The earliest known anti-Jewish caricature is a sketch—actually, an elaborate doodle—in the upper margin of an English royal tax record from 1233. It shows three bizarre-looking Jews standing inside a schematic castle, which is being attacked by a host of cartoonish horned, beak-nosed demons. Another, larger demon in the center of the castle tweaks the freakishly long noses of two of the Jews, as if to underscore the resemblance between their profiles and his own.
This little doodle is something of a celebrity in historical circles. It has its own National Archives educational webpage, appears on the cover of several books, and is generally considered a landmark in the history of anti-Semitism, graphic evidence that in the thirteenth century economic resentment and religious bigotry were combining to breed a newly virulent, even racial, form of Jew-hatred. The overall thrust of the consensus is captured in the notes for teachers on the National Archives website: “This lesson is suitable for KS3 History Unit 19: ‘How and why did the Holocaust happen?’”
But there is reason to reconsider this reading of the cartoon, which has been overly influenced by the long afterlife of the anti-Jewish imagery pioneered here. To view the doodle through the lens of hindsight is to overlook its intense topicality. In fact, I think that it is a mistake to see in this cartoon only, or even primarily, an indictment of Jewish greed and infidelity. It is, first and foremost, political satire.
In order to parse the cartoon’s political content, and understand the part played by Jews, we need to carefully examine every aspect of the image. We know the three human figures are Jews because they are conveniently labeled. The strange, three-faced, crowned man looming above the others in the top center of the sketch is “Isaac de Norwich.” He was a fairly well documented historical figure: a prominent Jewish merchant, moneylender, rabbi, and physician with residences in Norwich and London. In giving Isaac three faces the artist apparently intended to equate Isaac with the Antichrist, the legendary villain whose appearance at the end of time would usher in the Second Coming of Christ, and who was portrayed as a three-faced, crowned figure in contemporary manuscripts.
The man in the spiked helmet to the left of Isaac is “Mosse Mokke.” He, too, was a Jew active in the Norwich money trade—he twice served as a collector of Jewish taxes for the king, and was once employed by Isaac to rough up a defaulting debtor.
We cannot firmly identify the elegantly dressed woman labeled “Avegaye” (Abigail), but she was presumably an actual, identifiable individual as well—there are several Jewish women named Avegaye attested in contemporary documents.
There is, in addition, a fourth, unnamed human figure, on the far left.
Scholars are unanimous in identifying this man as another Jewish moneylender; his presence ostensibly explains the meaning of the cartoon. According to Frank Felsenstein in Antisemitic Stereotypes, which offers the most extended, and quite representative, analysis of the cartoon, he “hold[s] up a pair of scales filled with coins, symbolizing the usurious role with which Jews were associated in the Middle Ages…. [It is] clear that Jews are viewed as agents of Hell, to be feared as well as vilified. Isaac seems to rule over this demonic world, perhaps to usurp the role of the king, Henry III [whose lilied crown he wears].”
These scales are indeed the key to the mystery. But do they really embody the evils of moneylending? Let us remember that the caricature appears not in a religious polemic or theological treatise, but at the top of a royal tax roll. This is not where one would expect to find an anti-usury diatribe. Although Christian moralists did indeed fulminate against the lending of money at interest, it seems unlikely that a clerk in the Exchequer of the Jews—the only person in a position to make this little sketch—would share their outrage. His bureau, whose function was to keep track of the substantial royal revenue generated by taxing Jews, existed solely because of Jewish moneylending. Moreover, many a royal clerk is known to have supplemented his income by lending out cash at interest.
Indeed, the cartoonist has sprinkled his image with reminders of its political, rather than religious origins. The first is the setting. Although various scholars have suggested that the structure represents a Norwich church, the Norwich Jewish ghetto (which did not exist), or Isaac’s own house in Norwich, it is actually a quite accurate and detailed rendering of Westminster Palace, where the Exchequer was located.
Other details, too, suggest we should redirect our attention away from Jewish Otherness and toward the day-to-day workings of Westminster. Without in the least attempting to deny its antagonism toward Isaac, Mosse, and Avegaye, or to discount contemporary Jewish-Christian tensions, I would like to point out some features of the image that the widely accepted interpretation of the doodle—that is, as an unambiguously and purely anti-Jewish scrawl—fails to see.
It fails, first, to notice the significant visual difference between the three central Jewish figures and the so-called Jewish usurer on the far left. Their faces are distorted—in Isaac’s case monstrous—whereas the alleged usurer’s is not. They are located in the central court of the crenellated structure; he is lower down and off to the side. They are labeled by name; he is left unnamed. And while Mosse and Avegaye are mocked, manhandled, and threatened by the demons and show distress, he is left alone. Or rather, he joins the demons in mocking them: he sneers at them, and as he holds up the scales he tucks his thumb between his forefinger and middle finger in a venerable gesture of contempt known as “giving the fig” (the medieval equivalent of “giving the finger”).
The traditional reading of the hooded man as a usurious Jew, moreover, fails to note that it was not Jewish moneylenders but royal clerks who were charged with weighing the coins brought into the Exchequer for tax payment. Finally, the exclusive focus on anti-Judaism fails to note that although this figure’s hood may well be, as it is so often called, “the typical clothing of the medieval Jew,” hoods were also worn by many other middle-class town-dwellers, including Christian merchants, university scholars, and ecclesiastical and royal clerks.
In sum, I believe that this so-called “usurious Jew” is no Jew at all. I would identify him, instead, as an Exchequer clerk, perhaps even the self-same scribe whose nasty doodle he inhabits. His rude “gotcha” gesture is not an expression of religious wrath, but of professional disgruntlement. In fact, the cartoon is riddled with various clues as to its true target: deceit, corruption, and hypocrisy…and a specific (Christian) man charged with those sins.
The first clue lies in Mosse Mokke’s appearance. Far from having “stereotypical” Jewish features, Mosse’s looks break with artistic convention. His hair is blond and cut in a fashionable bob, a style typically seen on noblemen and courtiers, and rarely depicted on Jewish men. In contrast to the stereotype of the bearded Jew, he is clean-shaven, or perhaps sports a five o’clock shadow. Though scholars unanimously call his pointed helmet the “characteristic Jewish spiked hat,” it looks very different from the hats usually assigned to Jews in Christian art, and more like the helmets of non-Jewish workers, warriors, and scholars.
And as for his so-called “Jewish nose”—it would not have been considered such in 1233. At that time, crooked, hooked, or large noses denoted sin and moral turpitude in general rather than Jewishness per se; they were just as liable to appear on bad Christians or pagans as on Jews. (The hooked nose would not come to signify “Jewishness” until the later thirteenth century; see “The Invention of the Jewish Nose.”) The cartoonist thus gives us mixed signals concerning Mosse’s identity: his crookedness is revealed in (unmasked through) his distorted nose, but it is cloaked under a fair and fashionable, even courtly mien.
Avegaye’s appearance is likewise atypical. It was not unusual for Jewish women to be depicted, as she is, in fashionable clothing, and with luxuriously long hair—the beauty of the Jewess was something of a byword in medieval literature. But her longish and devilishly bent nose violates all artistic precedent: no distorted features or distinguishing signs of any kind had yet been applied to Jewish women in Christian imagery. This odd combination of physical ugliness and sartorial elegance not only emphasizes her inappropriate (and ill-gained?) prosperity, but also calls to mind preachers’ warnings about the deceptive and potentially corrupting power of beauty.
The implicit message in both these portrayals is that far from being utterly different from and universally hated by Christians, at least some Jews were all too similar to, perhaps even admired by, Christians.
Another clue to a veiled meaning lies in the conflation of Isaac with the Antichrist. The Antichrist was not just any generically nasty villain. He was, rather, the ultimate embodiment of deceit, duplicity, disguise, and hypocrisy. It was believed that when he came he would masquerade as Christ himself and fool not just Jews but also many Christian believers, including kings and emperors, into following him. Since thirteenth-century texts emphasized this latter facet of the legend, presenting the Antichrist primarily as a deceiver of ambitious elites, to disguise Isaac as Antichrist is to take a subtle dig at greedy and power-hungry Christians. Indeed, Isaac’s strange hairy garb recalls a contemporary satirical poem that lambasts courtly corruption by tracing the tortured career of a courtier’s fur cloak, called a mantellus hypocrita.
There is an even more pointed gag associated with the central demon and his devilish cohort. The prevailing reading of the cartoon sees them as fearsome and vilified allies of the Jews, those alleged agents of Hell. All scholars who have written on this image follow the late Sir Cecil Roth in reading the devil’s name as “Colbif,” an otherwise unattested word assumed to evoke some ancient pagan god or demon, and so, presumably, indicative of Jewish Otherness and unbelief. This would certainly fit in with a reading of the image as a scathing indictment of Jewish infidelity.
But close examination of the Receipt Roll shows that the name should actually be read as “Colbik.” This changes the tone of the image somewhat: Colbik is not an invented exotic deity but a fairly crude Middle High German pun, generally used as an insult. Derived from kolb, the word for “club,” it has the triple meaning of “horned,” “horny,” and “big-nosed.” The demon’s appearance underscores the joke. He and his minions are rendered not as terrifying fiends but as ludicrously attired stage actors, whose horns are growing not out of their heads but out of their patently artificial hoods. Indeed, their costumes resemble nothing so much as the dress of the court jester, a figure that often carried a club and feigned folly in order to expose more insidious falsities still, especially among the mighty.
What situation might have provoked such a satire? What falsities are being exposed, and why are Jews used in this image to critique courtly hypocrisy?
The answer can be found by considering the cartoon’s specific historical context. The sketch was most likely made in late spring or summer in the year 1233. These were tumultuous months at the Exchequer. Throughout the 1230s England experienced conflict between, on the one hand, the unpopular King Henry III and his hated so-called “alien” (French) favorite, Peter des Roches, and, on the other hand, a group of resentful noblemen. The Exchequer was a primary battleground in this struggle: in summer 1232 the king had ousted its long-standing and much-respected head and replaced him with a relative of the detested des Roches, essentially subjecting Exchequer clerks to outside control. The favorite’s faction lost no time in replenishing the royal coffers and enriching themselves by exploiting their newfound power over and connections with the English Jewry. They alternately imposed punishingly heavy taxes upon the community, collected loans from Christian debtors on Jews’ behalf, destroyed or cancelled Jewish bonds for their own gain, and extorted bribes from wealthy Jews to exempt them from the taxes. One of the Jews with whom des Roches most frequently dealt was Isaac of Norwich—Isaac several times provisioned des Roches’s household (at one point delivering 58,000 herring to the bishop’s residence), and obtained from des Roches various reductions in his taxes.
Although Jews were, in fact, the main victims of des Roches’s rapacity, his involvement in their financial activities did not endear them or him, or his royal patron, to other Englishmen. The English nobles complained bitterly about royal involvement in Jewish lending, and before a year had passed the king and his favorite were forced to try to distance themselves from the Jews, with whom they had become closely associated in many people’s minds. At the April 1233 Easter Court des Roches (hypocritically) participated in passing a host of anti-Jewish measures in an attempt to deflect hostility from the king and himself. These measures did not work. When some of the nobles rebelled in August 1233, one of their main grievances was the king’s strategy of indirectly milking his subjects by promoting and then taking his share of Jewish moneylending.
It is this highly charged situation, I believe, that motivated the deliberately masked satirical indictment of deceit, disguise, and double-dealing in the cartoon. Our clerk, a relatively low-level royal functionary, was not condemning Jewish usury out of moral outrage or religious bigotry. Rather, he was protesting the fact that his bureau had been handed over to “outsiders” and brought into disrepute by an unscrupulous favorite prosecuting unpopular policies. Isaac does not wear the king’s crown because he has usurped the king’s role. Instead, the consistent joining of courtly details with symbols of fraud, and the repeated reminders of parallels between Jews and Christians, that I have detailed here tell us that Jews’ transactions and anti-Jewish actions mask deeper treacheries. Under Isaac’s hypocritical cloak beats the perfidious heart of the king’s “alien” favorite, perhaps even the hypocritical heart of the king himself.
In the end, of course, it does not matter if the clerk’s true ire was directed against powerful courtiers rather than Jewish moneylenders. Although more medieval Christians profited from moneylending than Jews ever did, and although more Christians than Jews died in the violence that broke out within weeks of the sketching of this cartoon, it was Jews, not Christians, who were stereotyped as greedy, bestial, demonic, blood-sucking usurers. In the decades that followed, English Jews were taxed more and more heavily, their goods were confiscated, they were arrested and held for ransom, they were executed on both real and trumped-up charges, and finally, in 1290, they were expelled from the realm, not to be allowed back on English soil for almost four hundred years.
Nonetheless, there is significance in the fact that our clerk probably intended to sketch a darkly comic critique of royal policy under cover of caricatured Jewish faces. For it highlights the role of visual imagery in the creation of stereotypes. No one could read the words of a medieval tax roll without some specialized training, and no one would read the words of such a document without concern for its immediate context. Images, however, because they are so apparently easy to read, appear to be unmediated, and their meaning is assumed to be universal, timeless, and self-evident. This, of course, is far from true. But the ostensible timelessness of art undoubtedly magnifies its impact: Constable may have painted an image of a sunset in a particular time and place, but that painting has affected how people have viewed sunsets ever since and around the globe. The effects of medieval anti-Jewish caricature are just as intense, and far less benign. The nasty doodle I have discussed here is, of course, neither a beautiful nor an important piece of art. Until its rediscovery in the twentieth century, it was probably only seen and snickered at by a handful of men. But it still has much to teach us, about how contingent jokes morph into timeless “truths,” about how people come to hate their neighbors, and about the power and danger of even the apparently trivial image.
This piece is adapted from an essay that appears in Past & Present.