Anti-Jewish Discrimination

Church and governmental authorities imposed many restrictions on the Jews. Princes declared the Jews to be slaves of the crown, a punishment that carried a blessing, as the Jews then received royal protection. However, while the Jews’ own personal liberty was preserved, they faced exorbitant taxation. Further, when a Jew died, his estate was seized by the king. In 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, Pope Innocent III enacted a number of anti-Jewish decrees, the most famous of which was that Jews must wear distinctive clothing. The purpose of this decree was to prevent friendships, and possibly intermarriage, from occurring between Christians and Jews. The ruling, borrowed from a seventh-century Islamic decree, did not specify what form the distinctive Jewish dress should take. Local authorities required them to wear a so-called badge of shame, a yellow circle symbolizing the Jews' alleged love of gold. The Nazis later changed this yellow circle to a yellow star. In England, Jews were required to wear the insignia of the Two Luchos, or Tablets of the Law. The Vatican Council also decreed that Jews could not hold any public office that would place them in a position of superiority over Christians, an edict also copied by the Nazis.

Jewish Money Lending

Numerous factors caused the association of Jews with this highly unpopular occupation. The consolidation of a continent-wide European identity, a mark of Charlemagne's reign in the Ninth Century, brought the close of what remained of Jewish citizenship rights dating to Roman antiquity. Immediately, Jewish communities became dependent on the benevolence of princes, bishops, and popes, who all thought of themselves as owning Jews. The rights of the evolving feudal system, such as they were even for peasants, were not extended to Jews.

Over time, with the coming of money-based economies, Jewish communities became necessary as financial centers. As much precious metal had been withdrawn from circulation and converted into ecclesiastical and state regalia, European money sources were drying up. After the First Crusade, the Italian city-states had developed a flourishing international trade with the Muslim countries, further depleting the money supply. The Jews, however, retained supplies of capital from previous successes in international trade. As such, there was not much they could do with it other than lend it to those who needed it. In addition, since Jews were more mobile than Christians, they were a ready source of currency exchange.

As Christian commercial activity expanded in the Middle Ages, Jews were forced out of many occupations they previously engaged in, including crafts, trade, and international commerce. The rise of Christian-only crafts guilds both created a Christian monopoly and eliminated Jewish competition. Further, as Jews could not own or farm land, they were increasingly forced into the one occupation that the Church forbade its adherents — lending money at interest rates high enough both to pay the exorbitant taxes imposed on them and to cover their losses when a debtor defaulted. As such, the Jews obtained a reputation as bloodsuckers, an image that survives to this day. Such circumstances are responsible for the unfortunate and undeserved reputation for exceptional financial expertise and greed that has clung to Jews into modern times.