by M. Lindsay Kaplan
For modernity, a really influential moment is the year 1205, which saw
the emergence of a racialization of Jewish identity or Jewish status
in Christian theology and law. In 1205, Pope Innocent III wrote a
letter called Etsi Judeaos, in response to a problem in France where
the Jews were not behaving in the way that the Pope thought was
appropriate. He brought in the biblical commentary idea—that the Jews
have been confined to perpetual servitude to Christians because of
this alleged crime against Jesus—as a justification for social and
legal subordination of Jews to Christians. The idea emerges out of
medieval ideas about Jews, earlier Christian ideas about Jews and
medieval commentaries on the Bible that use the examples of Ham and
Cain and Ishmael to argue that they’re actually allegories signaling
the forced submission of Jews to Christians through enslavement, even
though those texts in the Hebrew Bible don’t have anything to do with
crucifixion or the Jews. The Pope’s letter says that the Jews, by
their own guilt, are consigned to perpetual servitude because they
crucified Jesus. It says that Jews should understand that they are
slaves rejected by God, and by the effect of their alleged
participation in the crucifixion should recognize themselves as the
slaves of those whom Jesus’ death set free.
This letter was incorporated into the larger code of international
church law, which governed all of Western Christianity. It meant that
all Jews in all of the areas over which the church had authority were
liable to legal punishment if they somehow behaved in a way that put
them in a position of power over Christians, and that they were
inherently inferior and needed to visibly occupy that inferior status
or be forced into it. This resulted in the gradual expulsion of Jews
from Western Europe.
Once this construct of inherent hereditary inferiority enters into the
ecclesiastical legal system, it can be transferred to other groups.
The same idea is used to punish Muslims for the crime of the
crucifixion, even though Islam didn’t exist at that time. It is also
used to justify the idea of Muslims as slaves, and to justify and
describe the relationship of Africans to Christians, even though there
were Africans who were already Christian. The curse of Ham is
originally developed around Jews, but once there’s expansion into
Africa in the 15th century, it translates into justifying the actual
enslavement of Africans.
M. Lindsay Kaplan is an English professor at Georgetown University.
Her latest book is Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity.