The Treatment of Jews in High Medieval Europe


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

The High Middle Ages witnessed a series of divides in society. The period saw the rise of heresy, and phenomena such as the episcopal inquisition and the papal inquisitions to deal with it. The divide between Orthodox Christians and heretical Christians was one of the biggest conflicts of the time, but was not the only one in High Medieval Europe. The divide between Christians and Jews was an important social phenomenon of the time as well. 

The Holy city of Jerusalem.
Europe in the High Middle Ages saw a lot of growth and development. It also saw a lot of sociocultural divides, one of the most important ones of which was the one between Jews and Christians. (Image: Kamil Markiewicz/Shutterstock)

Jews Vs. Heretics

The official status of heretics in High Middle Europe was vastly different from that of Jews: the former had no right to exist whatsoever in Europe, the latter did, as the heretics fell under the jurisdiction of the inquisition. Jews did not, unless they were fomenting heresy among Christians. 

Despite that distinction, there is a curious parallel between the histories of the two groups. Quite like the manner in which the treatment of heretics became harsher between the years 1000 and 1300 as execution for heresy became common, the treatment of Jews, too, became harsher in the High Middle Ages, when pogroms, which were rare or nonexistent earlier, began to become increasingly visible. Local Christians spontaneously rose against their Jewish neighbors, wiping out communities, and demanding expulsions from kingdoms.

The increase in anti-Jewish violence poses a conundrum to historians for a very particular reason: While it is perhaps not too difficult to explain the continuously worsening treatment of minorities and marginalized groups during times of economic instability or collapse, the High Middle Ages were prosperous periods in comparison to both the Early Middle Ages and the Late Middle Ages. During times of economic distress, minority groups are easy scapegoats on whom the frustrations of the economic collapse can be vented. But the High Middle Ages, in comparison to the bleak picture of economic collapse, was a time of increasing population growth, increasing production, commercialization, and an overall increase in wealth and prosperity. In this context, it becomes a task to understand the threats faced by Jews in medieval Europe, around the period of 1000 to 1300.

However, there were times when different kinds of protections were awarded to the Jews of High Medieval Europe by secular rulers, or church leaders.

Learn more about heretics and heresy.

The Protection of Jews 

As the largest non-Christian religious minority in Medieval Europe, Jews were able to receive a certain degree of toleration, and sometimes even protection from secular and religious authorities, such as kings, popes, and bishops. 

Not every king had the same temperament toward the Jews, however. The degree to which a ruler would have gone to protect the Jews in his territory was a very diverse thing, therefore, and varied with the kind of political and religious ideologies and goals he had in mind for his kingdom. Not surprisingly, kings who had a reputation for great piety and religious beliefs were often much less vigorous in their attempts to protect the Jewish inhabitants of their kingdoms, and were much less tolerant in general, whereas more worldly rulers, the ones for whom material considerations were more important than the religious reputation of their kingdoms, tended to be relatively more tolerant toward the Jewish inhabitants of their kingdoms, and subsequently, imposed harsh punishments on those who attacked or injured those Jews.

Kings often placed all the Jewish inhabitants of the kingdom specifically under royal protection. This meant that the act of injuring a Jew in any way, stealing property from a Jew, or physically attacking a Jew, was seen to be an offense against the person of the king, and would, therefore, demand the requisite punishment, which, of course, would be much more serious than what it would have been in case Jews had not been placed under royal protection.

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

Canon Law

A factor for the protection of Jews was Church Law, also known as ‘canon law’, which forbade the forced conversion of Jews to Christianity. This prohibition on forced conversion, or on threatening someone to convert to Christianity or be faced with death, was very much in the law from 1000 to 1300. While every effort could be made to peacefully persuade Jews to abandon their religion and take up Christianity, the idea of threatening Jews with violence or death, and then demand their conversion, never received official Church approval.

Sometimes, the protection provided to Jews by Church officials and kings took on a more tangible, a more physical form, when Jews would be designated separate sections of towns. 

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

Walled Quarters for Jews

Panoramic view of the ancient walled city of Jerusalem, Israel.
Jews lived in walled quarters in many parts of medieval Europe, where the walls afforded them a certain degree of privacy and protection.
(Image: Nina Zorina/Shutterstock)

In certain parts of Europe, specifically in Mediterranean Europe, in Spain, southern France, even Italy, Jews, who were primarily town dwellers and generally did not live in the countryside, tended to live within separate, designated parts of each town. Each town had its own Jewish quarter, which was surrounded, as a form of protection, by a high wall. There are certain places in these parts of the world where one can still see the walls that were once made to protect the Jewish section of town.

While the notion of Jews living in a walled-in section of town certainly evokes ghastly, and fear-inducing images of early modern Jewish ghettos, or the horrifying ones that became common in the 20th century, medieval Jewish quarters were in reality quite different from these later ones. 

There were a number of ways in which these quarters could come into being. 

Sometimes, a local bishop or king, who would wish to harbor a significant Jewish population in a given town, for various reasons, would start by building a wall, and then use this wall as a selling point to entice Jews to come and live in the town, where they would have the protection of the wall. 

At other times, it was not uncommon for the Jewish residents of a town to petition the local bishop or king to build a wall around their section of town as a protective measure. 

Naturally, Jews and Christians were not only permitted to, but also expected to travel across the borders of the Jewish quarters regularly. Jewish and Christian officials therefore regulated activity at the walls; often, one was not allowed to enter or leave the Jewish quarter after a certain hour. 

The High Middle Ages, despite all the legal, theoretical, and physical attempts at protection, was a period in time that witnessed several developments that harmed, and often disadvantaged, the Jews of Europe. 

While the Jewish world had been under threat for a long time by then, by the High Middle Ages, especially between 1000 and 1300, a lot of these threats, including the mass expulsion of Jews from kingdoms, were carried out in reality. 

Common Questions about Jews and Christians in the High Middle Ages

Q: How was the treatment of heretics different from that of Jews in the High Middle Ages?

Both Jews and heretics were subject to discriminatory behavior, but during the High Middle Ages, heretics fell under the jurisdiction of the inquisition, and as such had no right to exist within Europe. This was not the case for the Jews.

Q: How did canon law work in the High Middle Ages?

Canon law, or Church law, was the law that forbade the forceful conversion of Jews to Christianity, with the threat of either converting or being put to death. It was put in place to protect the Jews of Europe from violence and death threats with the ultimatum of conversion.

Q: What role did walled Jewish quarters play in High Medieval Europe?

A lot of Medieval emperors built walled quarters for Jews in their kingdoms, sometimes on the request of the Jewish inhabitants, and sometimes as a way to encourage more Jewish residents in their kingdoms. These walls afforded a certain degree of protection and privacy to them.

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