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Section: Antisemitism

Medieval anti-Judaism

During the medieval period various laws were introduced to isolate and persecute Jews. For example Jews were banned from owning land and also barred from many normal ways of earning a living.

Having been banned from carrying on the usual trades, Jews were used as moneylenders and tax collectors by the rulers. This added to their unpopularity. From 1215 in many parts of Europe Jews were forced to wear a badge or a hat to mark them out as different. In 1290 the Jews were expelled from England.

Gradually Jews were banished from Western Europe and began move towards Eastern Europe and to the world of Islam (Turkey). This section will discuss the various events anti-Jewish events during the medieval period in order help you understand how anti-Judaism developed.

How did medieval anti-Judaism develop?

This antisemitic medieval painting shows a man wearing a strange shaped pointed hat to identify him as a Jew.
This antisemitic medieval painting shows a man wearing a strange shaped pointed hat to identify him as a Jew. Image: Wikimedia Commons public domain.

Various laws were introduced to draw attention to the fact that Jews were wrong and damned. Jews were not allowed to own land, and therefore could not become farmers, which was the most common way of earning a living. They were not allowed to join the Christian trade guilds, and therefore could not have a trade.

Money lending was banned by the Church for Christians, but it was of course still necessary, since people often need to borrow money. Forbidden from practising most other trades and professions, Jews undertook this activity but it added to their unpopularity.

Quite often, in different parts of Europe, the ruler used the Jews as tax collectors – this also made them very unpopular. From 1215, in many parts of Europe, Jews were forced to wear a special badge or hat in order to mark them out as different. Easter was when Christians remembered the crucifixion and the Jewish role in it.

From time to time this resulted in attacks and massacres of the local Jewish community.

Also, Christian merchants tended to see themselves in competition with Jewish merchants.

One way to solve the problem was to force the Jewish merchants to leave. Often local rulers would give in to the demands of the merchants and expel the Jews.

In 1290 the Jews were expelled from England. Gradually the centres of Jewish population moved from Western Europe (England, France, German lands) to Eastern Europe (Poland) and to the world of Islam (Turkey).

Who and where were medieval Jews?

The Jews of the Middle Ages lived across Europe, the Middle East and beyond. The largest and most established Jewish communities were in Spain, and in the area that is now Iraq and Iran. There was also a large Jewish settlement in France and Germany. Jewish merchants had travelled further afield. There were Jewish communities in China, India and elsewhere in the Far East.

In many parts of Europe, before the Crusades, Jews lived reasonably well, often under the protection of the local ruler. This was because rulers recognised that Jews could be trusted and had good trading contacts in other countries.

At the beginning of the medieval period Jews had developed communities all over mainland Europe. However, during the period various laws were put in place that discriminated against Jews. In 1290 the Jews were expelled from England. Jews were also banished from other countries. Gradually the centres of Jewish population moved from Western Europe (England, France, German lands) to Eastern Europe (Poland) and to the world of Islam (Turkey).

Medieval propaganda

Simon of Trent (1472 – March 21, 1475) was a Christian boy from the city of Trento, Italy whose disappearance was blamed on the leaders of the city's Jewish community. Their confessions were obtained under torture and were followed by their execution. The event caused a major blood libel across Europe.
Simon of Trent (1472 – March 21, 1475) was a Christian boy from the city of Trento, Italy whose disappearance was blamed on the leaders of the city's Jewish community. Their confessions were obtained under torture and were followed by their execution. The event caused a major blood libel across Europe. © 2011 Beit Hatfutsot.

A number of lies were told about the Jews. As the Jews were separated from the other people in their town, distrust grew. The most dangerous lie was the ‘blood libel’.

This led to false accusations and massacres. From 1348 to 1354 the Black Death, a plague spread by rats, killed a third of Europe’s population.

The confusion and death rate led to panic and a need to find someone to blame. The hatred that already existed against Jewish communities caused them to be blamed. This led to attacks and expulsions.

Persecutions and expulsions of the Jews

In 1290 the English king Edward I expelled all Jewish communities living in England. No Jews were officially allowed back until 1656 under Oliver Cromwell. The largest expulsion of Jews was from Spain in 1492. Jews had lived in the Iberian peninsula (modern day Spain and Portugal) from Roman times.

In 711 Islamic rulers conquered the area. Jews were treated very well and entered every walk of life. This period was known as the ‘Golden age’ in Jewish history. Over the centuries the Islamic rulers were gradually pushed out.

The new Christian rulers that emerged wanted Spain to be completely Catholic. They gave the hundreds of thousands of Jews in Spain the option to either convert to Christianity or leave. Many Jews found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, based in modern-day Turkey and covering much of the Middle East.

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