Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 94

Abdullah ibn Yasin was a Sunni Maliki scholar of the Berber Jazulah tribe. In 1040 CE he founded a new religious movement called the Almoravids, based on “encouraging good, forbidding evil, and abolishing un-Islamic taxes.” By partnering with Muslim men of noble (Umayyad) birth and military skill, Abdullah was able to spread his new fervent brand of faith first in Senegal, then the Maghreb, and eventually Spain. Abdullah died in Morocco in 1059, and was succeeded by the cousins Abu Bakr ibn Umar (politically) and Yusuf ibn Tashfin (spiritually and military). Yusuf was a highly competent general, commanding one of the world’s greatest armies with 2,000 black horsemen (who severely intimidated European chroniclers); 6,000 shock troops from Senegal on white Arabian mounts; camels; and 15,000 foot soldiers. The Moroccan Berber Almoravids conquered Fez (1075), Tangier (1079), Tiemcen (1080), Algiers and Ténès (1082), and Oran and Ceuta (1083). North Africa from the Atlantic almost to Egypt was theirs. Umar and Tashfin cofounded the city of Marrakesh as the base of their Morrocon, Almoravid empire.

Al-Andalus had declined from the Golden Age of religious tolerance and a strong central government to finance civic art and architecture projects. After a thirty years regency under a well liked, charismatic imam the country had refused their relatively unknown caliph in favor of local allegiances. The ethnic makeup of Al-Andalus had changed over the last decades, as more Berbers moved north from Africa, often in response to Iberian cries for military aid under Christian attack. In the taifa kingdoms eras, Spain had gone from being mostly Hispano-Muslim to mostly Berber in a single generation, and each region insisted on electing someone from their own district as imam. The Christian kings played the the taifa kings off of each other, gaining territory and gold in the Muslim civil war. None played the game so well as the King of Lèon and Castille Alfonso VI. 

Alfonso’s father Ferdinand I had divided his vast Spanish March territory among his children, bequeathing small kingdoms to his sons and the patronage and incomes of all the monasteries in the land to his unmarried daughters. Alfonso warred with his brothers, and signed peace treaties brokered by his sisters. The Christian countries made vassals of the taifa kingdoms, so that each paid protection money called parias. The wealth and treasures of the Muslim world rapidly migrated north in a few short years, as tributes of ivory and woven carpets joined stacks of dinars and numos de auro (coins of gold) in payments. A system started under Ferdinand was expanded the most by Alfonso. This was essentially a protection racket, and forced the Muslim kingdoms to impose taxes on their people much higher than permitted by Qur’anic law. 

Intra Muslim tensions may have been high – high enough for a fitna and taifa sepatation – but those were nothing compared with the threat of Christian annihilation. That was what the last sovereign taifa king decided, the king of Seville Al-Mu’tamid ibn Abbad. Al-Mu’tamid held vast territories but the tax burden to Lèon depleted his treasury and he could not support his kingdom’s needs despite very high taxes. He decided to stop paying the parias, knowing it would invoke a military response from Alfonso VI. Al-Mu’tamid wanted to bring in the Almoravids as allies. His son Rashid urged caution, thinking they might want to stay once they got to Spain. 

“I have no desire to be branded by my descendants as the man who delivered Al-Andalus as prey to the infidels. I am loath to have my name cursed in every Muslim pulpit. And, for my part, I would rather be a camel-driver in Africa than a swineherd in Castile.”

– Caliph Al-Mu’tamid ibn Abbad of Seville, 1091


Rashid was right, of course. Al-Mu’tamid was forced to flee Spain within the year. The Almoravids stopped Alfonso at Seville, and stopped the progression of the Reconquista on several fronts over the next decade. Tashfin expanded the Almoravid empire into Al-Andalus. The focus of this Islamic movement was primarily on Muslims, Muslim behaviors, and Muslim taxes, so Hispano-Jews were not directly targeted by discriminatory laws or policies that we know of. The all-Jewish community of Lucena was required to pay a tribute of 10,000 dinars. This consequence of conquest or minority status was not exceptional or all that different from the parias the Muslims had been paying, or the extra taxes Jews paid in Christian kingdoms. 

Murabitun is another word for Almoravid. This map shows the empire at its largest.

Further ReadingGreer, Margaret R., Walter D. Mignolo, and Maureen Quilligan. Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empires. University of Chicago Press, 2008. 

Legardère, Vincent. Les Almoravides: Le djihâd andalou (1106-1143). Editions L’Harmattan, 1999. Translated from French. 

Conrad, David C. Empires of Middle West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. Infobase Publishing, 2009. 

New World Encyclopedia – Almohad Dynasty

New World Encyclopedia – Almoravid Dynasty

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Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 93

A grimoire including demonic summoning rituals. Attributed variously to Popes Honorius I and III. And people say history is dull.

Pope Honorius ordered the Archbishop of Toledo to enforce the “Badge of Shame” issued by Spanish authorities in 1218 CE over Jews in Christian Spain. But the Jewish people rebelled, and threatened to take their services and property with them to Muslim controlled Spain, then known as Al Andalusia. The pope and Spanish secular authorities were forced to rescind the enforcement of Shame for a time. The Iberian peninsula and Spanish March countries made sporadic attempts at enforcing sumptuary laws for Jews. The Kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre passed restrictions in 1228 and 1234, respectively. Portugal waited until 1325. In Barcelona in 1397, the consort Queen Maria required all Jews to wear light green with a Jewish badge in the shape of yellow circle with a red bullseye on their chests. Visitors to the city who were caught without the required costume would be stripped, whipped, and fined. 

No sumptuary laws were imposed in Germany until the second half of the 13th century, more than 100 years after the 4th Lateran Council of 1215. Rather than a badge, the high pointed hat Jewish scholars wore to denote wisdom became required rather than voluntary. Looking back at history, European antisemitism is clear and obvious, and ever-present. But the burnings, forced baptisms, expulsions, and accusations of ritual murder were spread out across the continent and British Isle over centuries. When that anti Jewish hatred was particularly intense, some Jews converted or simply professed a conversion to spare their lives while others fled to safer lands. 

Muslim Spain had been a relative refuge for early medieval Jews. The caliphate of Al-Andalus was inherited by Hisham II, who was still a boy, in 976 CE. The true power behind the throne was Al-Mansur ibn Abi Aamir, also written as Almanzor. He kept Hisham and his brother out of the way so that he could run the show, and for 24 years he expanded the boundaries of Al-Andalus to their maximum extent. But upon Almanzor’s death in 1002, the Arab and Berber nobles and generals of the country had no loyalty or deference to the Umayyad family or Caliph Hisham II. As contemporary chronicler Abdullah ibn Buluggin described: 

“When the ‘Amirid dynasty’ [of Al-Mansur] came to an end and the people were left without an imam [leader], every military commander rose up in his own town and entrenched himself behind the walls of his own fortress, having first secured his own position, created hois own army and amassed his own resources. These persons vied with one another for worldly power, and each sought to subdue the other.” 

Al-Andalus broke apart into taifa, warring emirates. Meanwhile in contemporary world events, Pope Urban II had launched Christian Crusaders towards Jerusalem in 1095 with his speech at the Council of Clermont, urging Christian men to reclaim the Holy Land because “God wills it!” Another Christian land reclamation project against Muslims had been focused in the Iberian peninsula since the days of Charlemagne (742-814), the Reconquista of Spanish lands. In the taifa of Cordoba the Berber king and rebels both hired Christian mercenaries to fight for them. The heightened Christian zeal encouraged mercenaries to fight further to the south in Muslim lands they’d previously not visited. Jews generally fought on the side of their Muslim rulers and majority population, rather than the super religiously amped up Christian invaders, for reasons which I hope would be obvious at this point in the series, honestly. 

The taifa kings dwindled from 30 at the dawn of the 11th century to 8 by its close as the strong conquered the weak. But these conquests came at tremendous cost. Mercenaries had been replaced by the Christian nations of the Spanish March, and with each victory over a taifa they took land and spoils, growing Christian territory in the peninsula. Once those March nations had paid duties to Al-Andalus; now taifa kings paid them. In war with each other the Muslim emirs were spending well beyond their means, and bankrupting their tiny kingdoms. To curb the growing Christian influence in Spain, some of the taifa kings in the mid 11th century invited a new, purist brand of Islam Almoravid and its powerful leader, Abdullah ibn Yasin.


Further Reading 

Nirenberg, David. Race and the Middle Ages, Chapter 4: The Case for Spain and Its Jews. University of Chicago, 2007. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 92 

Pope Innocent III died July 16th, 1216 CE. He was succeeded by Pope Honorius III, who was crowned with the papal tiara two days later. Three months after that, on October 18th, 1216, the English King John, who had been at such strife with Innocent for most of his reign, wrote on his death bed making Honorius guardian of his only son Henry. John also made England a vassal of the papacy, in worried hope of his dynasty’s future. Child King Henry III was the Pope’s ward. This was not an uncommon arrangement. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II had been the ward of Pope Innocent III once orphaned in 1198; Honorius was his tutor during that period. Although there was an eighteen year age gap between the men, Frederick and Henry were close confidants. In Frederick II’s Crusade letter, he addressed Henry III as his “well-beloved friend” in the flowery prose of the day. 

In Henry’s minority reign the barons didn’t enforce sumptuary laws such as the tabula Jewish badge. However, in 1227 Henry declared himself an adult at 19, two full years ahead of schedule, and without asking or informing his regents first. He further declared all charters were cancelled and must be reapplied for, a way of securing new funds and oaths of fealty. Part of marking himself as an adult king was in showing a greater affection for the papacy, and closer adherence to papal desires. Henry enforced Lateran Council restrictions on Jewish money lending, and in 1253 he ordered the tabula be worn by Jewish men and women over age twelve in a prominent, visible position.

Frederick II did not enforce sumptuary laws in lands of the Holy Roman Empire in his lifetime. He had been King of Sicily since the age of 2, and thought of himself as Sicilian first. In Sicily he required Jews to wear blue badges in the shape of the Greek letter tau and for the men to grow their beards starting in 1221. Other Italian city-states also imposed sumptuary laws. The oldest record of a Jewish badge being enforced in Rome and the Papal States dates to 1257. Jewish men were ordered to wear a yellow circular badge on their chests, while Jewesses were commanded to wear two blue stripes on their veils. In 1360 Roman laws added a coarse red cloak for all Jewish men except physicians, and an apron of the same rough fabric for Jewish women. 

Similar sumptuary laws distinguished “harlots” (the papal term for a sex worker) from “virtuous women”. In Avignon, France both prostitutes and Jews were forbidden from touching food at market; anything they came into contact with they had to buy, on the logic they had profaned it. By the mid 13th century, both social minorities provided medieval Europe with necessary yet resented services: loans and sex were each sins in the eyes of the Church. Teenagers and young adults in the low country valley region of Switzerland, France, and Germany would get drunk in abbayes de jeunesse, abbeys of misrule. On carnival days they would hold their villages ransom and thrash Jews and harlots until a payment was given, all in great festive spirit. The Church’s insistence that prostitutes and Jews be marked with badges made them targets for celebratory violence. 

Rabbis passed a few sumptuary laws themselves. For one thing, they wanted to limit the jealousy of Gentiles and the ostentation of Jewish women for reasons of contemporary gender boundaries. Rabbis placed limits on the height of hair pieces, the depth of necklines, and the fineness of fabrics. Men and women were limited to no more than two silver rings per hand. Another set of related laws were passed relating to Jewish clothing and funeral rites. Not all Jews of the medieval age were wealthy, and in fact a wealth disparity was beginning to grow in the community. This had resulted in a disparity in funeral practices, with the poorest shrouding the faces of their dead but the wealthiest not, because the bodies of the poor showed the ravages of death sooner. To recreate equality among them, the rabbis updated the funeral laws so that the wealthiest Jews should follow the customs that the poorest had to. 


Further Reading 

Mundill, Robin R. England’s Jewish Solution: Experiment and Expulsion, 1262-1290. Cambridge University Press, 2002. Google Books

Jones, Sarah Rees, and Sethina Watson, eds. Christians and Jews in Angevin England: The York Massacre of 1190, Narratives and Contexts. Boydell and Brewer, Ltd., 2013. Google Books

Lewis, Matthew. Henry III: The Son of Magna Carta. Amberley Publishing Limited, 2016. 

Church, Stephen. Henry III (Penguin Monarchs): A Simple and God-Fearing King. Penguin Books UK, 2017.

Roth, Norman. “Jewish Clothing in the Middle Ages.” My Jewish LearningAccessed 7th November 2017. 

Jewish Encyclopedia – Costume

Jewish Encyclopedia – Sumptuary Laws

Jewish Virtual Library – Jewish Badge  

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 91

Medieval Jewish people in a variety of fashions, via Jewish Encyclopedia

Medieval Jews were minorities in all the lands they lived in, in the Muslim East and Christian West. They generally wore clothing similar to local styles, with long layered dresses and robes favored in northern Europe and Takchita and Jebba preferred in the Maghreb. Wealthy Jews dressed well, in silks and furs popular among the upper class Christians or Muslims around them. Silver and gold jewelry were worn by men and women. Jewesses would dye their hair and use wigs sometimes. In other words, Jewish people were as prone to be fashionable as anyone else. This was a problem for the Catholic Church, which was dedicated to the proposition that Jews were created subservient to Gentiles. 

In 1215 CE, the Fourth Lateran Council of the Catholic Church ordered, in canon 68, that Christian rulers should pass laws making Jews and Saracens (Muslims) visibly distinct from Christians in their clothing. Apparently too many mixed faith romantic liaisons were going on; the Church concluded the Christians involved must have been ignorant of their heathen partners’ faith and that badges for non-Christians were necessary to warn unsuspecting believers away from bad matches. They undoubtedly got this idea from the Muslim ghiyar (distinction) laws sometimes imposed on Jews and Christians under the Pact of Umar. “We order that [Jews and Saracens] of both sexes, in all Christian lands and at all times shall be publicly differentiated from the rest of the population by the quality of their garment…”

The introduction and implementation of these garment laws was by no means uniform. In southern France it was first ordered Jews must wear a badge in the shape of a rotunda or wheel (1217), then the order was rescinded, then reissued (1219), reiterated at many church councils (Narbonne 1227, Rouen 1231, Arles 1234, Béziers 1246, Albi 1254, etc.), then expanded to all of France (1269). The wheel was sometimes imposed on children from age seven and sometimes starting at age thirteen. In certain districts it was yellow while in others it was red and white. King Philip the Fair (1285-1314) taxed Jews annual fees on the wheel shaped badges, which he claimed as Crown property. 

In England things were complicated. Stephen Langton was elected the Archbishop of Canterbury against the wishes of English King John in 1206. King John had been able to keep the Archbishop out of the country during the 3-way contest for the Holy Roman Empire, but once that had settled with Frederick II as winner in 1218, Langton came to Oxford with a series of anti-Jewish reforms. He wanted to ban all synagogue construction, require Jews to be quiet in synagogue so they could not be overheard outside, outlaw the mocking of Christianity, and oh yes, institute a Jewish badge. This one was a tabula, shaped like two stone tablets, representing the Law of Moses or Ten Commandments. As archbishop Langton had the power to pass these laws. 

But as of October 19th, 1216, John was no longer king. He’d been forced to sign the Magna Carta, the Great Charter, to end the First Barons’ War – an uprising by his own high nobility. That document was filled with mundane (therefore historically interesting) details but the crucial, juicy, dripping with history detail was clause 61, known as the security clause. 

“We give and grant to the barons the following security: The barons shall elect twenty-five of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted to them by this charter. If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any articles of the peace or of this security,  and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us – or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice – to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning  from the day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon.” 

Take a moment to consider A) how angry King John had made the barons that they had come up with this plan, and B) how out of options he had to be to sign it. Imagine your president or prime minister or king agreeing to this. The observing barons found reason to declare war on his person (but not England) before the ink was dry. Jews were often casualties of the First Barons’ War, and victims of looting and theft. John died in the civil war and his 9-year-old son Henry was crowned amid vows of limited royal power. During Henry’s minority his advisors largely ignored papal dictates to be jerks to Jews, because it was in their own financial interest. Langton’s Oxford decrees of 1218 weren’t strictly imposed: Jews could buy exemption for themselves and their community, so they wouldn’t have to wear the badge. 

Further Reading 

Mundill, Robin R. England’s Jewish Solution: Experiment and Expulsion, 1262-1290. Cambridge University Press, 2002. Google Books

Jones, Sarah Rees, and Sethina Watson, eds. Christians and Jews in Angevin England: The York Massacre of 1190, Narratives and Contexts. Boydell and Brewer, Ltd., 2013. Google Books

Roth, Norman. “Jewish Clothing in the Middle Ages.” My Jewish LearningAccessed 7th November 2017. 

Jewish Encyclopedia – Costume

Jewish Encyclopedia – Sumptuary Laws

Jewish Virtual Library – Jewish Badge  

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 90


Medieval childhood for lower classes included three to a bed sleeping arrangements and early apprenticeships. Among the nobility and royalty, children were often educated in other households for networking opportunities. Those situations were, of course, for the children who survived birth and infancy, and didn’t contract any terrible diseases. But children were loved. They were not protected by child abuse or child labor laws that exist all across Europe today. Yet, despite their frequency, child deaths were mourned. For centuries that grief was sublimated into rage at Europe’s Jewish minority.

On Christmas Day, 1235 in Fulda, Germany a miller and his wife came home from the holy day church service to find their house burned down, and their five sons dead beside it. Their anguish and devastation was absolute, immeasurable. When they asked who was responsible, neighbors blamed anonymous Jews, who they credited with bleeding the boys to make Jewish medicine. 34 Jews and Jewesses were arrested and tortured until they confessed. Two contemporary accounts still exist. According to the Erfurt chronicle, the guilty Jewish were executed by passing Crusaders. The Marbach chronicle recorded the Christian people of Fulda as the ones who burned their Jewish neighbors alive. Both accounts agree the wrongful execution date was December 28th, 1235. 

Some villagers, presumably sympathetic to the remaining Jewish population, loaded the bodies of the five boys onto a cart and took them to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Frederick II was a radical among his peers, and largely considered a Christian heretic for doing things like employing Jewish translators and appreciating the sound of Muslim prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque when he was King of Jerusalem. Although the accused Jews at Fulda had already confessed and been executed, he decided to launch a thorough investigation into the matter. He started by writing to his fellow monarchs, asking if they’d encountered incidents of Jewish ritual murder. All answered in the negative. 

Next Frederick II gathered Jewish converts to Christianity who had some credibility, community leaders and elders, along with experts on Jewish law. He asked them for their scholarly opinion on the charges in the case. The converts cited the Talmud, the Torah, and Jewish kosher customs to argue against the charges. Judaism forbids the eating of blood, even animal blood, extensively and repeatedly. Blood sacrifices in the Temple had never included human sacrifice, and no tradition in the Diaspora had started human sacrifice either. The inquiry took eight years. Mongols made vassals of Kievan Rus and harried Poland with raids. Frederick went to war with Pope Gregory IX and his son Henry VII. In 1239, Pope Gregory ordered all Jewish holy texts confiscated and publicly burned. 

On the question of whether or not Jews required blood for their Passover rituals, the scholars and converts assembled for the Fulda commission were certain. “Neither the Old nor the New Testament states that the Jews lust for human blood: on the contrary, it is expressly stated in the Bible, in the laws of Moses, and in the Jewish ordinances designated in Hebrew as the ‘Talmud’, that they should not defile themselves with blood. Those to whom even the tasting of animal blood is prohibited surely can not thirst for that of human beings, (1) because of the horror of the thing; (2) because it is forbidden by nature; (3) because of the human tie that also binds Jews to Christians; and (4) because they would not willfully imperil their lives and property.” Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II’s ruling stated “For these reasons we have decided, with the general consent of the governing princes, to exonerate the Jews of the district from the grave crime with which they have been charged, and to declare the remainder of the Jews in Germany free from all suspicion.” 

The entire Jewish population of Berlitz, Germany was burned alive on charges of host desecration that same year in 1243, for allegedly torturing a sentient wafer. 


Further Reading 

“This Day in Jewish History // 1235: 34 Jews Burned to Death in First Blood Cannibalism Case” by David B. Green. Haaretz. 28th December 2014. Accessed 4th November 2017. 

“What Medieval Europe Did With Its Teenagers” by William Kremer. BBC News Magazine. 23rd March 2014. Accessed 4th November 2017

Jewish Encyclopedia – “Blood Accusation

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 89

Currency in medieval Europe was coin based and made of precious metals, primarily sterling silver. Payments were generally weighed rather than counted, but each coin was supposed to be a uniform weight and amount of silver. The real value and face value of a sterling silver coin were equal to its weight, in theory. However, silver is an incredibly soft metal, especially when heated. Medieval criminals figured out that they could melt down the soft edges of a silver coin and clip them off with cutting tools. They’d then reshape the edge of the coin, and melt the silver shavings down into new coins. This crime of creating fake currency was named forgery as it actually entailed the use of a forge in its earliest iterations. 

Coin clipping was a wide spread problem in 13th century England. The market was flooded with underweight, undervalued coins, driving down the true value of British currency. Merchants were becoming less willing to do business in England and with English silver. King John blamed everyone for coin clipping, but he blamed Jews more than anyone. He called them usurious and money-grubbing, thieving and deceitful. Although Jews generally lacked the forges necessary for forgery, they had been ascribed with all the negative character defects which would make them appealing scapegoats. In 1290 King John expelled the entire Jewish population of England for the crime of coin clipping. 

Jewish families hastily sold what belongings they could, at greatly reduced value. They paid sailors and ship owners for safe passage off the island. France had already expelled its Jews, let them return, and expelled them again, profiting off their misfortune at each turn. The English Jewry made their escape toward Central Europe. Some never made it, thrown overboard by greedy sailors once they were out over open waters, all their worldly possessions free for the taking. There is no record of European Jews living in England after this expulsion until 1655, when Oliver Cromwell permitted Jews back into the country. 

Despite the complete absence of real Jews, myths about Jews proliferated over the intervening centuries. The medieval child blood drinking, money hoarding, improperly masculine Jew grew even more monstrous without the bother of reality to inhibit the wild tales and animalistic illustrations. Geoffrey Chaucer lived in the 14th century and wrote The Canterbury Tales, a famous collection of English poems. One of these “The Prioress’s Tale” is a fictional ritual murder by Jews of a young boy. The Jews in the story murder the Christian lad for singing hymns. Miraculously, even after his death he continues to sing, leading to the discovery of his corpse, and to the brutal (and in the tale, righteous) deaths of the Jews. 

In 1357 a travel memoir began to circulate. It was ostensibly authored by the English noble Sir John Mandeville, but no such man ever existed. More likely it was written by a Flemish doctor. The Travels were influential; Christopher Columbus credited Marco Polo’s works as the only greater inspiration for his journey to the Indies. Travels incorporated fanciful accounts of foreign wonders with Christian eschatology and Apocalypse theology. The author wrote that Jews would be agents of the coming Antichrist, and that they spoke in Hebrew so they could communicate with the demons Gog and Magog. Jews had supposedly made this devilish contract for the promise their Temple would be rebuilt. 

These anti-Jewish stories spread around the rest of Europe, where Jews tried to peacefully remain. English invented blood libel had made its way to France, to Germany, and to Spain. England was the one of the last European countries to get a Jewish presence (1066) and one of the first country to expel Jews from its land (1290), but thanks to William of Norwich, Little St. Hugh of Lincoln, and the martyrdom of those children by the Church, English Christians permanently and irrevocably damaged the reputation and safety of Jews in all of Europe. In all the world. Even to this day, the most vile antisemitism is that born of blood libel. 
Further Reading 

Levy, Richard S. “Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, Volume 1”. ABC-CLIO, 2005.  “Antichrist”. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 88


A common way for medieval speakers to monsterize other races was to associate them with excrement and effluvia, with shit and piss. The most direct ways to do this were by restricting people to careers that had them handling shit and piss, like tanning and emptying chamber pots, and making them live in a segregated quarter that happened to be where people dumped all the sewage. Remarkably these tactics are still effective a thousand years later at convincing people to hate others. A popular myth spread about that Jewish men menstruated monthly, combining horror of bodily functions with horror of the female sex, and a fascination with Judaism and blood. 

“Race nearly always involves gender boundaries, especially because racialized others are so frequently denigrated in the same terms that clerical writers used against women. A favorite medieval slander was to label an enemy effeminate, as in Wulfstan’s insistence that long-haired priests are girlish. Such a charge betrays the fact that a dominant racial identity and proper masculinity were often assumed to be one and the same… [W]hen medieval writers discuss race, they are unthinkingly speaking of a masculine mode of identity.” 

– The Blood of Race, JJ Cohen

Jewish men were portrayed as menstrual or hermaphrodites, monstrous or imperfect conceptions of masculinity to the medieval Christian understanding. This was attributed to defects in the strict kosher diet. Saracens (Muslims) meanwhile were depicted as hotblooded – quick to lust and to war, driven to short tempers by the heat of their native climates. Like women, Saracens were considered too sensual and too mercurial. Saracens were exotic figures in dramas and plays. Jews were real live “foreigners” born and raised in England, speaking French and Hebrew. Saracens were targets of Crusades. Jews were targets at home. 

William of Norwich in 1144 was the first charge of blood libel against English Jews, starting a spate of child murder accusations. There were repetitions in Gloucester, England (1168); Blois, France (1171); and Saragossa, Spain (1182). In 1247 Pope Innocent IV found it nevessary to issue a papal bull announcing the fact that Jews do not actually eat the hearts of children. It wasn’t believed. It was too easy for the Christian English to literally believe that their Jewish neighbors had devil horns hidden under their hats, to literally believe they were in congress with Satan who appeared unto them in the form of a talking goat, and to literally believe they drank the blood of children. To think that they were literal monsters in monstrous bodies.

Although we are slightly less mystical and religious about our monsterizing these days, modern racism is no less impressive for its ability to confer upon the body of the racialized a more embodied physical being. The very size and darkness of Michael Brown‘s black body was presented as if it were a menacing weapon threatening the police officer who gunned him down, unarmed, six times. The shooting was ruled self defense, because Michael Brown was considered a monster and not a man. There are still non Jewish people who ask Jews if they have horns, or try to feel their scalps for them. We have not shaken our monstrous concepts of races. We have only reshaped them. 

Further Reading 

Friedman, John Block. “The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought”. Syracuse University Press, 2000. Google Books

Cohen, J.J. ” Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles”. Stories of Blood 2: The Blood of Race.  Accessed 31st October 2017. 

Strickland, Debra Highs. “Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art”. Princeton University Press, 2003. Google Books