What Led to the Persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague

By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

The arrival of the plague in medieval Europe in late 1347 marked the beginning of one of the most devastating events humanity had ever experienced. In the face of an implacable and unstoppable enemy for which there seemed no defense and no cure, people responded in just about every way imaginable.

A painting depicting a man and a woman with buboes on their bodies.
The spread of the bubonic plague in medieval Europe was an unprecedented event in the history of humanity. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

As the plague swept through Europe, hitting many cities, people reacted in different ways to cope with the pandemic. Some engaged in a form of denial or resignation by putting their heads down and continuing with their everyday existence. Others turned to religion—praying, fasting, going on pilgrimage, and in extreme cases, engaging in public self-flagellation as an attempt to atone for the sins of humanity, because they believed God had sent this affliction as punishment.

Some people completely accepted their fate and decided it was better to live their lives to the fullest before facing death. However, some were looking for someone to blame, and they found those in the Jewish communities that existed throughout the medieval world.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Little Climatic Optimum

To understand how the horrific scapegoating of the Jews came about, it is crucial to understand the history of the Jews in the medieval world. There had been Jewish communities throughout the medieval world for centuries. For example, they had been in what is present-day Spain, on the Iberian Peninsula, as early as the 2nd century.

Cosmopolitan and central trading hubs like Sicily also had a diverse population that included Jews, Muslims, various kinds of Christians, and any other group that existed in the Middle Ages. All these groups lived together in a relatively peaceful fashion.

Around the year 1000, the population of the medieval world was around 75 million people. At that time, there was a warming period, known as the “Little Climatic Optimum,” that basically made life easier if one was part of a rural agrarian society. Winters were mild and growing seasons were longer.

This climate shift also changed patterns in the fishing waters off the British coast and in the North Sea. This meant that there was an abundance of protein swimming around for the taking. Advances in farming technology also meant that crop yields were even higher than they had been.

Learn more about the Black Death’s ports of entry.

Scarcity of Arable Land

The changes in the climate and advanced farming techniques led to a sudden population boom. With better nutrition, more women were able to carry more pregnancies to term and survive delivery. The better nutrition and a milder climate also meant more people were less susceptible to the illnesses that usually carried off a good portion of the population, especially children under five.

As a result of all these factors working together, by the year 1300, the population of Western Europe had doubled from what it had been in the year 1000. In practical terms, this meant that where there had been plenty of lands before, now there was a land crunch.

In the year 1000, people did not much care who their neighbors were—there was plenty of land to go around. By the 12th century, they were starting to notice that good, arable land was becoming scarce, and people sought to protect their own families first, and then those with whom they identified on a broader level.

The Formation of a Persecuting Society

The scarcity of arable land led to what historian R. I. Moore has called the formation of a persecuting society. Marginal groups who had been tolerated were now further marginalized. A persecuting mentality manifested itself with regard to groups like lepers, heretics, and other non-mainstream Christians. The marginalized groups also included women, whose sexuality was considered perhaps not heteronormative.

Image showing a Jewish person reading a text.
The medieval European society witnessed several changes in the 12th century that eventually led to the persecution of the Jews. (Image: Volodymyr Zakharov/Shutterstock)

However, the biggest marginalized group and the easiest target was the Jews. If there were any ways to deprive significant demographic groups of wealth, status, and property, then people found a way to do this in order to secure more power and property for themselves and the groups of which they considered themselves to be a part.

Trade Practice for the Jews

The persecution of the marginalized groups gave rise to a whole crop of regulations that essentially took the right to farm or engage in certain other trades and crafts away from the Jews and gave them the right to practice only the least preferred trades in medieval society—moneylending, for example.

The whole idea of charging interest on a loan was considered the sin of usury by the medieval Church. Because of this, Christians could not engage in what is today considered a basic banking practice. But people in the medieval world still needed loans. So, they got around this by allowing the Jews to engage in this practice—the attitude being that they were already sinners because they did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. The Jews could always convert and be saved—at which point they would have to give up the practice of money lending.

Learn more about Europe on the brink of the Black Death.

A Recipe for Anti-Semitism

Around the beginning of the 12th century, many Jewish communities now had restrictions on where they lived—in many places they were ghettoized into a Jewish quarter that usually had some sort of curfew, and that was often actually walled off from the main community to which it was attached. The French King Philip II expelled the Jews from Paris in 1182 but then after confiscating their property; he brought some of them back on the condition that they work exclusively for him as bankers. And the Jews were expelled altogether from England by King Edward I in 1290.

This had a snowball effect—the Jews were isolated and confined to unpopular occupations. Those occupations were unpopular because you had to do things like try and collect money from people who might not have it or take collateral away from them if they defaulted on a loan. This made the Jews even more unpopular. A classic example can be found in the character Shylock from Shakespeare. This persecution of the Jews was a recipe for anti-Semitism.

Common Questions about the Persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages

Q: What led to the persecution of marginalized groups, such as Jews, in the medieval society?

The medieval society saw the scarcity of good, arable land and this led to the formation of a persecution society as people sought to protect their families first.

Q: Why didn’t the Christians in the medieval times engage in money lending practices?

The whole idea of charging interest on a loan was considered the sin of usury by the medieval Church. Therefore, Christians could not engage in what is today considered a basic banking practice.

Q: Apart from the trade restrictions, what else did the Jews face in the 12th century Europe?

In the 12th century, many Jewish communities had restrictions on where they lived—in many places they were ghettoized into a Jewish quarter that was often actually walled off from the main community to which it was attached.

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