Explanations For Anti-Jewish Sentiment in the High Middle Ages


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

The Jewish communities of Medieval Europe were subjected to violence and antipathy at an unprecedented scale during the High Middle Ages, especially between the years 1000 and 1300, when they were ousted from kingdoms, forced to wear distinguishing clothing, and made to sit on the receiving end of multiple pogroms. Given the good economic tidings of the time, historians have come up with various explanations as to why Jews had to endure these injustices.

Jewish shawl and Jewish prayer book
A lot of reasons contributed to the anti-Jewish sentiment in medieval Europe.
(Image: MstudioG/Shutterstock)

Importance of Religion and Judaism against Christianity

The long-standing religious antagonism between Judaism and Christianity is certainly one part of the explanation, but it only plays its part in context with the importance that religion in general played at the time. 

In the High Middle Ages, a lot more was dependant on one’s religious belief than is now. Back then, religion was not simply a question of rhetorical subjects, such as the afterlife, or salvation. It was part of the paradigm with which people tried to deal with the adversities of everyday life. People turned to religion for their demands in the fields of physical health, harvests, wars, and so on. 

This also implicitly strengthened the importance of saints and their relics at that time. These relics, shards of bone, scraps of cloth, small physical objects that had come into contact with saints, became the only means for commoners to deal with the problems in their environment. So, people traveled tremendous distances to venerate saints’ relics. The importance of these saints, and their power, therefore, depended entirely on the virtue of religion. 

If the chosen religion of Christians was wrong, and if the Jews were indeed right about religion, this would imply a grave disadvantage for the former, not only in the afterlife, but also in the possibility of making life on earth any better. 

So, the presence of Jews was a constant reminder of the possibility of Christians following the wrong religion, which made the issue a really sensitive one. 

However, long-standing antagonism alone cannot be blamed for the rise in anti-Jewish pogroms: while Christian antagonism had always existed, pogroms had not. They had begun at a specific time in medieval history. As a result of this notion, historians have identified certain high medieval developments that contributed to the rise in anti-Jewish violence in the High Middle Ages. One of these developments was the rise of the crusading movement.

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

The Rise of the Crusading Movement and Anti-Jewish Sentiment

Crusades were wars against nonbelievers, simply because they were nonbelievers. It was the First Crusade that brought about the first of the pogroms in medieval Europe, which is probably not an accident. It was easier for believers to deal with nonbelievers back in Europe before traveling across the Mediterranean, to areas such as Syria and Palestine, to wage war against the other nonbelievers. 

Once again, however, it was not simply the crusading movement, and the rise of it, that can explain the antipathy against Jews, because even though many pogroms did occur in the context of the crusades, not all did. There were spontaneous pogroms that broke out when there were no crusades in sight. 

It was, therefore, a socioeconomic perspective that historians had to adopt to better explain the increasing violence and restrictions towards Jews. 

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

Socioeconomic Changes: Moneylending 

The connection between socioeconomic change, and the changing perspective towards Jews is a rather complex one that plays out on two levels.

The first level is the fact that the resentment towards Jews was rooted in the situation of Jewish involvement in moneylending. 

Set of Jewish Dreidel and coins with star of David.
The fact that Jews were able to continue their moneylending activities under the secular court, but not under the Church, added to the rift between the two groups.
(Image: Sazhnieva Oksana/Shutterstock)

Although the notion that Jews were always involved in moneylending is a myth, it would not be incorrect to conclude that a disproportionate percentage of them were. This was because the medieval Church forbade Jews and Christians from lending money at interest to Christians, an activity called ‘usury’. The Church enforced this prohibition on Christians with the threat of excommunication. Of course, this threat did not work as well on Jews. On the other hand, secular rulers, unlike Church officials, tolerated Jews lending money at interest to Christians. This created a legal dilemma when debtors frequently tried to haul their Jewish creditors to Church courts, while the Jews tried to have their cases read in secular courts. In turn, this created a running battle that became quite nasty at times.

The ripples between debtors and creditors, however, were not the only ones in the socioeconomic fabric of High Medieval society that led to this resentment, and pogroms. 

Learn more about the crusading movement.

The Embodiment of Economic Vices

The second level at which economic activity caused anti-Jewish violence had to do with how commercialism in Europe strained Christian life. Townspeople were seen as greedy, money-minded, and unwilling to trust God completely, and their lifestyle did, actually, mean that this was true to a large extent. This, as a result, strained Christian townspeople, who were torn between their lives, and the lives they were supposed to be leading as Christians. They resorted to many means to deal with this guilt. While some supported the Franciscans, living austere lives, others assuaged their guilts over urban lives by attacking Jews, who were construed as overwhelmingly urban, engrossed in commerce and moneylending, the personifications of traits Christians couldn’t accept in themselves. Attacking Jews gave one a sense of taking a stand against the vices, of ridding the town of people that embodied these vices. 

This understanding of the socioeconomic paradigm, despite its speculative and theoretical explanation, is convincing to many historians, providing a comprehensive idea as to why pogroms, lurid accusations such as those of blood libel, and mass expulsions, were on the rise in the High Middle Ages. 

All in all, there is no one reason for the dramatic increase in hostility towards Jews in the High Middle Ages. There are many, and layered, reasons for this, such as the deep-rooted antipathy of religious nonbelief, an indication of the religious intolerance of the time, the rise of crusades against non-Christians, and the socioeconomic paradigm that intricately bound the Jews, as well as Christians, of the time.

The High Middle Ages, though a period of incredible intellectual creativity, development, growth, and progress, was also a period with a dark side. It saw the repression of heresy, the creation of inquisition, the rise of pogroms against the Jews, and the imposition of badges on Jews, heinous activities that tainted the sunny image that is commonly associated with the era. 

Common Questions about the Reasons for Anti-Jewish Sentiment in the High Middle Ages

Q: Why did religious importance play a role in anti-Jewish behavior?

During the High Middle Ages, religion played a much more prominent role in the lives of people than it does today. As a result of this, it was much harder for Christians to deal with the idea that their religious ideology might be wrong, and that of Jews may be right. This added to the anti-Jewish sentiment of the time.

Q: How did the crusading movement cause problems for the Jews?

In the High Middle Ages, crusades grew against nonbelievers. Anti-Jewish sentiment was already high at the time. It was easier for crusaders to deal with Jews in Europe than to go across the Mediterranean and deal with the Jews there. This led to pogroms and violence.

Q: What happened when Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest?

The Church in Medieval Europe prohibited Jews and Christians from lending money to Christians at interest. This was enforced by excommunicating members from the Church. Of course, this was not effective for Jews, and there was a lot of conflict over the issue of moneylending. This added to the anti-Jewish sentiment of the time, and gave rise to pogroms.

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