A Fourteenth-Century Augustinian Approach to the Jews in Riccoldo da Monte Croce’s Ad Nationes Orientales


Pope Nicolas IV and Dominican monk Ricoldo of MontecroceA Fourteenth-Century Augustinian Approach to the Jews in Riccoldo da Monte Croce’s Ad Nationes Orientales

By Lydia M. Walker

Constructing the Medieval and Early Modern across Disciplines - Selected Proceedings of the Newberry Center for Renaissance Studies 2011 Multidisciplinary Graduate Student Conference, edited by Karen Christianson (Chicago, 2011)

Introduction: The common description of the Christian attitude towards the Jews in the high and later Middle Ages is one of eventual and steady deterioration. The progressive decline of Jewish liberties and the rise of anti-Semitism, coming into greater development after the Rhineland massacres of 1096 and brought to its zenith with the expulsions from England (1290) and France (1306), have been attributed to a “changing theological and anthropological understanding of the Jew.”  As Michael Frassetto points out “the topos of the Jew was something less than human and that this position of hostility gained further expression in texts of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.”

However, prior to these changes, the long-standing Christian theological interpretation of how the Jews fit into God’s plan, and consequently how the they should be handled socially, was set in Late Antiquity by Augustine of Hippo (354-430). He developed what is now called the “doctrine of Jewish witness” which stated that the Jews’ continued presence in Christian society held a two-fold purpose for the divine economy of salvation: both their preservation of the prophecies of the Old Testament and their dispersion by the Romans verified the truth of the New Testament; therefore, they should not be annihilated. This “doctrine of Jewish witness” persisted in the Christian theological understanding of the Jews in the Middle Ages, but it has been argued that the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries mark the end of the Augustinian stance and the rise of the condemnation of Talmudic Judaism, consequently leading to the assessment that the Jews no longer deserved toleration or privilege. This paper employs the Dominican Riccoldo da Monte Croce’s missionary manual, Ad nationes orientales (To the Eastern Nations), as evidence for the continued presence of the Augustinian strain of thinking about the status of the Jews in the fourteenth century. I will focus specifically on Riccoldo’s typical employment of Augustine and also how this pertains to Riccoldo’s discussion of the Jews’ role in killing Christ.




Riccoldo da Monte Croce (d.1320) was an educated Florentine Dominican preacher who traveled as a pilgrim and missionary in the Middle East between the years c.1288 to 1300. He traveled amidst a time of uncertainty in the East. The Mongols loomed on the horizon, inspiring fear, intrigue, and hope in the imaginations of the West. Their perceived roles in Christian eschatology vacillated between the anticipation of conversion and, therefore, hope that they could serve as an ally to the West, to apocalyptic fears of their conversion to Islam. Upon his arrival in Baghdad in 1288, Riccoldo was greeted by the Nestorian Patriarch Mar Yabhalaha III and was warmly welcomed by the Muslim community; it was at this location where he began a translation of the Qur’ān (abandoned in 1290). It was also from this location that Riccoldo later learned about the death of thirty of his fellow Dominican brothers and the Patriarch Nicholas by the hands of the Mamluks at the fall of Acre (1291) and about the Ilkanate’s leader, Ghazan Khan’s conversion to Islam in 1294. It was the fall of Acre that served as the fatal blow to the western toehold in the Holy Land and this expulsion realistically ended both political and spiritual hopes for Jerusalem. The conversion of the Mongols also was not without surprise. As noted by Leopold, “The Ilkans appeared to have deliberately fostered the impression of their Christian conversion in hope of securing assistance . . . playing on the optimistic responses of the west.” A few years later Riccoldo made his getaway disguised as a camel driver after being accosted by newly converted Mongolian Muslims. He returned around 1300 to Italy to face a papal inquiry regarding his identification of the Eastern Christians as heretics.

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Sharan Newman