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The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages
In the centuries following Augustine and the fall of the Roman Empire, leading into the Middle Ages, attitudes toward the Jews and Judaism became increasingly hostile and violent, eventually causing their complete expulsion from most of Western Europe. It is in Christian medieval Europe that the roots of many of the antisemitic stereotypes and tropes, still familiar to us today, can be found. These include, among others, the stigma of the Jewish obsession with money; the allegation that Jews murder Christians, particularly children, in order to use their blood for ritualistic purposes; the accusation that Jews poisoned the wells of Christians and so forth.
How did early Christian thought and perceptions of the Jews, and especially the Augustinian legacy calling for the safekeeping of Jews, morph into violent and often murderous, actions and rhetoric? Augustine bequeathed a legacy of ambivalence concerning the Jews to the Christian Middle Ages - ambivalence perhaps in the classic Freudian sense of love and hate at the same time. The Jews needed to be preserved but, on the other hand, they needed to be subordinated, to be scattered, to be enslaved. They needed to serve the purposes of a properly ordered Christian society by embodying the old biblical legacy that Christianity claimed to have sprung from and to have replaced.
Augustine, then, injected a kind of polemical imperative into Christian attitudes towards Jews and Judaism, even if there were no Jews across the street. Christians very frequently came to define their own Christian beliefs and identity by negating those of Jews and Judaism; and this helped to preserve a Jewish community in Western medieval Europe for a time. But what happens by the end of the European Middle Ages is that the Jews are successively expelled from most Western European lands.
They’re expelled from England in 1290, France beginning in 1306, Spain and Sicily in 1492, Portugal in 1497, the Kingdom of Naples - the southern half of Italy - in 1541, which means by the end of the European Middle Ages - except for parts of Germany and northern Italy - Western Christian Europe is essentially judenrein. It is essentially free, pure of Jews, as it were. What happened to Augustine’s teaching of “slay them not”? And Augustine was a theological authority second to none in European Christendom. What happened to allow for that change?
We can touch only on a few highlights and mention a few factors that helped precipitate, that contributed towards that downfall of the Jews in Western medieval Europe and their virtual disappearance from Western medieval Europe by the end of the Middle Ages. In 1096, when the Western European church and its followers set off on the First Crusade to reconquer the Holy Land from the Muslims, who then ruled and controlled it, various Jewish communities in Northern Europe, especially in Northwestern Germany were the objects of a wave of pogroms, of serious anti-Jewish violence, in which Jews were offered a choice between conversion to Christianity or death. This was not in keeping with the official mandate of the Crusaders.
It was not at all in keeping with the Augustinian teaching of “slay them not.” But what it does, in as much as it is in contrast to those instructions from above, is to awaken European society to the problematic, to the to the unique status of the Jews. They’re here but yet they exemplify everything that we disagree with, and, in times of stress, they can be the objects of violence. So, beginning in the 12th century, Jews and Judaism in Western Europe become the subjects of increased intense scrutiny and this helps to bring about a change that will eventually result in their expulsion and elimination. At the same time, during this period, Western European society is burgeoning. It’s flourishing economically.
Cities come back onto the scene. Urban markets, middle class, schools, universities, trade and commerce with remote areas as well - with the East - all are on an upsurge. And this again prods people to focus on the Jews who are known as people who are associated with money, with trade, commerce, and money lending. It forces Jews into occupations like money lending and what it also does is to bring them into a kind of friction and conflict with other classes in society. Christian bureaucrats, who now themselves are experiencing new power and authority, and they have to stake out their terrain in contrast or in opposition to those of other groups, like the Jews.
During the same period, Western European Christendom comes into an encounter with other “others.” Jews were typically the only other in earlier … the only other, in religious terms, in early European society, in early medieval European society. But now Christians come into contact, more than ever before, with Muslims in their midst. They come into contact with the Jews, with some pagan groups across the borders, the frontiers of medieval Europe to the North and to the East. And this meeting with other “others” forces them to redefine the status and the mission of the other, whom they have known until now, and that is the Jew.
But, perhaps, the most important catalyst for change in the Christian perception of the Jew in theological terms is the awakening of the church to the reality that the Jews of today are not fossils of antiquity. They haven’t remained motionless in ancient times the way Augustine imagined them. They’re not waiting on that platform in the train station anymore for the Christian train of salvation to arrive. They’ve, as it were, gone off to a different platform, gotten on a different train. Judaism has evolved. Contemporary Judaism in medieval Europe is Talmudic Judaism. The church always knew Jews had their books like the Talmud but they never read them before.
And beginning in the 12th and 13th centuries, for the first time, Christian theologians helped by Jewish converts to Christianity read and scrutinize the Talmud and they’re shocked because rabbinic tradition is still alive; rabbinic tradition is still evolving. Judaism is still flourishing in a cultural sense, where it was supposed to have died and become extinguished. That’s what Augustine taught. And the conclusion was that the Jews of today, then, who accept the authority of the Talmud and the rabbis who came after Jesus, are heretics. Not just with regard to Christianity - that they don’t believe Christianity. They’re heretics with regard to biblical Judaism because from a Christian point of view, they’ve replaced the Law of Moses with the Law of the rabbis.
This kind of Jew deliberately - not blindly the way Augustine imagined - deliberately forsook the truth of the Bible. And this Jew went off to create another religion so as not to have to admit the truth in Christianity. And this notion of the Jew as a deliberate unbeliever, a heretic, and Christianity has no patience for heretics in a properly ordered society. The church is at the peak of its power in the 12th and 13th century. It tries to make sure that every group in society has a defined and legitimate role, and it has no room for heretics. So inquisitions are on the rise. It has no room for homosexuals.
So only now, for the first time, the gays come to be persecuted in Western society by Christian authorities. And it has no room for a Jew who does not fit the Augustinian mold. Paradoxically, paradoxically, Augustine and the tradition that he bequeathed to the West knew better what a real Jew is than the Jews themselves. And so the Jew comes to be perceived as a kind of deviant, a heretic, a deliberate unbeliever. And this is expressed in a variety of manners which convey a sense that anti-Judaism or the earliest versions of antisemitism are on the rise. For example, Augustine had taught that the Jews who were responsible for Jesus crucifixion, the Jewish Christ-killers, really didn’t know what they were doing.
Now, in the 13th century, none other than Thomas Aquinas argues that the Jews knew they were killing their Savior. The Jewish leaders killed their Savior deliberately, and for all intents and purposes, they really understood that he was the son of God. What kind of individual knowingly, deliberately kills his Savior, murders the son of God? Not a rational human being but an irrational being, a monster, an agent of Satan.
And this new perception of the Jew fosters more popular beliefs that the Jews engaged in criminal activity, perpetrating all kinds of terrible crimes against humanity - they committed ritual murder against innocent Christians, ritual cannibalism, when they use the blood of people whom they killed for ritual purposes, like baking matzah for Passover; Jews poisoned the wells; they sought to get the consecrated host from the mass and deliberately to desecrate it - to take vengeance on this cracker, which, they really understood, was the crucified Christ.
Late medieval popular culture fosters this notion of the Jew as a satanic monster, a Jew who has a foul odor, a Jew who, if he’s male and not just female, has a monthly menstrual cycle, a Jew who is not human but a Jew who is satanic and monstrous. And long after the Catholic theology of the Middle Ages ebbs, and declines, and loses its hold over European society, many of these myths and popular motifs survive, and become a kind of important bequest of the Middle Ages to modern antisemitism.

Prof. Jeremy Cohen

In the centuries leading into the Middle Ages, attitudes toward Jews and Judaism became increasingly hostile and brutal. The roots of many of the antisemitic stereotypes and tropes still familiar to us today can be found in Christian Medieval Europe.

How did early Christian thought and perceptions of the Jews, and especially the Augustinian legacy calling for the safekeeping of Jews, morph into violent, and often murderous, actions and rhetoric?

For additional visual material please see “downloads” below.


  • Biale, David , Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol Between Jews and Christians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

  • Berger, David, “From Crusades to Blood Libels to Expulsions: Some New Approaches to Medieval Anti-Semitism,” in David Berger, ed., Persecution, Polemic, and Dialogue: Essays in Jewish Christian Relations (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2010), pp. 15 – 39.

  • Chazan, Robert, Medieval Stereotypes and Modern Antisemitism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

  • Cohen, Jeremy, The Friars and the Jews: The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism (Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1982).

  • Lipton, Sara, “The Root of All Evil: Jews, Money and Metaphor in the Bible moralisée,” Medieval Encounters, vol. 1, no. 3 (1995), pp. 301 – 322.

  • Nirenberg, David, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton, N.J : Princeton University Press, 1996).

  • Stowe, Kenneth R., Alienated Minority: The Jews of Medieval Latin Europe (Cambridge, M.A: Harvard University Press, 1992).

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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