Enemies of the Faith: Western Christian Views of Jews and Muslims in the Middle Ages
Lecture by Mark Meyerson
Given at Brown University on February 12, 2014
When we deal with this kind of question it is easy to simply fall into the trap of regarding Muslims and Jews as simply others in the views of Western Europeans. But if you look at things more closely you realize that Western European Christians viewed Muslims and Jews rather differently, both in terms of ideology and in terms of their own experiences with these peoples – in most cases of Muslims very often the lack of experience with these peoples.
Western Christians views Jews through some extent through the prism of their own Christian sacred history, of which the Jews played a fundamental role. Sharing the Old Testament with Jews, seeing depictions of Jews in Church iconography, of the life and passion of Jesus for instance, hearing about Jews in Easter liturgy – all these things perpetuated a particular perception of the Jews which would sometimes be modified through day-to-day contacts with Jews, and sometimes not. Of course, there were many Jews in Western Europe, at least until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when most Jews were removed in one way or another.
Muslims presented a very different problem for Western Christians – they had no role in Christian sacred history, they didn’t share or contest a revealed scripture with Christians. Christians did not quite know where to place these people, so they developed ideas about Muslims more in response on what we would we call current events, geopolitical factors or sometimes through commerce. There were very few Muslims in the Christian West, outside of the Iberian Peninsula or, for a couple of centuries, in Sicily. The Muslim is usually someone ‘out there’ or the classic geo-political enemy.