The following piece was produced for the Bader College course HIST 402: Sex & Death in the Middle Ages.
During the Middle Ages, an insidious aspect of communal identity reared its ugly head as a result of religious groupthink. Why is it that every historical epoch believes that it has reached the apex of development? Why does every era believe that their morals are the “right” morals? Jewish people became horrifyingly marginalized during the Middle Ages because of a Catholic belief in a moral superiority that was reinforced by religious groupthink. The Roman Catholic Church was the instigator and the arbiter of a feedback loop between religious authorities and the common people. Encouraged by the Catholic institution, Medieval Catholics believed that they were on the side of good, providing them with the moral authority to stoke the fires of anti-Semitism.
The term “groupthink” was coined in 1972 by Erving L. Janis. Janis was a psychologist who defined the term while he was analyzing failures in American foreign policy. He described it as a process by which people set aside individual opinions or beliefs to conform with a group consensus. Groupthink represents the ideological agreement of any group, in either deliberate or ignorant evasion of conflicting ideas, opinions, and facts.
The ideas inherent in the term groupthink have persisted throughout history. It is a phenomenon that results from a metaphysical echo chamber of reinforced ideas, fed in and out of that chamber on a continuous loop. Social media has created a literal echo chamber. Individuals are fed information through algorithms that are based on search histories and interests. When you sign up for popular sites such as Quora, or Pinterest, you are asked to identify your favourite topics. Subsequently, contemporary groupthink has become both a conscious choice and a deliberate digital manipulation.
Medieval people did not have digital algorithms; they were fed information through representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. Common people accepted and perpetuated these beliefs within their communities. The Roman Catholic Pope held more power than any King or Queen. Papal supremacy was solidified through a rigid hierarchy of church officials. At the top were the ‘Princes’ of the Church, the Cardinals, followed by Archbishops, Bishops, and finally, Parish Priests. Kings and Queens only controlled limited geographical regions. However, the Catholic Pope and his officials influenced ideological concepts that extended beyond the borders of any one country.
It wasn’t until the Reformation started in 1517 that the European populace demanded the right to read the bible themselves for widely. Until this point, unless you were someone of social or monetary privilege who attended university, all of your information concerning morality was siphoned through the Church. Papal power reached into the very hearts and minds of individuals, regardless of physical location.
During the Middle Ages, the acts of othering, discriminating, and perpetuating injustices were built upon the morals that the Catholic community agreed to uphold. Specifically, these morals included institutionalised ideologies surrounding law, sex, and death. For example, during the 4th Lateran Council, the Church made any heresy against the Catholic faith punishable under ecclesiastic and secular law. Conveniently, heresy was anything the Church decided it was; from being a “witch”, to practicing a religion other than Catholicism, to denying that the Holy Communion was the body and blood of Christ.
A pivotal development in 13th century Catholic dogma was the establishment of “transubstantiation”. Catholicism enforced the concept that the bread and wine used during the sacrament of Communion was literally transformed by the Priest into the body and blood of Christ. The continuously reinforced belief that they were physically ingesting the body of Christ deeply affected the Catholic worldview. Individuals grew to embrace each other as a communal, bodily representation of God on earth.
As the 13th century advanced, papal canons codified correct morality. Catholic cannons were socially and legally binding. Every effort was made to direct the thoughts and behaviors of Catholics in a direction dictated by the institution of the Church. In the 27th of February, 1318, the Roman Catholic Pontiff, John XXII wrote to Brother Bartholomew,
“The Roman Pontiff, who is obliged by his office to direct his efforts principally to the salvation of souls, must be able to devote immediate attention to the correction of sons who deviate from the Faith, while at the same time making it clear that nothing can have the power [to bring people] to salvation if it is not grounded in the root of faith.”
Margarida de Portu was a 14th century woman accused by her brother-in-law of poisoning her husband. Her case demonstrates that social integration was essential to bodily survival. Margarida was an immigrant to her French community, and yet she successfully gained complete support from her town. She was able to achieve integration by demonstrating piety and virtue that was modeled on Catholic morality. Margarida’s social integration was so complete that her own accusers’ sisters testified in her favor. Achieving social acceptance in Medieval Europe was crucial in order to avoid legal bias, torture, and corporal punishment under secular and religious laws.
The Catholic community began turning on those who did not accept Roman Catholic law. Jews represented a section of Medieval society that refused to conform to the majority groups’ ideology. Jewish people held themselves religiously separate; therefore, they remained completely unintegrated into Catholic communities. They were therefore seen as untrustworthy and given far less leniency under the law.
Jewish communities embraced usury (money-lending) and this became a major factor that contributed to the “othering” of their community. There was no prohibition against money-lending in the Jewish religious canon, as there was in the Roman Catholic bible. The Book of Luke states, you can lend money or goods, but only if you expect nothing in return. The Book of Deuteronomy states, “Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of anything that is lent upon usury” (Deuteronomy, XXIII, 19).” Jewish people had the audacity to not only lend money, but expect that it would be returned with interest.
Jewish people were seen as the enemy; they were taking money from the Catholic community in order to enrich their own. Usury was considered stealing, further damning Jewish money-lenders. However, Christians were shown leniency, as long as the money stayed within the Catholic community. John Outhorpe is an example of a Catholic man in the 14th century who was well-connected and wealthy; he was permitted to lend money. If he had been Jewish, he likely would have been prosecuted. His deep-rooted connections to his community protected him from social and legal consequences.
The ideology surrounding Medieval usury was not purely religious, it had roots in Aristotelian philosophy. Medieval scholars (Schoolmen) attempted to philosophize the just price of interest on a loan. What was the exact number at which a loan became usury? When was it actually stealing? As John Outhorpe shows us, there was a difference between what was agreed upon as theologically correct, and what occurred in practice. In Medieval courts, Jewish people were seen as guilty even when engaging in the same practical applications of usury as a Catholic.
Roman Catholicism taught people to focus on giving themselves physically and spiritually to the Church. The Church encouraged a fixation on spiritual salvation as it related to the physical body. Ecclesiastical courts were the religious organizations that oversaw crimes of physical immorality like “carnal knowledge” and adultery. This focus on moral corruption showed a belief in the ability to transfer “bad” behaviour onto “good” people, thus spreading the moral infection amongst the community. Medieval people believed that moral corruption was just as contagious as the Black Death.
The Black Death became an ideological turning point in Europe. Between 1348-1350, nearly one third of Europe’s population succumbed to the horrific Plague.  What was considered a punishment from God for human immorality was turned violently against those who did not fit in with the Catholic community and the accepted moral code. Those people were predominantly Jewish. Entire Jewish communities were murdered or expelled from their homes as a result.
Jewish people were seen as morally deviant because they refused to accept the Catholic faith. They were blamed for taking a deliberate and devious role in spreading disease by poisoning wells, streams, and people’s food. These accusations reflected the sinister distrust that Catholic communities felt against Jews. Between 1348 and 1351, Catholic mobs engaged in unforgivable and heinous acts of hate. Jewish people were rounded up in town squares and synagogues and systematically murdered. Towns in England, Spain, and France all expelled their Jewish citizens during the Black Death.
Anti-Semitism only grew stronger following the plague. The infamous murder of an entire Jewish neighbourhood in Valencia, Spain occurred on July 9th, 1391:
“A group of about 50 youths (minyons or fadrins) gathered in the marketplace. Armed with a white banner bearing a blue cross and some crosses made of reeds, they began to march toward the Jewish quarter, all the while shouting ‘that the archdeacon of Castile [that is, Ferrán Martínez of Seville] was coming with his cross and all the Jews would be baptised or die’.”
The intersection of sex, money, and usury was prostitution. As purveyors of money, prostitutes became targeted and socially restricted alongside Jews. In a blatant display of discrimination, some towns and cities only allowed prostitutes and Jews to use the baths on a specific day. Catholic society had moved away from a focus on God, to prioritizing Christ as the centre of their community via the sacrament of communion. As they consumed Christ’s body, the Catholic community saw themselves as a literal embodiment of Christ. Those who refused to consume his body and follow the Catholic moral code, Jews and prostitutes, were not only shunned, but socially censured.
The idea that people could infect others with their immorality speaks to a growing belief in an interconnected, Christian body. Prostitutes were the antithesis of what the Catholic community believed would achieve salvation. Prostitutes gained acceptance and legal institutionalisation in the 13th century. However, it was short-lived. By the end of the 14th century, the repudiation of women selling their bodies for sex was intimately connected with Catholic society moving towards Christ and the Host as the centre of their community. As they embraced Communion, Catholics accepted that salvation was only attainable by keeping the body pure.
Medieval moral codes aimed to address the belief that sin infected the entire Catholic community. Society communally accepted the Church’s teachings as morally correct. Their attempt to protect the moral well-being of the Catholic community only served to disenfranchise Jewish people and prostitutes who rejected the status quo.
Groupthink was destructive in the Middle Ages, and it continues to wreak havoc on contemporary society. Restricting information flow to like-minded people creates increased discrimination in a globalized world. We must strive to engage in more dialogue, especially when we disagree, and especially when we feel uncomfortable. Discomfort is a necessary prerequisite for change and growth. Groupthink is dangerous beause it ensures that psychological stability is reinforced while simultaneously avoiding discomfort; to the ultimate detriment of individual and communal growth.
Jewish people and prostitutes were guilty of rejecting a communal code of conduct that was perpetuated by the Medieval Roman Catholic Church. Jews and prostitutes were murdered, oppressed, and silenced by the perpetuators and the followers of Catholic dogma. Christians truly believed that they were on the morally just side. When will we learn to question our own rightness? When will be find the balance between individual beliefs and community well-being? History shows us that the balance is possible, but so far, it has never been sustainable.
Christine Cleary, 4th Year History Major, Queen’s University (Canada).
 Bruce Kuklick, The Journal of American History 60, no. 3 (1973): pg. 857. https://doi.org/10.2307/1917768.
 Claire Kennan, Week 3: Medieval Religion, (OnQ; Monday, June 22nd), Slide #5, https://onq.queensu.ca/d2l/le/content/779622/viewContent/4734022/View.
 Fordham University. Medieval Sourcebook: Twelfth Ecumenical Council: Lateran IV 1215. “The Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215.” (Created 26 Jan, 1996: latest revision 25 May, 2023), Cannon 3, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/lateran4.asp.
 Fordham University, Medieval Sourcebook, 3.
 Guillaume Erner, “Christian Economic Morality: The Medieval Turning Point.” International social science journal 57, no. 185 (2005): 473.
 P. G. Maxwell-Stuart, “Papal Decisions, Decrees and Letters 1258–1524.” In Witch Beliefs and Witch Trials in the Middle Ages: Documents and Readings, no.3. London: Continuum, 2011. Accessed June 7, 2023. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781472599346.0005.
 Steven Bednarski, A Poisoned Past: The Life & Times of Margarida de Portu, a Fourteenth Century Accused Poisoner, (Toronto, 2014), 85.
 Erner, Christian Morality, 472.
 Ibid, 473.
 Erner, Christian Morality, 473.
 Alan Kissane, ‘Unnatural in Body and a Villain in Soul: Rape and Sexual Violence Towards Girls under the Age of Canonical Consent in Late Medieval England’, in Fourteenth Century England, ed. by G. Dodd (Boydell & Brewer, 2018), 106.
 Ruth Mazo Karras, ‘The Regulation of Sexuality in the Late Middle Ages: England and France’, Speculum, 86: 4 (2011), 1021.
 Nico Voigtlander, Hans-Joachim Voth. “Persecution Perpetuated: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Semitic Violence in Nazi Germany.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 127, no. 3 (2012): 1339. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23251987.
 Paul Slack, “Responses to Plague in Early Modern Europe: The Implications of Public Health.” Social Research 55, no. 3 (1988): 436. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40970513.
 Erner, Christian Morality, 475.
 Voigtländer, Persecution Perpetuated, 1340.
 Samuel K John, “The Black Death and the Burning of Jews.” Past & present 196, no. 1 (2007): pg. 4.
 Ibid, 1341-2342.
 John, The Black Death, 325.
 Erner, Christian Morality, 473.
 Leah Otis-Cour, Prostitution in Medieval Society the History of an Urban Institution in Languedoc. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, 25.
 Karras, Regulation of Sexuality, 1027.