Medieval Jewish-Christian Relations

Daily relations between Christians and Jews in the Middle Ages.

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Reprinted with permission from the author.

Daily Relations--Neighborly but Volatile

One of the most important, and at the same time most misunderstood, aspects of medieval Jewish life is the relations that existed between Jews and their Christian neighbors on a daily basis. It is perhaps not surprising that confusion exists about this, because it was a paradoxical relationship. 

On the positive side, Jews and Christians were in fact neighbors who lived side by side, and normal conditions prevailed between ordinary Jews and their neighbors for the most part. On the negative side, these relations could quickly deteriorate or be disrupted entirely at the slightest provocation.

Did Anti-Semitism Exist in the Middle Ages?

Contrary to popular belief, rarely, if at all, was the source of disruption the Church. With some notable exceptions, for example, the imposition of wearing the distinguishing sign or badge, or the attempt to limit or even eradicate the charging of interest on loans, ecclesiastical authorities rarely intervened in the lives of Jews. Even in the short-lived and in the end impossible attempt to curb interest, they realized that the only punitive action they could take was the threat of excommunication of Christians, who borrowed money from Jews on interest.

This does not, of course, mean that all individual bishops, theologians, or popes were “friendly” toward Jews; many of them were outspoken enemies, and it scarcely matters whether this was a “theological” enmity based on hatred of Jewish “heresy” and blindness to the Christian “truth” or whether it was an actual personal hatred of the Jews as such. Nonetheless, it is true that most of the animosity was directed at “Judaism” (perceived religious beliefs or, more important, the failure to “properly” understand the Bible) and not at the Jews as such; thus, there really was no such thing as anti-Semitism in the medieval period, nor indeed until the nineteenth century when that racist theory was invented. (The one exception to this was precisely the racist anti-semitic theory that attacked conversos, Jewish converts to Christianity in fifteenth century Spain).

The Jewish Mystique

In the popular imagination of ordinary Christian people, a certain mystique attached to Jews. It was obvious that they were different; they dressed differently, Jewish men wore their hair and beards long (whereas by no means all Christian men did), and they worshipped differently.

Probably few ordinary Christians could have known precisely what being a Jew meant, since ignorance of the Bible and indeed of their own religion was so widespread. Most Christians, including even the nobility, were illiterate. Few went to church at all; and even for those who did, the services were incomprehensible, conducted in Latin with priests facing the altar, which was separated and enclosed from the people.

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Norman Roth is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.