Entrance to the Jewish ghetto in Trier

Outsiders in Medieval Europe

Teaching students of diverse backgrounds about the medieval persecution of Jews, Muslims, heretics, lepers, prostitutes and gay people opens up for a broader understanding about Medieval Europe, says Rosemary Lee.

Students of Medieval History often have problems overcoming the public misconception that the Middle Ages was nothing but a violent and chaotic interlude. Teaching Medieval History from the margins invites students to explore both the history of the facts behind this bad press and their own identities. In 2014 Rosemary Lee, who is now a lecturer at the University of Virginia, taught two courses at the College of the Holy Cross and at Sweet Briar College on medieval minorities. In two new articles she has generously shared her experience.

Medieval History from the Margins
By Rosemary Lee
History Compass 2015

Teaching and Learning Guide: Outsiders in Medieval Europe
By Rosemary Lee
History Compass 2015


Jesus Brought Before Caiaphas -- from Salvin Hours c 1275, British Library
Jesus Brought Before Caiaphas. From Salvin Hours c 1275 © British Library

Around 1000 CE, minorities like Jews, heretics, and Muslims, the physically and mentally ill, and gay men began experiencing increased persecution in medieval Europe. City leaders ordered the segregation of people believed to be contaminating such as lepers, Jews, or prostitutes, while liberties were increasingly restricted. Residence, occupation, and dress became more and more scrutinized by both ecclesiastical and secular powers. An example of this is the first walled ghetto for Jews, which was erected by the Bishop of Speyer in 1084. Popular sentiments also appear to have become harsher and less inclusive in this period. During the crusades and the Black Death Jews increasingly Jews became victims of uprisings and panics.

In the general public these tragic events have fostered a feeling that the adjective “medieval” is an appropriate shorthand for all sorts of persecution, intolerance and outright violent behavior. Teaching “The Middle Ages” from this perspective arguably makes students belonging to the margins willing to invest both time and energy in the subject. This is witnessed by the experience of Rosemary Lee and her teaching at the Colllege of the Holy Cross and at Sweet Briar College on minorities and other outsiders in medieval Europe. Here students were invited to study medieval anti-Semitism and medieval Jews, explore Christian interactions with Islam before and after the crusades, and examine John Boswell’s argument about Christian attitudes towards homosexuality. Students concluded the course by studying female mysticism and attitudes towards illness

As a follow-up she has generously written an introduction to the field plus shared her experiences as teacher as well as the syllabus including the reading list, which was handed out.


Rosemary Lee is a lecturer in history at University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22903, USA. She has written her dissertation on: A Printing Press for Shah ‘Abbas: Science, Learning, and Evangelization in the Near East, 1600-1650 (University of Virginia).


Entrance to the Jewish ghetto in Trier