Acts of Violence and Pogroms Against the Jews of High Medieval Europe


By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William & Mary

The High Middle Ages, especially between the years of 1000 and 1300, was a period of time that saw a lot of developments for a certain section of medieval Europe: the Jews. Unfortunately, most of these developments spelled disadvantage and hurt for the Jews, as they involved the realization of threats that had been leveled at them since the Early Middle Ages. 

Vintage engraved illustration of the walls of Paris.
A lot of kingdoms expelled Jews in large numbers in the High Middle Ages. Philip Augustus of France, for instance, threw out the Jews of his kingdom, later incentivizing them with walled quarters to return. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

Violent Expulsion of Jews 

One of the most widespread and far-reaching actions of violence that were inflicted on the Jews was the expulsion of large groups of Jews from kingdoms. 

The first national expulsion of Jews from a high medieval kingdom occurred in France, in 1182.

It was king Philip Augustus who expelled all the Jews from his kingdom, though the expulsion did not last for too long, as he reversed it himself in 1198, inviting back all the Jews and further even creating incentives to attract more of them. 

Jews in France were threatened with expulsion several times in the 13th century as well, though no action was taken. Other kingdoms, however, did take action, as England did in 1290, prohibiting Jews from returning until 1655. 

The primary reason for kings to do this was to make quick money. After expelling Jews, kings would take over all the loans the former would have made, themselves become the new creditors, and then receive payment for the loans. They would also seize Jewish property, only allowing Jews to take a certain amount with them. 

Expulsion, however, was a very short term solution, often leading to economic dislocation. The regret that ensued is what made kings such as Philip Augustus bring back the Jews. 

The mass expulsions, and their continuous threat, eventually became too much for the Jews of France, England, and other kingdoms, and large hordes of their populations, beginning in the High Middle Ages, began to drift towards more welcoming areas, such as Poland in Eastern Europe. 

Distinguishing Jews from the Rest

In addition to expulsion, a new requirement was imposed upon Jews all over Europe: they were required to now wear badges or garments that made them visibly identifiable. 

Ragged Jewish badge, in the form of the Star of David, held by a pair of hands.
Distinguishing badges were despised deeply by the Jews, and they often ended up paying lofty amounts to get out of this restriction. (Image: Sandra Matic/Shutterstock)

This was probably a borrowed practice from when non-believers of Islam were made to wear distinguishable garments in the Islamic world. 

The badge or garment used would vary according to time and place. It could be a circular cloth badge, or a star. It could be red, or yellow, and had to be sewn onto one’s clothing. Sometimes, however, actually garments, such as a large, conical hat with a cape behind it, would be worn. There was immense hatred for this badge, which violated the privacy and protection afforded by Jewish quarters. 

Distinctive signs were also required by former heretics, lepers, and prostitutes, and naturally, Jews did not like the company they were put in. The badge made Jews visible targets for attack, so much so that within certain kingdoms in Europe, kings modified the requirement to wear the badge, mandating its usage only within the wearer’s hometown, never outside. This was done because Jews were relatively safer in their hometowns, where they were known by others, and less likely to be attacked. On the other hand, traveling with a distinguishing badge to a strange county or village put hard targets on the backs of Jews. 

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Milking the Jewish Cash Cow of Distinguishing Badges

The Jews of medieval Europe tried a lot of rather clever means to evade the badge, such as wearing garments that were the exact same color as the badge, hoping to drown out the identity of the badge. Kings soon cracked down on this tactic though.

Jews also tried to bribe their way out of the badges, and soon, exemptions, and the revocation of exemptions, to wearing the badge, became great cash cows for medieval rulers, who would sell exemptions at astronomical prices, and then when cash was short again, simply revoke all exemptions and demand the purchase of new ones. Jews, desperate to get out of the restrictions of the badge, had no option but to keep paying. 

While the levels of antipathy towards Jews in high medieval Europe can not be quantifiably measured, the increasingly common pogroms against Jewish communities, a rarity before 1000 A.D., serve as a good metric for comparison. 

Learn more about crusades in medieval Europe.

Pogroms Against Jewish Communities

The late 11th century saw the first pogroms in Western Europe, and pogroms became increasingly common during the course of the 12th and 13th centuries. 

It was the launching of the first crusade in 1095 that led to the first pogrom. It sparked a series of massacres of Jews in Germany. Thereafter, a crusade almost inevitably led to a pogrom. By the second or third crusade, however, authorities became more prepared and prevented the loss of lives to a certain extent. 

Crusades were not the only riot-inducing events, however. One of the other most notorious events that incited violence was an accusation of ‘blood libel’. After the first accusation in England in 1144, they became more common. 

Accusation of Blood Libel

When an accusation of blood libel was leveled at a Jewish community, local Christians would accuse the Jews of kidnapping and crucifying Christian children. Often, when a Christian child would go missing, and be found murdered, the accusation would be on the Jews, and would often be blown out of proportion.

A lot of accusations of blood libel came around the time of Easter, which indeed was an especially dangerous time for Jews, even in the absence of these accusations. Secular authorities often demanded that Jews not leave their homes during Easter week, and simply stay at home behind closed doors, as this was a time when anti-Jewish sentiments were running high, and it was simply too dangerous outside.

An accusation of blood libel at the Jewish community would often incite violence amongst the local Christian populations. On the other hand, the Jewish communities would spring to action quickly, sending representatives to scour towns and countrysides, well aware of the fact that their failure to produce the missing child may very well result in another pogrom. 

Often, they would succeed in finding the child, who had simply been left and forgotten somewhere by their parents. But in case of failure to do so, or in case of the discovery of the child’s body, it was quite likely for a pogrom to break out. 

While pogroms om the basis of accusations of blood libel were abundantly common and widespread in High Medieval Europe, it is interesting to note that no authority, be it a king, secular judge, bishop, or pope, ever gave any credence to accusations of libel. These accusations were dismissed almost immediately. 

It was simply popular belief that led to these pogroms in the face of authoritative dismissal, a fact that highlights the deep-rooted and widespread antipathy that existed amongst the Christian communities of the High Middle Ages against the Jews of the time. 

Learn more about Jews and Christians in the High Middle Ages.

Common Questions about the Violence and Pogroms Against Jews in the High Middle Ages

Q: What happened to mass Jewish communities in the High Middle Ages?

Jews were subjected to a lot of violence and discrimination in the High Middle Ages. Often, they were ousted in huge numbers from kingdoms. Sometimes, when kings wished to boost the Jewish population of their regions, they would invite Jews to live in their kingdoms, sometimes even incentivizing them.

Q: Why were Jews made to wear distinctive badges in the High Middle Ages?

Jews in the High Middle Ages were often made to wear distinguishing badges on their clothing, in order to separate them from the rest of the crowd. Lepers, prostitutes, and former heretics, too, were supposed to wear distinctive badges. This put Jews in an even more precarious condition than before, and made them easy targets for violence and discrimination.

Q: What happened when Jews were accused of blood libel?

The accusations of blood libel, when leveled on Jews, was a common cause of Anti-Jewish pogroms in the High Middle Ages. Christians would blame the missing, or sometimes murder, of a Christian child, on the neighboring Jewish communities. If the Jews were unable to prove their innocence, it would often result in pogroms and general violence against Jews.

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