How Did Church Leaders Influence Anti-Semitism?


By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

In the city of York, on March 16, 1190, a mob entrapped the entire Jewish community—some 150 souls—in a Norman castle. Most of these Jews killed their families and themselves. Church leaders condemned these acts of violence. The Rhineland bishops, in particular, had tried to protect their Jewish communities by constructing special walled neighborhoods for them—what would come to be called ghettos.

A Medieval woodcut depicting the Kazimierz ghetto in Kraków
Jewish ghettos would become prisons and firetraps centuries after they were built. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Segregated Environments

Many medieval ghettos are still visible in the urban landscapes of Europe, like the Jewish Call of Barcelona or the district of Kazimierz in Kraków. Many more, like the medieval ghettos of Paris and Frankfurt, were razed in the 19th century when it seemed pointless for assimilated French and German Jews to live in special areas. 

Just a few generations later, their descendants would be the victims of genocide. As was evidenced during the Holocaust in cities like Warsaw and Łódź, ghettos could be prisons and firetraps as much as they could be havens. Indeed, the very high concentration of Jews in central and eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century was the result of medieval forces. 

The rulers of those regions, especially the kings of Poland, had actively courted Jewish communities and guaranteed them extraordinary legal rights and protections in order to attract skilled artisans and merchants that would connect this region to the markets of more established states and to the Mediterranean littoral. 

This made the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania (which included western Ukraine and Belarus) the home to Jews who had been expelled from England (in 1290), France (in 1306), and eventually from the Christian kingdoms of Spain (1492), as the Christian reconquest of Muslim Iberia—ongoing in fits and spurts from the 9th century—forced Jews and Muslims to convert, be killed, or go into exile.

The Church’s Message Was Lost

Painting of Pope Gregory the Great
Though church leaders tried to reiterate what Pope Gregory the Great had said centuries ago, not all Christians got the full message. (Image: Jusepe de Ribera/Public domain)

But if some Christian elites attempted to shelter and even provide the means for Jewish communities to flourish, the Roman Church’s condemnations of anti-Semitic violence were muted by the ideology that underpinned it. 

As early as the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great had formulated the official position: although Jews were clearly condemned by God for their role in the death of Jesus, they should not be subject to violence or forced conversion because their survival was necessary to human salvation. In other words, Church doctrine held that Jews would convert at the Last Judgment, after the Second Coming of Christ.

But clearly, that pacific message was not the message that average Christians were receiving. An anonymous Jewish chronicler who has left an account of the pogrom at Mainz, in 1096, reported that “As [the crusaders on the way to the Holy Land] passed through the towns where Jews dwelled, they said to one another, ‘Look now, we are going a long way to … avenge ourselves … when here, in our very midst, are the Jews—they who crucified [Christ] for no reason. Let us first avenge ourselves on them and exterminate them.” 

In 1120, in a belated response to the pogroms of the First Crusade, Pope Calixtus II reiterated the official position against this violence more fully in the papal bull Sicut Judeis, “As for the Jews,” but to little effect.

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Pope Innocent III’s Money-lending Laws

Illustration of Pope Innocent III
Pope Innocent III presided over the Fourth Lantern Council which prohibited usury within Christendom. (Image: Carlo Raso/Public domain)

Then, in 1215, Pope Innocent III presided over the Fourth Lateran Council, which issued a new set of canons regulating many aspects of everyday behavior that had never before been the subject of legislation. In addition to creating new constraints on the Christian clergy and laity alike, this Church council reiterated the longstanding prohibition against Christians lending money at interest—a practice known as usury that was, nonetheless, widespread throughout Christendom. 

The wealthiest banking center in Europe at the time, the Franco-Flemish city of Arras, had no Jewish community; all of its moneylenders were Christians, including the bishop. The canons also reiterated and sanctioned the popular perception that Jews alone were the rapacious cheats who defrauded good Christians of their hard-earned cash. 

It declared, “The more Christianity is restrained from exacting interest, the much more strongly does the dishonesty of Jews in these matters grow so that in a short time they exhaust the means of Christians” a law follows to ensure “that Christians are not savagely opposed by Jews and driven into debt.”

The Jewish Badge 

The canons went on to mandate, throughout Christendom, legislation that had only been enacted locally in some places up to that time—the infamous Jewish badge. Canons 69–71 read, “In some provinces, a difference of dress distinguished Jews and Saracens [Muslims] from Christians, but in certain others confusion has developed that they are indistinguishable. Whence it has sometimes happened that (by mistake) Christians unite with Jewish or Saracen women, and Jews and Saracens with Christians.” 

Here we have a clear statement to the effect that the problem with Jews and Muslims, according to the papacy, was that they were not different enough and that artificial signs of difference were required to stop “accidental” sexual and social relations from occurring. The result was the implementation of the badge. 

In some places, it was a distinctive cloak or hat—often a tall, pointed hat that has come down to us as a signifier for witches—and in others a patch of cloth, often yellow—the direct ancestor of the Nazis’ badge, which proclaimed that whoever wore it was an enemy of the German people and their allies. These were some of the official, bureaucratic, and legal restrictions placed on Jews in Latin Christendom by the end of the 12th century.

Common Questions about How Church Leaders Influenced Anti-Semitism

Q: Why were walled Jewish neighborhoods built in the Middle Ages?

Walled Jewish neighborhoods called ghettos were built for the safety of Jewish communities.

Q: How was Pope Gregory the Great’s position on Jews understood by Christians?

Even though Church leaders tried to discourage Christians from acts of violence against Jews, not all Christians would listen. This was because centuries ago, Pope Gregory the Great’s official position on Jews was that they were “condemned by God for their role in the death of Jesus, they should not be subject to violence or forced conversion because their survival was necessary to human salvation.” This message wasn’t clearly understood by some Christians.

Q: What was Pope Innocent III’s stance on usury?

Pope Innocent III reiterated the stance of previous Church leaders, that usury was prohibited. Usury was the practice of lending money with an interest rate. And even though some banks were completely run by Christians, the Church blamed Jews for stripping Christians of their money.

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