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The phenomenon of anti-Semitism is of long standing and one that, unhappily, still endures. Its roots are many and complex. One blatant strand of anti-Jewish prejudice, its unique demonological character, can be traced to medieval origins. The “demonic Jew” was born of a combination of cultural and historical factors, peculiar to Christian Europe in the late Middle Ages, yet existing in transmuted form in many epochs and in widely varying milieus.
The medieval conception of the Jew as devil – literally and figuratively – is the subject of this classic work, first issued in 1943. The full dimension of the diabolization of the Jew is presented through document, analysis, and illustration. The Jew as devil and demon; as sorcerer, blasphemer, and ritual murderer; as desecrator and heretic; as usurer and infidel – the full panoply of the “Devil’s own” is analyzed and shown to be “based upon the crassest superstition and credulity, that has permeated to the lower depths of Western culture.”
It is a chilling study but an exceedingly important one which, as the author observes, “we must have the stomach to pursue and expose to the light of day if we are to comprehend the ultimate spring not only of medieval Jew-hatred, but of its modern, occasionally more sophisticated, version.” In the words of A.L. Sachar, reviewing the book for New York Herald Tribune: “One wishes that Dr. Trachtenberg’s volume could be placed in the hands of every minister, every teacher, every educator – indeed, all who mould public opinion.”
the Author -- The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
FOREWORD BY MARC SAPERSTEIN
INTRODUCTION. MEDIEVAL SUPERSTITION AND MODERN ANTISEMITISM
PART ONE: THE “DEMONIC” JEW
PART TWO: THE JEW AS SORCERER
PART THREE: THE JEW AS HERETIC
EPILOGUE. STILL THE DEVIL’S OWN
The story is not yet complete. The Jew was also believed to possess certain physical characteristics which definitely set him apart from other men and identified him with the devil—corroborative evidence that points up the literalness of this conception in the medieval mind.
The figure of the horned Jew was not uncommon during the Middle Ages. We know it best through Michelangelo’s magnificent “Moses,” which reproduced a traditional feature of the Lawgiver’s countenance, on display in many a medieval church and manuscript. The customary explanation of those curious horns protruding from Moses’ brow is that they are the products of a misinterpretation of Exod. 34.29, 35: “And behold the skin of his face sent forth beams.” The old translations render the Hebrew root karan correctly as “shine”; Aquila and the Vulgate, the standard text followed by the Church, read however: “His face had horns.” This misunderstanding may have been favored by the Babylonian and Egyptian conception of horned deities (Sin, Ammon), by the Greek use of horns as symbolic of might (e.g., the horned figures of Jupiter), and by the legend of the two-horned Alexander the Great, referred to in the Koran (sura 18.82, 85). It is quite likely that this misinterpretation was at the bottom of Michelangelo’s conception of the two-horned Moses. But when we find ordinary Jews, medieval Jews in typical medieval garb, crowned with horns, we may reasonably suspect that something more lies behind this than a faulty translation.
Indeed, this matter of horns went considerably further than pictorial representation. Jews were actually obliged to appear in public with the distinguishing horn somewhere on their garb. In 1267 the Vienna Council decreed that Jews must wear a “horned hat” (pileum cornutum), a provision which later councils sought strenuously to enforce; and Philip III required the Jews of France to attach a horn-shaped figure to the customary Jew badge.
Talk of the devil and his horns appear, says the proverb. In an age so familiar with Satan’s least feature as the medieval, the portrayer of the horned Jew need not have felt called upon to make his allusion more specific—yet an occasional hyperliteralist, not content with sketching the horned Jew alone, scratches a devil alongside him, for good measure. And in one instance at least, that horned Jew is identified with the legend, in bold face, “This is the Jew Devil.”
Nor were his horns the Jew’s sole physical token of his satanism. The devil’s tail is as characteristic as his horns, and consequently only the least stretch of the imagination was required to perceive the Jew’s diabolic dorsal appendage, even though he managed cunningly to hide it from common view. And in the event we find it difficult to believe that these notions were accepted in all seriousness, it must be pointed out that such beliefs are still prevalent, not only among benighted European peasantries but even in our own enlightened land.
A supposedly characteristic feature of the Jewish physiognomy, which is constantly stressed in the prints and particularly in the folk tales, is the so-called Ziegenbart (goat’s beard, or goatee). This otherwise obscure detail assumes meaning when we consider it in conjunction with the common representation of the Jew in association with the he-goat, either as his favorite domestic animal or as his favorite mount (which he prefers to ride facing backward, to judge from the prints). Or the goat is offered as the symbol of Judaism and the Jewish God.
When Ikey came a-riding
On a billygoat
He had the Jews believing
It was their precious God,
runs a widely current bit of doggerel whose origin is placed in the late Middle Ages. Evidently the intent is to single out the goat as the Jews’ beast, or perhaps the Ziegenbart emphasis is intended to identify the Jew as the human goat. Indeed, a carved relief of the Judensau with her Jewish brood, once to be seen on the tower of a bridge in Frankfort, included the figure of a Jew with two unmistakable goat’s horns on his head. To make certain that the origin of those horns was not missed, the artist cut a billy goat with identical horns into the stone, interestedly watching the proceedings.
The Bock or billy goat, as the Middle Ages knew full well, is the devil’s favorite animal, frequently represented as symbolic of satanic lechery. According to popular legend, the devil created the goat, which appears in picture and story as the riding animal of every conceivable sort of hobgoblin, as well as of witches and sorcerers. In the witch craze that swept Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages the devil’s most usual disguise was said to be that of a goat, which the devotees worshiped and adored, and it was the animal most commonly offered to him as a sacrifice. So close was the relation between them that an early fifteenth-century illustration picturing four Jews being led by him represents Satan himself as having goat’s horns. The purport of this association of Jew and goat is quite unmistakable. A fifteenth-century sculptured figure in a Flemish church shows a Jew astride a goat, facing its rear; the animal’s hind hoofs are cloven, and its forefeet end in claws.
The ascription to the Jew of a distinctive and unpleasant odor has often been commented upon. Many peoples, of course, have at various times had this libel leveled against them, not only in popular belief but even in pseudoscientific works. We may interpret it as an effort by one group to stigmatize another, socially inferior, group as being physically inferior as well, a sort of extra prop to bolster up the former’s sense of superiority. It is probable that when an offensive odor was charged against the Jews by ancient writers, such as Martial and Ammianus Marcellinus, it was more as an expression of contempt for the barbarians than with any more subtle intent.
But the notion of the so-called foetor judaicus, so prevalent in the Middle Ages, though undoubtedly reflecting something of the same motivation (and perhaps at the outset little more than an echo of the classical charge), carried a deeper meaning to the medieval Christian. “There was never a state so large that a mere thirty Jews would not saturate it with stench and unbelief,” declaimed the thirteenth-century Austrian poet Seifried Helbling. “Stench and unbelief ” were characteristic Jewish attributes, in combination. The measured sobriety of legal prose buckled under the necessity of legislating for Jews: in 1421 the city of Ofen (Buda) ordered “the Jews, the mean, stiff-necked, stinking betrayers of God” to—anticlimactically—pay a tax on their wine. The combination holds. And its meaning is clearly indicated when we read that the Jew emits a foul odor as punishment for his crime against Jesus. Yet this is only a partial explanation. Why a foul odor as punishment?
THE DEVIL & THE JEWS is a definitive work of scholarship on the medieval conception of the Jew as devil--literally and figuratively. Through documents, analysis, and illustrations, the book exposes the full spectrum of the Jew's demonization as devil, sorcerer, blasphemer, and ritual murderer; as a desecrator and heretic; as usurer and infidel. Trachtenberg reveals in a chilling study difficult to put down how these myths, peculiar to Christian Europe in the late Middle Ages still exist in transmuted form in the modern era.
- Steve Berman, The publisher
One wishes that Dr. Trachtenberg’s volume could be placed in the hands of every minister, every teacher, every educator – indeed, all who mold public opinion.
- New York Herald Tribune
[The] frightening presence of anti-Semitism in virtually every part of the world keeps scholars constantly searching for its root cause… [its] origins lie in the emotional rather than rational … a chilling study.
- Jewish Forward, International
Deserves to be read carefully, not only by historians, but by those who wish to understand the present, and safeguard the future.
- Judaica Book News
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