Atop a 13th-century English tax record lies a bizarre sketch of three grotesque-looking Jews in a castle being attacked by a gang of demons; this amateurish artwork has long been thought the oldest known instance of anti-Semitic caricature, most likely lampooning contemporary Jews’ practice of usury. We know the figures are Jews because they are clearly labeled with Jewish names;, two of which belong to historical Jews in 13th-century Norwich. However, argues Sara Lipton, several pieces of evidence suggest a different interpretation:
[T]he 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 have made 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. . . .
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. . . . 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. . . .
It is this highly charged situation . . . 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. . .
In the end, of course, it does not matter if the clerk’s true ire was directed against powerful [Gentile] 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 400 years.
Read more on New York Review of Books: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/06/06/the-first-anti-jewish-caricature/