IN THE MIDDLE AGES, belief in miracles and legends is common. Two myths with an anti-Jewish character appear throughout Europe: Jews desecrating the Host; and Jews committing ritual murder. Both myths survive into the 20th century. Other popular beliefs during the Middle Ages have Jews grow hems and tails – attributes of the devil.
After the Church in 1215 establishes the doctrine that the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ is contained in the consecrated Host and wine, stories begin to surface that Jews steal, mutilate or burn the Host in order to kill Jesus once more. Miracles form an elementary part of this myth: the mutilated Host starts to bleed – thus proving the doctrine and the truth of the Christian faith.
According to the “blood libels,” Jews are killing Christian children in order to satisfy their supposed need for “Christian blood” in making Passover bread or in other religious rituals. While higher authorities of the Church and state often oppose the stories, the myth lives on in popular belief, supported and encouraged by local clergy who launch profitable pilgrimages to the sites of the alleged murders.
The Blood Libels are the most influential and cruel legends in the arsenal of anti-Jewish beliefs, perpetuating the myth of the evil and inhuman nature of the Jews and inciting the Christian population to take bloody revenge. Allegations of ritual murder will surface in the 20th century, in Russia and in the propaganda spread by the Nazis.
IN 1215, THE POPE issues a decree that Jews must wear special marks on their dress to distinguish them more clearly from Christians. The Church wants to prevent Christians from unknowingly associating with Jews. These discriminating dress marks differ from place to place: sometimes Jews have to wear a yellow or red badge on their dress, sometimes a pointed hat, the so-called “Jew hat.”
Not only dress marks are used to separate Jews from Christians. More and more, Jews are forced to live together in isolation, in ghettos closed off by walls. As ghettos are usually not allowed to extend, they become increasingly crowded.
The most far-reaching act of discrimination concerns an even more basic right: Jews do not receive permission for permanent residence in towns and villages. As they have been forced more and more into trade, peddling and money lending, Jews are admitted to towns for limited periods only when economic development demands more trade and credit. They have to pay extra taxes. When the economic situation changes or local merchants have fallen too deeply into debts, the permits are not extended. Often, Jews are simply expelled.
Many communities have to pay taxes to the king or prince in return for their protection. In the German states, Jews are considered property of the emperor who sells the right to tax them to local princes and bishops. Often, Jewish communities are caught between the rival economic interests of townspeople and the local princes who “own” the Jews.