“Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting up her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary, which is certainly where they get their Shemhamphoras [hidden name of God in Kabbalah].
Martin Luther, 1543
During my early years researching the Jewish Question I was particularly struck by the strident and flamboyant nature of medieval and early modern anti-Jewish folklore and related art. I recall being fascinated at the strangeness and creativity of tales like the 16th-century Jewish woman said to have given birth to twin piglets, the common 15th-century belief that Jewish males menstruate, and speculation that Jews buried their dead with small rocks to throw at Christ in the afterlife. As with much of Jewish history and the historiography of anti-Semitism, the subject of anti-Jewish folklore has been dominated by Jewish scholars. My first introduction to the topic was thus The Blood Libel Legend: A Casebook in Anti-Semitic Folklore (1991) by the Jewish UC-Berkeley folklorist Alan Dundes (1934–2005), widely regarded as the field’s pre-eminent, and perhaps only, expert. In the book, as one might well expect, Dundes strips anti-Jewish folklore of context and presents instead a collection of “evil” and “dangerous” fantasies lacking any logical or rational basis.
Aside from the work of Dundes, direct scholarly engagement with the subject of medieval anti-Jewish folklore has been relatively rare, with most Jewish scholars preferring to probe medieval artistic linkages between Jews and the Devil (see, for example, the work of Robert Bonfil, Marvin Perry, and Frederick Schweitzer) rather than some of the more outlandish or colorful “memes” that then circulated. Almost all of these scholarly accounts utilize medieval anti-Jewish folklore as a means of denigrating and indicting medieval Christianity as irrational and prejudiced, and ultimately as the fons et origo of an equally irrational and prejudiced modern anti-Semitism. An explanatory account of medieval and early modern anti-Jewish folklore informed by historical context remains to be written, despite admirable and broadminded texts like The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig (1997) by Claudine Fabre-Vassas. This is a project I am giving serious consideration to undertaking. As luck would have it, it’s also becoming somewhat relevant again.
Of all the artistic manifestations of anti-Jewish folklore, few are more acute, vehement, and scatological than the imagery of the Judensau, or ‘Jew-Pig.’ In brief, the image, depicted in woodcuts or in stone (often on churches) between the 13th and 15th centuries, is an allegorical reference to Jews drawing sustenance from the Talmud, with Jews shown suckling from a sow and/or examining or eating its feces. The association of Jews with pigs in medieval Christian folklore was longstanding, owing something to the known aversion of the Jews to pork, and produced an array of stories and imagery that flagrantly ignored the ancient dietary commands in Leviticus. In one legend, for example, the aversion to pork dated from the time of Christ, when a sneering Jew challenged Christ to guess the contents of a barrel that the Jew knew to contain a slaughtered pig. Unknown to the Jew, the pig had been removed and his own children were hiding in the barrel. When Jesus answered that the man’s children were in the barrel, he was mocked and told there was a pig inside. “Let them be pigs then,” replied Jesus, and the children were transformed into piglets. From that day onward, so goes the tale, Jews avoided eating pork because for them that would be cannibalism. One suspects that seriousness was never a primary concern in the development of such folk tales — they served as entertaining and memorial “memes” to impart the message that Jews were different and were to be avoided. Read more