Section: Antisemitism

Medieval antisemitism

The roots of antisemitism can be found in the ancient history.

Antisemitism existed prior to Christianity, as the work of Manetho from the third century BCE shows.

However, antisemitism increased considerably following the rise of Christianity in Europe. This was partly due to the differences in belief, and partly due to anti-Jewish stories.

According to the Christian Gospels, approximately 2000 years ago there was a Jewish preacher called Jesus of Nazareth Jesus was a Jew. Followers of Jesus believed he was the Messiah and the son of God. Jews did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah or the son of god.

These differences in belief eventually caused the religion of Judaism to split, and those who worshipped Jesus formed the religion Christianity.

Anti-Jewish stories intensified the differences between the two religions. One example of such a story can be found in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.

The Christian Bible states that Jesus was crucified for treason by the Roman Empire. However, throughout medieval history, it was widely believed by some Christians that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

This belief stems from teachings of St. John , who repeatedly used the phrase ‘the Jews’ when describing Christian events, although this was not specifically in reference to the crucifixion of Jesus.

Despite this, the phrase and the accusation, stuck. ‘The Jews’ started to appear in several Christian stories. Eventually this led to Origen writing in the fourth century ‘the Jews…nailed Christ to the cross’. Origen’s words were taken literally, and this story became the common belief for some Christians.

This story, amongst many other factors, was part of a long history of tension between Christianity and Judaism that led to significant antisemitism throughout medieval history.

Medieval Laws

Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe, and various laws were introduced that discriminated against the Jews. These laws limited Jews’ freedom. They stretched into almost every area of Jewish life, from work to clothing.

Jews were not allowed to own land, and therefore could not become farmers. Jews were also banned from joining Christian guilds , and so as more and more craftsmen formed guilds, the choice of work for Jews was dramatically reduced.

Many Jews were traders. This was one of the few professions to handle money. As Europe became more prosperous in the twelfth century, money became an essential key to survival. Christians were banned from money lending and so Jews often were involved in the banking trade. This ‘choice’ of work added to the stigma and negative stereotypes surrounding Jews.

Clothing and badges

Jews were also sometimes identified by their clothing. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council ordered that Jews and Saracens should wear a badge to make them distinguishable . This built on the segregation already implemented by the Third Lateran Council in 1179, which decreed that Jews and Christians must live separately.

During the reigns of King Henry III (28 October 1216 – 16 November 1272) and King Edward I (20 November 1272 – 7 July 1307), many anti-Jewish laws were passed. One example of this was in 1218, when King Henry III issued a Royal Decree supporting the Fourth Council. All Jews were required to wear a badge on their outer garment at all times so they might be distinguished from Christians.

The policy of using a physical symbol to separate Jews was repeated in the twentieth century by the Nazis with their Jüde star badge

Anti-Jewish stories

Many Christians believed that Jews were to be feared, and linked them to the Devil. This negative connection and image was reinforced through literature, plays, arts and more. However, perhaps the most effective way of spreading this message of fear in medieval times was through word of mouth.

A very damaging slander told about Jews was the blood libel . This accused Jews of murdering Christian children in order to use their blood in religious ceremonies.

The Blood Libel - William of Norwich

This fifteenth century painting depicts William of Norwich (c.1132-1144). William’s death became the first case of the Blood Libel accusation in England.
This fifteenth century painting depicts William of Norwich (c.1132-1144). William’s death became the first case of the Blood Libel accusation in England.

By unknown author via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain].

The first known case of the Blood Libel was in 1144 when a 12-year-old boy, William, was found murdered in Norwich.  His death was unexplained, and there was no evidence linking Jews to this.  However, around four years later, the monk Thomas of Monmouth visited Norwich. He soon claimed that the Jews of the town had tortured and killed William. Soon accusations of ritual murders of children were spread across the country.

These accusations were almost always followed by intense persecution and the murder of Jews in the local community. Blood Libel accusations have continued throughout history. In 1928 in New York, Jews were falsely accused of kidnapping a four-year-old girl.

The Black Death

A drawing depicting Jews in Brussels being burnt to death during the Black Death epidemic in 1349.
A drawing depicting Jews in Brussels being burnt to death during the Black Death epidemic in 1349.

By unknown author via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain].

Another anti-Jewish story surrounded the origins of the Black Death in 1349. This bubonic plague devastated Europe in the fourteenth century, killing an estimated 25-50 million people.

As medical knowledge in the medieval period was extremely limited, people offered religious explanations for the catastrophe . The most popular explanations provided were of God punishing those who had sinned, or the Devil working to destroy Christianity.

One popular anti-Jewish story suggested Jews had been recruited by the Devil to carry out this work. According to this slander , Jews had enthusiastically agreed, poisoning water wells to infect Christians with the disease. Despite the fact that Jews were also dying from the plague, people widely believed the story.

Thousands of Jews were massacred as a result, and whole communities were wiped out across Europe.

The Crusades

Antisemitism continued throughout the Crusades. This painting depicts a scene from the Third Crusade (1320). Five hundred Jews hide in the tower of Verdun-sur-Garonne as Crusaders set it on fire.
Antisemitism continued throughout the Crusades. This painting depicts a scene from the Third Crusade (1320). Five hundred Jews hide in the tower of Verdun-sur-Garonne as Crusaders set it on fire.

By unknown author via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain].

The crusades were a series of religious wars in the medieval period. They were primarily between Christians and Muslims. Both sides fought for control over sacred, religious, lands in the Middle East.

In 1095 the newly elected Pope Urban II called on his followers to liberate Jerusalem, the holy land, from Muslim nonbelievers.

Whilst this call did not directly mention Jews, some Christians led their own crusades. Their aim was to destroy all enemies and non-believers of Christianity, not just those in Jerusalem.

The effects were devastating for the Jews. Thousands were targeted by Crusaders in the Rhineland in Germany in 1096. The crusaders aimed to entirely eliminate the Jewish population, either by converting them to Christianity, or, if they refused, by killing them.

This brutal attack was just one example of the antisemitism which was widespread throughout the Crusades.


The final result of the medieval antisemitism discussed above was the banishment of Jews from many countries throughout Europe from the late thirteenth century onwards.

In 1290, King Edward I expelled all Jews from England, and was swiftly followed by France in 1306, Switzerland in 1348 and Germany in 1394.

In England, Jews were not permitted to return until 1656. However, many of the other countries and towns temporarily allowed Jews to return, only to expel them again a few years later.

The most common reasons given for these banishments were the need for religious purity, protection of Christian citizens from Jewish money lending, or pressure from non-Jewish citizens who hoped to profit from Jews absence. Frequently, however, no reason was given at all.

The common attitude of officials was summed up by a declaration made by the Holy Roman Emperor Louis VI in 1343, ‘You belong to us, body and belongings, and we can dispose of them and do with you as we please’.

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