Perhaps the most famous example of this sort of story is the Prioress’s Tale from the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s influential collection The Canterbury Tales, in which a Jew murders a Christian child and throws his body into a dungheap. Nearly as famous is the legend of the Jew of Bourges, who burns alive his own son for taking communion, only to be cast into the flames himself.
An early 14th-century French illustration depicts the Jew of Bourges with big rolling eyes and a porcine nose as he thrusts his child into a furnace. The image, in all of its racist hysteria and grotesque sentimentality, isn’t all that different from the anti-Semitic cartoons that Julius Streicher published at the height of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich—and like Nazi propaganda, it tries to manipulate gentile viewers by uniting them against a common enemy. The same could be said for many of the artworks on display in the Morgan exhibition, which feature monsters modeled off of other powerless, persecuted groups: not only Jews, but also Muslims, women, the poor, and the mentally ill.
These images may have been intended to strengthen medieval Europe in the face of a perceived threat from monstrous pagans, but seen today, they almost seem to convey the opposite: the fragility and self-loathing of medieval culture, and the poverty of genuine differences between Christian and pagan.
An illustration from a 15th-century French Book of Hours shows Saint Quentin being tortured by a fearsome, bearded Saracen (i.e., Muslim warrior), who’s about to drive a nail into the martyr’s neck. The Saracen’s pose is virtually identical to Saint George’s, yet the former’s violent action is supposed to be sacrilegious, while the latter’s is saintly. And in a 13th-century German Book of Psalms, an angel marches a long line of damned souls towards the fires of hell. One of the sinners is clearly meant to be a Jew, judging by his beard, hat, and long nose, but another appears to be a monk. Here, wickedness isn’t limited to a monstrous Other: The danger posed by enemies of the faith is equaled by that of the enemy within.