Jewish Badge, Racialized Jews, and “Race”


By Carol SymesUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

The Jewish badge became a legislative platform of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The relevant law reads: “In some provinces, a difference of dress has 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 Jews and Saracens with Christians.” Everything about this canon, and its frequent repetition in subsequent legislation, reeks of failure and anxiety.

The Fourth Lateran Council
The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 legitimized the Jewish badge. (Image: N. R. Cochin/Public domain)

Why Did Jews Need to Appear Different?  

If Jews and Muslims are really so different, if they can allegedly be picked out of a crowd on the basis of their congenital characteristics, their hooked noses and red hair or their swarthy (or piebald!) skins, why is there any need to make them wear distinctive clothing? How can it possibly be the case that Christian men and women are in the habit of “mistakenly” intermarrying or entering into sexual relationships with Jews and Muslims? 

It’s not. In many places, perhaps most, these were normal relationships. In her remarkable book, Abraham’s Luggage, historian Elizabeth Lambourn recovers the life and times of Abraham Ben Yiju, a Jewish merchant from North Africa who became one of the many Cairo-based entrepreneurs to join the Indian Ocean trading circuit in the 12th century. 

Abraham established a household in southern India for nearly two decades, managing to keep kosher, marrying a local woman, and eventually returning to Cairo in search of a suitable match (a nice Jewish boy) for the daughter of that marriage.

Do Differences Matter?

Clearly, keeping kosher was important to Abraham, for a variety of reasons. But how much did any of these other apparent differences—religious, ethnic, cultural, linguistic—really matter to him and his blended family? 

They didn’t seem to matter as much, or in the same way, as the list of possessions that he was shipping back to Cairo: the document that forms the basis of Dr. Lambourn’s book. Apparently, Abraham and his family took it for granted that they could move back to Cairo and fit right in.

This is not to say that laws and literature don’t have real consequences: they do. They create narratives and frameworks that can lead to real violence, especially in times of upheaval. But the evidence of the entire historical record as we have it suggests that those discourses had to be constantly revived and reinforced.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval LegacyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Racialized Jewish People

As Rodgers and Hammerstein put it in their classic musical “South Pacific”:

You’ve got to be taught

To hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught

From year to year,

It’s got to be drummed

In your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a different shade,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Professor S. J. Pearce is a scholar of medieval literature and has been critical of the argument of a homogenous and universal anti-Semitic racism in medieval Europe. She counters with a dialogue known as the Kuzari by poet Judah Halevi, a Jew living in 12th century Muslim al-Andalus (Spain), who advanced a theory of the Jews’s inherent biological superiority that was derived, in part, from teachings of the Ismāʿīlī branch of Shiite Islam.

Professor Pearce argues that Halevi was not subsumed into a racial paradigm imposed by medieval Christians; he was developing his own “ideas about a racialized Jewish people” derived from a different set of sources and influences. 

She says that “medieval people categorized themselves and others along racial lines”, but those lines were drawn differently by different individuals and groups.

The merchant Abraham clearly wanted his daughter to marry someone from his community in Cairo. Was that because he regarded Jews as superior? Maybe, though that didn’t prevent him from marrying a woman from Goa and having children with her. 

It is just as possible that Abraham’s plans for his daughter were influenced by his desire to reestablish ties with the Cairo community via strategic marriage and had nothing to do with racial prejudice.

A page of an English dictionary with the word race
Earlier use of the word “race” held a different meaning from today. (Image: TungCheung/Shutterstock)

So, What Does ‘Race’ Mean? 

Today, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “race”—rather inelegantly: “any one of the groups that humans are often divided into based on physical traits regarded as common among people of shared ancestry”. That is, race is a subjective judgment that pretends to be objective. It is an invented way of categorizing people based on some set of “physical traits regarded as common” by another group. 

This dictionary entry also notes that older uses of the word race refer to something very different: a shared lineage, hence the “human race” or, in French, the use of race to mean “dynasty”. For example, the first royal dynasty of the Frankish people, beginning in the 5th century, called themselves the Merovingians and claimed descent from a mythical seaman named Merovech.


Today, we distinguish between race and ethnicity, the latter being defined as “groups of people classed according to common racial, tribal, religious, linguistic [traits], cultural origin, or background”. By this definition, ethnicity is broader than race and can even encompass it; but it also, importantly, has an element of personal choice: an individual identifies with a group rather than being assigned to a race by someone else.

Among the concepts which medieval Europeans inherited from antiquity are the Greek terms ethnos and genos and their Latin cognates gens and genus—ethnos meaning “tribe” and closely aligned with our idea of ethnicity; and genos meaning “descent, ancestry, birth” and more like our contemporary meaning of race. One is an assertion of affiliation or identity and the other is construed as biological. But, as we have already seen, and as we observe all around us today, those distinctions tend to break down and bleed into one another. 

Common Questions about Jewish Badge, Racialized Jews, and ‘Race’

Q: When did the Jewish badge become a legislative platform?

The Jewish badge became a legislative platform of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, as a difference in dressing distinguished Jews and Muslims from Christians in some provinces.

Q: Who was Abraham Ben Yiju?

A Jewish merchant from North Africa Abraham Ben Yiju became one of the many Cairo-based entrepreneurs who joined the Indian Ocean trading circuit in the 12th century. Historian Elizabeth Lambourn recovers his life and times in her book, Abraham’s Luggage.

Q: What do Greek terms ethnos and genos mean?

Ethnos means tribe, while genos means descent, ancestry, or birth.

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