The Invention of the Jewish Cap in Medieval Europe

I know that I haven’t been posting much here lately, and my only excuse is that there’s been a steady flow of books across my desk (or, to be more precise, across the living room floor) that’s been keeping me busy enough as is. Some of those were supposed to become the basis for blog posts that just haven’t happened yet. Jennet Conant’s A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS has some tantalizing comments on Paul’s work as a graphic/industrial designer during the Second World War, but it’s been hard to track down easy references to the work. (Though I did find out that architect Eero Saarinen apparently designed a wartime war room for the White House.)

In the meantime, here’s an intriguing blog post at the New York Review of Books on how and where stereotypical antisemitic imagery first appeared in medieval Europe. Sara Lipton’s talks about how distinctive clothing and then physiognomy, the “Jewish nose,” only shows up in medieval imagery beginning in the twelfth century.

The pointed “Jewish cap” began as a symbol, not of religion, but of antiquity.

Hebrew prophets wearing distinctive-looking pointed caps began appearing in the pages of richly illuminated Bibles and on the carved facades of the Romanesque churches that were then rising across western Christendom. The prophets’ headgear had nothing to do with actual Jewish clothing (there is no evidence that Jews at the time wore such hats, or any hats at all, for that matter—religious Jews did not regularly cover their heads until the sixteenth century). The “Jewish pointed cap” is based on the miters of ancient Persian priests and symbolized religious authority. The same hat had long appeared in manuscripts, frescoes, mosaics, and ivory carvings on the heads of the Three Magi, those “wise men of the East” who brought gifts to the infant Jesus.

But, once it began appearing in art, it rapidly lost its original connotations and became – retroactively – a Jewish symbol. The hat was no longer used solely on Old Testament figures who needed to be identified as ancient, but became a general symbol for Jews in Christian art. According to Lipton, in a bizarre case of life imitating art Church leaders eventually even made wearing the hat one of the ways that Jews were required to distinguish themselves from the Christian majority.


Feudal cover April2013

My newest book, It’s a Feudal, Feudal World: A Different Medieval History (Amazon ⁄ Annick) is now available. We’ve also been nominated for the 2015 Forest of Reading Silver Birch prize!

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