Medieval Jewish-Christian Relations

Daily relations between Christians and Jews in the Middle Ages.

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The local clergy were usually as illiterate as the laypeople, and sermons were rarely preached. These facts must serve as a corrective to any false notions that medieval Christians “blamed” Jews for the crucifixion. Sources indicate that even in the High Middle Ages supposedly educated nobles often had little or no knowledge of the basic gospel stories, and much less did the peasant or working class.

The “Jewish mystique” manifested itself in many ways: for instance in Franklin Gaul and Visigothic Spain in the fifth and sixth centuries, Jews were often asked to bless the crops of their Christian neighbors, a function traditionally of the priest. The notion that Jews had some kind of direct pipeline to God continued throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, and in the common custom of asking Jews to offer special prayers, outdoors and with their Torah scrolls, when there was a need for rain (this continued at least into the seventeenth century in the Ottoman Empire and in Egypt)….

Status of the Jews

The Jews in the Middle Ages was neither an “alien” (legally or in any other way) nor a “stranger” nor is it true that the main, “if the only” reason for discrimination against him was religion. Certainly economic factors, such as the hated role of the moneylender and jealousy of Jewish financial success, played a major role. 

Yet once again [historians] assert that “of course” the roots of popular hatred of the Jews can be traced to religious differences, primarily the position of the Jew as “a deliberate unbeliever” The Jew, religiously speaking, “knew the truth but refused to recognize it” This is correct, of course, but the fact that this was only the theological position, taken over also by canon law, is nowhere acknowledged.

The ordinary Christian layperson held no such lofty theological conceptions. They were not themselves so religious as to waste precious time and thought on the theological nor other differences between themselves and Jews. For the most part, they neither hated or loved the Jews, they simply got along with them as neighbors; however, as stated previously, they were also ignorant and intensely superstitious and the least rumor could turn them against their Jewish neighbors.

As is always true in human relationships, the situation of the Jews among Chrsitians was complicated. For the most part, they got along well enough, contrary to what [historian Salo] Baron aptly termed the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” which sees everything as unrelieved hostility and persecution. Hostile acts against the Jews were, in fact, rare and what is often forgotten is the long period between such incidents during which more or less normal relations prevailed.

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