Medieval anti-Judaism

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An antisemitic medieval painting shows a man wearing a strange shaped pointed hat to identify him as a Jew.

Image: Wikimedia Commons public domain.


Read the text and view the images before reflecting on the following questions:

  • Why do you think that Jews were not allowed to own land or become members of the craft guilds?


  • Why would rulers make Jews wear a badge or hat to mark them out as different? How might this policy have affected how people viewed and treated Jews?


  • Do you think that every society needs a scapegoat? Explain.


  • How might images like this have influenced Nazi racial policy between 1933 and 1945?

The Jews of the Middle Ages lived across Europe, the Middle East and beyond. The largest Jewish communities were in Spain, France, Germany and in the area we now call Iraq and Iran. There were also Jewish communities in China, India and in the Far East.

In many parts of Europe, before the Crusades, Jews lived reasonably well, often under the protection of the local ruler. Rulers recognised that Jews could be trusted and had good trading contacts in other countries. 

However, during the medieval period various laws were introduced to isolate and persecute Jews. They were not allowed to own land, so could not become farmers. Jews were also not allowed to join the Christian trade guilds, and therefore could not have a trade.

Money lending was banned by the Church for Christians, but it was still necessary. Forbidden from practising most other trades and professions, Jews undertook this activity but it added to their unpopularity. Quite often, in different parts of Europe, the ruler used the Jews as tax collectors – this also made them very unpopular.

In 1095 the Church proclaimed crusade against the Muslims who had conquered the Holy Land. This led to an upsurge of religious fervour which led to the persecution and destruction of many Jewish communities, particularly in the German lands.

From 1215, in many parts of Europe, Jews were forced to wear a special badge or hat in order to mark them out as different. From time to time there were attacks and massacres of the local Jewish community 

Christian merchants often saw themselves in competition with Jewish merchants. They tried to force Jewish merchants to leave. Often local rulers would give in to the demands of the merchants and expel the Jews. In 1290 the Jews were expelled from England.

Blood libel

A number of lies were told about the Jews. One of the most dangerous lies was the ‘blood libel’. This led to false accusations and massacres of Jews.

From 1348 to 1354 the Black Death, a plague spread by rats, killed a third of Europe’s population. To many people it seemed like the end of the world and they looked for reasons. The hatred that already existed against Jewish communities caused them to become the scapegoat.

The rise of Christian banking houses and a merchant class meant that Jews were losing their usefulness to rulers. This led to more attacks and expulsions.