Free speech and the medieval Jew

I was teaching last week about the expulsion of the Jews from England by Edward I in 1290. It’s pretty depressing reading all the material, especially the article by Robert Stacey which discusses ‘the connections between the precocious development of the medieval English state and the no less precocious development of medieval English anti-Semitism.’ (Robert C. Stacey, ‘Anti-Semitism and the Medieval English State’, in J.R. Maddicott and D.M. Palliser, eds, The Medieval State (2000), pp. 163-77).

But it also got me thinking about some current issues of freedom of speech. There is currently a considerable divide between a US belief in freedom of speech as a fundamental right and considerably greater restrictions in most European democracies. One justification of the European position is the Holocaust, but the case of the medieval Jews is also instructive.

I would distinguish three basic degrees of ‘hate speech’ (including writing). Firstly, there is speech encouraging violence against specific individuals e.g. websites which list the names and addresses of opponents (anti-Nazis, abortionists, animal experimenters etc) and encourage attacks on them. I don’t think there is any enthusiasm among supporters of freer speech for this to be allowed. Secondly, there is speech encouraging violence against a social group in general, but without specific targets e.g. ‘Kill the unbelievers’, ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’. Thirdly, there is speech which encourages hatred against a group, but does not specifically encourage violence e.g. ‘Jews are Christ-killers’, ‘God hates fags’.

Those who are most enthusiastic about free speech think that the second and third forms of hate speech should be allowed, since they distinguish very clearly between words and actions. You may say anything, as long as you do not do anything. However, this clearly seems dubious when it comes to speech in category two. Otherwise, you have the paradox that the leaders of a hate movement (such as the Nazis, the groups responsible for Rwandan genocides etc) are acceptable, because they may not have blood on their own hands, but those lower down the organisation, who actually commit violence, are guilty. (You can only get round this by arguing about responsibility up a chain of command when it a government committing atrocities).

The trickiest bit is the third category, speech which encourages hatred, but not violence. Here, the case of medieval Judaism is particularly instructive. The position of the Catholic church, from the patristic period onwards, was clear. Jews should suffer various restrictions within Christian society, but they should not be harmed simply for being Jews. In particular, they should not be removed from Christian society, but instead should remain as ‘witnesses’. Thus the church opposed the murderous attacks on the Jews associated with the crusading movement from 1096 onwards; as far as I know, the more senior members of church hierarchies are never reported as sanctioning or abetting these attacks in the Middle Ages. Similarly, expulsions of the Jews from particular kingdoms seem to have been an independent initiative by rulers, often without much specific church enthusiasm.

Yet it is completely unrealistic to say that therefore the medieval church had no responsibility for these wider attacks on the Jews, when they had centuries of preaching the Jews as ‘Christ-killers’. Those who support unrestricted free speech have to answer the question: how do you prevent hate speech creating a climate which encourages violence and murder, when we have seen this happen? (The standard US view seems to be that the constitution will miraculously protect despised groups: given the current manipulation of the constitution and the rule of law generally in the US, this seems a less good argument than in the past).

The case of the medieval Jews also raises two other interesting issues. One is that the distinction made by some liberals (and also many other opponents of Islam) between religious and racial hatred is not necessarily a firm boundary. There has been a lot of discussion among medievalists about when anti-Judaism (religious hostility) became anti-Semitism (hostility to Jews as a race). There is a consensus that there is some kind of change in the twelfth and thirteenth century. It’s then that you begin to find doubts about whether converted Jews can really become proper Christians, caricatures of Jews showing ‘ethnic’ features, suggestions that Jews are congenital liars etc. Is the same things happening to ‘Muslims’, as a category? When you read references to the ‘Muslim mind’, or the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci describing Muslims as ‘breeding like rats’, I think you can see it already.

There is also the thought-provoking issue of assimilation. Jews in Medieval Europe refused to abide by one of the most basic tenets of the societies they lived in: Christian belief. If you follow some modern views, such refusal to adapt means that they shouldn’t have been tolerated by European societies. (There is a clear progression from the view that ‘if you don’t abide by British norms, you shouldn’t be in this country’ and the logic of expulsion, even if it’s one that at the moment would be seen as a step too far). Over the centuries, some Jewish communities have largely assimilated into other societies (though, notoriously, it didn’t help the German Jews at all in the end). But there has always been a strain of Jewish thought that has rejected assimilation, that has wished to remain separate in significant ways from the rest of the population, for example by rejecting intermarriage. Should modern British society accept such people, or should it be telling them: ‘if you want to behave like that, then you need to go to Israel?’ If you argue (as I would) that such groups should be accepted in Britain and as British, then you need to come up with a clear answer as to why some relatively unintegrated Muslims are unacceptable.


3 thoughts on “Free speech and the medieval Jew

  1. As a follow up, just to show how historians’ views change, here is a comment from John Harvey, The Plantagents (revised edition from 1959): ‘Whatever the merits of the case (the supposed ritual murder of Little St Hugh of Lincoln by Jews) it is difficult to doubt the statesmanship of Edward’s decision to remove the whole Jewish community’.


  2. A couple of observations about the American experience, leading (me, at least) to no obvious conclusions:

    1) You’re correct that the US places much more emphasis on “freedom of speech” as a guaranteed (First Amendment) right, for better or worse. This presumably arose from the “enlightenment” principles of our “Founding Fathers,” but I think it also resonated in a country which, by comparison with most of Europe, was recently and sparsely populated by white men. Settlements were newer and less rooted, neighbors were more distant, and there were always frontiers where you could move if you couldn’t stand your neighbors anyway. This reinforces a tendency to say that government shouldn’t regulate too much – just leave people alone to work things out. As for the success of this experiment, one might suggest that after 230 years, it’s still Too Soon To Tell.

    2) The place where “speech codes” have been most tried out in the US over the past couple of decades has been the universities, and my sense is that this has not proved an outstanding success. The irritation and resentment created by what are seen as attempts to curb Freedom Of Speech seem to have far outweighed any putative benefits, as well as opening up academe (and liberalism, which is associated with it) to charges of intolerance and hypocrisy.

    The question remains – for me, and for many Americans – of whether (and how) it is possible to restrict “hate speech” without formally legislating against it, which is pretty much a non-starter here.

    As always, Your Mileage May Vary.


    • On 2) Unusually, the academic sector seems to be a place where the US system is more restrictive of free speech than the UK. I have just checked on the internet and apparently my current UK university does have a Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech and a Code of Practice on Sexual and Racial Harassment. However, it doesn’t tell you what they say or how to get hold of them, despite the fact that students (and possibly staff?) can be disciplined for breach of them (!). I suspect that only particularly blatant cases of hate speech/preventing people speaking on campus get any attention, like the Leeds academic Frank Ellis who argued that blacks and women were intellectually inferior. (The problem there wasn’t so much his right to say such things, but whether he could be teaching/marking fairly). Mostly, the British public/media take the view that no-one cares what university lecturers say anyhow, because they have so little influence in society. The ‘liberal elite’ supposedly dominating UK society, does not (unlike the US version) include academics.


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