To see or not to see in the Middle Ages: Blind Jews in Christian eyes
Brooke Falk Permenter
Session V: Seeing the Other
The medieval image of the Jew falling from grace is best seen in the image of the two queens; Ecclesia and Synagoga. Ecclesia looks proud, stands tall and wears a crown upon her head. Synagogoa carries a broken staff, wears a blindfold and her crown has fallen. The image of Synagoga’s blindness is one of the earliest symbols of Jewish obstinance and blindness to Christianity. Jews were considered to be spiritually and carnally blind. This belief emerged from Augustine’s writing, where Jews are thought to be outdated and cannot understand the Gospel.
For some time, medieval theologians were complacent and satisfied with simple marginalization and diaspora as a means to keep Jews in their place and differentiate them from Christians. They were content to permit Jews to remain as their neighbours until their inevitable conversion. However, when forced, many Jews chose martyrdom over conversion or they converted but soon after, reverted to their old faith.
In the 12th century, Innocent III condemned the Jews and stepped up measures to make life more difficult for them. Innocent III placed increasing restrictions on Jews, imposed rules of dress and devised visible symbols to denote their different status during the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.
The blindfold was reserved for identifying Jews, as well as the pointed hat, however, the hat did not have a negative connotation associated with it’s use. After the Fourth lateran Council, Jews were required to wear badges but this decree was seldom enforced.
Another image associated with Jewishness was the bag of coins, reminding the Christian of the 30 pieces of silver Judas was paid to betray Jesus. Jews were also portrayed with exaggerated physiognomy on their faces, such as a hooked nose, ruddy complexion and ugly, large teeth to emphasize their “Jewishness”. The image of the Jew holding a cup often caused offense as it symbolized the Jewish argument against transubstantiation and was portrayed in the torture of Christians.
The Fortress of Faith (1460) was a damaging narrative of Jews, Demons, Pagans and Heretics and their attack on the Christian faith. It was read widely across Europe on the enemies of Christianity. In it, Jews are depicted blindfolded, with badges denoting their “Jewishness” and shackles around their ankles, demonstrating their carnal nature. There is also an image showing the Jews attacking the Fortress of Faith and these images inflamed xenophobia in areas where there weren’t any Jews.
Within the attack on the Fortress, an image of a Jew shows him rolling back his sleeve to cast a stone reminiscent of Jews throwing rocks at Christ at Calvary. Upon closer inspection, his blindfold is removed meaning, he sees and knows what he’s doing. He is not blind, yet still attacks the faith. This new meaning meant that he should not be preserved and ushered in a new era of anti-Jewish violence.