the Papacy condemning the Catholic Church’s persecution of them. However, when the mass conversion of the Jews did not materialise, Luther felt betrayed and his acceptance of the Jews turned into loathing. Luther declared:

Therefore know, my dear Christian, that next to the devil you have no more bitter, more poisonous, more vehement an enemy than a real Jew who earnestly desires to be a Jew… Now what are we going to do with these rejected, condemned Jewish people? You must refuse to let them own houses among us… You must take away from them all their prayer books and Talmuds wherein such lying, cursing and blasphemy is taught…  You must prohibit their Rabbis to teach…  You shall not tolerate them but expel them.13

Luther also held the Jews accountable (as agent of the devil) for virtually all problems. In The Jews and their lies, Luther states:

…verily a hopeless wicked venomous and devilish thing is the existence of these Jews, who for 1400 years  have been and still are our pest, torment and misfortune. They are just devils and nothing more.

Luther may have divorced himself from some Roman Catholic teachings but he did not sever himself from the anti-Jewish root and thus took the lie with him into the Reformation. Christendom’s perception of the Jew left no alternative but to isolate the Jew from the rest of society. This was initially done by forcing Jews to wear distinctive clothing. Together with the horned hat, depicting the demonic Jew, Jews had to wear a visible badge on their clothing.  Popes Gregory IX and Innocent IV, repeatedly reminded rulers of Christian countries to pay strict attention to the requirement and to allow no exceptions to the wearing of the badge.  Gradually, these ‘marks of Cain’ became a common sight in all or Europe, their wearers identifiable everywhere at a distance. Jews were distinguished from everyone else and therefore subjected to abuse. In some places it was regarded a privilege to pelt Jews with stones at Easter; in other places, representatives of the Jewish community were made to accept blows or slaps during this season.

Another form of  isolation was the ghetto system introduced in Venice by the Church in 1516.14. The ‘ghetto’ (from the Hebrew word ‘get’, meaning ‘divorce’) was a segregated and enclosed section of Venice for the complete isolation of the Jews from the Christians. Ghettos were prevalent mostly in northern Italy, the German speaking countries and a few Polish cities. The Jewish quarter, which already existed, was different to that of the ghetto as Christians and Jews were able to mingle together. Christians often partook of Jewish life and learning. The creation of the ghetto was not just to keep the Jews in, but to keep the Christians out.

Finally, there was no other alternative but for the Jews to be expelled. The Jews in the Middle Ages were expelled from most countries in which they lived. Medieval Jewish history ended in England in 1290, in France in 1306 and in Spain in 1492. By 1569, Jews had been expelled from most of the Papal States.15  However, Christendom did not rid itself of the Jews without first instigating the Inquisitions.

The first of the Inquisitions began somewhere between 1227 and 1233 AD. The purpose of the Inquisition was to repress an increasing flood of heresies that had been infiltrating the Church and to root out the heretics. For the first two hundred years, the Inquisitions were mostly directed toward Christians who were regarded as heretics. It wasn’t until 1478 that a different form of Inquisition was founded by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. The purpose of this Inquisition was to examine the genuineness of Jewish Conversos (recent converts to Christianity) and maroons (meaning pig) who were suspect of practising Judaism in secret. In 1483, the Inquisitorial powers were assigned to Thomas de Torquemada by the Spanish Church.16  Heretics were to be stamped out, first among the maroons and Conversos, and then wherever else found.

The procedure of the Inquisition began with a period of grace – four months to convert or leave. Heretics were given the opportunity to come forward or to denounce others known to them. Jews were denounced for various activities such as smiling at the mention of the Virgin Mary, eating meat on a day of abstinence, or being suspect of living as ‘hidden Jews’. Many Jews which had ‘converted’, continued to keep the Sabbath and Festivals secretly). For example, a woman was arrested on the grounds of not eating pork and changing her linen just before Saturday.17  Those who were suspected of being heretics and did not voluntarily come forward, were tortured as a means of obtaining confessions and finally, the death penalty was by ‘auto de fe’ – burning at the stake.
Death came easily to those consigned to the flames after weeks of excruciating torture.  In this manner, thousands of Jews lost their lives during Spanish Inquisitions and thus the saga of the Jews end. In 1492, 300,000 Jews who refused to be baptised left Spain penniless. Jews sold their property, fine houses and estates, for a pittance; the rich Jews paid the expenses of the departure of the poor so that they would not have to become converts. Thousands of children were forcibly taken from their parents and raised as Christians. Thousands swarmed over the border to Portugal where they had temporary respite. However, in 1496 King Manuel of Portugal ordered the Jews in his realm expelled. Those who still remained in 1497 were subjected to atrocities and forced baptisms, especially of children.18

Doctrine upon doctrine, law upon law, accusation upon accusation was levelled against the Jew, until only a dehumanised symbol of a denigrated Jew remained. First he was given humiliating clothing, and then he was isolated to the ghettos. He could not own land; he had to step aside when a Christian passed by. He could not build synagogues; he could not teach or strike up a friendship with Christians. He could only engage in a restricted number of professions and trade, and usually only that of moneylender and financier, only because this activity, while necessary for a prosperous economy, was viewed by the Church as sinful and so the Jewish stereotype was perpetuated. The Christians of the 14th and 15th centuries did not know the proud, learned Jew of other days, but only saw the strangely dressed ghetto Jew with the ridiculous peaked hat representing his demonic nature. The Jew was nothing more to the Christian than an object of derision and scorn.

Yet, despite all of this, the medieval period was not a useless experience in the history of the Jews. It educated them for the Modern Age. Because the Jews were not part of the feudal system, they were not tied to its institutions. The Jews became cosmopolitan in their lives, speaking the languages of the world and appreciating its cultures. They were outsiders with an education, viewing societies objectively and thus assessing their weaknesses and strengths. In spite of the limited range of ghetto education, the Jews as a group remained the most educated in Europe.

The early Church hoped to convert the Jews by convincing them of the error of their ways. By declaring Judaism invalid and superseded, the Church could not theologically tolerate the Jew. The Church thus defined anti-Semitism’s first characteristic – ‘You have no right to live among us as Jews’.

The Church of the Middle Ages went a step further and secured the ‘Jewish Problem’ for centuries to come. In portraying the Jew as inhuman and demonic, Christendom could neither theologically nor socially tolerate the Jew. Thus by the 15th century, anti-Semitism’s second characteristic was defined – ‘You have no right to live among us’.


1.   Prager, D & Telushkin, J. 1985. Why the Jews? New York: Simon & Schluster. p. 94
2.   Burman, E. 1984. The Inquisition. Northamptonshire: Aquarian Press. P. 28-29
3.   Ibid.
4.   Trachtenberg, J. 1983. The Devil and the Jews. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society. Pp 12-13
5.   Ibid., p. 101
6.   Prager, D & Telushkin, J. Op. cit. p. 103
7.   Keter Publishing House. 1974. Antisemitism Jerusalem. P. 70
8. ,  Trachtenberg, J. Op cit. p. 130
9.    Wistrich, R. 1991. Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred. New York: Pantheon Books. P. 31
10.  Cohn-Sherbok, D. 1992. The Crucified Jew. London: Harper Collins. p. 61
11.  Trachtenberg J. Op cit. p. 103  
12.  Ben-Sasson, H. 1976. A History of the Jewish People. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Pp. 244-245.
13.  Keter, Op cit. p. 70
14.  Ibid. p. 90
15.  Dimont, M. 1962. Jews, God and History. New York: Penguin. P. 255
16.  Dimont M. Op cit. p. 221-222
17.  Burman, E. Op cit. p. 148
18.  Wein, B. 1993. Herald of Destiny. Brooklyn, New York: Shaar Press, 1993, pp. 208-209