Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Toleration and Animal Imagery

Quotes from Thomas Aquinas’ On Law, Morality, and Politics:

Regarding Jews: “Let them be legally free to observe and celebrate their holy days, as they and their ancestors have for so long observed and celebrated them in worship up to now…And so Jews observing their religious rites produce good, namely, that our enemies bear witness to our faith, and that their rites represent to us in figures, as it were, what we believe. “ (193)

Regarding Heretics: “But rulers should in no way tolerate the religious rites of other unbelievers, who contribute no truth or benefit…” (193)

“And so if secular rulers justly put counterfeiters and other felons immediately to death, much more could heretics be both excommunicated and justly killed immediately upon conviction of heresy.” (195)

As we were comparing and contrasting these passages in my SOSC class this morning, I was immediately reminded of Sara Lipton’s “Jews, heretics, and the sign of the cat in the Bible moralisee.” It was quite clear and evident from Lipton’s dissection of the texts and images in the Bible moralisee that the author classified Jews and heretics under the same category. However, Thomas Aquinas, one of the most eminent medieval theologians, separates the Jews from the heretics. Their presence in the society is to serve as a counter-example to what the Christians saw as the triumph of the New Testament over the Old Law. The heretics, on the other hand, are like “rotten flesh” that must be cut off lest it contaminate the rest of the body. Politically, more so than religiously, Aquinas views heretics to be threatening because they have the potential to corrupt the faith and faithful, whereas the Jews are seen to merely want enough religious tolerance to keep their customs that were once the truth faith (before Christ).

` Thus, in theory, Jews were to be given a certain degree of toleration. However, how should we define “toleration” in medieval terms? Were Jews “tolerated” as long as they were allowed to live in a segregated area of the town or as long as they were not “purged” from the land? Or, are we speaking of intent and internal actions? If so, animal imagery in medieval artwork can tell us a lot about the artist’s intent behind using animal imagery to channel intolerance.

Lipton points out three methods used by the author/illustrator in the Vienna Bible moralisee in linking Jews with heretics. The first method is random mention of Jews and heretics in the text while the second method involves visual techniques to group heretics and Jews into one. The third method is achieved by creating or adopting “a specific iconographical symbol for heresy,” such as the cat. (364) In many of the images that accompany the texts of the Bible Moralisee, Jews (distinguishable by the pointed hats and beards) are painted together with heretics, holding a cat or kissing it under the tail. This act of “worshipping” the cat became the symbol for heresy, but soon, the animal itself only had to be held by a person to denote heresy.

Can animal imagery, in this context, tell us a lot about the degree of toleration granted by Christians to Jews in popular thought and real practice (in addition to/in lieu of the facts and information we know about the heinous crimes that stemmed from anti-Semitism)?

I apologize for the disturbing content but here's something I came across when I googled "medieval cats heresy." To inflict even greater punishment on the "convicted" heretic or criminal, authorities used "cat paws" to rip the victim's flesh to shreds. With hands unavailable to ward off flies and other insects, the accused would suffer even more as blood flowed from the shredded body. (From

Here is an image of the cat paws...

It's interesting that the instrument of torture for heretics would be named "cat paws."


Aristotle. Politics. Translated by C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998.

Sara Lipton, “Jews, heretics, and the sign of the cat in the Bible moralisée,” Word and Image 8.4 (1992): 362-77.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for introducing Aquinas into our conversation. All too often our scholarship conflates Jews, heretics, and others who suffered exclusion from medieval Christian society (although, properly speaking, heretics excluded themselves) as if they were all regarded as "Other" for the same reasons. What I like about Lipton's article is that she does not in fact do this. Yes, she talks about Jews and heretics, but she also shows us *why* in the context of the Bible moralisee Jews and heretics were depicted together: because Jews were associated with the translation of philosophical works being taught in the Paris schools that some theologians believed contained heretical teachings about nature. Not, we should note, because Jews were being lumped together with heretics as "outsiders." Jews and heretics, in the medieval context, were not simply examples of "diversity," as the passages from Aquinas clearly show. Religiously, they were regarded in very different terms. This is difficult for us because in our own times, those seeking to eliminate various groups from their midst have not always made these distinctions. Not all intolerance is the same.