98.05.12, Chazan, Medieval Stereotypes and Modern Antisemitism

Main Article Content

Steven J. McMichael, OFM Conv.

The Medieval Review baj9928.9805.012


Chazan, Robert. Medieval Stereotypes and Modern Antisemitism. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997. Pp. xiii + 183. ISBN: 0-520-20394-1.

Reviewed by:
Steven J. McMichael, OFM Conv.
St. Louis University

Scholars of antisemitism have attempted to go back in history to find the turning point in Christian-Jewish relations that would lead to such a catastrophic event as the Holocaust. For example, one can argue that Martin Luther's attitudes toward Jews and Judaism provide the bedrock on which German antisemitism is formed. Or, from the Roman Catholic perspective, the establishment of the Ghettos in the papal states beginning in 1555 leads directly to Nazi anti-Jewish policy. One can even go back to the New Testament itself to find the source of the same policy. Robert Chazan holds that we must look at the twelfth century as the time in which Christian attitudes toward Jews changed radically and provided the foundation for modern antisemitism.

Medieval Stereotypes and Modern Antisemitism by Robert Chazan marks many years of his research and writing on twelfth- and thirteenth-century Jewish-Christian relations. The central thesis of the book is that "much of modern antisemitic thinking is rooted in the twelfth-century perception of Jews within Christian society. To be sure, developments within modern Western societies produced new stereotypes and allegations; however, the twelfth-century sense of Jewish malevolence and harmfulness undergirded much of this modern imagery. Thus, a period justly recognized for its creative contributions to Western civilization left a legacy of hatred and persecution as well" [Book Abstract].

Chapter 1 focuses on the circumstances of Jewish immigration to northern Europe from the tenth to the twelfth centuries. Chazan believes that, eventhough there were in this period normal human relationships and positive Christian perceptions of Jews, it was a period in which burgher hostility toward Jews developed. Jews were objects of popular antipathy because they were immigrants (and thus newcomers to northern Europe), religious dissenters from majority Christian belief, business competitors and sworn allies of the barony. Christians of this period were influenced also by traditional Christian anti- Judaism which saw Jews as implacable enemies of Christians and of the Christian faith.

Chapter 2 deals with the growth of the Northern European Jewish community in the first half of the twelfth century. The Jewish community continued to grow in spite of the what happened to Jews at the end of the elevneth century: the massacres of Jewish communities of the Rhineland during the First Crusade (1096). This growth was the result of the shift in economic activity from commerce to moneylending. Though Jews continued to engage in other types of economic activity, moneylending became the most significant Jewish economic activity. In an age in which religious reform was in the air, the practice of Jewish usury was attacked by Christians. Jews had to rely on the authorities for protection from violence and to ensure success in their business affairs. Those who had reason to attack the government for their economic woes found the Jews to be easier targets. "Anti-Jewish hostility and violence came to be regularly associated with antigovernment sentiment" (39).

Chapter 3 demonstrates, through the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter the Venerable, and Rigord of St. Denis that there was a shift in perception of the Jews in the middle of the twelfth century. While Bernard argued for Christian restraint against Jews because they were in a state of subjugation, Peter argued that Jews were currently engaged in acts of clandestine opposition to Christianity. Jews showed their hostility toward Christians by their moneylending and by possession and abuse of ecclesiastical objects. The deteriorating image of the Jews is shown by a list of eleven anti-Jewish incidents from 1171-1196 based on the writings of Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn. Beginning in the later part of the twelfth century, Jews were presented as hostile to their Christian neighbors. Jews were continually shown to be murderers of Christians, which proved quite clearly that Jews were continuously vindictive and dangerous.

Chapter 4 shows the developing conviction that Jews do harm to Christians by their blasphemy, especially by mistreating Christian sacred vessels (in Jewish hands because of moneylending), and by their intent to murder Christians. Beginning in the twelfth century, Jews as murderers became the dominant new stereotype. In the thirteenth century two new directions can be detected which are based on this new stereotype: Jews are accused of blood libel and host desecration. These charges against Jews show that a transformation took place during this period in Christian views of Jews: they are seen not only as a historic enemy but as a present-day threat of real proportions.

Chapter 5 challenges the emphasis placed on the role of power elites in fostering anti-outgroup imagery in the writings of R. I. Moore and John Boswell. An examination of Jewish sources from this period reveals that negative perceptions of the Jews by the majority society came from all levels of society and in particular from the lower classes. Actually the source of much anti-Jewish agitation came from the masses, and not from the elites, and Jewish protection came from both church and state authorities. The majority society in the twelfth century was in flux, and in the striving for cohesion this society tried to create unity by ostracizing diverse outgroups, which especially included the Jews. This is a century in which Christians were caught up in increased awareness of their own identity in the context of social differentiation.

The majority society's "increased awareness of diversity gave rise during the twelfth century to defensiveness and fear" (85). New cultural directions heightened negative attitudes toward outgroups, especially the Jews. These directions include the growing importance of rational philosophy, the new ways of the study of scripture, and a new awareness of rabbinical literature.

Other factors contributing to Christian attitudes toward the Jews were as follows: the growing humanization of Jesus, an emphasis on his earthly existence, and a focus on the intentionality of human actions rather than human behavior alone. Christians also experienced an accelerating rate of change in society in two ways: real changes and dangers from both without (the Muslim threat) and within (dissension and dissidence which leads to heresy). Christians possessed a new awareness of the complexity of the human psyche and the human capacity for both good and evil -- especially focused on the evil which lurks in the recesses of the human psyche. All of these factors in the twelfth century raised new fears in Christians of the Jews and other minority outgroups.

Chapter 6 focuses on the church's role in the deteriorating image of the Jews during the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. This period marks a transition from early guarded acceptance of Jews by the Christian majority to the expulsion of Jews from England at the end of the thirteenth century (with France to follow soon afterwards). Chazan points out that from the tenth to early twelfth centuries "the ecclesiastical policy played a relatively limited role in the circumstances of Ashkenazic Jewry" (96). The ecclesiastical policy was to protect Jews while simultaneously limiting the possibility of Jews harming Christians. In the second half of the twelfth century into the thirteenth, a growing awareness of the harmfulness of Jews towards Christians was detected. An examination of papal legislation reveals that Christian fears of Jews came from excessive contact between Jews and Christians (which the church tried to prevent by legislation concerned with Christian employment by Jews and the wearing of distinguishable clothing) and the denigration of Christianity by Jews. A special focus of the papacy -- especially of Innocent IV -- was the role of the Talmud in promoting blasphemy and socially harmful Jewish behaviors toward Christians. The Talmud and Jewish moneylending were new avenues of hostility by Jews toward Christians.

Chapter 7 looks at how new anti-Jewish imagery and Jewish moneylending eventually influenced the temporal authorities to abandon their balanced program of protection/exploitation of the Jews for a policy of extreme exploitation and eventual expulsion. Ecclesiastical pressure placed on the temporal authorities to limit Jewish impact on Christian society was based on the new anti-Jewish imagery: Jews ritually murdered Christians, they exploited Christians by their moneylending, and they committed blasphemy (as detected by discovering what was said about Jesus Christ in the corpus of rabbinical literature).

Chapter 8 provides the link between twelfth-century antisemitism and modern antisemitism. A review of modern authors (Wilhelm Marr, Bernard Lazare, Leon Poliakow, and especially Gavin Langmuir) sets the stage for Chazan's own definition of antisemitism. Finding Langmuir's definition of irrationality (antisemitism as an irrational reaction to repress rational doubt) too confining and too heavily focused on the cognitive aspect of antisemitic assertions and on religious doubt, Chazan holds that the roots of antisemitism are to be found in the perceptions of Jewish hatred and harm (anti-Christian violence by Jews) on Christians and Christendom. These perceptions are based on both legacy and present context:

"every new stage in the evolution of anti-Jewish thinking is marked by dialectical interplay between a prior legacy of negative stereotypes and the realities of a new social context. Out of the interplay emerge novel anti-Jewish perceptions, which in turn become part of the historic tradition of anti-Jewish sentiment." (135)

The uniqueness of the twelfth century is that -- based on Jewish moneylending, blasphemous abuse of Christian symbols, and the murder of Christians -- the preceived harmfulness of the Jews reached such a significant level that these stereotypes endure until modern times.

This latest work from Robert Chazan is valuable for its clarity of argument and highly readable writing style. This volume bears the fruit of many years of research and reflection on Jewish-Christian relations in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He has a good command of the primary source documents of the period and has a well-crafted argument to convince the reader of his central thesis that there is a substantial connection between antisemitism of the Middle Ages and the modern period. The model of antisemitism he proposes is evolutionary in that antisemitism is based partly on legacy, as one age borrows from previous periods of time, and partly on the new social context in which new elements of antisemitism continually emerge.

What is very helpful is his analysis of the pattern of antisemitism which has as its starting point a perception of Jewish danger, threat or harm. The cycle continues usually as follows: "The profunder the sense of threat the deeper the fear, the deeper the fear the more intense the hatred and the more irrational the perceptions" (134). These feelings and ways of thinking most often lead to antisemitic behaviors: false accusations, the establishment of ghettos and participation in pomgroms. This is a realistic pattern that is observable of antisemitic feeling and thinking not only in the Middle Ages but also in the modern period as well, e.g., the Holocaust.

Article Details

Author Biography

Steven J. McMichael, OFM Conv.

St. Louis University