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Anti-Semitism, or prejudice against Jews, was widespread during the Renaissance. Libels, damaging lies about Jews and Judaism, persisted from the Middle Ages. For example, the blood libel held that Jews killed Christians—especially children—to use their blood in rituals. The earlier crucifixion libel accused Jews of crucifying Christian children. Christian religious leaders and even humanists* promoted such views. Their teachings led to the persecution of Jews throughout Europe.

Many Renaissance Christians felt that Jewish people, beliefs, and culture polluted Christian society. They particularly scorned the Jewish practice of lending money for interest. One Italian preacher taught that moneylenders infected society as a disease infected the body. An Italian historian blamed Jews for an outbreak of syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. German Christians believed that the presence of Jews damaged the fabric of their society.

European countries took a variety of steps to rid themselves of this Jewish "pollution." England barred all Jews from the country between 1290 and about 1655, although it did not enforce this ban strictly. Other nations, such as Portugal, forced Jews to convert to Christianity. Italian religious and legal scholars argued that baptism should be forced on Jewish children to save their souls. In some places, prejudice against Jews led to deadly violence. In 1391 riots in Spain destroyed most of the country's Jewish communities. The Spanish massacred some Jews and forced others to convert. In Trent, a city in the Holy Roman Empire*, the claim that Jews had murdered a Christian boy led to the destruction of the entire Jewish community in 1475. Hostility toward Jews was also violent in Protestant lands, such as Germany. In 1543 Protestant leader Martin Luther published an attack called The Jews and Their Lies.

Jews who converted to Christianity, called conversos or New Christians, also faced discrimination. Many of their cultural traditions seemed strange to other Christians. In Spain, many people mistook these traditions for Jewish religious practices. As a result, most of the people accused of heresy* by the Spanish Inquisition* were conversos. Two thousand or more New Christians died during the Inquisition. Spain also passed laws to prohibit New Christians from intermarrying with other Christians.

In 1516 the government of Venice decreed that Jews should not live alongside Christians. It restricted them to a separate part of the city, called a ghetto. In the mid-1550s the pope announced his support for ghettos, which were often separated by walls from the rest of the city. Jews could work elsewhere in the city but had to return to the ghetto in the evening. Jews who hoped to escape the ghetto by conversion had to give up their social and cultural ties to Judaism. This requirement hints at the more modern anti-Semitic idea that Jews could never fully integrate into society.

(See alsoInquisition; Jews; Religious Thought. )

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* Holy Roman Empire

political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806

* heresy

belief that is contrary to the doctrine of an established church

* Spanish Inquisition

court established by the Spanish monarchs that investigated Christians accused of straying from the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly during the period 1480–1530

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