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

Jewish Persecution: 1CE – Today, part 87

Long ago, before 79 CE, Pliny the Elder was a naval commander of the Roman empire and author of adventure literature. His Naturalis Historia recorded many true and exaggerated details of his voyages, including vivid, gawking descriptions of exotic, exceptional human. Pliny called them names according to their diet or unique clothes or physical oddity, whatever made them not the same. These groups collectively came to be known as the Monstrous Races. In the medieval age, Pliny’s Monstrous Races featured extensively in books, art, and discussions of the world beyond a nation’s borders. The Latin word natio meant a group of common blood or ancestry, closer to our modern “race” than nation. 

Within two centuries of the Norman conquest, England had absorbed the Norman elite minority into Anglo-Saxonism. The ruling class stopped thinking of themselves as Norman. After King John lost Normandy to France in 1205, they replaced French with English as their spoken tongue. They married into Anglo-Saxon families and had Anglo-Saxon babies they gave Anglo-Saxon names to. The Normans may have won the conquest, but they became English in the process. The other native minorities of Britain – the Irish, Scots, and Welsh – became less English meanwhile by contrast. 

Although they had each been trading partners of England in the past, and had English royalty married into their noble houses, the Anglo-Saxons came to think of the Celtic races on the outer fringes of England as alien, strange, inhuman, beasts. Monstrous races like Pliny described in the East, little more than animal. The unnamed author of the Gesta Stephani (probably a high ranking, well placed bishop) written during the reign of King Stephen described a Scottish army as “barbarous and filthy, neither overcome by excess of cold nor enfeebled by severe hunger, putting their trust in swiftness of foot and light equipment; in their own country they care nothing for the awful moment of the bitterness of death, among foreigners they surpass all for cruelty.” 

The army being described was in truth multiethnic, including Picts, Danes, Scots, Britons, Angles, and some who would identity themselves as “English” too. What’s more the Scottish King David had been raised and educated in England, and was descended from the English royal House of Wessex. His wife was the daughter of the Earl of Northumbria. Their children had more English blood than Scottish. But race is a process of group identity building, and it is defined at least as much by exclusion as inclusion. Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were able to coalesce into Anglo-Saxons and then into English with the help of a monk named Bede’s quasi historical origin myth, the Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples. The Normans, who made up less than 1% of the population in 1066, were absorbed into this racial identity. 

But the other five “races” of Medieval Britain were shut out. Part of how Anglo-Saxonism or Englishness was defined was specifically by not being Irish, Scottish, Jewish, Muslim, or Welsh. And in that definition process, each of the other races was monsterized. Monstrosity took a few standard forms. One was disability or disfigurement, congenital deformation. The mixed race Norman and English writer William of Malmesbury depicted an allegory of conjoined twins born on the Norman-Brittany border. Joined at the stomach, “there were two mouths to eat with, but only one channel for digestion.” After one sister dies, her twin is forced to carry her corpse around for another three years before expiring herself. Holding onto Normandy the militarily expensive duchy was increasingly unpopular. 

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

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 86 

Thomas of Monmouth was a Benedictine monk who moved to the Norwich monastery in 1150. Thomas was dedicated to establishing the cult of William of Norwich. Most of the contemporary documents we have about William were written by Thomas, trying to argue for miracles or sainthood or martyrdom of the murdered boy. To say the accounts in The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich are biased is putting it mildly. In addition to interviewing surviving witnesses, Thomas interviewed “converted Jews”, who may have included Christian pretenders simply slandering the neighbors the feared. Norwich’s Jewish community had only existed for nine years at that point, nestled against Norwich castle and highly socially dependent on the Norman conquerors for protection. 

Theobold of Cambridge was one such converted Jew, who gave the most salacious, outrageous testimony. He told Thomas of Monmouth that that there was an ancient prophecy that the Jews could return to Israel, but only if they sacrificed and crucified a Christian child each year. Furthermore, a global Jewish community was all in on the conspiracy: each year they met in Narbonne to decide which Jewish community had the responsibility of killing a Christian child, and the year of 1144 the lot had fallen to the Jews of Norwich. 

Theobold tied in themes of Easter – an excuse for violence since the 2nd century – with the violation of innocents, and with Christian prejudice against “Jewish superstition” or prophecy. He used identity politics in the 12th century to discredit an entire religion and race of people, and the effects of that still reverberate in the 21st century today. Theobold did lasting harm. Blood libel was born out of custom made sore spots, tailored to get the most reaction. Blood libel has anti Zionism built in. It has globalism built in. It predates New York, yet somehow has “New York values” and other codes for Jewish built in. 

Modern historians have tried to solve the murder of William of Norwich. Up through the Enlightenment, the blood libel charge was the most commonly accepted answer in academic and lay circles outside of the Jewish community. Various proposed theories include that William’s family, possibly with the assistance of Theobold, sought purity through the crucifixion of the boy which they later blamed on Jews; the unnamed cook was a sex criminal (William was described as dressed in “jacket and shoes”); or William was simply a victim of roadside banditry and the general lawlessness of the Anarchy. Whatever the true cause, the imagined one of blood sacrifice was easier for hateful, fearful, Medieval minds to embrace. 

Further Reading

Thomas of Monmouth. The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich, 1173. Fordham University, Medieval Sourcebook

Jewish Encyclopedia – William of Norwich 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 85 

When William the Conqueror became the first Norman King of England in 1066 CE, he welcomed Jews to the island for banking and money lending services. The new Norman aristocracy and Jewish financial class both spoke Anglo-Norman, a French dialect, while the native Anglo-Saxon nobility and peasantry spoke Old English. Pockets of resistance to King William’s rule persisted for years after he defeated Harold Godwinson, and he had to build castles around the country to reclaim his territory and hold onto it. Wood construction gave way to stone, and the first lasting Norman structures that still stand today began to be erected. Jewries or Jewish quarters were tucked in alongside Norman areas for protection.

During his grandson King Stephen’s reign (1135-1154), Jews and Normans were still distrusted foreigners. William I had been succeeded as English king by his second born son William II (1087-1100) and fourth born son Henry I (1100-1135). Henry had a great many illegitimate children with mistresses but only one legitimate son and heir with his wife and queen, William Adelin. In 1120, the White Ship vessel went down overloaded with dignitaries and all but two aboard drowned. The future king of England was lost, and the country was thrown into a succession crisis. Henry, bless him, tried to get the country to accept his daughter Empress Matilda as regent in 1120 CE. He gathered grudging oaths of loyalty but could not get papal support. Upon his death in 1135, his nephew Stephen seized the throne, setting off a civil war and period of lawlessness known as “The Anarchy” that would last until 1152. 

This was the climate of xenophobia and danger Medieval English lived on the Saturday afternoon, March 26th, 1144 when a young boy’s uncle, brother, and father found his body dead in Thorpe Wood and covered with sand. He was dead, and he had been murdered. His body bore the unmistakeable signs of violence. William of Norwich was a 12-year-old tanner’s apprentice. A man claiming to be a cook of the Archdeacon paid his mother three shillings to take William as a scullion or kitchen servant. The man and William encountered William’s aunt in the course of the day. William’s aunt felt suspicious and asked her daughter to follow the pair. She reported last seeing William and the man entering the home of a Jew on Holy Tuesday. His body was found five days later. 

He was initially reburied in the same place by his relatives. William’s uncle was the first to accuse Jews of the boy’s murder, in an ecclesiastical court. The sheriff of Norwich John de Chesney advised the Jewish community that they were not bound to appear before that religious court, and offered them protection in the castle while Christian tempers flared. William’s body, meanwhile, was reburied again and again in increasingly honored locations. The first accusations surrounding the murder of William of Norwich are simply that: murder. As clergy members tried to develop a cult of martyrdom around William, the horrors of his death grew more specific, religious, occultic, and demonic to the Christian imagination. Simultaneously the Jewish villains of the story became more monstrous. The cook who enticed William away disappeared from the story, replaced by the sinister Jew. 

Further Reading

Thomas of Monmouth. The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich, 1173. Fordham University, Medieval Sourcebook

Jewish Encyclopedia – William of Norwich 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 84 

Medieval Jewish communities were the property of the monarch they had a charter with. They were not “free” men and women like the nobility, but they were not bonded servants or slaves either. Because of their important financial role in early medieval life, Jews were usually afforded more freedoms of movement and association than others. This generated some jealousy from the peasant class. Wealthier classes took out substantial loans from Jewish creditors. Strongbow’s 1170 invasion of Ireland was financed by a Jew named Josce.  Some Jews became very wealthy. Aaron of Lincoln was the wealthiest person in England at the time of his death in 1186, and a special exchequer was appointed by the king to collect all the debts owed to his estate, now royal property. 

Jews were a source of tax revenue kings could pull from without increasing the odds of popular revolt. King Richard I of England (1189 – 1199) needed a large influx of gold for the Third Crusade, against Saladin. He taxed his Christians subjects a tithe, but the Jews he taxed a quarter. In this way the Jewish minority contributed half the total war chest. Anti Jewish violence began on the very evening of Richard “the Lionheart”‘s coronation. He barred Jews and womem from attending the ceremony. When some Jewish scholars, rabbis, and community leaders came to present gifts on behalf of their coreligionists, they were stripped, beaten, and flogged. A rumor quickly spread that the new king had ordered the Jews to be killed, and Christians set about lighting Jewish homes aflame and trying to forcibly baptize unwilling Jews. 

The French King Philip Augustus came to the throne in March of 1181 and immediately made a naked grab for Jewish wealth. Philip Augustus was more devoutly Catholic and embraced the Church’s hard stance against usury as any loan a Jew was involved in. He had all Jews arrested in their synagogues the Saturday of his coronation, and ordered them to sell their small property and leave France Proper within three months’ time. King Philip Augustus took possession of their homes, lands, and businesses with no compensation. The Jewish community appealed to members of the French nobility, but those Christians were due to profit from abetting their king in his theft. 

The worst antisemitic massacre in English history took place in 1190 at York. A fire had broken out in the city while the sheriff was away on Crusade, leading to looting. Jewish homes were the first targets of looters. The debt chests recording Norman and Anglo debts to Jewish creditors were kept in the wooden constructed Clifford’s Tower, on top of a human constructed hill called a motte, typical Norman castle design of the era. All of the Jews took refuge in the Tower from the angry Christian mob. But they were outnumbered and had no escape. Richard Melabisse, a Christian leader of the mob, promised to spare their lives if they would convert. Some Jews came out a back door to take him up on it, only to be immediately murdered. The other Jewish families in the tower, like the Jews of the Rhineland massacres, chose to kill themselves rather than fall to Christian hands or be forcibly baptized. Every Jew died. Christians wiped out their debts. 

King John of England (1205-1216), who you may recall as the thumb-sucking lion from the Disney cartoon Robin Hood, demanded a large tallage or arbitrary tax from the Jewish community to fund his war with Ireland. In order for the Jews to produce the cash in hand, they had to call in their debts, upsetting a great many Christian nobles. But it was Medieval Jews who felt the pain of a treasury squeeze. One Jew who said he couldn’t and wouldn’t pay 10,000 silver marks, Abraham of Bristol, was imprisoned and had one tooth extracted by the executioner each day until his family could raise the money to ransom him. It took them a week. The estimated value of this extortion today would be about US$9,180,000.

Further Reading

Arbesman, Samuel. “The Long Data of European Jewish Expulsions”. WIRED Magazine, 06 March 2013. Accessed 26 October 2017. 
Anderson, Robert Warren. “Jewish Persecution and Weather Shocks: 1100-1800”. University of Michigan, Dearborn. 30 December 2013. 

Levin, Sala. “The Biggest Jewish Genetic Myths of All Time”. Moment Magazine. 28 July 2012. Accessed 26 October 2017.

Schlesinger, Alex. “The Jews of Bristol”. Accessed 28 October 2017.