Prejudices of all types represent a profound failure and blight on our society. These prejudices manifest themselves in individuals and nations having policies which, overtly or covertly, subtly or blatantly, discriminate on the basis of religion, race, nationality, gender, age or sexual orientation—religious and racial prejudices being among the most commonly encountered. Even a cursory examination of the history of religious bigotry amply demonstrates the frequent, prevalent and globally widespread nature of these practices. The consequences on individuals range from the relatively inconsequential, such as slurs and insults, to the devastating, including confiscation of property, expulsion from countries and mass slaughter. Religious and racial intolerance has also been responsible for a multitude of regional conflicts and global wars in the past as well as in the present, as evidenced by a mere perusal of current events. This article traces the repercussions of religious and racial intolerance through the eyes of historical and commemorative medals. As such, it attempts to be a Medallic History of Religious and Racial Intolerance. The discourse reviews briefly the history of this enormous field, concentrating on those countries and events where medals exist that exemplify the consequences of religious and racial prejudice. The coverage of the subject must, of necessity, be superficial, as the topic is so wide. Nevertheless, a group of medals has been selected that serve to illustrate, through imagery and wonderful art, that medals not only have provided a window through which to view historical events surrounding bigotry but also have been issued to actually promote religious and racial hatred.
Bigotry, both religious and racial, has a long and sordid history and to this day remains alive and well. It is spread orally and by way of all forms of media, from ancient scrolls to current Internet blogs. Various forms of art have not been immune to its use, and medallic art, the subject of this discourse, has also been used to spread religious and racial prejudices.
The medals included in this article fall into different categories: some are obviously designed to propagandize their point, while others more subtly promote, and by inference denigrate, one religion over another, or indeed suggest the superiority of any religious practice over non-religious or secular practices. The subtle ones sometimes are more effective, and therefore more dangerous, as the observer is not as likely to be aware of how he/she is being manipulated to support the views of the artist. Another category of medals shown here do not promote religious bigotry directly, if at all, but rather are included in this article to illustrate and amplify further the history of the period discussed, particularly as it involves conflicts and wars based on religious differences between the parties involved.
While prejudice among the various religious groups exists among them all to varying degrees, over the ages bigoted acts against the Jews have been among the most prevalent, severe, and unrelenting. History has shown that Jews, while welcomed in times of need, often were maligned, periodically expelled from their native lands, and sometimes even subjected to mass murder. Some of this bigotry is reflected in the issuance of medals purposefully designed to vilify the Jewish community.
Anti-Semitic medals are probably the most common and most notorious medals for spreading religious hatred, a topic that has been considered in some detail by Daniel Friedenberg in his book Jewish Medals: From the Renaissance to the Fall of Napoleon (1503-1815).
As Friedenberg points out, one of the first of these anti-Semitic medals was reported in the early sixteenth century in Germany. These medals depicted, on the obverse, the Jew riding on a sow, and on the reverse, the face of a devil with horns, representations not uncommon in the medieval period. By the end of the seventeenth century a more common type of anti-Semitic medal made its appearance. These were the so-called ‘Korn Jude’ (Corn or Grain Jew) medals. Most of these were struck in Germany and were issued in various forms over a period of some 80 years. Apparently they were engraved largely, if not exclusively, by only two men: Christian Wermuth (1661-1739) and later by Johann Christian Reich (1740-1814).
Generally the distribution of the Korn Jude medals coincided with periods of rising food prices and famine and were designed to perpetuate the myth that the Jews were to blame for these hardships and to portray the Jew as a diabolic speculator, particularly in grain crops. These medals, to put it mildly, were not subtle in their design or meaning. The usual device was to depict on the obverse a figure carrying a sack of grain on his back with a figure of the devil opening the mouth of the sack (Figure 1). So that there should be no misunderstanding of these devices, the legend clearly identified the figure as ‘DU KORN IUDE’ (You Korn Jew) with the legend below translated as ‘Famine Time’. The reverse, invoking the powerful instrument of Scriptures, shows a grain sifter inscribed with the quotation taken from the Old Testament (Proverbs) translated as: “He that withholdeth corn, the people shall curse him…”.
Figure 1: KORN JUDE (CORN JEW) MEDAL
by Christian WERMUTH: Germany, 1694, Silver, 36 mm
Over the years several variants of the obverses and reverses of The Korn Jude medals were struck, the particular devices and inscriptions dependant upon whether grain crops were plentiful or scarce. In years of famine, such as in 1694, the reverse inscription implied that the Jews were hoarding grain (see above). In those years when grain was plentiful, the Korn Jude medal was modified in order to continue the calumny against the Jews even in good times. In these cases, on the obverse, instead of “Famine Time” the medal was now stamped “Easy Time” (translated) and the scene showed a farmland with a Jew hanging from a tree, with the devil securing a rope around his neck, with the inscription referring to a chapter in the New Testament that attacks covetousness. In all cases, the medals were inscribed on the obverse with the usual DU KORN IUDE. The reverse of these medals was similar to those issued in time of famine (see above).
In 1772-1773 the Korn Jude medal, struck with the “Easy Times” legend, made a reappearance. In this version, a Jew is shown with stacks of corn, ignoring the pleas of a woman. The legend (translated) reads, “Poverty is weeping while the Corn Jew is laughing”. The reverse shows the Jew hanging from a tree with a grain harvest in the background, the legend reading “Avarice is the root of all evil”.
Another variant of German anti-Semitic medals is the so-called Feder Jude (Feather Jew) medal (Figure 2). These were issued around 1700 and were engraved by Christian Wermuth. On a typical example, the obverse shows a merchant, wearing a feathered hat, peering into a moneybag. On his back is tied a large sack. The legend around is written in German, “I wear the feathers which everybody can see; another wears them as a decoy”. Again, there is no doubt whom the figure represents, as the legend below, in a mixture of German and Latin, is inscribed “Hey thou Feather Jew, know thyself”.
Figure 2. FEDER JUDE (FEATHER JEW) MEDAL
by Christian WERMUTH: c.1700, Silver, 43 mm