Of Milk and Blood: Innocent III and the Jews, revisited

Of Milk and Blood: Innocent III and the Jews, revisited

By John Tolan

Paper given at the conference Thirteenth-Century France: Continuity and Change, held at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, February 14-17, 2011

Abstract: The pontificate of Innocent III has often been presented as a turning point in the history of the rise of medieval anti-Judaism: through his virulent anti-Jewish rhetoric and his attempts to restrict Christian-Jewish contact, the pope ushered in an age of growing interreligious tension. This paper reexamines the anti-Jewish policies and rhetoric of Innocent III through a close analysis of three bulls sent to France between 1205 and 1208. Through these missives, the pope seeks to enforce the proper hierarchy of Christian superiority over Jews and limit what he sees as the results of Jewish “insolence”: the widespread practice of usury, the employ of Christian servants in Jewish homes, the selling to Christians of products (in particular meat, milk and wine) which Jews deem of insufficient quality for their own use. Through these three bulls we perceive the first expressions of a fear which will become widespread in the later Middle Ages: contact with Jews (their food, their wine, their milk) represents a danger of pollution or impurity.

Introduction: Much of the past century of scholarship devoted to the history of Medieval European Jewry has attempted to trace and explain the waning of Christian tolerance and the rise of anti-Jewish prejudice and violence, as measured by a number of macabre indices: increasing legal restrictions, host desecration and ritual murder accusations, massacres and expulsions. Various key turning points have been suggested: the first crusade, for Bernhard Blumenkranz; the missionary preaching of the Franciscan and Dominican friars, for Jeremy Cohen; the antiTalmudic polemics of Latin authors in the twelfth century, for myself and others. But key among the culprits blamed for the rise of anti-Judaism has been one of the most powerful and charismatic popes of the Middle Ages: Innocent III. Nineteenth-century historian Heinrich Hirsch Graetz, in his monumental Geschichte der Juden, makes Innocent into the principal culprit for the ills of European Jews.  Innocent represents “Das Papsttum in Kampfe gegen das Judentum” . „Dieser papst Innocenz III. war ein erbitterter Feind der Juden und des Judentums und hat ihnen tiefere Wunden geschlagen, als sämtliche vorangegangenen Widersacher.” If more recent historians have been more sanguine in their assessment, many have agreed on the central importance of Innocent’s anti-Jewish policies: Edward Synan devotes a full chapter of his The Popes and the Jews in the Middle Ages to Innocent: “For many reasons, the pontificate of Pope Innocent III has been taken as the central instance of the medieval confrontation of popes and Jews. With his reign, all the major principles have been formulated and reduced to practice; . . . the main lines had been drawn by the time this most powerful of popes died”. For Robert Chazan, “the pontificate of Innocent III represents both a hardening of Church policy towards the Jews and a sharpening of anti-Jewish rhetoric.”

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