Anti-Semitism in the Age of Faith: The Culpability of the Roman Catholic Church

Ralph Maiolino III

The Roman Catholic Church claims to be founded by Jesus Christ and led by His apostles and their successors. The belief that Jesus, the Son of God and a practicing Jew, sacrificed Himself for the redemption of creation logically has led the Church to recognize that salvation comes from the Jews.[1] Despite the Church’s obvious Semitic roots, the attitudes of her members, clergy, and prelates towards Jews have ranged from honor and acceptance to hatred and violence. The Church of the Middle Ages has been categorized as blatantly anti-Semitic by allowing, enabling, or directly perpetrating discrimination and violence against the chosen people of the Old Testament. Official teaching called for respect towards Jews, but religious leadership proved itself to be severely lacking in knowledge and fortitude; and, in some cases, went so far as to encourage darker elements within the Church.

Today, the Roman Church has maintained a “link with the Jewish people, the first to hear the Word of God”.[2] Because the Jews were the first to recognize the voice of God they are given certain privileges and honors. To them “belong(s) the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race.”[3] The Church believes that the Jewish faith community maintains their historic status as “the chosen people” and that they should be respected as such. At the time of the Middle Ages, however, this position had not been elevated as truth.

However, both the tradition and scripture of the Medieval Church led the faithful congregations to develop an anti-Jewish worldview. The worst crimes committed against the Jewish people, while acted out by secular government or in organic and random violence from local populations, were inspired or encouraged by authority figures in the Church. When the Catholic Church wasn’t actively discriminating against the Jewish people with decrees and laws, it was creating opportunities for violence and stoking the flames of hatred. The Church created the basis for other actors, secular states and mobs, to engage in violence because it fostered a culture of anti-Semitism. Religion was the driving force behind these horrific actions.

The preeminent historiography pins the blame for this overwhelming atmosphere of anti-Semitism at the feet of the Catholic Church, with isolated dissent. Historian Malcolm Hay argues in his work Thy Brother’s Blood that religious attitudes and official actions that played a large role in spurring hatred. It is his opinion that that Church deliberately spread propaganda with the goal of eventually wiping out Europe’s Jews.[4] Phyllis Goldstein in her work A Convenient Hatred: The History of Anti-Semitism makes a similar argument. She believes the church took an active role in discriminatory practices. In addition to decrees like the Lateran Council, the Church used her influence to pressure secular governments into oppressing Jewish people.[5] In Roots of Hate William Brustein sees religion as one of four “roots” of anti-Semitic attitudes. He sees the “Christ Killers” label as a particularly damning magnet for violence.[6]

An examination of primary sources during the Middle Ages reveals a Church that took a very active role in governance of Europe’s population. She often calls for and enacts direct discriminatory practices, including the infamous “Jewish badge,” an identifying badge that Jews were forced to wear so any passerby could differentiate them from others on the street. Catholic teachings also created an environment where anti-Semitism survived and thrived. This attitude poisoned the minds of commoners and governmental leaders, which led to brutality. In addition to all of this, the Church provided ample opportunity for the faithful to put these beliefs into practice for God’s glory.

The chief reason for such small mindedness was the ignorance of preachers. Many of the men responsible for teaching the faithful about their religion at this time were commissioned “without any proper instruction”.[7] Formal training of clerics was rare. This resulted in a large percentage of them providing limited interpretation of scripture. Bishops too were infamous for their “appalling ignorance” of theological matters.[8] Church leaders displayed a childish grasp of their faith. They mustered a very simple understanding of a very complex belief system.

The source base for medieval theology included the traditions of early Church fathers as well as scripture. Because faith was characterized more by ritual participation and repeating talking points rather than actual knowledge, the clergy would have had over-relied on the homilies of ancient churchmen. Sermons naturally then would have contained a more ancient and biased worldview. This is where anti-Semitism began to infect the minds and hearts of the faithful, as it had once been a Catholic tradition to view Jews with contempt. St. Paul the Apostle described the Jews as offensive to God because of how they treated Jesus and his followers.[9] The revered and influential Doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, characterized the Jewish people as “pitiable and miserable” because they consistently rejected the blessings and teachings of God.[10] He called them “dogs” and accused them of carrying out the work of the devil.[11] He warned good Christians to avoid them and their synagogues like a “den of robbers” lest they be tempted by their falsehoods.[12]

It is in Chrysostom that medieval people and preachers would have found the religious theory on which to validate horrific rumors. He further wrote that “the godlessness of the Jews and the pagans is on a par. But the Jews practice a deceit which is more dangerous. In their synagogue stands an invisible altar of deceit on which they sacrifice not sheep and calves but the souls of men”.[13] He accuses Judaism of being a false religion meant to steal the souls of men and women away from the Lord. To him they are worse than pagans because of their propensity to lie and manipulate elements of truth. He further said that “demons dwell in their souls” and that they were totally possessed and owned by the armies of darkness.[14] He argues that wild animals often defend their young, while the Jews made habit of slaying “their own children with their own hands to pay honor to the avenging demons,”[15] essentially accusing them of child sacrifice for the honor of Satan.

Since this and similar rhetoric was passed down through the ages, there is no wonder why the faithful of the Middle Ages would have held the same opinions. Anti-Jewish sentiments were not new ideas created by the church of their time. Instead these were ancient thoughts picked up by an illiterate populace who had no reason to question the wisdom of the Church. It is consequently unfair to expect common folk to have an intellectual understanding of the nuances of their faith when their leaders and instructors failed to do so. With these facts in mind, perversion of authentic truth becomes less intentional and more accidental.

There were also other reasons for theological confusion. Some clergy operated with “a disastrous laxity in the performance of their duties”.[16] They lacked work ethic and true zeal for the faith, which allowed false belief to fester. Others viewed their vocation as simply a career and focused their efforts on “great offices…or promotion to richer sees”.[17] These men operated like hired hands and mercenaries, neglecting the spiritual needs of their people in their quest for power and temporal glory. Another egregious moral failing of the Church was deliberate attempts by preachers to spread false beliefs. There were clerics who desired popularity and the adoration of the masses and their way to achieve this was “pleasing the crowd with vanities and curiosities”.[18] These men pandered to the crowds in order to win their favor and approval. They recognized the “fatal attraction of fables” and would use this to manipulate their ignorance.[19] False teachers spread “strange heresies and apocryphal imbecilities…not for the refreshment of souls but rather for tickling the ears of their listeners”.[20] These sermons did not meet spiritual need nor convey the truth of the Gospel; instead they spread misinformation like wildfire. This allowed lies to fester and take root within ordinary people. Commoners had their fears and superstitions exploited for the benefit of the religious establishment. Naturally, easily believed anti-Semitic rumors flourished in an environment with no moral leadership. Jews became a convenient scapegoat on whom preachers could pin the problems of the day.

One instance of anti-Jewish violence occurred in Italy in 1021. There was an earthquake and strong gale that had hurt the local population. After an investigation the Jews were blamed for causing the natural disaster through black magic and sorcery. The only remedy the citizens could think of was to massacre the local Jews. After they had been seized and murdered the wind and the earthquake were said to have abated.[21] Many similar natural occurrences were blamed on Jews at the encouragement of the Church.

           Outside of the local parishes, the Church hierarchy enacted official policies meant to discriminate and harm the Jews of Christendom. Historians like Malcolm Hay and Phyllis Goldstein have accused the church of waging an organized propaganda campaign against Jews. They criticized period church leaders for “stoking fury” and “disseminating hate” through their actions.[22] Bishops too used official ceremonies, chronicles, and the authority of their offices to slander their enemies, the Jews, and work the people into a frenzy against them. Clerics strove to isolate Jews from their Christian neighbors by fostering an “us versus them mentality.”[23] They took the lead from people like St. John Chrysostom and decried the Jews as “an accursed people in league with the devil”.[24] Laws were enacted that forbade good Christians from eating or fraternizing with Jews, working for them, or participating in their religious services.[25] This process of isolation and demonization resulted in Jews being seen as the other. Christians did not view them as brothers but rather as foreigners within their own towns.

                   The most visible and direct actions of the Catholic Church against the Jews came during the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. One of the Council’s goals was outlining offenses and accusations levied at the Jewish people as well as setting forth a plan of action to fight back. They moved to brand Jews enemies of the state and a danger to Christian society. Under the direction of the papacy the Church enacted a policy of “social ostracism (and) expulsion…from trust…to disgrace (the Jews) in the eyes of the world, to make them an object of universal contempt”, the goal of which was to eternally cement Jewish status to that of second class citizenry.[26] The first prong of the attack was in matters of money. The Lateran Council forbade “Jews (to)… extort oppressive and excessive interest from Christians”.[27] The definition of excess interest was up to the interpretation of the Church. The Jews, again historically, were accused of usury and of abuses of the financial system.[28] [29] This was because a majority of moneylenders happened to be Jewish, due to the fact that lending money with interest was considered sinful.[30] This left the Jews and others outside the Church to monopolize that sector of the economy. The Council set out to rectify these injustices. The Church also began to force Jewish households to pay tithes to their local churches, in order to prevent any economic “loss.”[31] This was to ensure that having a sizable Jewish population wouldn’t cost the local parish any money.

           Another action the Fourth Lateran Council took against the Jews was to ban them from any and all public offices. It argued that “It would be too absurd for a blasphemer of Christ to exercise power over Christians”.[32] They ran under the assumption that Judaism was a corrupting force and to be associated with it made a person unfit for public service. The Church was also worried that Jews within the government would use their influence to harm followers of Christ. They wrote: “under cover of (official office) they are very hostile to Christians”.[33] There was the honest belief that Jews were evil, and they would use whatever means they could to bring down the Church and hurt her members. This shunning of Jewish people from public life meant that there was no way for them to effectively advocate for their own rights and protections. The Catholics had set them up to be persecuted.

           The worst injustices committed against the Jewish people by the Papacy at the Fourth Lateran Council had to do with restricting their rights in public. Jews were banned from appearing in public on feast days because their mere presence and dress was offensive towards Christians.[34] According to tradition, the public presence of a Jew made a mockery of the high feasts of God. The only reasonable solution they saw was a total ban of Jewish people from the streets. The most consequential aspect of this was the forcing of people to wear an identifying badge to make them “distinguished in public from other people by the character of their dress”.[35] The mixing of Jew and Christian without distinctive notation was “damnable” and could not be allowed to occur for the good of society.[36] Hay argued that this “settled the destiny of the Jewish people for many centuries, they continued to wander…without rights…without home, and without security, treated…as if they were beings of an inferior species”.[37] The Church forced society to view Jews as almost sub-human; it was this loss of rights and dignity that encouraged people to make the jump and take the only thing they had left: their lives.

            The biggest example of widespread violence occurred in 1095 after Pope Urban II commissioned the First Crusade. He called for a united army of Christendom; which would march in unison under the sign of the cross and whose sole purpose was to reclaim the sacred land of Christ’s passion. It was every good Christian’s duty to beat back the pagan and barbarous influences that had begun to infect the West. Urban exhorted his happy warriors, commanding them to “undertake this journey eagerly for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the reward of imperishable glory in the kingdom of heaven”.[38] This promise of eternal salvation enticed the crusading armies to take whatever means necessary to ensure victory. While the primary target of the Crusade were the Muslim occupiers of the Holy Land, some found it easier to focus on Jews instead.

    Interestingly, at the time of the First Crusade, the Church’s official position on the issue of Jewry was one of “toleration of Jewish life within Christendom”.[39] There was no active extermination of Jewish life and culture. They could go about their lives in relative peace within their own small communities. Despite being viewed as heretics Jews could practice their religion, so long as it did not impact or influence their Christian neighbors.[40] As long as they kept to themselves Jews encountered little direct oppression. There were even instances of civic and commercial cooperation, “Jews employed Christian laborers…entered various partnerships…Christians on occasion…assisted Jewish neighbors”.[41] Society was able to function even with an active Jewish minority.

However, domestic Crusaders brutalized the Jews of Europe in an attempt to stomp out heresy closer to home. Jews were already vulnerable victims of besmirchment and slander by the Church. They were further labeled Christ-killers and were victims of other anti-Semitic rumors. This was the primary factor that influenced the Crusaders to put them under the sword. The Jews were the infidel that had infiltrated Christendom’s own cities and towns; they especially needed to be eliminated.

           The Crusades were just another instance of the long conflict between the Roman Church and dissenters spilling out into violence. The Church believed that Jewish beliefs were heretical. What made their errors so offensive was the fact that “the Jews had once…possessed the truth of revelation, misread it, and thereby forfeited their covenantal relationship with (God)”.[42] Christians believed that Jews made the conscious choice to reject the truth of the Paschal Mystery. They accused the Jews of incredulity or, “the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it” which is a grave sin.[43]Jews, to the medieval Christians, were “reprehensible, to have known the truth and given it up”.[44] It is a far greater sin to know truth and deny it then to have lived a whole lifetime in total and involuntarily ignorance.

           The Jews would also have been unfairly viewed by the Christians of the time as Christ-killers. Jews were found guilty in the court of public opinion of “crucifixion of the Messiah, whom they should…have accepted”.[45] Not only did the Jews deny the truth of the divinity of Jesus, they humiliated and brutally murdered Him.  Anti-Semitic Church leaders argued that the Jews were guilty of Christ’s death because it was they who falsely accused Him, dragged him before Pilate and demanded His death. Per scripture the Jews welcomed this guilt, exclaiming in Matthew’s account of the Passion: “His blood be upon us and upon our children”.[46] This ended up becoming the rallying cry to get the faithful to avenge their fallen savior by massacring his murderers. The Church father Hippolytus confirmed Jewish responsibility for Christ’s death, writing “you Jew…do boast yourself in that you condemned Jesus of Nazareth to death”.[47]

              Urban II did not officially call for Jews to be targeted in the Crusade. There was said to be no “formal anti-Jewish objective”.[48] What was originally supposed to be a small venture under the close guidance of the Holy Father grew to a massive enterprise as the faithful from all over flocked to join. The pope was “caught off guard by the tidal wave of enthusiasm…(and) lost control of the shape and format of the expedition”.[49] The pope was overwhelmed by the sheer masses of lay faithful who wanted to fight and die for the faith, and some of the orthodox reasons behind the Crusade were lost in the chaos. The sheer size of the Crusade meant “there was little to no control over crusading theory and practice…it was impossible…to control interpretations of the ideology of the crusade”.[50] People began to pervert the mission to fit their own ends or erroneous belief systems, some of which were anti-Semitic in nature.

Urban II’s exhortation to avenge “the great disorder in the world” could be interpreted quite liberally.[51] The existence of the Jewish people was viewed as a threat to the good order of the Church; it makes sense as to why they became targets. Some could even choose to view them as a bigger threat than the Muslims due to their integration and proximity. There were many on the First Crusade who believed Urban called them to “overcome all infidelity” and they “chose to begin their mission with an assault on the infidels immediately at hand, the Jews”.[52] These semi-rogue warriors bought into the school of thought that lumped Jews into the group of infidels at large and sought to persecute and eliminate them.

           Few of the armies that attacked Jewish settlements in Northern Europe were backed by nobility. The perpetrators of much of the violence towards the Jews were the “paupers, poor men, who had formed a sort of advance guard for the more disciplined crusaders”.[53] These were the “popular” crusades made up of the unwashed and frenzied masses. The nobility focused to a large degree on the official mission. It was frenzied commoners who took it upon themselves to attack “other” infidels. This may be because they were exposed in a more direct way to radical preachers spouting anti-Semitic sermons.

The thought process behind the crusade against the Jews began in France. Crusaders in Rouen were quoted saying: “we desire to combat the enemies of God…we have under our eyes the Jews, a race more inimical to God than all the others. We are doing this whole thing backwards”.[54] These crusaders believed the popular myths and falsehoods about the Jews, and set upon massacring them like the other infidels; The Jews in Rouen were subsequently annihilated. After the assault on the Jewish people in France the crusading armies moved east into Germany.

The first band of warriors to move through Germany on their voyage to the Holy Land were led by Peter the Hermit. Peter was a master orator who could stir the people into a frenzy, but he lacked a certain level of couth. He “looked like a vagabond, such was his penchant for extreme austerity and his disregard for physical cleanliness”.[55] Peter marched his circus into the Rhineland and the violence exploded. The “popular” crusaders engaged in “random anti-Jewish violence”.[56] One account claimed the violence was so bad “when they saw one of us, they ran after him and pierced him with a spear, to the point that we were afraid even to cross our own thresholds”.[57] Peter’s crusade was characterized by random violence perpetrated on the native Jews who were too afraid to even leave their own homes. When the local Jews fought back it only made the situation worse. One crusader was killed so his confreres “avenged (him and) the crucified, whom their ancestors slew. Let not a remnant or residue escape…they came and struck those who had remained in their houses…all of them stretched forth their necks”.[58] Again these crusaders, motivated by the murder of Jesus, massacred the Jews in their homes for daring to oppose the pillaging of their community. Jews would have been spared from being butchered if they were baptized; but few accepted, most preferring martyrdom or suicide.[59] Entire communities were exterminated as “God’s Army” passed through their territory.

The violence perpetrated against the Jews by Peter’s army paled in comparison to what the armies that followed did. These crusaders firmly believed “Holy War is…the effort to kill and to subjugate all those kingdoms which do not believe in the Crucified”.[60] They possessed no mercy and compassion for those who did not believe in Christ. It was in a very real way, convert or die. Emico, a crusading German noble, was known for his extreme “spirit of cruelty against the Jewish people”[61] and his “tyrannical mode of life”.[62] He commanded a group of rabid fanatics in attacks on the Jews of Germany where they “utterly destroyed the execrable race of the Jews wherever they found them”.[63] In one instance they attacked the city of Cologne. According to the of Ekkehard they slaughtered all the Jews present, burned their homes and places of worship, and looted their possessions.[64] These soldiers marching under the banner of the Church became a plague upon local Jewish populations.

In Mainz where there was a substantial number of Jews. Emico “proclaimed in the hearing of the community that the enemy be driven from the city and be put to flight”, the enemy of course being the infidel Jewish community.[65] The Jews were betrayed by the Christians of the town that promised to protect them, in whom they placed “an infinite treasure in his guard and trust”.[66] Solomon bar Samson wrote: “The bishop’s men, who had promised to help them, were the very first to flee, thus delivering the Jews into the hands of the enemy.”[67] Abandoned by the local bishop and his authority, the Jews were helpless.

The Jews present in Mainz refused to abandon their faith even in the face of overwhelming force. They said: “Let us be strong and let us bear the yoke of the holy religion, for only in this world can the enemy kill us…but we, our souls in paradise, shall continue to live eternally”.[68] They held fast to their beliefs and hoped in their eternal reward. Emico and his men “came into the courtyard… (and) showered stones and arrows upon them, but they did not care to flee, and with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter, and destruction the foe killed all of those whom they found there.”[69] Emico’s army butchered the Jews as they sat helpless, killing “about seven hundred in number”.[70] They showed no mercy, sparring no one. The Crusaders even “killed the women…and with their swords pierced tender children of whatever age and sex”.[71] They had no issue with targeting defenseless people.

The Jews attempted to commit mass suicide as their people were being slain around them. They “fell upon one another…and thus they perished at each other’s hands…mothers cut the throats of nursing children with knives and stabbed others, preferring them to perish thus by their own hands rather than to be killed by the weapons of the uncircumcised”.[72] [73] Families killed their own members and parents their own children rather than have them fall into the hands of the crusaders. The Jews were totally stripped of their dignity and treated like cattle at the slaughter.

One of the more powerful individual stories of the massacre at Mainz is that of Rachael. Rachael was the mother of four children living in Mainz whose Jewish faith was the pinnacle of her life. She believed it would be better for her children to die than live under Christian occupation: “lest the Christians come, take them alive, and bring them up in their false religion”.[74] This woman would rather put her own children under the sword then have them lose their faith. She took her first son Isaac and “slaughtered him while the mother spread out her sleeves to receive the blood,”[75] this scared her other son Aaron who tried to hide. She quickly moved on to her two daughters, “the woman bared their necks and sacrificed them to the Lord God of Hosts”.[76] Then Rachael “dragged him (Aaron) out by his foot from under the chest where he had hidden himself, and she sacrificed him before God”.[77] After she had murdered her children “they lay struggling in the agony of death…the enemy seized the room they found her sitting and wailing over them…they struck her and killed her, upon her children”.[78] She was one of countless Jewish mothers who killed her own children, believing their deaths a sacrifice to God to stave off impurity. The brutality of the Crusaders ensured that whole families and villages were wiped from history; “it is estimated that up to 10,000 died, probably one-fourth to one-third of the Jewish population of Germany and Northern France”.[79]

           Other attacks on Jewish communities occurred by these marauders, such as the one at Worms. These not-so-holy warriors bore a special sort of hatred for Jewry. They advocated for “wiping them out as a nation; Israel’s name will be mentioned no more, or else be like us and acknowledge the son born”.[80] Nothing more than the total annihilation of the Jewish people was acceptable; Christianity would now be spread at the point of a sword. The Jews would either be baptized by water or blood. Historian Robert Chazan makes the argument that not all Christians were supportive of the popular crusaders’ goal of total annihilation of the Jewish people. He cites many local bishops’ attempts to protect the Jews. These bishops even went so far as to give them refuge in their episcopal mansions, but to no avail. The bishop of Lorraine “promised to protect the Jews until no Jewish community remained in Lorraine”.[81] He too was forced to flee, and the Jews there too were killed. Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV denounced the killings, but he was away on crusade and powerless to stop them.[82] The Church’s responsibility for Crusades is that her teachings were the catalyst that led to many of the massacres. Regardless of the fact that those teachings weren’t inherently anti-Semitic, it motivated the Crusaders to attack the Jews. This is where Catholicism is culpable.

           The institutional Church was not the only part of society to engage in attacks against the Jewish people and their way of life. The secular governments of European states sponsored oppression and levied attacks against Jews. This discrimination took many different forms. The government of France, for example, launched an all-out assault against the Jewish holy book, the Talmud. A convert from Judaism convinced Pope Gregory IX that the Talmud was riddled with heresies, including “blasphemies of Jesus and Mary, attacks on the Church, pronouncements hostile to non-Jews, and foolish and revolting tales”.[83] The Pope subsequently ordered governments to “seize all the books of the Jews” and for the Talmud to be incinerated.[84] In France King Louis ordered that the Talmud be tried for these crimes. It was found guilty and “in June 1242, 24 wagon loads of books totaling thousands of volumes were handed to the executioner for public burning”.[85] This attack on Jewish tradition, while carried out by the state, was influenced and strong armed by the Church, which viewed the Talmud as a threat that needed to be suppressed.

           The government of France found other ways to abuse its Jewish population. The monarch Philip Augustus was especially known for his hatred towards the Jews. He was notorious for confiscating Jewish wealth to fund his crown.[86] In 1180 he imprisoned many of the Jews of his realm and released them only after “a heavy ransom had been paid”. In 1181 he annulled all Jewish loans and stole twenty percent of the balance.[87] Philip perpetuated the falsehood that “the Jews who dwelt in Paris were wont every year on Easter day to go down secretly into underground vaults and kill a Christian as a sort of sacrifice in contempt of the Christian religion” and used this as a justification to increase the degree of persecution.[88] He ordered “the Jews throughout all France…seized in their synagogues and then bespoiled of their gold and silver and garments”, essentially large-scale theft perpetrated by state actors.[89]

King Philip pressed on with his oppressive campaign. He forced the Jews to sell their possessions “giving them leave to sell each his movable goods” for the financial benefit of the government.[90] His final action, after he had squeezed all the money he could out of the Jews, was to order their complete expulsion from all the land of France. After “the King had ordered them to leave France altogether… (the Jews’) landed property reverted back to the crown”.[91] The King argued that this expulsion was necessary because the Jews were unfairly hoarding wealth at the expense of Christians. The Jewish people officially “departed with their wives and children and all their households in the aforesaid year of the Lord 1182” and were no more in the Kingdom of France.[92] This ordeal is a clear example of how the hateful teaching of the medieval Church manifested and transitioned into concrete and large scale secular discrimination.

When states didn’t fully expel their Jewish populations they often times segregated them and forced them to live in “ghettos.” These ghettos served to “curb social contact with Christians, to punish Jews for rejecting Christ, and for their stubborn resistance to baptism”.[93] The use of ghettos to isolate Jews was explicitly endorsed by Pope Paul IV in Cum Nimis Absurdum. The pope counseled governments that “for the rest of time…all Jews are to live in only one (quarter) to which there is only one entrance and from which there is but one exit…they should reside…in designated streets…thoroughly separate from the residences of Christians”.[94] Paul IV continues on to reaffirm the directives of the Fourth Lateran Council, saying: “Jews should be recognizable everywhere: men must wear a hat, women, indeed, some other evident sign, yellow in color, that must not be concealed or covered by any means, and must be tightly affixed”.[95] The Church openly encouraged Jews to be cast out of conventional society confined to packed ghettos like animals. The insult of the yellow Jewish badge further drove a wedge between them and their Christian neighbors. Jews were also banned from coming to the aid of or fraternizing with Christians. They were subservient to Church law and to be addressed as perpetual second-class citizens.[96]

Anti-Semitic laws were also codified in England. The 1194 Ordinances of the Jews governed all aspects of Jewish finance. Because the Jews were viewed as sneaky the King required “all the debts, pledges, mortgages, lands, houses, rents, and possessions of the Jews (to) be registered”.[97] There were restrictions placed on how Jews could conduct business that were based wholly on their religion. Jewish merchants in the Middle Ages were no more corrupt than everyone else. The English also were guilty of expelling the Jews. They went about the process of removing the Jews like France did, only after seizing much of their wealth. King Edward I issued his Edict of Expulsion “on 18 July 1290 by an Act of the King in his Council…informing…by Royal Decree all Jews were ordered to leave England before 1 November; any who remained were declared liable to be executed”.[98] The Jews of England were forcibly removed from their own country under penalty of death.

This state sponsored anti-Semitism for the most part was influenced by the Church. The economic benefits of anti-Semitic policy to Kingdoms is undeniable. Their ability to seize Jewish property and wealth allowed for some of them to afford to function. However, it is also true that the policies they enacted were grounded historically in the opinions of Church leaders. Government would not have been able to act against the Jews unless the Church was approving of it to some degree. Traditionally teaching against the Jews and their historic mistreatment made them obvious victims of government oppression. Furthermore, in many instances, like the creation of ghettos, the Church explicitly endorsed anti-Jewish law. Even when the state was the actor, religion bears the blame for hatred perpetrated against Jews.

The most brutal form of anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages was that that came from the common people. Organic and spontaneous violence could occur without warning and with a tenacity that was hard to stop. This hatred was inspired by a number of factors, chief among them anti-Jewish rumors and legends. The most heinous charge levied against the Jews was the Blood Libel. The Blood Libel accused Jews of kidnapping and ritually murdering Christian children for their blood.[99] This slander was all too common in Medieval Christian society, evidenced by the multitude of accounts that exist. In the German town of Pforzheim in 1267 the Jews were accused of purchasing a “seven-year-old girl…(they) gagged her…cut open her veins and surrounded her in order to catch her blood with cloths [sic]. The child soon died from the torture, and they weighted her down with stones and threw her into the Enz River”.[100] The townsfolk immediately noticed that this murder fit the ritual of other ritual Jewish sacrifices. “Suspicion fell upon the Jews…as they approached the corpse, blood began to stream from its open wounds. The Jews and the old woman confessed the evil deed and were executed”.[101] Any time anyone was murdered, especially children, Jews were subjected to false accusations and kangaroo courts that usually ended with their execution.

Another ritual murder accusation happened in Tyrol on what would be the modern German-Italian border. There the local Jews were accused of “persuading a poor farmer to give up his little child, by paying him a lot of money. They took the child out into the forest and in the most horrible manner, martyred him there on a big stone…The dead corpse they hung on a birch tree standing near a bridge”.[102] In this instance the Jews were never discovered, but adding insult to injury their magic money “transformed into leaves. Then the father lost his mind and died of grief”.[103] These stories were passed around among the people, and despite their obvious ridiculousness, were very effective at turning public opinion against the Jews.  A third account in Blois, France blamed the Jews for the death of another child. It was there the locals accused the Jews of crucifying a young peasant boy in order to steal his blood for the Passover feast. In order to avenge the killing thirty Jews were rounded up and burned at the stake.[104]

Another tragic case of falsified murder charges came after the death of Little St. Hugh. Hugh’s body was found at the bottom of a well and it was automatically assumed that the Jews killed him and dumped his corpse there. A local Jew called Copin was arrested and confessed under duress (torture). All the Jews of the town of Lincoln, where the murder took place, were arrested purely on the basis of this confession. They were sent to the tower of London where Copin and seventeen others were hanged for the crime.[105]

One of the most famous cases of a sham ritual murder trial happened after the death of twelve-year-old William of Norwich. Allegedly the Jews hatched a “scheme of wickedness” to kidnap and crucify the boy to make a mockery of the Lord’s Passion.[106] They abducted William, torturing and asphyxiating him with a wood and rope gag “called a teazle”.[107] His torturers then “shaved his head (and) stabbed it with countless thornpoints, and made the blood come horribly from the wounds they made” as a way to directly mock the crown of thorns Jesus had worn.[108] To prove their nefarious motivation the Jews were quoted saying “as we condemned the Christ to a shameful death, so let us also condemn the Christian” and they completed the ritualized murder by “lifting him from the ground and fastening him upon the cross”.[109] William’s hands and side were allegedly pierced so to mimic the wounds of Christ in total mockery of the Passion.[110]

This murder was carried out because, as the Christians believed, “every year they must sacrifice a Christian in some part of the world to the Most High God” because “without the shedding of human blood, (the Jews) could neither obtain their freedom, nor could they ever return to their fatherland”.[111] The myth of the Blood Libel was so ingrained in the people that it was the only explanation that made sense to them. William was declared a saint and martyr and “the lot (the townspeople) fell upon the Norwich Jews”[112] and killed them in revenge. It was common belief that Jews were lurking in the shadows looking for children to abduct and sacrifice. They were always the first suspects and were afforded no due process and presumption of innocence. Bands of people often fell upon them and brutalized them in misguided revenge killings.

Ritual murder accusations were only one factor that sparked attacks on Jews. Random violence broke out in England after the coronation of Richard I. The Jews were forbidden to come and offer homage to the King on his coronation, but they ignored this command. When they arrived the people in the court “rushed upon the Jews and stripped them, and then scourging them, cast them forth out of the king’s hall”.[113] Jews were then targeted by “The citizens of London…(they) attacked the Jews in the city and burned their houses”.[114] The violence in the capital was subdued but it became a harbinger of what was to come. Later, in 1190, the city of York erupted in physical violence. The massacre there is one of the worst accounts of citizens slaughtering Jews in English history. The Jews of York fled to the city keep for protection, which consequently was made of wood. The mob of people chasing them set fire to the castle and “one hundred and fifty souls, men and women, all holy bodies” were burned alive.[115] This amounted to the entire Jewish population of the city of York, all incinerated at once.

Jews were also widely accused of sabotage and practicing black magic to kill Christians. Often, when natural disaster would occur, the blame was placed on the Jews and their sorcery. The period of panic during the Black Death perfectly illustrates this kind of scapegoating. One very popular explanation for the plague was that the Jews must be poisoning the wells and drinking water. In Germany “stories of poisoning were undoubtedly true” and so a campaign was launched to root out and massacre all Jews to put an end to the pestilence.[116] From 1348 until 1349 “all the Jews between Cologne and Austria were burnt and killed for this crime”.[117] Specifically in Zofingen they were “put on the wheel” and in Stuttgart “they (the Jews) all were burned”.[118] All of this organized and intentional poisoning carried out by the Jews was confirmed “by their own confessions” after careful trial and interrogation.[119] These attacks by Jews on drinking water was “discovered” to be coordinated by the local rabbis in attempts to exterminate the Christian population. In Chatel, Jocetus the Jew was “handed a quantity of poison about as big as a fist in a piece of net” by “the rabbi of Chambery”.[120] A similar incident happened in Thonon when the evil Rabbi Jacob sent “Balavingy a Jewish surgeon…(via) a Jewish boy some poison, about the size of an egg, in the form of powder…commanding him…to put the poison in the larger public wells of the town”.[121] Blaming the Black Death on the sneakiness and necromancy of the Jews was convenient. Terrified people looked for a scapegoat, and the Jews were the unlucky victims.

Anti-Semitic legends and rumors spread like wildfire throughout towns, estates, and cities. The Church again holds part of the blame as to why these falsehoods were able to metastasize. Comments by Church Fathers calling Jews demons and constant comparisons to beasts caused them to be associated with Satanism, dark rituals, and murder. The Church’s practice of isolating Jews within society contributed to their dehumanization as they began to be viewed as “the other” by the Christian people. This environment, fostered by the Church, was ripe for vile rumors to emerge and grow.

The story of Jewish persecution during the Middle Ages will be forever interwoven with the Roman Catholic Church. The Church planted the seeds of hatred by continuing to espouse the anti-Semitic teachings of the past. They then engaged in an active campaign to dehumanize and isolate the Jewish population, creating a chasm between them and their neighbors that wouldn’t have existed without this encouragement. The Fourth Lateran Council’s call for ghettos and badges set policy that became precedent for future groups to oppress their Jewish populations. These dangerously irresponsible teachings and hostile atmosphere directly influenced people to take up arms against the Jews. Thousands of their people were massacred throughout the Age of Faith; in organized military campaigns like the Crusades or in organic acts of violence. Jews were robbed of their possessions, stripped of their citizenship, and slandered to the point that every disaster and crime was pinned on them. Jews were accused of barbaric practices, like child sacrifice, and had no recourse to defend themselves or prevent kangaroo courts that ordered them executed. The entire system of belief that led to this environment of bloodshed and lies was nurtured and encouraged by the Church.


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  1. Roy Schoeman, Salvation is from the Jews, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2003), 15.

  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Strathfield, NSW: St Paul’s, 2000), n. 839.

  3. Ibid, 839.

  4. Hay, Thy Brother’s Blood

  5. Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of Anti-Semitism, (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves, 2012)

  6. William Brustein, Roots of Hate, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

  7. G.R. Owst, Preaching in Medieval England An Introduction to Sermon Manuscripts of the Period c. 1350-1450, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1926), 84.

  8. Owst, Preaching in Medieval England, 37.

  9. 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15, (NAB Version).

  10. St. John Chrysostom, Adversus Judaeos Homily 1, Sermon, From, Web,, (accessed April 4, 2018), II.

  11. Chrysostom, Adversus Judaeos, II, 2.

  12. Chrysostom, Adversus Judaeos, V, 3.

  13. Chrysostom, Adversus Judaeos, VI, 4.

  14. Chrysostom, Adversus Judaeos, VI, 7.

  15. Chrysostom, Adversus Judaeos, VI, 8.

  16. Owst, Preaching in Medieval England, 293.

  17. Ibid, 40.

  18. Ibid, 85.

  19. Ibid, 84.

  20. Ibid, 84.

  21. Ademarus of Chabannes. Chronicle, chapter III. In J.P. Migne Patrologia Latina, Vol. CXLI. From Hay, Thy Brother’s Blood.

  22. Malcolm Hay, Thy Brother’s Blood, (New York: Hart Publishing Company, 1950), 36.

  23. Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of Anti-Semitism, (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves, 2012), 55.

  24. Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred, 59.

  25. Ibid, 59.

  26. Hay, Thy Brother’s Blood, 86.

  27. The Fourth Lateran Council 1215, From Papal Encyclicals Online, Web,, (accessed April 9, 2018), 67.

  28. Defined as harging excessive interest rates on loans

  29. William Brustein, Roots of Hate, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 178.

  30. Brustein, Roots of Hate, 178.

  31. Fourth Lateran Council, 67.

  32. Ibid, 69.

  33. Ibid, 69.

  34. Ibid, 68.

  35. Ibid, 68.

  36. Ibid, 68.

  37. Hay, Thy Brother’s Blood, 87.

  38. Fulcher of Chartres, Urban II Speech at Council of Clermont 1095, Manuscript, From Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook, Web,, (accessed April 6, 2018).

  39. Chazan, European Jewry, 28.

  40. Ibid, 29.

  41. Ibid, 29.

  42. Robert Chazan, European Jewry and the First Crusade (Berkeley: University of California Press 1987), 28.

  43. CCC, n. 2089.

  44. Chazan, European Jewry, 28.

  45. Ibid, 28.

  46. Matt 27:25, (Douay-Rheims Version).

  47. Hippolytus, Expository Treatise Against the Jews, Manuscript, From New Advent, Web,, (accessed April 10, 2018).

  48. Chazan, European Jewry, 39.

  49. Thomas Asbridge, The First Crusade: A New History The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity and Islam (New York: Oxford University Press 2004), 41-42.

  50. Chazan, European Jewry, 52.

  51. Fulcher of Chartres, Urban II Speech at Council of Clairmont 1095.

  52. Chazan, European Jewry, 2.

  53. Edward H. Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews (New York: The Macmillan Company 1965), 91.

  54. Ibid, 90-91.

  55. Asbridge, The First Crusade, 79.

  56. Chazan, European Jewry, 54.

  57. Ibid, 54.

  58. Ibid, 57.

  59. Flannery, Anguish, 91.

  60. Chazan, European Jewry, 77.

  61. The Version of Albert of Aix. From August. C. Krey, The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Participants, (Princeton: 1921), 54-56.

  62. Version of Ekkehard of Aura. From August. C. Krey, The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Participants, (Princeton: 1921), 53-54.

  63. Krey, Version of Ekkehard of Aura.

  64. Ibid.

  65. Soloman bar Samson, The Crusaders in Mainz, May, 27, 1096, Manuscript, From Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook, Web, (accessed April 8, 2017).

  66. Krey, Version of Albert of Aix.

  67. Samson, Crusaders in Mainz.

  68. Ibid.

  69. Ibid.

  70. Krey, Version of Albert of Aix.

  71. Ibid.

  72. Ibid.

  73. Another picture of this gruesome scene comes from the Chronicle of Solomon bar Samson. His account provides the Jewish perspective of the massacre. He writes: “The women there girded their loins with strength and slew their sons and their daughters and then themselves. Many men, too, plucked up courage and killed their wives, their sons, their infants. The tender and delicate mother slaughtered the babe she had played with, all of them, men and women arose and slaughtered one another. The maidens and the young brides and grooms looked out of the Windows and in a loud voice cried: “Look and see, O our God, what we do for the sanctification of Thy great name in order not to exchange you for a hanged and crucified one”

  74. Soloman bar Samson, The Crusaders in Mainz, May, 27, 1096, Manuscript, From Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook, Web, (accessed March 10, 2018).

  75. Ibid.

  76. Ibid.

  77. Ibid.

  78. Ibid.

  79. Flannery, Anguish, 92.

  80. Chazan, European Jewry, 69.

  81. Ibid, 61.

  82. Ibid, 88.

  83. AICE, “Christian-Jewish Relations: The Burning of the Talmud”, From Jewish Virtual Library, Web,, (accessed April 10, 2018).

  84. Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred, 90.

  85. AICE, The Burning of the Talmud.

  86. Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), 24-27, From Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook, Web,, (accessed March 28, 2018).

  87. Ibid.

  88. Ibid.

  89. Ibid.

  90. Ibid.

  91. Ibid.

  92. Ibid.

  93. Brustein, Roots of Hate, 55.

  94. Pope Paul IV, Cum Nimis Absurdum, Letter, From Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, Web, (accessed April 11, 2018).

  95. Ibid.

  96. Ibid.

  97. Roger de Hoveden, iii. 266, ed. Joseph Jacobs, The Jews of Angevin England: Documents and Records (London, 1893), p. 156-59, From Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook, Web,, (accessed March 31, 2018).

  98. Geoffrey H. Smith, “The Expulsion of the Jews from England”, Web,, (accessed April 10, 2018).

  99. Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred, 83.

  100. Ed./Trans. D.L. Ashliman, The Girl who was Killed by Jews, Manuscript, From University of Pittsburg Anti-Semitic Legends, Web,, (accessed February 17, 2018).

  101. Ibid.

  102. Trans. Paul Halsall, The Judenstein, Manuscript, From Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook, Web,, (accessed April 8, 2018).

  103. Halsall, The Judenstein.

  104. Ephraim ben Jacob, The Ritual Murder Accusation at Blois, May, 1171, Manuscript, From Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook, Web, (accessed April 9, 2018)

  105. Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred, 82.

  106. Thomas of Monmouth, The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich, 1173, Manuscript, From Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook, Web,, (accessed March 8, 2018).

  107. Ibid.

  108. Ibid.

  109. Ibid.

  110. Ibid.

  111. Ibid.

  112. Ibid.

  113. Roger of Hoveden, The Persecution of Jews, 1189, Manuscript, From Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook, Web,, (accessed April 1, 2018).

  114. Ibid.

  115. Ephraim of Bonn, The York Massacre 1189-90, Manuscript, From Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook, Web,, (accessed March 6, 2018).

  116. Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death, (New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 209.

  117. Ibid, 208.

  118. Ibid, 208.

  119. Ibid, 208.

  120. Ibid, 217.

  121. Ibid, 212.