Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

A Tale of Two Europes: Jews in the Medieval World

A Jew and a Muslim playing chess in 13th century al-Andalus. El Libro de los Juegos, commissioned by Alphonse X of Castile, 13th century. Escurial Library, fol. 63 recto.

Part XXII in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages. You can find the rest of the special series here.

I grew up in a racially and religiously diverse area, but my Jewish father had to travel to some less-cosmopolitan places for work. Once, in a small, southern town, he endured a painful interrogation from a client who was excited to meet a real, live Jew. The client’s most pressing question was when Jews stopped sacrificing animals.

A Jewish friend of mine moved to a small Midwestern town, then wrote to tell me that her classmates constantly demanded to see her horns.

Once, in the southern city where I attended university, a dinner date exploded at me, demanding to know how Jews could read “the Bible” and deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. I patiently explained that the New Testament was not, in fact, part of the Jewish bible. Pickings were slim in that area, dear reader, but that was our last date.

These incidents seem mild compared to the more familiar anti-Semitic harassment I experienced—thrown pennies, threats that I would burn in hell, friendly reassurances that I am not like “those other Jews”. But I bring them up because of what they have in common: they reflect the strange myths and misunderstandings that fester in the absence of actual Jews. Hatred often has an inverse correlation to familiarity with its victims; ignorance, more than anything else, breeds paranoid fantasies and strange ideas. The relative diversity and integration of your community—whether you have Jewish friends, neighbors, and colleagues you actually spend time with—determines how likely you are to believe the Jews “run Hollywood,” think they control “the banks,” or suspect them of any of the old “Elders of Zion” conspiracy bullshit.

In this regard, medieval people were the same. In fact, studying the drastically different situations of Jews across medieval Europe shows us why diversity and integration are so important today. Segregation and homogeneity—of faith, of race, and of thought—breed violence. By contrast, science, theology, philosophy, literature, and the arts flourish when more people have a voice. This is as true today as it was in the so-called ‘Dark Ages.’

Nobody Likes the Taxman

Jewish poet Süßkind von Trimberg (right) wearing a typical "Jewish hat" in the Codex Manesse from 14th century Germany. These hats were originally worn by Jewish men by choice, but in many Northern European countries beginning in the 12th century, became part of the mandatory garb for Jews.
Jewish poet Süßkind von Trimberg (right) wearing a typical “Jewish hat” in the Codex Manesse from 14th century Germany. These hats were originally worn by Jewish men by choice. But in many Northern European countries, beginning in the 12th century, they were made part of the mandatory garb for Jews.

Scholars like Miriamne Ara Krummel have argued that nefarious fantasies about medieval Jews tended to spread most aggressively in areas where Jews were segregated from Christian populations. Many medieval laws kept Jews isolated and oppressed, particularly after the 1200s, when the Catholic Church decreed that Jews could not hold public office or appear in public on Passion Sunday and the last three days of Holy Week. The official Church “Canon on Jews” also ruled that Jews and Saracens had to be marked by special clothing to set them apart so that they didn’t mix with Christian women—particularly in the ‘biblical’ sense:

In some provinces a difference in dress distinguishes the Jews or Saracens from the Christians, but in certain others such a confusion has grown up that they cannot be distinguished by any difference. Thus it happens at times that through error Christians have relations with the women of Jews or Saracens, and Jews and Saracens with Christian women. Therefore, that they may not, under pretext of error of this sort, excuse themselves in the future for the excesses of such prohibited intercourse, we decree that such Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress.

Jews in many medieval European countries, such as England, France, and Germany, were forbidden from holding public office and restricted to practicing only a few professions. One of those was lending money, since usury laws prohibited Christians from lending money with interest. Thus, Jews could be used as intermediaries by medieval kings to lend money and collect debts and taxes without any formal stain on the king’s sinless conscience.

Clifford's Tower, in York, England, site of the massacre of York's Jewish population in 1190.
Clifford’s Tower, in York, England, site of the massacre of York’s Jewish population in 1190.

However, Jews were sometimes forbidden from having any other profession. In many cases, they were only allowed to collect money. Needless to say, this both led to resentment from borrowers and fed the stereotype that Jews were obsessed with money. That resentment had violent consequences. For instance, in 1190 in York, England, nobles used the anti-Jewish fervor whipped up around the Crusades in order to get revenge on Jewish debt collectors. The fact that the Jews were direct vassals of King Richard did not protect them: the city’s entire Jewish population was massacred, and the insolvent nobles burned all records of their debts.

Jews also became convenient scapegoats for any leader who wanted to increase his political power or get himself out of trouble, and many rulers won political capital by ‘cracking down’ on Jews or expelling them. Edward I exiled Jews from England in 1290. Philip II of France—already in serious debt at the ripe old age of 15—kidnapped Jews and held them for ransom, then confiscated Jewish property and expelled them from France. Phillip II allowed the Jews to return to France in 1198, but imposed heavy taxes on them. In 1306, Philip IV of France arrested 100,000 Jews, seized their property, and expelled them on the grounds that they represented “a state within a state.” Jews were invited back by Philip’s successor once he found that when his own agents tried to collect debts, his people didn’t like them so much either. French Jews would be banished and then readmitted in repeated cycles for nearly 200 years.

Secret Rituals and Sleeper Cells

Paranoid fantasies about Jews, stoked by religious and political leaders, resulted in violence all over medieval Europe. People saw Jewish conspiracies everywhere. The Crusades provoked multiple massacres of Jews across Germany, France, and England. In the mid-1300s, Jews were even accused of causing the Black Death. They were slaughtered throughout Switzerland and Germany. These paranoid anti-Jewish fantasies also make their way into medieval literature, with almost too many examples to recount. Even some medieval Christian texts that exhibit a degree of tolerance toward other faiths—like Mandeville’s Travels, which suggest that Christians and Muslims have much in common—exhibit fear and loathing of Jews. Mandeville repeatedly asserts that Jews are “wicked,” and asserts that Jews “of ten lineages” are enclosed between the Scythian mountains and guarded by Amazons. One wonders what Gal Gadot would think about all this.

Mandeville explains:

And now know that the Jews have no land of their own to live in in all the world except among those hills. Even so they pay tribute to the Queen of the Amazons, and she has those hills guarded very well so that they do not cross into her country, which borders those hills. Nevertheless it sometimes happens that one of them climbs over those hills and gets out…

But Mandeville reassures readers that the only path a rare escaping Jew can take

is about four miles long, and then there is a great desert where no water or shelter is to be found for men because there are dragons and snakes and other poisonous animals, so except in winter no man can travel that way.

But apparently, not even dragons, snakes, or Amazons can hold Jews back forever. Mandeville reveals that,

Folk in the country nearby say that in the time of the Antichrist those Jews will sally out and do much harm to Christian men. And so all the Jews in the different parts of the world learn to speak Hebrew, for they believe that the Jews who are enclosed among those hills will know that they are Jews (as they are) by their speech when they arrive. And then they will lead them into Christendom to destroy Christian men. For those Jews say they know by their prophecies that the Jews enclosed among the hills will issue out and the Christians will be under their sway, just as they have been under Christian domination.

Clearly, Jews in Mandeville’s imagination were an apocalyptic threat, aligned with the Antichrist and awaiting vengeance for the abuses they endured at the hands of Christians (which may, or may not, suggest some kind of latent guilt on medieval Christianity’s part). However, not all medieval anti-Jewish conspiracies involved Hebrew-speaking sleeper agents awaiting activation by the Antichrist. Jews were frequently the villains of medieval ‘horror’ stories, like Chaucer’s infamous Prioress’s tale, in which Jews murder an innocent child and cast him into a pit “where these Jews would purge their bowels.” Popular ‘Passion Plays,’ which traveled from town to town recreating the torment and crucifixion of Christ, regularly whipped up anti-Jewish fervor. And a favorite topic of medieval writers was the very same ancient Roman siege of Jerusalem I discussed in a prior article. The Jerusalem siege appears in many medieval texts, and this rarely bodes well for Jews. For example, the brutal Middle English Siege of Jerusalem seems to relish their slaughter:

The false Jews fell in the field as thick

as hail from heaven, heaped over each other.

The field was covered over, running with blood,

dead bodies all over the broad valley.

As you can see, literature and history paint a grim picture of Jewish life in medieval Europe. But despite the constant threat of violence, repeated exile, and relentless anti-Jewish rhetoric in popular culture, plenty of medieval Jews pursued science, literature, and the arts. In fact, southern Europe—which was a diverse, cosmopolitan, and innovative region—gave many Jews a place not only to survive, but to thrive. 

Convivencia in the South

In Muslim Spain, Christian Italy, and even parts of France, Jews were mathematicians, doctors, philosophers, poets. Many of them worked as translators because they spoke Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin. In fact, Jews translated some of the groundbreaking Arabic treatises on philosophy and astronomy that made their way into northern Europe.

The Muslim-ruled section of the Iberian peninsula, known by its Arabic name, al-Andalus, was a thriving center of interfaith art, literature, philosophy, science, and medicine. Governed from the 8th to 11th centuries by the Umayyad Caliphate,  al-Andalus was a center of religious tolerance—at least relative to much of the rest of Europe. I stress relative, since there can be a tendency either to describe the situation of Jews in al-Andalus as a “Golden Age” of perfect religious harmony or a dark age of violent religious persecution. But although modern people often see medieval culture in unrealistic, black-and-white terms, neither the utopic or dystopic vision of al-Andalus’s past is completely true.

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonedes, one of the greatest medieval thinkers.
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonedes, one of the greatest medieval thinkers.

What we can be certain about, however, is that many Andalusian Jews flourished intellectually and professionally. Famous figures include Judah ibn Tibbon, “father of translators,” Abrahan Ibn Ezra, whose work ranged from biblical commentary to mathematics and astrology, and Maimonides, one of the medieval world’s most influential scholars. And although the ruling class was Muslim in al-Andalus, Jews could be promoted as high as vizier—the key advisor to a Muslim ruler. Samuel HaNagid (also known as Samuel ibn Naghrillah) was even made a general in the Muslim army.

Jewish poets and writers provide an extraordinary window into this diverse medieval world. Poets like Moshe Ibn Ezra commented on everything from wine to death and slavery:

Ancient graves weathered by time,

where people now are sleeping forever:

they have neither hate nor envy within them;

they know no love or fear of their neighbor.

And seeing them so, I couldn’t discern

The different between a slave and his master.

Jewish poets also exchanged literary influences with Muslim writers, and there’s a clear record of exchange between Andalusian poets and the rest of medieval Europe. Likewise, Christian Italian city-states, as Clare Vernon, Luca Asmonti, and Paul Sturtevant have discussed in previous articles in this series, were more diverse and tolerant than their northern neighbors. Many had thriving Jewish communities. In fact, there’s even a Hebrew Arthurian legend: King Artus, written in 13th century Italy. The anonymous poet begins with an apologia, explaining that he translated an Arthurian legend to “prevent melancholy” (a medieval medical condition):

No intelligent person can rebuke me for this, for we have seen that some of our sages of blessed memory, such as Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, did not disdain the knowledge of fox-fables, washers’ parables or the speech of palm trees. And this is done so that a man who is steeped in Torah-study or in worldly pursuits may derive from the knowledge of these tales a measure of relaxation and relief.

However, life in southern Europe was hardly all sunshine and fox-fables for southern Jews. They were also the victims of raids and mass murders, particularly when religious movements attempted to homogenize the population and wipe out difference and dissent. For instance, when the more-orthodox Muslim Almohad movement invaded Spain near the end of the 12th century, they overturned the Umayyad policy of religious tolerance and forced Jews and Christians to convert to Islam. Many Jews, like poet Avraham Ibn Ezra, fled to Rome. Ibn Ezra records his sorrow in the poem, “Lament for Andalusian Jewry.” The first stanza reads:

Calamity came upon Spain from the skies

and my eyes pour forth their streams of tears.

I moan like an owl for the town of Lucena,

where Exile dwelled, guiltless and strong,

for a thousand and seventy years unchanged—

until the day she was expelled,

leaving her like a widow, forlorn,

deprived of the Scriptures and books of the Law.

As the house of prayer took folly in,

some men murdered and others sought shelter.

For this I weep and, mourning, wail:

If only my head were a fountain of water.

Jews also found themselves in the middle of violent clashes between Christians and Muslims during repeated Christian efforts to ‘re-conquer’ Spain. Indeed, as Judah Halevi, poet and court doctor in Córdoba, said of such religious wars: “When they are locked in battle, we fall as they go down.” Unfortunately, as southern Europe became more religiously homogenous, whether Muslim or Christian, it became more hazardous for Jews. In 1391, pogroms in Seville—provoked, some scholars have argued, by a rabidly anti-Jewish cleric—spread to all of Spain. A rising tide of anti-Jewish hatred, massacres, and mass conversions in the fourteenth century lay the groundwork for the Inquisition launched by Ferdinand and Isabella along with their final “reconquista” of Spain for Christianity. As the Middle Ages drew to a close, the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, when Christians conquered the remaining Muslim regions of Spain. Spain officially welcomed Jews back in 2012, offering citizenship to Sephardic Jews whose ancestors were driven out at the end of the Middle Ages. Hopefully this welcome will be an enduring one.

A Lukewarm Homecoming

Title page of On the Jews and Their Lies, by Martin Luther, published in 1543.

As the Middle Ages ended, the Protestant Reformation changed Europe’s relationship to Jews for a time. For instance, England’s tolerance of Jews increased under Oliver Cromwell. But his motives were not entirely benevolent: he believed he needed Jews nearby in order to usher in the apocalypse, which would require mass Jewish conversion. If you’ve ever wondered how some contemporary members of the radical religious right can be anti-Semitic but pro-Israel, similar apocalyptic fever dreams are your answer. Despite this official “welcome,” the situation of Jews throughout the Renaissance was still incredibly precarious. Jews became vulnerable during shifts of power and even vacillations by individual religious figures. Martin Luther, for instance, who was initially sympathetic to Jews and argued that they should be converted through “love,” turned on them. He even wrote a treatise entitled, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” which recommended that Jewish synagogues, schools, homes, and writings should all be burnt.

Like many Jews, my family’s story was one of near-death experiences and escapes. The Inquisition forced my ancestors to flee from Seville to Italy. A century later, anti-Jewish violence moved them north to Prague, then on to Germany in the 1700s to escape anti-Jewish riots. Our records include the chilling detail that as his family escaped Prague, one of my ancestors, then thirteen years old, “caught with his naked hand the sword thrust intended to kill his father.”

Southern medieval Europe may have been more diverse, but mere diversity of a population didn’t prevent violence in the Middle Ages. Diversity alone won’t solve violence now. People have to be ready and willing to learn from one another, to exchange ideas. It is worrying that today, despite the broad access we have to a panoply of beliefs and perspectives, people seem increasingly inclined to self-segregate by retreating to homogenous enclaves online and in the real world. We close our ears, our hearts, and our minds. Although it’s entirely ahistorical to call this kind of ignorance “medieval,” as many seem inclined to do, today’s ignorance is nonetheless just as dangerous as the medieval version.

And ignorance may look like innocence, but it still leaves blood on your hands.

Look at the Jasmine, whose branches are green,

as topaz, and its stems and leaves—

while its blossoms are white as bdellium.

With carnelian red in its shoot

it looks like a pallid boy who’s shedding

the blood of innocent men with his hand. 

—Shmu’el (aka Samuel) Hanagid, 11th century, Spain

Further Reading

Here are a few easily accessible online resources for beginners, but this list is by no means comprehensive. I invite readers to add additional links in the comments.

The Medieval Jewish History Resource Directory

The Sephardic Studies Project

Fordham’s Internet Jewish History Sourcebook

Jeffrey Cohen’s series of posts, “Stories of Blood,” at In the Medieval Middle

Dean Irwin’s Bibliography of Medieval Anglo-Jewry

Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski’s bibliography in progress on Race and Medieval Studies.

Editor’s note: The article originally misidentified the cleric that started the 1391 pogroms against Jews. The perpetrator was Ferrand Martinez, a Christian cleric. The article has been amended to reflect this. It also originally stated that England’s Jews were officially invited back in 1656; contemporary scholarship now shows that there was no official invitation, but that tolerance increased under Cromwell. Thanks to Michael Vinegrad for this correction.

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Amy S. Kaufman

The author Amy S. Kaufman

Amy S. Kaufman is a writer and former professor who specializes in Arthurian legend, Chaucer, and medievalism in popular culture. She’s co-authoring the forthcoming book, Misusing the Middle Ages, with Paul Sturtevant, and she’s Co-Director of Conferences for the International Society for the Study of Medievalism. You can find more information about her work at www.amyskaufman.com or follow her on Twitter at @drdarkage.


  1. Great article. I was born in Portugal, and it saddens me that Jewish life was wiped out or had to go underground in the Iberian Peninsula with the Inquisition. Such
    mindless destruction. It also set back Portugal and Spain for centuries I think, into a Dark Age of Intolerance. The history of Sephardic Jews is fascinating. Thanks for this article. It does seem sometimes that humanity has learned nothing.

  2. I think you miss the most important reason for the relative tolerance of the Iberian peninsula. It’s true that some Jews there were scholars, poets, translators, and all the rest, but most of them weren’t. They weren’t restricted by law from most occupations, so they were everywhere in the economy, as scribes, artisans, urban laborers, and farmers. Which meant that Muslims (and later, Christians) at all economic levels were able to know some Jews, and to see Jews as a varied group.

    1. But weren’t there various explusions of the Jews from the early Middle Ages onward? So the tolerance was perhaps superficial at best?

      1. If I recall correctly, the expulsions were from Christian countries, rather than from the Caliphates of the Iberian peninsula.

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