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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012

1 - Philosemitic Tendencies in Medieval Western Christendom

Summary

Medieval Christendom would seem an unlikely venue for philosemitic tendencies. It has regularly been portrayed as the most negative of environments for Jewish life – a setting of unremitting hostility and violence toward Judaism and Jews, indeed the context in which the major motifs of modern antisemitism were adumbrated. Medieval Christians, modern Christians, medieval Jews, and modern Jews have all agreed, for differing reasons, on this assessment of the relationship between medieval western Christendom and its Jews.

Medieval Christians were heirs to a theology that posited Jewish suffering as divine punishment for Jewish sins; hence Jewish travails were regularly highlighted and emphasized. Some modern Christians have maintained allegiance to this theology; other modern Christians, seeking the roots of modern antisemitism in their own tradition, have focused with deep regret on medieval western Christendom as the setting for church teachings that contributed to the Holocaust. Medieval Jewish observers were moved in part by the normal human predilection to report the violent and the negative and by the sense that an accumulation of suffering would eventually end with messianic redemption. Modern Jewish observers have been deeply influenced by their medieval predecessors and by the inclination to contrast the liabilities of societies dominated by religious institutions and attitudes with the blessings of modern secular societies. For diverse reasons then, a consensus as to Jewish suffering in medieval western Christendom and to the baneful stance of the medieval Christian majority toward the Jewish minority in its midst has long held sway.

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Cohen, Jeremy, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999
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