Many of the oldest, most iconic depictions of the witch feature the pronounced characteristics that have become instantly recognisable; a caricature that resides in all good fairy tales. Even today, many of us were made aware of what the stereotypical witch looks like, and where to find her on the edge of the dark forest. It is surprising, therefore, to learn that the large, hooked nose, protruding chin, hairy mole or wart, and stooped appearance, are in fact a rather ugly representation emerging from derogatory depictions of a Jewish woman. Conspiracy theories aren’t a modern phenomena, and the European Jewish population of the Middle Ages were widely regarded as being behind every terrible, imaginary plot. Indeed, the charges popularly laid at the doors of the Jewish Europeans include cannibalism, eating babies, worshipping Satan and attending the Sabbath (confusingly), while using magic to assail their enemies and cause misfortune to neighbours. This all sounds rather familiar to students of witchcraft, and with good reason.
The association between the witch and Jewish people in medieval Europe … revolves around superstition, allegations of diabolism and folk sorcery.
The association between the witch and Jewish people in medieval Europe in general, and England in particular, revolves around superstition, allegations of diabolism and folk sorcery. In September 1189 CE, at the coronation of Richard I (1157 – 1199) in London, some Jewish attendants bearing gifts for the new king were massacred after public sentiment branded them enchanters working against the monarch. Moreover, it is noteworthy that suspicions against Jewish communities in England were not restricted to sorcerous individuals, but the whole race was deemed wicked, and were accused of preying upon the blood of children for unleavened Passover matzah.
Of course the accusation of child murder is an offence also levelled at those charged with witchcraft during a time period when the crime of being different could rapidly inflame a fury of anger and hate. Public furore frequently resulted in several bloody incidents, including the massacre of over an hundred Jewish people in York in the year 1190 as antisemitism spread like wildfire, with awful results.
… the connection between actual Jewish sorcery and folk magics associated with the medieval witch is not without some basis in reality.
The Jewish stereotype became incorporated into the popular imagination and characteristics in depictions exaggerated, and conflated with witchcraft through sharing in diabolism and blood libel, and the appearance of the witch as a figure of evil was born from discrimination. This iconic depiction exists to this day, as seen in the Wizard of Oz, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and other fairy tale representations, and owes its origins to the antisemitic wave that consumed Europe through much of the Middle Ages.
Of course, the connection between actual Jewish sorcery and folk magics associated with the medieval witch is not without some basis in reality. However, this is an irrelevancy to the uncompromising and prejudiced portrayal conceived of medieval populations, inspired by the hatred that was projected upon the perceived enemy who bears the burden of any and all misfortune. That there was a cross-pollination between Jewish folk magic and the cunning craft and magical traditions, evinced by the adoption of Hebrew charms, as well as the philosophy deemed Kabbala, seems reasonable. Indeed, there is the suggestion, in particular through the use of bedtime prayers and charms found in Hebrew, perhaps inherited from Babylonian originals, which have corollary in Christian folk magics, such as the Black Paternoster.
In medieval England, the anti-Jewish fervour reached fever pitch by the time of Edward I (1239 – 1307), who issued an edict expelling the Jews from England – a banishment which would last over 350 years. As Christian law forbade usury at the time, there was no money lending for profit available to European monarchs except via wealthy Jewish families. Of course, this meant that there was a reason for kings to despise the Jewish population, many of whom had the unenviable position of holding debt over European sovereigns. King Edward, known as ‘longshanks’, funded numerous campaigns and seemingly constant warfare, against the Scots, Welsh, Irish and the French. Edward was massively in debt and resorted to heavy taxation of the country’s population to attempt to stem the bleeding coffers. In 1275, he issued the ‘Statute of the Jewry’, forbidding the lending of money with interest, thereby removing profiteering. This Statute would become the basis for his final ruling in 1290 when he issued an edict ejecting the Jewish population of England. This Edict was gleefully met by the public, perhaps assuaging their anguish at hard taxes, and who had already been condition against the Jewish people after an hundred years of brutal treatment of the relatively small Jewish population of England, estimated around two-thousand souls.
With the medieval Jewish people regarded as inherently sorcerous, and in league with the devil, the natural companion was the figure of the witch. Whilst this is definitely superstitious speculation, there remains a connection, nevertheless, between Jewish sorcery and medieval magic. A mingling of accumulated philosophies and ideas almost certainly transpired and, through the Solomonic traditions, medieval grimoires, the use of Hebrew names in ritualised ceremonial magic, and charming traditions, European magic is all the richer for it.
The image of the witch is, then, fundamentally intertwined with the derogatory stereotype of the medieval Jewish peoples of Europe. It’s no coincidence that many of the superstitions surrounding the witch that have survived the medieval period are, in fact, a composite of the same prejudiced notions of the Jewish race.
While modern witchcraft has not had reason to consider some of its more difficult origins, it is perhaps worth noting, for posterity, that this unpleasantry underwrites the concept of the European witch in popular culture. It is an unavoidable fact that the image we have all been used to regarding as the hackneyed witch derives its negative inception and features from a hateful moment in history. While we cannot change the past, it is incumbent upon us to evolve and, as witchcraft continues to make huge gains in popularity, be mindful of the kind of conspiratorial and adverse thinking that triggered the persecution of the Jewish people in medieval Europe. There is a trend in communities of new witches to consider the details of the witch craze, when the early modern communities were gripped with fear which spilled out in violence. However, scant attention is paid to the source of this dreadful mania, which has roots in the hysteria that massacred and expelled Jewish people of the Middle Ages.