The Law’s Violence against Medieval and Early Modern Jews

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 The Law’s Violence against Medieval and Early Modern Jews

By Ken Pennington

Paper given at Religious Tolerance – Religious Violence – Medieval Memories: A colloquium in memory of James Powell, held at the University of Syracuse, on September 28, 2012

Ken Pennington, Professor of Ecclesiastical and Legal History at the Catholic University of America, spoke on the forced baptism of Jewish children in the legal literature from the Middle Ages to the early modern period. This topic can be found in Christian texts dating back to the 4th Council of Toledo 633 A.D., which finds that ‘Jews must not be forced to accept the faith, which, however, if they accept the faith unwillingly, they must be forced to remain Christian.’

Pennington notes that authors such as Gratian and Huguccio (Hugh of Pisa) found that actually physically forcing a Jewish person to baptize rendered the baptism illegitimate, but that one could use threats or coercion to get one to convert.

A new source about this issue starts emerging in the later Middle Ages, when lawyers could make money by writing opinions for the court or for a defandant. These statements, known as consilia, would fill thousands of printed volumes between the 15-17th centuries and would become to be seen as authoritative texts in dealing with all types of legal issues. One of the earliest Consilium dealing with Jews was written for the Dominican inquisitor Florio da Vicenza in 1281. One section of this work notes:

A baptized Jew had a son living with his Jewish mother, his father absent in foreign regions or unknown must be taken from his mother by the Church, the ordinaryof the region, or the Christian prince under whose lordship he is because of the favor of the faith. He should be raised by Christians who are not suspect and who are baptized, unless there is an impediment of the boy’s will.




Around the same time an Italian canonist named Guido de Baysio argued that being Jewish was legally being akin to slaves to a Christian princes, and that this prince could do anything he wanted to them, including forcing their Jewish children to be baptized. This view became increasingly popular in the Later Middle Ages, although some writers disagreed with that position.

The issue of forced baptism of Jewish children continued to be debated in the Early Modern period, and in the 18th century Pope Benedict XIV laid down a set of principles to justify forced baptism.

This practice even continued into the 19th century, including the famous case of Edgardo Levi Mortara, a Jewish boy living in Italy who was given emergency baptism by a domestic servant during a serious infantile illness. Because he was living in the Papal States at the time, Pope Pius IX refused to give the child back to his parents, and even adopted him as his own son. This event caused international outrage, but Edgardo was raised as a Catholic and was ordained a priest.

Please also see the visual presentation of this lecture from Ken Pennington’s website

Sharan Newman