Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

The Importance of Being Absent

A medieval anti-Semitic depiction of the Passion on the walls of Ål church in Norway.

Part of our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Richard Cole.

You can find the rest of the special series hereThis article is split into two parts; return on Thursday for part II: “How to Hate Someone You’ve Never Met”.

The Judensau in Uppsala Cathedral; it is an antisemitic stone carving depicting Jews suckling on a pig.
The Judensau in Uppsala Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Stephen Mitchell.

If you visit Uppsala Cathedral in Sweden, keep your eyes aimed at the tops of the pilasters—the flat, decorative columns in the walls. If you do, you will be confronted with a ghastly sight: A sow is greedily shoveling food from a trough into her mouth with her front trotters. Under her belly, two crude caricatures of Jewish faces (you can tell they’re supposed to be Jews because of their pointy hats) are sucking at her teats. Behind the tail, an emaciated body protrudes. Does it belong to one of the faces? Or is this body a third Jewish man, his face buried in the sow’s nether regions? Another Jew tugs on the pig’s tail, pulling on it with a frenzied grimace. In his apparent delirium, his hat has fallen off.

A fifteenth-century woodcut Judensau. Kupferstichkabinet, Munich, ca. 1470. Click to enlarge.

This hateful stone carving belongs to the type known as a Judensau “Jews’ sow”. It was particularly popular in the German lands during the Middle Ages. The typical Judensau displays cartoonish Jews worshipping, and being as physically intimate as possible, with pigs. Sometimes, as in the case of Uppsala, they are inside religious buildings. Sometimes they are found on the exterior of those buildings, or even on bridges and gates. In other words, they were placed  in public places. As such, they are intentionally designed to cause as much offense and humiliation as possible to any Jewish person who would encounter them.

But the strange thing is, there were no Jews in Uppsala for this to offend.

Jews in the Medieval North

Even if the Uppsala Judensau had been on the outside of the cathedral, there is virtually no possibility that it would have upset any Jewish observers, because everything indicates that neither Sweden nor any other Scandinavian nation had a single, settled Jewish inhabitant before the sixteenth century.

That is not to say that there were no occasional adventurers who may have passed through. Around 962, one Ibrāhīm ibn Yaʻqūb al-Ṭurṭūšī visited Hedeby in Denmark (and wrote rather unflattering things about the Danes’ singing). Scholars have speculated that he was either a Muslim person with a Jewish background, or an Arabic-speaking Spanish Jew—who would have gone by the name Abraham, son of Jacob, of Tortosa (a city in Catalonia, Spain).

In 1340, a man named Moses appears to have visited Bergen in Norway, and attempted to rent lodging for the princely sum of “eighty English pounds and one mark of burnt gold”. Despite offering very good money, it appears that Moses was denied by a local official, Ole Hælghason, who instead insisted on payment in  “dried fish, flounder jerky, amber, white furs, grey furs, martens’ furs, and falcons” (we’ve all been there, right?).

Moses does appear to have been a foreigner. He carried a foreign currency, and he lacked the “son of”/“daughter of” surname which were usually used by Scandinavians at the time. Moses was not an unheard of name for medieval Scandinavians, though it was more proportionally popular amongst European Jews. Was Moses a Jewish visitor, and was Moses’s Judaism the real reason for Ole’s bureaucratic intransigence? We cannot be certain.

Medieval Red Tape

But despite these travelers, the main reason we can be quite confident that there were not indigenous, multi-generational Jewish communities in medieval Scandinavia is that such communities, whenever they did exist, left behind a significant paper-trail. Firstly, the medieval Christian imagination was very much excited by the idea of the presence of non-Christians. Therefore chroniclers and authors often left multiple records of actual (and imagined) interactions with the Jewish community. Only one such “interaction” is preserved from medieval Scandinavia: the Historia Norwegie (c. 1150-1200) contains the following vignette, which is sufficiently fantastical that we can discount it as evidence of a real Jewish settlement:

[The Orkney Islands] were first inhabited by the Picts and the Papar […] the Papar got their name from the albs they wore, like clerics, for all clergy are called papæ in the German tongue. There is moreover an island still today called Papey after them. It is seen, however, from the character and script of the books they left behind them that they were Africans who practised Judaism. When Haraldr hárfagri ruled in Norway some vikings of the kin of a very mighty prince, Rǫgnvaldr, crossed the Sólund Sea with a large fleet, drove the Papar from their long-established homes, destroyed them utterly and subdued the islands under their own rule.

Secondly, unlike migrants today, medieval Jews could not apply for visas or refugee status and then migrate as private citizens. Many Christian kingdoms did not, officially, tolerate Jews at all, unless there were a special role which it was felt that Jews could fulfil. As non-Christians in countries with a Christian legal identity, Jews required a dedicated governmental effort to invite them into the kingdom, to offer them suitable protection, and to arbitrate in legal matters concerning Christians.

While medieval Jews often lived in peace with their Christian neighbours, this extreme degree of control which the state held over them meant that if the authorities turned against them, the results were disastrous. In medieval England, a ministry was established called the “Exchequer of the Jews”. Its surviving documents are an important source for our understanding of Jewish life in medieval England. No such documents survive from anywhere in Scandinavia.

It is probable that no Scandinavian state during the Middle Ages had sufficient power to organise and oversee Jewish migration. For example, as the historian Sverre Bagge has pointed out, all of the surviving correspondence generated in medieval Norway across five hundred years is equal in size to the amount generated in medieval England across just a few decades in the 1200s. It would appear that Scandinavian rulers lacked the bureaucratic sophistication necessary to establish Jewish communities.

One might protest that there was nothing stopping Jews migrating to Scandinavia on their own initiative, but this seems unlikely: if, as a non-Christian in medieval Europe, you’re looking to move from one Christian country to another, you’re more likely to choose a place where the state can offer a degree of protection (or perhaps even incentives, as King Bolesław the Pious of Poland did in 1264). The place that barely has a state at all by contemporary standards will probably be a lot further down your list.

The Sphere of Influence of the Hanseatic League around 1400.

Moreover, by the middle of the 1300s, the sort of technological, administrative, and mercantile roles which were elsewhere sometimes filled by Jews were instead being filled by Northern Germans. These Germans arrived as part of the increasing domination of Scandinavia by the Hanseatic League—the Northern German trading confederation that controlled trade routes in the North and Baltic seas in the late Middle Ages.

These Hansa men (the term for people from the Hanseatic League) not only substituted Jewish migration—they may have actively sought to prevent it. Anti-Semitism thrived in the Northern German cities; Hansa men did not permit Jews to join their trading organisation (by the way, for the purposes of this article I am not distinguishing between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, although it’s a distinction that I otherwise agree with). All of these factors combined explain why Scandinavia was surrounded by areas that did have Jewish communities (England to the West, Germany to the South, the Baltic Coast to the East), but apparently never had any Jewish settlement of its own.

Prejudice on the Periphery

Bishop Jón the Holy of Iceland, of the eponymous saga. Image from a nineteenth-century Icelandic manuscript.

Despite not having any native Jewish population to persecute, Scandinavians eagerly reproduced anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish images and stories. The Uppsala Judensau is not the only sculpture of its kind in Sweden. There are plenty of anti-Jewish church paintings of Jews to be found in neighbouring Denmark too. Some of these cases (probably including the Uppsala Judensau) can be attributed to travelling German artists so one might protest that these are unfortunate, accidental imports, and not really indicative of any native interest in anti-Semitism.

But in the case of medieval Iceland you cannot really use that excuse. Depending on how one counts such things, there are 53 distinct episodes in Old Norse-Icelandic literature which discuss Jews in medieval Europe (as opposed to Jews in the Bible, of which there are many, many more). They are not complimentary.

References to Jews typically are included in short miracle stories, or sometimes in sagas, which were written in Old Norse and, copied out again and again by Icelandic scribes across the Middle Ages. You can’t pin that on the Germans. One episode in the Icelandic Saga of Bishop Jón the Holy (c. 1320-1340) contains the following spitefully anti-Semitic episode:

Once when the saintly Jón had laid down to sleep one night a vision occurred before him. He appeared to be at his prayers before a great crucifix. And the next thing he knew, the figure on the cross bowed down to him and said some words in his ear, and we don’t know what those words were. He told this vision to the priest Rikini, and there was nobody who could interpret this. But the next day some men came to meet the saintly Jón who had just arrived from Norway, bringing him a little ‘bookling’ [i.e. booklet, Old Norse: bæklingr], in whose pages was written this event of which men were most ignorant: how the Jews mocked the crucified, tortured likeness of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the same way their forefathers had done to Himself.

These accursed Jews struck the likeness with grievous slaps, spitting on it and giving it great punches, and a hateful decapitation. After that they crucified it, walking around the cross and its head with a great mockery, trembling hatefully … And when the saintly Jón and Rikini the Priest had read over the aforementioned event, the priest said to the saintly Jón: “Look at this now, sweet father, [here is] the vision and the wisdom which God showed you last night!”. They praised God for this marvellous event. [note—the original can be found here in old Icelandic, but the translation to English is my own]

What purpose did gruesome stories like these serve? It was not to justify the persecution of native Jews, since there were none. To be sure, the answer is to be found, in part, in the nature of medieval Christianity.

Medieval Christian Structural Anti-Semitism

By the year 1000, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland had all adopted the Christian faith as their official religion. By 1100, Sweden in the east and Greenland in the west were Christian too. By the 1200s, nobody would have thought of Scandinavians as “Baby Christians”. Young men from all the Scandinavian nations were reading Latin, writing Latin, and even attending the University of Paris—the Harvard or Oxford of its day. In other words, Scandinavians were fully plugged into the machinery of medieval Christian culture. Meditating on the significance of the alleged cruelty of the Jews during Christ’s crucifixion, for example, was simply what a good Christian did—regardless of whether one had ever met an actual, contemporary Jew or not. In this way, stories involving Jews did not necessarily have to be about Jews.

But this explanation can only account for part of the Scandinavian interest in anti-Semitic images and stories. As Freud is famously supposed to have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Sometimes a spiteful caricature of a Jew is just a spiteful caricature of a Jew.

No doubt, educated Scandinavians seem to have thought of Jews as symbols more than as actual people. But there are only so many times a story can be told about how hateful and deranged Jews supposedly are—and how it might be a good idea to kill them—before somebody starts to take the story at face value. One of the Old Norse stories which communicates precisely these ideas can be read below. From the sound of its deliriously anti-Semitic content, particularly the theme of Jews supposedly attacking an effigy of Christ, it’s probably very close to the story that Bishop Jón heard above:

It is said that in Toledo, which Scandinavians call Tolhús (this city is in Spain and a third of the town’s population are Christians, the second third Jews, the third heathens [i.e. Muslims]) … a voice was heard in the sky […] which thus spoke with a piteous tone: “Ha! Ha! An affliction, what an affliction, that Jews with such cunning and evil should live so near to God’s flock and these sheep which are marked with the protecting symbol of the Holy Cross, because now the Jews wish to scorn and mock and crucify my son for a second time”. This prompted much fear and concern amongst the Christians. And after the mass the Archbishop consulted with the common people what course should be taken, and everyone agreed to go to the houses and homes of the Jews as search them as carefully as possible for whatever might be going on.

First they went to the hall which the rabbi owned and searched there. And when the archbishop came to their synagogue there was found a statue made of wax, in the likeness of a living man. It was battered and spit-drenched, and there were many people of the Jewish race falling on their knees before the statue, some slapped it on the cheek. Also, there stood a cross nearby, and the Jews had intended to nail that statue to the cross for the mockery and insult of Our Lord Jesus Christ and all who believed in Him.

And when the Christians saw this, then they destroyed that statue and killed all the Jews who were present. Now, because of this event and all the others which the Blessed Queen Mary does for her honour and glory, and our joy, we have to give praise to Our Lord and His mother, who live and rule forever and ever. [note: as above, here is the original, the above is my translation]

Miracle tales like these (not all of them quote so hateful as this) appear to have been used in preaching in Scandinavia. Some Old Swedish collections of such stories have notes in the margins recommending the appropriate times for reading them aloud to congregations of monks. One Icelandic miracle tale even explicitly states that “Bishop Páll had the habit of telling this miracle when he was presiding over the Assumption, and he said it was told to him by Archbishop Absalon”.

So we know that there was mass consumption of these stories, by at least some major clergy members. They weren’t curiosities to be squirrelled away in manuscripts. It would be hopelessly optimistic to assume that an ordinary Icelander who had never met a Jew for themselves would always be able to separate rhetoric from reality. When the only images you have ever seen of a Jew are of frenzied pig-sucklers, or snouted canine monsters such as the example from Ål church in Norway which forms the cover to this article, how long before the mind’s eye automatically imagines that this is how Jews really look?

In Part Two, we’ll be looking at how Jews came to be imaginary enemies, and how we are still falling for the trick of hating those people who we don’t encounter.

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Richard Cole

The author Richard Cole

Richard Cole is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Notre Dame. He defended his PhD in Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University in 2015. He has published on medieval Scandinavian topics in journals including Exemplaria, Saga-Book, Scandinavian Studies and Viking and Medieval Scandinavia. He has taught Old Norse at University College London, Harvard University, and Aarhus Universitet. His book on the Visby burnings in 1350 is entitled The Death of Tidericus the Organist: Plague, Tension, and Anti-Semitism without Jews in Medieval Visby, and is forthcoming from the Viking Society for Northern Research.

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