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A Brief Note on Major Trends
in Jewish-Christian Relations During The Middie Ages.

Louise Guay (1994)


The Roman Church
We have delimited our research to the situation of the dispersed Jewish communities in Christian Europe[1]. From its inception in the fourth century under the Emperor Constantine the Roman Church which proclaimed itself "universal" had all the ingredients to become a totalitarian regime. Before becoming the Empire's official religion, the Christian movement was more akin to being a rapidly expanding Jewish sect which was absorbing a non-negligible amount of Gentile proselytes. Upon gaining recognition by the Roman Emperor, this branch of Christianity took on the characteristics of the Roman government. It is no secret that Constantine saw in Christianity the solution par excellence for consolidating and invigorating the declining Empire. Whether most Roman citizens adopted the religion out of personal conviction or through sheer political opportunism still needs to be elucidated.

The Emperor's expansionist objectives coupled with the desire for uniformity and unity left little room for dissenting elements within Roman territory. Minorities refusing to be assimilated in this new entity would ironically suffer a struggle not dissimilar to that of the early Christians[2]. In its project of consolidation the new Roman Christian government confounded religion and politics and brought under its legislation sacred and secular matters through its direct and indirect control over kings and matters of State.

While the mission of the Church towards the pagan tribes of the north was clearly defined in its theology of evangelism, it nevertheless had to find a means to adapt itself to the Jewish reality within the confines of its dominion. Since Jews could not outrightly be classified as barbarians or polytheists, and whereas the judaic heritage was openly admitted, Christianity was hard pressed to cope with the Jewish denial of Jesus which it interpreted as an obstinate and wilful contradiction of truth.

The continued presence of Jewish elements within the Christian community was perceived by the Church as a threat to the new converts' faith as these expressed their curiosity concerning Jewish practice and customs to the point of attending synagogue services. The Church therefore saw fit to hinder judaizing[3] elements by legislating limitative procedures with the expectation of reducing Christian-Jewish encounters to a minimum.

In the middle of the fourth century the Laws of Constantine prohibited Jews from intermarrying with Christian women, from owning non-Jewish slaves or from holding positions of high visibility. The building of new synagogues was also restricted, even when these were burned by angry Christian mobs. From then on the Jew in Christian Europe was treated as a second class citizen, with limited privileges and numerous obligations which contributed to creating social, economical and political burdens on the Jewish community at large.

Reification of Church Beliefs
As the European Church gained power and stability it focused its attention on the standardisation of its doctrines and ritual practice. Through its Councils and Papal Bulls it provided general guidelines for the demographic and spiritual growth of its parishes. The official position of the Church vis-à-vis the Jews was one of tolerance for several reasons:

However, the official ecclesiastical position of tolerance conflicted with the theological position which saw in Judas the archetype of Jewry standing accused of treason and deicide. This double-edged approach held grave consequences given that the masses, less sophisticated than the Church elite, were little able to grasp the subtleties of these diametrically opposed concepts. To them "spiritual" Israel had superseded "carnal" Israel and the further persistence of Jewish practice was viewed as an affront to true faith. Jews were consequently viewed as impostors who wrongly considered themselves as the legitimate heirs of Abraham. In the words of Joshua Trachtenberg "Medieval Christendom was so firmly convinced of the incontestable truth of its own tradition and teaching that it could conceive of no rival truth[4]." In this context Jews were perceived as being guilty of wilful misunderstanding or falsification. We feel that it is precisely this erroneous Christian perception which biased any eventual attempt at understanding Jewish faith.

Demonization of the Jew
Jewish life in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages was marred by popular misconceptions stemming from superstitious folklore[5] and a perversion of scriptural texts in Christian hermeneutics. These misconceptions were further enhanced by the alienation[6] of the Jews brought about by isolationist policies stemming from both Church and State. The mythical or imaginary Jew replaced Jewish reality in Christian perceptions thus completing the dehumanizing process at both the individual and collective levels.

Individually, Jews were thought to have a foul odour, horns, goat-beards, tails, and to carry particular diseases (dermatosis, piles). It was also common belief that they were servants of Satan, had the evil eye and that they were immoral and exploitative in their dealings with non-Jews.

Collectively, Jews were also accused of plotting against humanity and for the destruction of Christianity, as a further continuation of deicide. Several libellous allegations were made against the Jews namely: of poisoning wells, of having secrets societies (i.e. the Elders of Zion), of holding ritual murders of Christian children, of using Christian blood in the making of Passover matzot, of possessing magical powers, of wilfully spreading disease and of mutilating and desecrating hosts and holy images. The legend of the "Wandering Jew" which implied a Jewish recognition of its specified accursedness only served to strengthen the above-mentioned popular imagery. In addition negative stereotyping is omnipresent in the public eye through stage theatrical presentations ridiculing or vilipending Jewish characters. Artistic representations (engravings, illustrations, glass stained windows) are replete with motifs intending to equate judaism with debasing symbolism.

While the ecclesiastical authorities did not officially encourage these trends, they nevertheless stood to profit from their outcome in the following manner:

The modus operandi of the medieval Christian was tantamount to considering that: whomever is against us is against God and is for the devil. Unlike their Jewish counterparts Christians had no room in their theology for the "just among the nations" and were unable to admit that one could be "saved" outside the Church realm.

The theme of Jewish malevolence and sorcery is quite broad and could be discussed at length. Suffice it to say that the above-mentioned tendencies certainly offer enough samples of negative concepts prevalent in the Christian world to provide a canvas for understanding the exacerbated Christian-Jewish relations of that age.

Consequences for the Jewish Community
The negative stereotypes of the Jew in medieval Christian consciousness[7] were synonymous with what was considered to be merely sound Christian thinking back then. Being a "good" Christian eventually came to mean being a soldier in the fight against evil: either through Holy Wars against Infidels or against heresy through the Inquisition. In this climate, judeophobia was concretized rather than assuaged by the Church-imposed Jewish self-identification via the donning of special garb or badges.

Although the singling out of Jewish elements through distinctive apparel was conceived in order to discourage Christians from consorting with Jews, it mostly resulted in creating a more effective stratagem for identifying dissenting elements in the Christian community.

This line of thinking led to several expulsions and purges namely the notorious Spanish Expulsion in 1492 and the Portuguese Expulsion in 1497 and by massacres such as those carried out in the Rhine Valley region, in Spain and in Lisbon. Debates were orchestrated to demonstrate the errors of Judaism and to expose Jewish masses to forced sermonizing, such as the debate of Tortosa from 1413-1414. Jewish holy books and literary achievements were burned in public and coercive measures were added to the missionary zeal to convert the Jews bon gré, mal gré. Jewish children were taken from their parents in order to receive a Christian education, and baptism was offered as an alternative to banishment or death. Jews were forced to pay increasing taxes to ensure their protection, to make specific oaths and to generally readjust their lifestyle in order to offend as little as possible their Christian hosts' sensibilities.

The Jewish community did not remain passive when faced with the consequences of Christian Rule. The community complied to a certain extent with Christian demands such as paying particular taxes, making special oaths before dealing with Christians, wearing distinctive garb and badges, not owning Christian slaves or hiring Christian wet nurses or servants and limiting the search for livelihood to the restricted spheres of activities permitted by local authorities. Jews therefore engaged in commerce that was deemed unbefitting of Christians such as usury, tax collecting, trades[8], crafts and the like.

Some Christian pronouncements were actually well received by the community inasmuch as the forbidding of intermarriage, of fraternizing with non-Jews or of recognizing the Jewish community as a "distinct" society fell in line with the prescriptions of the commandments. In some instances, the mutual exclusion was not necessarily perceived as detrimental but as a necessary boundary to the preserving of identity, heritage and tradition. The dispersed Jewish communities organized their own form of self-government and functioned as a state within a state for the most part. Possessing their own religious courts was at once practical and essential in dealing with day to day preoccupations engendered by family life (marriage, divorce, births, deaths, etc.) and halakhic life (i.e. kashrut, ritual purity, etc.). If this limited autonomy provided some relief it nevertheless remained fragile and needed constant negotiating with ecclesiastical and governmental authorities while depending mostly on ambient economical and political climates.

While mutual religious exclusivism prevailed in both Jewish and Christian communities, Jewish authorities went to greater lengths to accommodate their Christian counterparts. For instance the Tosaphists endeavoured to devise contemporary interpretations of Jewish laws in order to allow Jewish existence to subsist despite the harsh conditions generated by the Exile. Amongst these new interpretations was the notion that Gentiles outside the land of Israel were not to be considered as idolaters. Jews could therefore engage in all forms of commerce with them, and even the contentious cases of buying wine from Gentiles or dealing in ritual objects were thus circumvented. Jews therefore compartmentalized their faith between legal matters and theological matters. Rationalists such as Maimonides and Rabbi Ha Meiri went as far as conceding that there was religious validity outside of Judaism.

Since Jews were constantly suspected of hostility toward Christians, they professed a moral and ethical responsibility towards all men for the sake of Kiddush Ha Shem . Jews were exhorted to conduct themselves so as to be beyond reproach in compliance with halakhic principles and in order to sanctify the name of God amongst the nations. Jews also refrained form bearing any outward sigh of luxury and even modified prayers or passages that could prove offensive to Christianity.

Apostasy was a constant problem, in the Jewish community. Even if martyrdom was preferred to conversion, in reality it could not always be realistically expected of those facing this terrible choice. Therefore apostates were, for a long period of time, still considered as Jews despite the fact that Christian proselytes often were used by the Church to spearhead its conversion efforts. Given the unceasing missionary ventures which were carried out with inhuman expediency some Jews converted for social appeasement and often survival yet continued to practice their Jewish faith in secret until conditions improved allowing an open return to their fold. Many crypto-Jews, also know as conversos or Marranos suffered this fate in Catholic Spain and Portugal.

Another form of response was made by Jewish polemicists, such as Profiat Duran and Isaac Ben Abraham of Troki who sought to demonstrate rationally the fallacy of Christians pretensions. Sixteenth century Troki who was well-versed in Christian dogma was thus able to use the New Testament against itself in his Hizzuh Emunah, while Duran divulged the corrupt translation of the Hebrew Scripture by the Early Church Fathers. Some like Leon of Modena who wrote a book on Jewish practice intended for Christians, tried to sensitize or educate Christians on Jewish issues. Alas, as previously mentioned Christianity had no resource to draw on in order to allow religious coexistence. It had no concept of the "ger toshev" or of the Noachide Laws. Its tolerance was purely political, based on social advantage and economical gain rather than on theological ground.

With its efforts to gain acceptance having met resistance, the Jewish community eventually turned inward, confining itself to the ghetto and focusing its intellectual activity to halakhic studies. Repugnance for the non-Jewish world was assuredly the outcome of centuries of non-Jewish repression. The constant Christian opposition forced Jewish scholars to systematize Jewish thought and tenets. Such efforts are demonstrated in the works of Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Maimonides, and Joseph Karo. Jewish life became fertile ground for kabbalistic mysticism, hasidim, and messianic expectations. It is only with the advent of the Enlightenment that Jewish-Christian relations (or should we say Jewish and Non-Jewish relations) became possible. We note that Jewish rehabilitation and emancipation was brought about solely through political intervention rather than through theological reconsiderations on the part of the Church.

In closing, we remark however that some tendencies need to be revisited in the study of Christian-Jewish relations in the Middle-Ages. First, it seems that all forms of Christianity are confounded in the use of the terms "Church", "Christianity" or "Christiani'. Not only are these terms loosely used, but the distinctive nature or origin of the concerned Christian denomination is not sufficiently acknowledged[9]. Second, the study of medieval Jewish-Christian relations is often imbued with the pessimistic presumption that humanity is predisposed to hostility. This attitude can only lead us away from the real issues connected with the social interaction between particular world views. Third, medieval historiographies are often tainted with modern values thus doing a disservice to students of that era[10]. Lastly, it seems that a further study of Christian-Jewish relations in a non-Catholic context still needs to be explored[11]. A comparative study of Jewish and Protestant[12] histories could provide a bigger frame of reference to the life conditions of dissenting elements in Christian Europe.


[1] - We wouid prefer to speak of "Catholic" Europe since most of our source material dealt specifically with this branch of Christianity and little was reported on Christian-Jewish relations involving other Christian Churches i.e. Orthodox, Copt, Maronite or early Protestant movements. While Luther's anti-Jewish penchants are acknowledged, the Protestant Reformer's Dominican background is seldom mentioned.

[2] - Early Christians were accused, amongst other things of cannibalism and incest and were faced with the prospect of renouncing their faith under life threatening circumstances.

[3] - It goes without saying that Church Fathers issued from a polytheistic worid-view were ill-equipped to deal with the Jewishness of Jesus. to neal wltn tne Jewlsnness Ot Jesus.

[4] - See Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews, page 15.

[5] - In pagan traditional folklore good and evil are personified and ascribed powers over human beings. Likewise the delfication or demonization of mere mortals can be found in early myths within polytheistic traditions.

[6] - Jewish ethnicity, Hebrew language and script and the particular forms of ritual are among other contributing factors to Jewish estrangement from Christian status quo.

[7] - Which we wouid now term as "anti-semitism".

[8] - Only the trades or crafts that were not part of a Christian guild. Of course, this meant that Jews were given a stringent economic niche on which to strive on.

[9] - Just because one Church claims authenticity and authority over all the others does not automatically confer these attributes to it.

[10] - This can be as harmful as lending medieval intents to second temple authors. For instance, in his book "The Devil and the Jews", Joshua Trachtenberg, speaks of John's hostility toward the Jews and thus lends medieval intents to the Second Temple author (see page 20). This leads to a misreading of the text rather than to acknowledging that the selective use of the text is at the source of conflict.

[11] - i.e. Jewish relations with Oriental Churches, considering that under Moslem rule they both shared a dhimmi status.

[12] - Protestant sects in particular the Waldensians, Albigensians, Moravian Brotherhood, Mennonites, Methodists, Quakers, Anabaptists... Methodiists Quakers. Anabantists...