Anti-Judaism, Histories of Diversity, & the Present

Commemorating events that occurred #OnThisDay (or #OTD) in history has become increasingly popular on social media. This practice can also bring appropriate reminders of how that past intersects with our present.

Historical events that occurred around the week of July 18th are particularly linked with acts of violence against Jewish people throughout history. Of course, anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism (see Matthew Chalmers’s recent, useful discussion of these terms at The Public Medievalist) are not relegated only to one week. Yet the convergence of these historical events so close to each other on the calendar is rather striking.

Our own historical moment, when anti-Semitism is apparent around us in many ways–and in many ways linked to the Middle Ages–seems like a fitting time to reflect on these events. As I write this, I’m also aware of an unfolding discussion about diversifying medieval studies more generally. As this discussion develops, and as commemorative dates appear on the calendar, it’s important to remember moments of anti-Judaism, histories of diversity, and their connections to our present.

One starting point is July 18, 1290, when King Edward I of England (r.1272-1307) issued a royal decree known as the Edict of Expulsion. With this act, he legally exiled all Jews from England for the remainder of the Middle Ages. This edict was only repealed in 1657, by Oliver Cromwell.

Edward’s expulsion was just one result of tensions in England that had already brought about the persecution of Jews over the past few hundred years. In some ways, this edict was a culmination of rising anti-Judaism. 100 years before the Edict of Expulsion, in 1190, around 150 Jews were murdered in York during a riot against them. In 1218, King Henry III issued the Edict of the Badge, which required all Jews to wear a badge to identify them as Other. These events have disturbing resonances with recent threats and attacks on Jews as well as proposals for registering or identifying individuals based on race or ethnicity.

One other significant fact stands out about Edward’s expulsion of the Jews on July 18, 1290: in that year, that was the date of the Jewish holiday Tisha B’Av, a fast day to remember and lament the calamities of Jewish history. (This year, it’s on August 1.) From the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, we have a vantage point to look both forward and backward at other historical persecutions of Jewish people during the same week in July, across a time-span of roughly 1,850 years.

On the same date, July 18, 635 years after Edward’s expulsion (in 1925), Adolf Hitler published volume one of his book Mein Kampf. As is well known, a main feature of Hitler’s book was what he called “the Jewish peril”–an imagined global conspiracy of the Jewish people to gain control of the world.

The well-known content and implications of this book and its author’s political theories don’t need any further discussion. After all, they are still with us in the rhetoric and actions of present-day white supremacists. While I don’t want to stress the historical connections of calendar dates too far, the coincidence of Anti-Semitic events on July 18 in both 1290 and 1925 (and 2017) are hard to dismiss outright.

Looking back earlier in history, the Tisha B’Av on July 18, 1290 also echoes another event commemorated during the same week. The event was the invasion of the Fortress of Antonia in Jerusalem by Titus (the son of Emperor Vespasian) during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, outstanding for both its contemporary moment as well as its longstanding reputation through the Middle Ages.

Exact dates are uncertain, but it’s likely (as Kate Cooper notes) that “Titus breached the walls of Jerusalem” on the 15th and (according to Larry R. Helyer) that he besieged the fortress between the 20th and 24th. While this as just one moment in the unfolding siege, it was a decisive victory for the Romans. This victory allowed the Romans to establish a stronghold of power before launching a final attack on the Temple.

Famously, the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus (37-c.100) wrote about the Siege of Jerusalem as an eye-witness. In his work titled The Jewish War, Josephus navigates his own identity as both a Jew and a Roman. He claims that he helped to mediate between the two sides of the war as a sort of negotiator. He also writes with some amount of respect for certain members on both sides of the war.

Despite his own tensions of identity, Josephus provides a stark depiction of an advanced group of Roman soldiers scaling the walls of the fortress to defeat the Jewish guards. He tells the following account:

The first sentinels whom they encountered they cut down in their sleep and, taking possession of the wall, ordered the trumpeter to sound. Thereupon, the other guards suddenly started to their feet and fled, before any had noted what number had ascended: for their panic and the trumpet-call led them to imagine that the enemy had mounted in force.

Directly following this passage, Josephus leads seamlessly into an account of the weeks-long fight for control of the Temple:

So the armies clashed in desperate struggle round the entrances, the Romans pressing on to take possession also of the temple, the Jews thrusting them back upon Antonia.

Titus’ victory over the Fortress of Antonia led to the final outcome of the Siege of Jerusalem by the end of August: the destruction of the Temple. This is one of the major calamities mourned on Tisha B’Av.

As a moment of imperialist violence, the destruction of the Temple was not only a gesture of power by the Roman Empire but also a decisive moment in Jewish history. While many Jewish people had lived in diaspora before this event, in this stroke of colonial oppression, diaspora became a fundamental aspect of Jewish identity.

During the medieval period, Titus’ siege and destruction of the Temple was remembered in various ways. One of the most famous medieval depictions of the Siege appears on the back panel of the early eighth-century Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket.

Back panel of the Franks Casket, depicting the Siege of Jerusalem by Titus, now in the British Museum.

Along the outside, in Anglo-Saxon runes and Latin, is a general description of the siege:

her fegtaþ titus end giuþeasu
dom / gisl
Here Titus and a Jew fight
Here its inhabitants flee from Jerusalem
judgement / hostage

This side of the Franks Casket is commonly rendered invisible or of secondary importance in studies that tend to focus on more popular images and their sources. This artifact is known more for its renderings of the stories of Wayland the Smith (Germanic), the Adoration of the Magi (Christian), or Romulus and Remus (Roman) than its representation of violent anti-Judaism. Yet this casket tells stories from diverse cultures, not one narrative from one tradition.


Perhaps Titus’ siege and its horrific outcomes were on the minds of medieval invaders in 1099, during another Siege of Jerusalem at the climax of the First Crusade. Indeed, both Jews and Muslims (called “Saracens” in contemporary texts) were commonly seen as the Other in comparison with Christian Crusaders during the Middle Ages. We find iconographic echoes in visual representations of the 1099 siege, such as this thirteenth-century depiction in a manuscript of Guillaume de Tyr’s Histoire d’Outremer. One indicator of parallels meant to be read across time appears in the Stations of the Cross in the upper register. Juxtaposition between Jesus’ Passion and the ongoing war at the city walls brings together first-century events around Jesus’ life and eleventh-century events of the First Crusade.

Later still, a fourteenth-century author (a close contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer) composed a Middle English poem about Titus’ siege. Drawing on a variety of established traditions, the Siege of Jerusalem combines late antique and medieval sources and contextual currents, accounts by medieval Crusaders, and unsettling anti-Judaism–all synthesized through the perspective of a medieval author deeply invested in a certain type of Christian ideology.

The events that I’ve highlighted evoke a through-line that runs from the first century onward, encompassing a history of violence toward the Jewish people. Just considering the events discussed here, we find heightened moments of oppression in Titus’ siege, Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion, and the medieval Crusades. Considering the longer history of Jewish exile and oppression at the hands of imperial powers, this history begins hundreds of years earlier than the first century and continues to our present moment in the early twenty-first century.

Taken together, this week of commemorations is a salient reminder of the treatment of Jewish people throughout history. For those of us in the Western world, ours is not a monolithic narrative filled only with white, Christian, European peoples. Our narratives are filled with diversity. We do well to dwell on that fact and the many variegated stories that indwell the histories of our past, present, and future.


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