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Languages and functions of medieval exclusion

Nora Berend


This article draws on a range of examples from the high and late medieval period to demonstrate the mechanisms of excluding groups from society. It especially considers evidence where the same group is included according to some sources, but excluded according to others. This entails analysing three interconnected issues. First, how the terminology that was used to designate those seen as not members of the same society or even humanity; second, the purposes for which excluding mechanisms were put in place and third, agency, and conflict over when and whom to exclude.

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1Filomena Barros contributed so much to our understanding of inclusion and exclusion in society. We also had many pleasant conversations in the breaks of conferences, on medieval as well as contemporary inclusion and exclusion. Her early death has deprived us of her expertise and her company. I am honoured to contribute an article to the Special Issue in her memory.

  • 1 T. Sizgorich, Violence and belief…, p. 26.

2In the late 4th century, John Chrysostom was worried that his Christian flock could not distinguish themselves from Jews. There were more commonalities than differences, and Christians socialized with Jews, seeing nothing wrong in it. John Chrysostom was determined to break such “judaizing” and erect strict boundaries between Christians and Jews. He was unable to point to substantive, observable distinctions between Jews and Christians; instead, he started to employ the language of exclusion, to turn Christians against Jews. “The lawless and unclean fast of the Jews is now at the doors. Do not wonder if I called that fast an unclean thing. For a thing done contrary to the will of God… is the most accursed of things.”1 He could not attack the practice of fasting itself, prescribed for Christians as well; he could not even attack the specific form of Jewish fasting; instead, he erected a barrier by insisting on knowing God’s will, and connected the rightness of actions to being according to, or contrary to God’s will.

  • 2 T. Sizgorich, Violence and belief…, pp. 40–41.

3He also enjoined on members of the Christian congregation to police their coreligionists and turn them away from judaizing. They were to confront those Christians who socialize with Jews, and ask them: “Tell me, do you commend the Jews for crucifying Christ, and for now blaspheming against him?… If the man is a Christian,… even if he has judaized ten thousand times, he will never suffer to say it… Then say: how can you have dealings with them? How can you take part in their festival? How can you keep the fast with them?”2

4The conclusion he drew on the extent of justified exclusion is chilling:

  • 3 T. Sizgorich, Violence and belief…, p. 26.

What is done in accordance with the will of God, even if it should seem to be evil, is the best of all things … and even if someone kills in accordance with God’s will, this killing is better than every sort of philanthropy, while if someone is merciful and behaves humanely contrary to the will of God that mercy is more unholy than any killing. For it is not the nature of things, but rather the decrees of God that makes things good or bad.3

5It is well known that subsequent churchmen vigorously pursued Chrysostom’s agenda and turned the Jews into enemies of Christians, and established anti-Jewish stereotypes that had a long-lasting and lethal impact. The language of exclusion was also translated into images, a symbolic language of exclusion developing in Christian art. One of many examples can be found in the Salvin Hours, a richly decorated book of hours produced around 1270, and now in the British Library. One illumination shows Jesus being brought before the high priest Caiaphas.4 He is led by three Jews, all of them depicted as ugly, with a deformed hooked nose, a figurative language that was stereotypical. It was part of the pictorial strategy to evoke emotional responses in the viewers, and blame the Jews for crucifying Christ.5 The hooked nose and Jewish hat became pervasive visual symbols, a language of the exclusion of Jews from Christian society in the Middle Ages. Jews were routinely represented in such a way, even when they were not associated with the Passion in the representation.6

6So this form of representation is an example of the language of exclusion; it instantaneously evokes negative stereotyping. This short example of the mechanism of exclusion, from similarity and coexistence between Jews and Christians, to medieval exclusionary stereotyping, demonstrates that the mechanism of exclusion, the exclusionary language and depiction was brought into being by a conscious effort by early Christian churchmen to turn Christians against Jews. Its aim was to drive home that Christians and Jews must be distinguished from each other, that Christian communities must exclude the Jews. Thus this example shows well that exclusion was a process that worked through specific means, terms, and signs, through the agency of particular people, for specific aims. Exclusion is socially constructed: those who exclude point to difference between themselves and the excluded. At times such difference includes some elements of reality (though in some cases it is without any foundation whatsoever in that reality), but it is always related to the agenda of those who exclude. I would, therefore, like to add agency into the picture through the examples I shall discuss.

7I shall focus on examples that clearly demonstrate this process of construction and at times we can even see that the same group, or in some cases same individual, presented, in different contexts, two radically divergent images of some group of people. That is, in one context or during one period, this group is excluded, while in a different context or time period they are presented as friends, allies, one of “us”. This approach allows me to trace both agency and agenda. While such construction and deconstruction can take as its object (or subject) strangers one has never met, I shall privilege examples that relate to those with whom one has long-term, meaningful interactions, and especially examples that relate to neighbours, people living in close proximity. It is by now a commonplace that human groups distinguish above all those who are very similar; the need to erect boundaries arises when there is no visible boundary in fact. On the other hand, a rhetoric of inclusion is possible even in circumstances that seem to make inclusion unattainable.

  • 7 A. Ruotsala, Europeans and Mongols…, pp. 60–64.
  • 8 Chronica Majora, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College Library MS 16, fol. 167r. https://www.researchga (...)

8Let me start with a dramatic example, that of the Mongols. Western Europeans knew very little about the Mongols in the early thirteenth century; and mistook rumours of Mongol advances for news about the people of Prester John or King David. This changed very rapidly. After the Mongols attacked Europe, invading Hungary and Poland, and to a lesser extent impacting Bohemia in 1241–42, they were quickly turned into monsters. They were described as eating raw meat, drinking blood, and having no knowledge of bread. The name Tartar (instead of Tatar) was used, linking them to Tartarus, classical antiquity’s hell, suggesting an infernal people. They were also identified with the people of Gog and Magog, who had a place in apocalyptic visions of the end. For example, Cardinal Eudes of Châteauroux, a Frenchman who was close to King Louis IX as well as to Pope Innocent IV, preached a sermon on the Mongols probably around 1242.7 According to that, the “gens tartarorum” arrived from the most distant parts of the world because of the sins of the Christians. Because they are so strong and numerous, no-one can resist them and Christendom needs to unite to face them. They are comparable to the Devil, with nothing resembling them found on earth. An illustration in Matthew Paris further elaborates such an image: the Mongols were depicted as cannibals, a key othering device making those accused of cannibalism part of the animal world more than a human one.8 So the Mongols were constructed as particularly horrible and evil, excluded from normal human society.

9We can of course easily understand such a representation of the Mongols. They were dangerous enemies, who killed and terrified the population in the areas they invaded. Yet the strategy becomes much more problematic when we consider that very quickly two completely divergent but temporally coinciding images were constructed about the Mongols. On the one hand, they were turned into harbingers of the approaching Apocalypse, while on the other hand, they started to be seen as potential allies.

  • 9 R. Lerner, The Powers of Prophecy…, pp. 9–24.
  • 10 P. Jackson, The Mongols and the West…, p. 137.
  • 11 P. Jackson, The Mongols and the West…, pp. 150–152.

10Ascribing a role to the Mongols at the end of times explained their sudden irruption and seeming invincibility.9 However, although the invasion was not a distant memory that faded away, it was in a way overwritten – at least in certain circles – in the context of western hopes for crusading success. There was of course also new information that was gathered about the Mongols by papal envoys cum spies, John of Plano Carpini and Simon of Saint Quentin. Their reports or accounts of these reports were in circulation from 1247.10 Nonetheless, these reports did not fundamentally alter attitudes to the Mongols and do not explain the change from the apocalyptic enemy to potential ally. While the reports provided some more realistic appraisal and first-hand information than previously available, they still gave a very unfavourable view of the Mongols, calling them “barbarians” and “beastly”.11

  • 12 P. Jackson, The Mongols and the West…, pp. 139–140; P. Jackson, “Christians, Barbarians, and Monste (...)

11Other negative elements abounded in these reports. One trope frequently used was the lack of cities: in Christian Europe, cities were a measure of civilization and an echo of heavenly Jerusalem too, so having no cities denoted paganism and a lack of culture. These reports listed other habits that signified the Mongols’ lack of civilization: eating various unclean animals like mice and wolves, not washing dishes and utensils, defecating nearby even in the middle of a conversation. The charge of cannibalism was also repeated. Moreover, reports stated that Mongols were without faith, and the effigies that Europeans saw, effigies that in fact represented ancestors, were understood to be idols the Mongols venerated, using the frame of reference Christian clerics inherited from antiquity.12

12Therefore, it was not really new information that changed the way in which the Mongols were construed, from prime examples of enemies to potential allies; since the new information could also have been used to confirm the rhetoric of exclusion. Part of the motivation for a new attitude to the Mongols was a strategic one, the idea that in the Holy Land crusade, Mongols can be useful allies against the Muslims, a common enemy threatening both. There were genuine Mongol interests in alliance too. There were also more optimistic (and less realistic) European expectations involved, those of Mongol conversion to Christianity that recurred in western Europe until the Mongol conversion to Islam. This hope arose out of a combination of boundless and often groundless Christian optimism of converting the world, and of Mongol attitudes to religion that were not exclusive (somewhat misleadingly often called “tolerance”). Especially Nestorians played an important role at the Mongol court and there were frequent rumours about conversions, some true, concerning some of the women at court (for example Möngke’s mother and Hulagu’s wife), some entirely fabricated, concerning the khans – the rulers – themselves.

  • 13 A. Ruotsala, Europeans and Mongols…, pp. 65–66.
  • 14 J. Richard, “Chrétiens et Mongols au Concile…”, pp. 31–44.
  • 15 P. Jackson, The Mongols and the West…, pp. 175–176.
  • 16 P. Jackson, The Mongols and the West…, p. 172.

13The same Eudes of Châteauroux I have already mentioned reported in 1249 on a Mongol approach to Louis IX made by Nestorian envoys, whom the Mongols sent to Cyprus (Louis was en route to the Holy Land), hoping for cooperation with the crusaders.13 He was cautious, uncertain if this was Mongol cunning or a genuine approach. Others were more optimistic. Preparing for the second council of Lyon, Humbert of Romans rejected comparisons of the Mongols to ancient barbarians, arguing that although the Mongols persecute Hungarians (and only them), they provide help against Saracens. Mongol approaches to westerners, with plans to collaborate and attack the Mamluks together, were due to their own hostilities with the Mamluks. At the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, Il-khan Abakha’s embassy was present and underwent public baptism.14 Persistent rumours attached to various Mongol rulers, who were supposedly going to convert to Christianity.15 Ghazan’s military activity against the Mamluks around 1300 was presented as the fulfillment of the hopes that had been attached to Prester John. As Ghazan had suggested, after the conquest of the Holy Land, Jerusalem would be returned to Christian control. European rumours related in various chronicles and annals included the idea that control over the Holy Land has been ceded to Christians, Ghazan was baptized, and captured the Sultan of Egypt.16 Just how ill-informed the authors of these rumours were is shown by the fact that Ghazan had converted to Islam in 1295. I should emphasize that there was no consensus among Christians, and by no means all came to see Mongols as friends.

14European ideas about the Mongols clearly demonstrate a whole series of constructions and deconstructions; first a positive one, that of a Christian people from mythical times, come to help crusaders. One could dismiss this still as simply based on a lack of information and misunderstanding. But the following fabrications, especially the parallel construction of the Mongols as precursors of the apocalypse on the one hand, and allies against the Muslims on the other hand, show that both exclusion and inclusion were based on the same information. Both existed at the same time in the writings of different European authors, using in large part the same evidence about the Mongols, yet constructing very different images of their relations to Christians. Inclusion as allies or exclusion as beasts were linked to the aims of European rulers and writers.

  • 17 N. Berend, At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims and ‘Pagans’…, pp. 218–219.

15In many ways similar to the Mongols, the Cumans who settled in Hungary in the thirteenth century constitute my next example. They were also nomads from the steppe, in a dominant position before the arrival of the Mongols, refugees after that. The crucial difference, however, is that I shall be looking at those who settled within Christian society; so while the Mongols remained a people apart who could be construed as enemies or allies, the Cumans became members of the same society as the Christian authors writing about them. Some of the Cumans, under the leadership of their elite, entered Hungary where King Béla IV settled them just before the Mongol invasion. They were quickly seen as vanguards of the Mongols in 1241, their chieftain was murdered, and the Cumans withdrew from Hungary. Because of their military value, however, the king invited them back and bound them to himself even more by marrying his son and heir Stephen to a Cuman chief’s daughter, who was baptized Elisabeth. The Cumans were to be converted and settled and they served the king in the royal army. However, due to the internal political situation in the kingdom of Hungary, where the high nobility was trying to limit royal power, a civil war broke out between Béla and his supporters on the one hand, and his son Stephen and his supporters on the other hand. Stephen was “dominus Cumanorum”, the highest authority over the Cumans. Gaining the loyalty of the Cumans because of their military value in internal fighting as well as external wars thus became an issue between father and son.17 And here we can see in close proximity in time two constructions that King Béla IV presented to the pope: first he wrote of the Cumans as having converted and being one of “us”; then he wrote about them as the enemy.

  • 18 N. Berend, At the Gate of Christendom…, p. 220.

16In the early 1250s, expectations were high concerning the rapid conversion of the Cumans to Christianity. In 1253, Pope Innocent IV authorized Hungary’s archbishops to absolve new converts among the Cumans when they infringed canon law to ease their way into fully embracing Christianity. The very next year, in 1254, King Béla IV reported great successes and in 1260, the successful conversion of all the Cumans: “they all accepted the true light of the orthodox faith” without exceptions, they were baptized and incorporated into the Roman Church. A success story if there ever was one: the Cumans who about 20 years previously entered the kingdom as a barbarous “other”, seen by the local population as the vanguard of the Mongols and just like them, were now Christians and incorporated into the Church; they have become “us”.18

  • 19 N. Berend, At the Gate of Christendom…, pp. 220–221.

17Only four years later, however, the Cumans are once again excluded from Christian society in King Béla’s letters. In 1264, King Béla IV turned to the papal curia of Urban IV for help against the Cumans, “a danger to Christianity.”19 He presented the problem as purely a matter of Cuman recalcitrance. They had only pretended to convert, their baptism did not bring about respect for Christianity. Instead, they ridiculed the consecrated host and priests, made stables out of churches, raped Christian women and killed Christians. The royal letter was so persuasive that Pope Urban IV ordered the Hungarian archbishops not only to ensure that all Cumans are baptized and those already baptized keep the faith, but if necessary, even to call a crusade against recalcitrant Cumans, to compel those baptized to obey Christian precepts, and to expel those who refused baptism. While of course it did take longer for an entire population to become Christian in the sense expected by the king and ecclesiastics than a few years, King Béla was not simply expressing the frustration of a devout Christian. The real trigger of King Béla’s complaint was the Cumans’ choice to side with his son Stephen (V) in the civil war that broke out between them. At the same time, what happened also reflected the vast difference between Cuman and Christian understandings of baptism: for the former, an event that did not mean exclusive allegiance in a traditional nomadic context, for the latter, the idea of a permanent change. Yet, the quick succession of the changing ideas about the Cumans demonstrates clearly how the king chose to present the Cumans as part of society or impossible to include in society, based on the political situation.

  • 20 R. Fletcher, The Quest

18The next case I want to invoke is that of Muslims in writings about Rodrigo Díaz, better known as “el Cid” (d. 1099). Rodrigo was a member of the opportunistic warrior nobility, who started out at the court of the king of Castile, went as a mercenary into the service of the Muslim ruler of Zaragoza and finally conquered a principality for himself, Valencia. In his interactions with his contemporaries, he was clearly not guided by religious motivations: he allied with and fought against both Muslims and Christians indiscriminately.20 Yet perhaps already in his lifetime and certainly after death some started to transform him into a Christian hero fighting for the faith. His actions show that Rodrigo treated Muslims indiscriminately as friend or foe depending on whose service he was in. Sources also depict Muslims in various ways. Some construe them as religious enemies. This is already the case in the charter of donations to the cathedral of Valencia, which purportedly bears Rodrigo’s autograph and is probably authentic, from 1098. The context for the charter is Rodrigo’s consolidation of power; he gave substantial donations to the archbishop. The charter recounts the development of Christianity and the conversion of the Iberian peninsula (Hispania); then “wordly rule together with that of the Church collapsed utterly before the cruel sword of the sons of Hagar” (et crudeli filiorum Agar gladio secularis dignitas funditus corruit pariterum sanctuario) and nearly four hundred years later:

clementissimus Pater,… inuictissimum principem Rudericum Campidoctorem obprobrii seruorum suorum suscitauit ultorem et christiane religionis propagatorem. Qui, post multiplices et eximias quas diuinitus assecutus est preliorum uictorias, diuiciarum gloria et hominum copia opulentissimam urbem cepit Ualentiam. Necnon et innumerabili moabitarum et tocius Hispanie barbarorum exercitu superato, uelut in momento ultra quam credi potest sine sui detrimento, ipsam meschitam que apud agarenos domus oracionis habebatur Deo in ecclesiam dicauit…

  • 21 S. Barton, “El Cid, Cluny…”, pp. 517–543, see p. 531.

The most merciful Father deigned to take pity on His people, and He raised up the most invincible prince Rodrigo the Campeador to be the avenger of the shame of His servants and the enlarger of the Christian faith. And he, after many famous victories in battles which he won by divine aid, captured the most wealthy city of Valencia with its glory of riches and abundance of men. Moreover, he defeated a vast army of the Moabites [Almoravids] and of the barbarians of all Spain, and in a shorter time than anyone would believe possible, and without damage to himself, converted the very mosque, which among the Agarenes was considered a house of prayer, into a church for God…21

19In this text, the Muslims are the sons of the Biblical Hagar, barbarians, the enemy against whom God raised up Rodrigo, who is a deliverer of Christians. The aim was to legitimise Rodrigo’s position in Valencia; to underpin claims to territorial rulership and to legitimize his donation to the Church of Valencia. It was thus in the interest of the ecclesiastical community to frame Rodrigo’s deeds not as those of a mercenary who struck lucky, but as the God-appointed Christian saviour of Hispania, since this better protected their rights to the donations received from Rodrigo.

  • 22 Eng. Tr. The World of el Cid, tr. Simon Barton and Richard Fletcher (Manchester and New York, Manch (...)

20Other sources, however, portray the Muslims and Rodrigo’s relations to them in a different light. The ecclesiastical authors of the charter would have been horrified to see how the Historia Roderici, written in the first half of the twelfth century, portrayed Muslims. In the following section, Rodrigo is in the service of the Muslim ruler of Zaragoza, al-Mu’tamin, whose brother al-Ḥāyib allied with the Christian counts of Barcelona and others, and mounted a military attack against some of al-Mu’tamin’s castles. Rodrigo sent messengers to advise al-Mu’tamin of the danger. “Al-Mu’tamin came at once to Rodrigo… they took counsel together. Al-Mu’tamin asked Rodrigo to fight against the enemy… But he replied: ‘It is better that you pay al-Ḥāyib money to abstain from attacking the castle than to offer battle with him, for he has come with a great multitude of troops.’ Al-Mu’tamin willingly agreed to this. So Rodrigo at once sent a messenger to the aforesaid counts and to al-Ḥāyib, proposing that they accept money and depart from the castle. But they were unwilling to accede to this proposal and did not cease from attacking the castle. Greatly worried, Rodrigo ordered all his soldiers to arm and prepare themselves bravely for battle… With a great noise of shouting and weaponry on both sides the troops advanced and joined battle. [Rodrigo was victorious] All their goods and booty passed by custom into the hands of Rodrigo. He led the count of Barcelona and his warriors captive to the castle of Tamarite and there in the wake of victory delivered them into the hands of al-Mu’tamin. [they are then freed.] Rodrigo Díaz returned with al-Mu’tamin to Zaragoza, where he was received by the citizens with the greatest honour and respect. In those days al-Mu’tamin raised Rodrigo up above his own son and over his kingdom. … Al-Mu’tamin showered him with innumerable presents and many gifts of gold and silver.”22

21Unlike in the charter, we find no rhetoric of exclusion aimed at Muslims here; indeed, the Muslim al-Mu’tamin is a good lord and Rodrigo serves him honourably. The enemy can be Muslim or Christian, religion does not predetermine hostility or friendship. The change (if the charter is authentic) from the end of the eleventh to the first half of the twelfth century cannot be explained by an overall favourable change in Christian perceptions of Muslims in the Iberian peninsula. Quite the contrary; if anything, change went in the opposite direction. Warfare started to be conceptualized as crusade, and territorial conquest rather than booty was starting to become the aim of the Christian rulers. The anonymous Latin work’s date and authorship is subject to scholarly speculation and debate. This gesta seems, however, to stick more closely to reality than both the charter and subsequent heroic rewriting.

22Staying in the Iberian peninsula, my next case concerns the exclusion or integration of Jews by medieval Christians in daily life. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in the medieval Crown of Aragon, Christians and Jews interacted in many different ways. Elena Lourie in her work analysed two stories recorded in contemporary documents. One shows the Jewish response to a perceived attempt to frame Jews as murderers of Christian children. By that time, the exclusionary mechanism through the invented accusation that Jews killed Christians was well established. The blood-libel started in the twelfth century in England and continued into the twentieth in Eastern Europe. Jews were accused of murdering Christian children to reenact the Crucifixion and gain Christian blood for ritual purposes. Popes and Emperor Frederick II issued documents to protect the Jews from this charge, refuting the idea that Jews needed blood for their rituals, pointing to the laws of kashrut that required the removal of blood even from slaughtered animals. Despite that, accusations multiplied. The blood libel, which developed the Christian idea of Jews as Christ-killers, was one of the most extreme tools in the exclusionary drive against Jews. It maintained that Jews not only killed Christ but continue to plot against Christians and harm them physically.

  • 23 E. Lourie, “A plot which failed?…”, Pt. X, pp. 187–220.

23On a Saturday night in 1301 in Barcelona, Jews discovered the corpse of a baby boy hidden under a stall of the meat-market. The presence of the body immediately raised concerns for the safety of the Jewish community, and the representative of the king was immediately notified. The records of the investigation show that the Jewish community suspected a fishwife, Rumia, who visited the Jewish quarter to sell fish late at night after the end of the Sabbath, of having hidden the corpse. She was known to have made insulting remarks about the Jews, and some thought she also wanted to wreak revenge for having been given a false coin in the Jewish quarter. Members of the Jewish community thought she had smuggled in the corpse to raise a blood-libel accusation and destroy the community. They had the body buried in the Jewish cemetery and gave evasive answers when asked whether the boy had been circumcized. It is likely that they knew he had not been, but to say so would have directed suspicion on themselves.23

24Clearly, the Christian fishwife who spoke of wanting revenge against the whole Jewish community because one of its members gave her a false coin was drawing on ideas that the Jews were excluded from Christian society, ascribing collective guilt for the misdeed of one particular individual. But no wonder a common laywoman could jump to such a conclusion, when medieval ecclesiastics suggested the collective guilt of Jews as Christ-murderers. In this specific case, however, the authorities prevented the development of rumours.

  • 24 E. Lourie, “Complicidad criminal…”, Pt. XI, pp. 93–108.

25Another case involved cooperation in crime across the religious divide. In 1300 Yahuda Azaron, a Jewish man, together with a Christian man went before a notary to have a loan document drawn up. They claimed the Christian took a loan from the Jew and wanted an official record of that. The Christian, however, was not the person he claimed to be, but was there under an assumed identity, claiming to be in debt. The scam would have meant having an official document that a Christian man took a loan from Yahuda, who would have had to repay the loan he never took. There was only one snag: the notary knew the real supposed borrower, and denounced the fraud. The pair were arrested, confessed to have committed several similar scams together, and made a lot of money through it, since the assumed borrowers were forced to repay their debts. They were sentenced to death. In life, the two cooperated in crime without regard to the religious divide. In death, however, they were no longer treated as equal; the punishment inflicted on the Jew represented the fate meted out to those excluded from full membership in society. He was executed hanged upside down, a form of hanging reserved for Jews and animals, while the Christian was hanged in the usual manner.24

26These examples show that the same Christian population was able to see in a Jewish man a partner (even if in crime); or someone closer to animals than humans. The Jewish population also constructed Christian neighbours in radically divergent ways: as lucrative business-partners; or as a threat, who were waiting for the opportunity to harm them. To be a business partner or a mortal enemy was not a stable fact, but a situational construct. This of course was against the backdrop of persistent exclusionary discourse from the Catholic Church.

  • 25 P. Vaux-de-Cernay, The History of the Albigensian Crusade…, pp. 9–10.

27Another example of such classic medieval exclusionary rhetoric, this time directed at heretics, can be found in the work of the Cistercian monk Peter of Vaux-de-Cernay on the Cathars, written around 1213. “It is said that since its first foundation, treacherous Toulouse has rarely if ever been free of this detestable plague, the sin of heresy. The poison of superstitious unbelief was passed from father to son one after another. … So infected with this ancient filth were the people of Toulouse – the ‘generation of vipers’ – that even in our own times they could not be torn from their deep-rooted wickedness… neighbouring cities and towns … became infected with the dreadful plague.”25 Peter’s uncle Guy joined the Albigensian crusade and took Peter with him, in 1212. Peter for years was following Simon of Montfort’s army, writing the history of the crusade. The exclusionary rhetoric of disease, depravity and the Biblical imagery of vipers underpinned the murderous war against the Cathars, dehumanizing them and justifying the most extreme measures against them.

  • 26 N. Berend, “Violence as identity…”, pp. 1–13, see pp. 5–8; J. Palmer, “Fr. Georgius de Hungaria, O. (...)
  • 27 Critical edition: Georgius de Hungaria, Tractatus de moribus, condictionibus et nequicia Turcorum. (...)

28My last example comes from the mid-fifteenth century, from the work of an author called George of Hungary. He was born in the kingdom of Hungary, but we only know about him from the work itself.26 At the age of about fifteen or sixteen, in 1438, he was captured by the Ottomans at the siege of Sebeş (Mühlbach, Szászsebes in Transylvania), a town where he had gone to study. He was then sold into slavery. After twenty years he regained his freedom, returned to Christian Europe, and entered the Dominican Order. In 1481 he published the Tractatus de moribus, condictionibus et nequitia Turcorum in Rome.27

  • 28 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, pp. 300, 302.

29George presents the Ottomans as both a positive model and as the gravest danger. He advocated the impossibility of the social inclusion of those born a Muslim into Christian society. George characterizes Muslim customs as seemingly perfect, but in reality a trap to lead Christians into damnation. He admitted to his own doubts that God abandoned him after he was unable to flee from captivity, and recounted his growing fascination for Islam. George claimed that after six or seven months of learning about Muslim beliefs, he received divine help to reaffirm his Christian faith.28

  • 29 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, pp. 222, 224.

30George listed customs and behaviours among the “Turks” that can be a model for Christians, which include modest dress, decent behaviour, a life spurning the superfluous and embracing simplicity. In particular, the decent ways of Ottoman women contrast with the indecent ones of Christian women. He reported that the Ottomans detest luxury and even the king himself sits on the floor for prayers. Bodily cleanliness and moral purity go hand in hand. They spurn images and criticize Christians for idolatry and worldly luxury.29

  • 30 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, pp. 254–268, 270.
  • 31 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, pp. 272, 274, 282, 284–86; 306–314, 352, 360–68.

31While George gave a very positive description even of Islamic tenets and practices, he presented these ultimately as a ruse. Even Islamic monotheism was in the service of misleading people, to trap them and lead them to damnation.30 The virtues as well as the seeming miracles of dervishes are false; to disguise the work of the devil as that of God.31

  • 32 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, p. 192.
  • 33 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, p. 244.
  • 34 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, p. 174.

32Muslims are allied to the devil, and when they kill Christians that is not the worst. Rather, “keep alive physically those they plan to kill spiritually”.32 Turks demonstrate good good habits and virtues only to mislead the faithful, and convert Christians to Islam.33 In this way, they “kill the soul” and “bury it in the still living body”.34

  • 35 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, pp. 174, 176.
  • 36 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, pp. 146, 170, 172; 176; 372.

33“This … sect uproots, not by violence, but through long habit, the desire for liberty, and blinds the reason of man, so that he is constrained to reject the faith for which he had been ready to die… Who could escape from this malignant power?… Its power is such, that it penetrates the profoundest part of the heart and doesn’t leave it before infecting the most intimate part of the soul.”35 “How could a Christian live among the Turks, when a supernatural, even spiritual, hostility opposes them?” Similarly, he claims, it is impossible for a Turk to adopt the faith of Christ.36 Thus the divide between Christians and Muslims cannot be bridged.

34George of Hungary in real life seems to have acculturated in the Ottoman Empire to the point of considering conversion to Islam (or perhaps even converted, keeping that a secret after his return to Europe). Yet he devised a rhetoric that permanently excluded Muslims and even converted Muslims from Christian society. He was offering to protect Christians who could be lured into error and damnation by following the superficially positive example of “the Turks.” Yet his exclusionary rhetoric perhaps stemmed from his experience, and fear of all-too-easy acculturation.

35The decision to exclude could stem from a variety of sources, such as a desire to distinguish oneself from others, a fear of acculturation, or political reasons. The language and imagery of exclusion then worked on fear and presented those to be excluded as irremediably different, an otherness that cannot be reconciled with one’s own group, even relegating those excluded to the realm of animals or the devil. Yet the same people or groups could be included or excluded, showing that it was not the inherent nature – even in the case of military enemies – of a particular group of people that determined inclusion and exclusion.

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1 T. Sizgorich, Violence and belief…, p. 26.

2 T. Sizgorich, Violence and belief…, pp. 40–41.

3 T. Sizgorich, Violence and belief…, p. 26.


5 A. Bale, Feeling Persecuted

6 S. Lipton, Dark Mirror

7 A. Ruotsala, Europeans and Mongols…, pp. 60–64.

8 Chronica Majora, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College Library MS 16, fol. 167r.

9 R. Lerner, The Powers of Prophecy…, pp. 9–24.

10 P. Jackson, The Mongols and the West…, p. 137.

11 P. Jackson, The Mongols and the West…, pp. 150–152.

12 P. Jackson, The Mongols and the West…, pp. 139–140; P. Jackson, “Christians, Barbarians, and Monsters…”, pp. 93–110.

13 A. Ruotsala, Europeans and Mongols…, pp. 65–66.

14 J. Richard, “Chrétiens et Mongols au Concile…”, pp. 31–44.

15 P. Jackson, The Mongols and the West…, pp. 175–176.

16 P. Jackson, The Mongols and the West…, p. 172.

17 N. Berend, At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims and ‘Pagans’…, pp. 218–219.

18 N. Berend, At the Gate of Christendom…, p. 220.

19 N. Berend, At the Gate of Christendom…, pp. 220–221.

20 R. Fletcher, The Quest

21 S. Barton, “El Cid, Cluny…”, pp. 517–543, see p. 531.

22 Eng. Tr. The World of el Cid, tr. Simon Barton and Richard Fletcher (Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 107–8, chaps. 15–17.

23 E. Lourie, “A plot which failed?…”, Pt. X, pp. 187–220.

24 E. Lourie, “Complicidad criminal…”, Pt. XI, pp. 93–108.

25 P. Vaux-de-Cernay, The History of the Albigensian Crusade…, pp. 9–10.

26 N. Berend, “Violence as identity…”, pp. 1–13, see pp. 5–8; J. Palmer, “Fr. Georgius de Hungaria, O. P…”, pp. 44–68; A. Classen, “The World of the Turks…”, pp. 257–79, at p. 264.

27 Critical edition: Georgius de Hungaria, Tractatus de moribus, condictionibus et nequicia Turcorum. Traktat über die Sitten, die Lebensverhältnisse und die Arglist der Türken, ed. and tr. Reinhard Klockow (Cologne – Weimar – Vienna, Böhlau, 1993); Schriften zur Landeskunde Siebenbürgens, vol. 15.

28 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, pp. 300, 302.

29 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, pp. 222, 224.

30 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, pp. 254–268, 270.

31 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, pp. 272, 274, 282, 284–86; 306–314, 352, 360–68.

32 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, p. 192.

33 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, p. 244.

34 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, p. 174.

35 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, pp. 174, 176.

36 R. Klockow, Georgius de Hungaria…, pp. 146, 170, 172; 176; 372.

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Electronic reference

Nora Berend, Languages and functions of medieval exclusionHamsa [Online], 9 | 2023, Online since 19 November 2023, connection on 16 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Nora Berend

Faculty of History, University of Cambridge

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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