The Medieval Roots of Anti-Semitism


By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

The Jewish communities of the medieval Mediterranean and western Asia had long been woven into the cultural, political, and economic fabric of these societies. They stood apart for their religious beliefs and they usually did not intermarry with their neighbors, but their differences did not extend much beyond that. The situation in the Latin West could not have been more distinct. Here, Jews were rare and therefore potentially suspect.

Painting showing a Medieval Jewish wedding
Jewish communities were established in the Latin West as a result of local rulers encouraging them, but their rarity triggered suspicion. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Being Favored by a Ruler Doesn’t Help

When Jews did settle in the new barbarian Christian kingdoms that were being established in the early Middle Ages, they were encouraged to do so by local rulers eager to reap the benefits of Jews’ connections with the wealthier mercantile civilization of the Mediterranean. 

This is how some Jews came to put down roots in cities that were emerging along European waterways, especially the Rhine. But that also meant that they were foreigners to those regions, and dependent on the protection of local rulers. If that local ruler—a prince, a bishop—was unpopular, that would color local perceptions of the Jews. 

In England, where there was no measurable Jewish presence prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066, William the Conqueror’s introduction of Jewish administrators, merchants, and bankers was perceived as just another aspect of the brutal settler colonialism that marked his rule. 

When the king gave his Jews a special legal status that set them apart from his conquered Anglo-Saxon subjects and his own Normans, their shared resentment against the Jews’ privileges was the only thing that these two Christian groups had in common.

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The Blood Libel

It was in this medieval English context that the global and ongoing problem of anti-Semitism was given its most indelible and nefarious expression—the blood libel. The English city of Norwich was home to a small Jewish community. In the year 1144, allegedly during Holy Week (the week before Easter), a young English boy called William, apprenticed to a tanner, disappeared mysteriously; his mutilated body was found in a woodland on Holy Saturday. 

Painting depicting William's crucifixion according to Thomas of Monmouth
Thomas of Monmouth believed that a little Christian boy was kidnapped by a Jewish community and crucified just like Christ. (Image: Simon Knott/Public domain)

According to the Benedictine monk who investigated William’s death, several years later, the child had died at the hands of Jews. As this monk, Thomas of Monmouth, explained in his Latin account of William’s martyrdom, there was a secret worldwide cabal of Jews who conspired, every year, to repeat their ancestors’ foul crime of crucifixion by choosing at least one Christian child who would be ritually tortured and killed by a Jewish community. 

And that, Thomas declared, is what had happened to William: running an errand as part of his chores, he had been kidnapped by the local Jews on Holy Tuesday, held in a secret location, and then crucified and killed on Good Friday, in a grotesque re-enactment of Jesus’s own death. 

Thomas suggests, maybe they had drunk his blood, too. In any case, his abandoned body bore the obvious wounds inflicted by his evil captors. Thomas urged that the saintly boy be exhumed and displayed in the cathedral as a holy relic, and he later recorded the miracles that Saint William regularly worked.

Jewish Communities Were Connected around the World

In 1984, the historian Gavin Langmuir published an important article in which he argued that Thomas of Monmouth had, through the publication of this libelous narrative and promotion of a saintly cult, single-handedly invented the toxic combination of lies that would hereafter proliferate in Europe, leading to the widespread belief that Jews were in the habit of capturing and ruthlessly killing Christian children, especially during Holy Week and on Good Friday. 

Lies bred lies. Jews were also apt to poison the communal water supplies of their Christian neighbors. Jews used their vast commercial networks to communicate secretly with one another, and their evil plots were easily disguised from Christians because they were written in a special code (Hebrew). 

Moreover, as was obvious to every Christian, Jews used their economic power to influence kings and princes and to control the global economy, depriving ordinary people of their livelihoods and infiltrating their political systems. (Sound familiar?) 

Langmuir ended his article by claiming, in no uncertain terms, that the 12th century monk Thomas of Monmouth had set in motion the terrible machinery that would, in the 1930s, result in the rise of fascism and the Holocaust.

Anti-Semitism Existed before Thomas of Monmouth

In 1997, an article by John McCulloh tempered Langmuir’s condemnation by showing that some of the anti-Semitic tropes that Thomas had drawn upon had, in fact, been circulating elsewhere in Europe since the previous century. 

These tropes had helped to provoke and weaponize pogroms against Jews during the First Crusade. In 1096, for example, crusaders on their way to the Holy Land had stopped in the Rhineland cities of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms, massacring Jews or driving some, especially in Mainz, to kill their own families and themselves. 

In another article, published in 2004, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen located the success of the Norwich blood libel claim within the context of the Norman Conquest, showing how violence against Jews was one of the mechanisms that was promoting a fragile but viable common identity among Norman settlers and English subalterns.

Common Questions about the Medieval Roots of Anti-Semitism

Q: Why did Jewish communities settle in barbaric Christian kingdoms?

Local rulers encouraged Jews to settle and establish Jewish communities in these kingdoms because they wanted to benefit from the connections Jews had to the Mediterranean trade. That is why they were protected by the local rulers and had their favor.

Q: What was the problem Jewish communities had with being favored by a local ruler?

If that local ruler was unpopular with the people, their wrath toward the ruler would be aimed at the Jewish community that the ruler favored and protected. This was what happened after William the Conqueror’s introduction of Jewish administrators, merchants, and bankers to England.

Q: How did Thomas of Monmouth think Jewish communities worked?

Thomas of Monmouth wrote that there was a secret cabal of Jewish communities conspiring around the world to do what their ancestors did to Christ, crucifix a Christian child. He also suggested that they drink the blood of the child as well.

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