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The Jewish “other” in the Middle Ages

The Jewish "other" in the Middle Ages
We saw how extremely violent attitudes towards Jews developed throughout the Middle Ages, influenced by the political and religious changes of the time. These events and their aftermath left an indelible mark on European society. This brings us back to Prof. David Nirenberg’s analysis of anti-Judaism, which shows us how the tumultuous Middle Ages served to further establish the Jews and Judaism as the ultimate symbol of the “other” in Western tradition. The Middle Ages are fascinating in part, because they developed so many new uses for thinking about Judaism, and, of course, a lot of these uses had very early roots. So for example, already in Paul you get the idea that the Jew who doesn’t follow Jesus has become a slave.
In Augustine you get the idea that the Jews are serfs or slaves - slaves of the Christian. But in the Middle Ages you get this turned into a political idea which is … As these new, can I call them states, are emerging out of the ruins of the Roman Empire, their rulers don’t have any strong claims to power. And who can they first claim power over and use as instruments of their will? So the first people over which princes and kings really succeed in extending claims to total power is over the Jews.
And they do so in part by arguing that they are the slaves of the Christian who live entirely under the king’s protection, because again as Augustin said, the emperor protects the Jews from being slain and therefore the king has the right to treat them as his - sometimes he’ll just say it - his chattel, his possessions. What that means is that a king can have Jews lend money at interest and then seize their money. So Jews become, for example, a special instrument of the state, a special taxation instrument, a special fiscal instrument, a special monetary instrument. You might call them “royal moneybags with legs.” In the Middle Ages they called them “the royal leeches” or “the royal treasure.”
So in this way - this didn’t last very long, lasted a couple of centuries. But what it meant was that state power, taxation power, thinking about a central monarchical power, came to be associated in the Middle Ages with Judaism and that many civil wars, many revolutions - revolution is maybe the wrong word for the Middle Ages - many rebellions against monarchical power, came to be thought of as rebellions against Judaism. And that idea that the polity, the state, is some kind of materialist enemy of the spiritual Christian that needs to be resisted, that idea that in some way political power is Jewish - became absolutely central to thinking about political power in Europe all the way into modernity.
And that explains a lot, I think, about the shape that many of the later modern revolutions took and about the role of anti-Judaism in, in many rebellions, revolutions etc. across the Middle Ages, the Early Modern, and the Modern Period.

Prof. David Nirenberg

How did the tumultuous Middle Ages served to further establish the Jews and Judaism as the ultimate symbols of the “other” in Western tradition?


  • Nirenberg, David, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013).
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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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