The Jewish people have been targets of hateful and often violent anti-Semitism since their inception. One of the major and most notable times this occurred was during the Middle Ages. Various factors contributed to the persecution of the Jewish people during this time. The question that will be posed and answered is: How were the Jewish people treated during this period and what was the result. The Jewish people have been the victims of mass persecuted virtually since their very beginning. One of the most notable persecutions comes from the Middle Ages. One would think that since both the Jewish people and Christians revere the same Holy Scriptures that they would be at peace with one another; but the rift is more complicated than it appears. In the book titled A the Jews Fredrick M. Schweitzer talks about how this major rift between Christians and Jews came to be. Schweitzer notes that the persecution the Jewish people faced was not characteristic or even natural to the religion of Islam. He states that if persecution came from them that it was only in a period of decadence and even at that point it was after a prolonged period of peace between the two people. Comparing this with Christianity, persecution was prevalent from the very beginning and it seemed all too natural and characteristic for the faith. Schweitzer also says something that has been evident for centuries. He states when the majority become powerful and wealthy and their status or well-being is threatened they presume to blame and take their frustrations out on the minority. In this case it was the Christians in the majority and the Jews were the minority therefore they inevitably became the scapegoat.
Schweitzer relays that the fundamental reason behind this great animosity between the Jews and Christians was religion. He reminds the reader that the Apostle Paul was the one who argued vigorously that both Christians and Jews were part of the same ancient and religious community. Both groups, however, claimed the land for themselves stating they had ancient Hebrew heritage.
For centuries the Scriptures have been used to justify the persecution of the Jewish people and various other minorities. “Jews killed Christ!” they said. The Jewish people were accused of something called “host nailing”, which involved driving a nail through a wafer. This supposedly was meant to crucify Christ again. They were accused of draining children’s blood to put in matzah. During the Middle Ages Jews were persecuted, burned alive, put in ghettos, executed, and had many more egregious things done to them in the name of God. Ministers justified their racism through Scripture.
“When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing and a tumult continued to rise, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.”—Matthew 27:24-25
The Clergy quoted Jesus saying to the Jewish leaders, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.”-John 8:44
They also used conversations between the Jews of Jesus day and Pilate in Scripture to further incite hatred.
“The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law he ought to die” -John 19:7
“Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend” -John 19:12.
The religious leaders in that day condemned the Jews and sought their destruction and masked their fear, hatred, and bigotry with Scripture. The Scriptures scolded the Jews for being so stubborn and unwilling to acknowledge the Messiah. However, the Scriptures also acknowledged that only through the Jewish bloodline of Jesus could people find redemption.
“You people worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, because salvation is from the Jews.”- John 4.22
“Therefore what advantage does the Jew have, or what is the value of circumcision? Actually, there are many advantages. First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”- Rom 3.1-2
“I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed—cut off from Christ—for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, who are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen.”- Rom 9.1-5:
In the early ages of the Christian faith there was a strong need to be seen as a reformist community and movement within Judaism. This changed, however, as time passed and came to a total head as theologians became increasingly aware of a need for division. This new call for total separation came with violent and extreme rhetoric. There became an insistence that Christians alone where the proper heirs to the promise that God gave to the patriarch Abraham in the Old Testament. Theologians and Christians now began to make the claims that the Jews had forfeited their inheritance because they had failed to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah, that His death made them guilty of deicide, that they were eternally hateful to God, they were devil worshippers, that no degradation or retribution was too egregious for them, etc. The Christians had in a sense denied their very humanity.
Later on what had previously been only extreme and violent rhetoric became solidified in law with the marriage of Church and State in the Roman Empire. Under these new laws the Jewish people were forced to adhere to an additional day of rest on Sunday instead of just Saturday. A living wage was very hard to earn in these times and this compulsory day of rest was especially hard for them. The triumph of the Christian faith proved to the Christians they were divinely appointed and on the right side. The Jews were looked at with great disdain and seen as a people in error and stubborn for not accepting the Christian faith. As a result book burnings ensued, as well as forced conversion, massacre, chaos, fighting, expulsion, and many other horrendous acts. Despite all of this the Jewish people held fast to their faith even to the point of being willing to die for it. This act, Schweitzer says, perhaps caused some uneasiness and discomfort within the minds of some Christians. Unfortunately, the end result of all of this was the strengthening of Christian animosity towards them.
Jean de Venette, a French friar, mentions one of these instances of mass hysteria and massacre of the Jewish people when he records events during the Black Death. The emergence of the Black Death fueled mass hysteria and caused the people to look for a scapegoat. One theory blamed the Muslims for coming in and infecting the population. Another theory stated that the Jews were the cause and they spread the disease by infecting the air and water. This latter theory resulted in the massacre of Jews.
Schweitzer also notes that legislation was passed against them denying them equal rights. Constantine’s laws stated that Jews could not proselytize, could not prevent those among them from arguing in favor of Christianity, and that they may not intermarry with Christians or dine with them. Jews could not own slaves or be involved with the military. They could not practice medicine or even build or rebuild their synagogues. The penalty for breaking these laws and statues was death by burning as well as other punishments.
The animosity and persecution of the Jews was not continual throughout. They did have small times of peace. The Ostrogothic king Theodoric conquered Italy and as king was very kind and protective of the Jewish people. At one time the Christian community of Ravenna wanted to compel the Jews there to be baptized. Both the king and bishop condemned their actions but they were thrown into the water anyway while their houses of worship burned. As a result King Theodoric forced the Christians to rebuild the synagogues and make other compensations. He even stated that the state had no right to compel anyone to become a follower against their will. Theodoric’s tolerance and acceptance of the Jews could have been partly due to his Arian Christian beliefs. These kingdoms were always kind and respectful to the Jewish people and a dualistic behavior towards the Jews lasted from Pope Gregory the Great up until the sixteenth century.
In History of the Jews volume 3 Simon Dubnov talks about how the Jewish people lived in separate quarters. Dubnov relays that this came about because the force of religious discipline prevailed. The Jewish people also needed to feel a sense of community. These quarters were constructed around important Jewish institutions. At other times these quarters were formed out of the need for safety and protection. There were some Christians who sold homes to Jews and if they were living in other districts they would yield their places of residence to their neighbors. City officials, when they wanted to keep Jews from residing in certain parts of the city, brought about an overflow of Jewish people in certain quarters. It was at this time, during the sixteenth century, that these quarters began to be called ghettos. It was in these places that the Jewish people had gained a certain sense of independence from the outside world.
Over time, however, these safe havens were threatened with expulsion. This was certainly the case in the latter Middle Ages and during the Reformation. Spanish expulsions reverberated across Europe and into Germany. This resulted in Jews being evicted from their homes periodically. Dubnov describes this act of expulsion as an offering to the Catholic God where Spain provided the biggest sacrifice while Germany gave small sacrifices on and off again. One notable moment was when in the city of Nurnberg the Christian inhibitors tried to get the Jews expelled from the city. The inhibitors had to compete with the Jews in trade and creditors wanted the Christians to meet their obligations in debt. Fredrick III defended the Jews saying that they were necessary for trade and that if they were expelled the Christians might loan money on interest. After the king passed away the people finally got what they wanted. The people of Nurnberg gained possession of a printing press and printed pamphlets that spoke ill of the Jewish inhabitants and when the city council heard of these things they petitioned the emperor to expel the Jews for the crimes of: admitting emigrant Jews from other regions and increasing Jewish capacity, occupying the dwellings of Christians, dislodging residents from certain jobs, and charging large amounts of interest on loans that made the borrower poor. The emperor complied and expelled the Jews after setting a time limit on the amount of time they could have to make proper accommodations.
In addition to these things the Jews were also accused of desecrating the Eucharist. The Jewish people were accused of something called “host nailing”, which involved driving a nail through a wafer. This supposedly was meant to crucify Christ again. There was a story in the Mecklenburg chronicles that told of a Jew from Sternberg who traveled to various cities buying Hosts so that he could desecrate them. He allegedly bought two Hosts from a priest and went home to a marriage celebration. All the marriage attendees started to desecrate the Hosts by pricking them with nails and cutting them. As a result the wafers started to bleed and the attendees became afraid causing the one who bought them to send them back to the priest and leave town. The matter was eventually investigated and twenty-seven Jews were executed including the priest who had sold them. Later on Martin Luther’s doctrine spread to the people which stated that the idea of a miraculous Host was an invention of the devil.
Martin Luther was the Father of the Protestant Reformation as well as the most significant leader of the movement within central Europe and especially in Germany. His initial reaction to the Jewish people was friendly and he hoped that they would look upon his new movement favorably and be willing to convert. Martin Luther helped to bridge the divide between the Christians and Jews by attempting to bring the Christian faith back to its early roots. Luther sought to strip the church of its pagan and cultic influences in order to accomplish this goal. He did this with the help of other Reformation leaders and took away all of the non-Jewish elements that had found its way into the faith over the centuries. Luther and the other Reformers sought to place a renewed emphasis on God the Father and the authority of Scriptures. What was most significant was the fact that he translated the Hebrew Scriptures based on the Jewish version as opposed to the Catholic version.
Martin Luther had publicly stated, in the decade 1513-23, that both he and the Jews had been victims of Catholic prejudice. This was at a time when he had expected that he could persuade the Jews to convert to the reformed church. Luther believed that the Jews were simply mistaken theologically and would come and be baptized in time once they discovered the truth of Christianity.
Luther continued to defend the Jews and condemned the Catholic Church for its actions and views against the Jews. He observed that during Holy Week priests would often create resentment in the population against the Jews for their alleged part in the Crucifixion. He blamed the Catholic Church for the refusal by the Jews to accept the Christian faith. He instructed his disciples to demonstrate Christian love toward the Jewish people and told them to eliminate the economic restrictions which had forced them into very few employment occupations like money-lending.
The Jews readily welcomed Luther’s positive Jewish messages. Many Protestants were very ecstatic of his defense of the Jews, and translations of his work and many of his other writings were circulated among many French and Spanish intellectuals. However, many Jews did not approve of his emphasis on the Pauline doctrine which emphasized salvation by faith alone but rather they welcomed the distinction that he brought in the unity of Western Christianity between the Catholic Church and the Reformed Church.
Because of his love and appreciation for the Jewish people his Catholic enemies called him a half-Jew. His Biblical emphasis on the need to rely on Scripture alone for religious authority gave even more evidence to his enemies that their assertions were justified.
Luther hoped that he could find success in his mission to convert the Jews of Germany. He may have been encouraged by the conversion of two Jews who had been said to visit him. Luther soon realized, however, that the Jewish people had no intention of converting to his newly reformed church. Because of this sudden realization he became bitterly disappointed and became very angry and resentful of them. Contrary to what Luther had envisioned, the Jews did not convert to Luther’s version of reformed Christianity. They instead began to distribute their own religious literature among the Christian population of both Bohemia and Moravia and in effect some even converted to the Jewish faith. The Christians in effect went back to the same problems and arguments that the very early church sought to resolve. It is recorded that Luther had declared that the Mosaic Law was given solely to the Jewish people and that it no longer had any relevance for Christians. He advised Christians, two years later, that any Christian who wanted to follow the Jewish way of living and found the Mosaic Law appealing then they should convert to Judaism. That same year Luther refused to use his powerful influence to prevent the expulsion of the Jews from Saxony. He reprimanded those Protestants who practiced tenants of Judaism. In an attempt to delegitimize the Anabaptists and other more radical Protestants he stated that he had found suggestions of Jewish messianic and legalistic practices among them.
As a result of Luther’s discontent with the Jewish people and those Christians who followed them he decided to recommend seven measures of “sharp mercy” that German princes could take against Jews. These recommendations included, allowing for the burning of their schools and synagogues, the relocation of Jews into community settlements, that they could commandeer any and all Jewish literature, that they could forbid rabbis to teach by threat of death, they could deny the Jewish people safe-conduct so that they could not spread Judaism and expand their influence, that they could steal their wealth and use it in funding Christian converts and prevent the Jews from practicing moneylending, and finally they were given authority to assign Jews to forced manual labor as an act of atonement.
Luther instructed clergy, their congregations, and any and all government officials to aid in carrying out his proposed measures. Since the majority of Jews who had previously lived in Germany had been expelled before 1536 Luther’s recommendations were not implemented to a great degree. However, a rather strict anti-Jewish measure mentioned Luther’s writing titled, “On the Jews and Their Lies” in the year 1543.
Despite Luther’s friends pleas for him to cease and desist his anti-Jewish rhetoric he continued and even reverted back to what he had accused the Catholic Church and clergy of doing. He repeated the anti-Semitic accusations and writings from medieval literature which stated that the Jews killed Christian babies, that they murdered Christ repeatedly by stabbing hosts, and that they poisoned water wells.
The Jewish reaction to all of these egregious and libelous acts against them was to relocate from these Christian dominated countries. The only places that would offer them safe haven and to freely practice their faith was in Poland and Muslim controlled countries and territories. Some even moved as far away as the Netherlands and North Africa for safe haven. Poland and the Muslim countries welcomed them with open arms and great enthusiasm.
The Jewish peoples experience during the Middle Ages was often a rough and violent one that experienced periods of peace and safety but inevitably led to the Jewish emigration out of Christian controlled territories to Poland and Muslim territories. Jews were often accused of crimes they did not commit, forced into risky careers, massacred, and driven from their homes. A time of peace was found at certain times and places most notably during the Reformation but even then it was a short lived tranquility. Unfortunately, Jews felt that they could no longer reside in these places and the result was a mass departure from much of Christian Europe and a strong animosity towards Christians.
Cohen, Mark R. Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Dubnov, Simon. History of the Jews. 4th ed. Vol. 3. South Brunswick, N. J.: T. Yoseloff, 1967.
Gritsch, Eric W. Was Luther Anti-Semitic? Christian History 12, no. 3 (August 1993): 38.
Singer, David G. Baptism or Expulsion: Martin Luther and the Jews of Germany. Journal of Ecumenical Studies 44.3 (2009): 401-408.
Schweitzer, Frederick M. A History of the Jews Since the First Century A.D. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1971