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Book Review: The Formation of a Persecuting Society or the Medieval Origins of Jewish Persecution

R. I. Moore’s The Formation of a Persecuting Society (1987) has become a classic in Medieval Studies. The book is a study of “the growth of mentalities and mechanisms of persecution” in 11th and 12th century Western Europe as a result of profound social changes such as political centralization and bureaucratization, but also the rise of the Christian literati. On its own, this topic would be enough to attract attention, as it uncovers the dark side of the much celebrated twelfth-century renaissance. Moore’s work is, however, much more than a contribution to the history of the Middle Ages. After all, the period under Moore’s attention is also the epoch of the foundation of the modern state. Thus, in order to understand the phenomenon of persecution in its modern forms – as, for instance, the persecution of the Jews in the twentieth century – one needs to look at its genealogy, some of which, according to Moore, belongs to the medieval period.

Moore’s thesis, in a nutshell, is the following: In Western Europe, persecution, especially religious persecution, “faded away with the Roman Empire and did not reappear until the 11th century” (p.4). It is only in the 11th and the 12th centuries that Europe became a “persecuting society” in the sense that the persecution of whole groups of people defined by their race, religion or way of life became habitual (p.5). Membership of these groups – Moore’s focus falls on heretics, lepers, and Jews – was regarded as sufficient to justify “socially sanctioned violence,” organized by “established governmental, judicial and social institutions” (p.5). The sophisticated machinery of persecution that was developed proved “adaptable to a wide variety of victims” (p.10). This is why the accusations and the punishments of widely different groups of victims were frequently so similar. We also see an overlap of victims in concrete cases, as, for instance, when the inquisitors of Philip V of France fabricated the story that lepers, aided by Jews and Muslims, had been poisoning the wells of the country. Hundreds of completely innocent people were tortured and then burned. Ultimately, in one way or another, punishment implied a loss of legal rights, which in concrete terms meant that you could not own property, you could not inherit or dispose of property, you had no access to the courts, in some cases you were prohibited from holding public office, some of the persecuted groups such as lepers, later Jews, as well as prostitutes were segregated. In short, you became a non-person.

However, while largely terrorized in similar ways as other victims, Jews constituted a special group. What distinguished the Jews is, in short, education, which gave them access to holders of authority. As Moore wrote, “at least until the end of the 12th century there can be no doubt that the Jews of Europe were culturally far superior to their Christian counterparts” (p.148). Therefore, Popes, Kings, and the high nobility were employing Jews as advisors, financial agents, and doctors. So, when the first generation of Christian intellectuals appeared in the 12th century, they found themselves in competition with the Jews. “The compelling reason for the persecution of the Jews at this time” lies, according to Moore, in the fact that “they offered a real alternative, and therefore a real challenge, to the Christian literati” (p.150).

It is a disturbing notion that Western intellectuals, who laid the foundations of the cultural flowering of the 12th century were also among the most enthusiastic promoters and ideologues of persecution. This is, though, probably the most original and controversial idea of the book.




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