Missions and Expansion
Written by: Marc A. Krell
Earlier in the 9th century, small groups of Jews migrated as international merchants from Italy to France and Germany, bringing with them the law and customs of their Palestinian and Babylonian forbearers. These Jews comprised the Ashkenazic community, Jews of German origin, while encompassing all of northern and eventually eastern Europe. As Christianity became dominant in northern Europe, these Ashkenazic Jews developed a symbiotic relationship with Christians driven by a dialectic between fascination and aversion toward one another.
While medieval Jews and Christians often interacted publically in social, economic, or even religious situations, their leaders would condemn these efforts, while at the same time inverting the symbols or theological claims of the other in order to demonstrate their superiority. An example of this medieval Jewish-Christian dialectic on the Christian side was the creation of the "blood libel" accusation, by Christian cleric Thomas of Monmouth in 1150, that Jews ritually murdered a twelve-year-old Christian boy, William of Norwich, by crucifixion.
This mythical Christian reenactment of the passion led to the creation of newly martyred saints like William of Norwich and was the basis for a malicious antisemitic myth lasting into the 20th century. In this myth, Christians mixed both Jewish and Christian motifs together in the following way: First, they accused Jews of tying a rope around the victim's head that resembled the Jewish tefilin shel rosh, the ritual head phylacteries worn for daily prayer. Yet this rope around the victim's head also simulated the thorny crown on Jesus' head during the crucifixion. Next, the Christian authors of this myth drew upon biblical motifs associated with the Book of Esther, including the evil Haman's casting of purim or lots to determine when to kill the Persian Jews and his eventual hanging on a stake for his attempted crime. However in the blood libel legend, the Christian authors jumbled these symbols by accusing Jews of annually casting lots to determine when to shed Christian blood and portraying them as hanging Christian boys on posts.