Echoes of medieval hate: from Jews and pigs to Muslims and goats

By routinely monitoring online social networks and comments below news articles addressing sensitive topics, such as religion, immigration policy and terrorism, the observer may notice that one slur has recently gained prominence – a goatf***er. This disgusting and dehumanizing insult has been principally used against people from North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. The term of abuse has equivalent neologisms in many European languages, and it is related to similar bestiality slurs which involve the other animals like sheep and camels, but the malicious purpose remains the same. Google Search engine delivers hundreds of thousands of results for this term, but its use has been mainly limited to unidentified commentators since public figures and leading media outlets avoid even mentioning the word. One notable exception is Jan Böhmermann, a German TV presenter who aired it on the ZDF public channel against Turkish president Erdoğan, provoking an international diplomatic incident and reopened old discussions about hate speech vs. freedom of expression.

The historical origins of these vulgarities have been poorly studied, since most professional and independent researchers widely ignore them as taboo terms, the inadequate humor, or the contemporary sporadic profanity unworthy of serious study. Much to the surprise of many, such ethnic slurs are far from being a recent phenomenon, but in fact they represent a continuation of the centuries-old hateful associations, or more specifically, an offshoot of the older ethnophaulism. Both the old and new ones involve identical dehumanizing bestiality, they both emerged in the same broad region of Europe, and they are both used against the people from the same parts of Asia and Africa. The importance of original slur is also not at all negligible because its continuous tradition of nearly eight centuries had inspired many artists, sculptors, cartoonists, writers and poets, and they in turn inspired and influenced European society, leaving behind not-so-funny consequences.

Medieval roots

The attribution of animal epithets and filthy intimate practices to targeted group of people is an ancient and ingrained propagandist stereotype. For most value systems, intercourse with animals emerges as an extremely severe offense, and bestiality slurs represent highly pejorative designation. In the European historical context, morality matters in the Middle Ages were largely shaped by the Christian Bible and in their Church-oriented culture bestiality activity was met with execution, typically burning. At the same time, the Christian clergy was encouraging the development of strong anti-Jewish sentiment, and by the 13th century expulsion of Jews from cities, violent pogroms and instances of blood libel become increasingly prevalent. The Church encouraged Christians to regard the Jews as first among sinners, as cohorts of the Devil, and as minions of the Antichrist. Medieval art and literature, most of it concerned with religious themes, indelibly imprinted the theology of triumph on the Christian psyche.

As a result of the developments discussed above, a notorious antisemitic motif emerged in 13th-century German art. The Judensau (or 'Jew-sow'), also known as 'Saujud' and 'Judenschwein,' depicts Jews sucking at the teats of a large sow (female pig), which in Judaism is an unclean animal. One of the implications of the Judensau is that both Jews and pigs constitute an abominable category of beings. The Jews are the sow's offspring and turn to their mother for their proper nourishment. The first known motif had been carved on the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul in Brandenburg an der Havel between 1230 and 1235, and by the Late Middle Ages some fifty artworks further appeared in the Holy Roman Empire. As an exclusively German phenomenon, the Judensau remains today can be found mostly in Germany, but also in today's Austria, Belgium, France, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland. Denigrating sculptures are interpreted as the earliest form of antisemitic caricature, fulfilling three major social-psychological functions: to consolidate existing prejudices, to alienate them from public life, and to injure their religious self-esteem.

Gradually the Judensau representations became more repulsive and dehumanizing, and over the next two centuries they started to include lascivious and scatological acts, depictions of blood libel as a secondary scene, and some new elements. At the turn of the 15th to the 16th century, one of these emerged new figures was a goat, representing the Devil. This symbolism was well established in the Christian folk tradition in Europe, and the common medieval depiction of the satanic goat was that of a goat-like face with horns and small beard. A new symbolism was found on a misericord in Aarschot which depicts a Jewish woman riding backwards on a goat, and also on a 15th-century mural in Frankfurt. The latter is perhaps the most famous representation of the Judensau (see above), it was painted at eye level on a wall of the Brückenturm, city's busiest public way, where it could be seen by all who entered the city. A mural portrayed a Judensau, a goat-like Devil, a Jewish woman hugging a male goat, and was accompanied by blood libel and obscene caption.

Thanks to the printing revolution launched by the German inventor Gutenberg in the 15th century, the press as a propaganda tool quickly triumphed over the plastic arts, so the Judensau had faded away as a sculpture. However, it became widespread as a literary trope, as evident in poems by Hans Folz. One of the best-known examples of the Judensau bears a reference to Martin Luther's 1543 antisemitic tract "Vom Schem Hamphoras." In that work, Luther interprets the symbolism of a particularly lewd and graphic representation of the Judensau, associating the Talmud with pig excrement. Over the course of several centuries, no doubt fueled by Luther's interpretation, images of the Judensau, proliferated throughout Germany, spreading from religious sites to broadsheets. According to Achim von Arnim, a 19th-century poet and one of the leading figures of German Romanticism, engraved reproductions of the (in)famous Frankfurt mural were especially popular due to high demand.

The demonization continued in the 19th and 20th century when the Judensau was used for anti-Jewish satire, with the popular association of Jews with pigs and goats as a major satirical or polemical preoccupation. These obscene figures come to resemble the stereotypical Jew in the German imagination. A supposedly characteristic feature of the Jewish physiognomy, which is constantly stressed in the prints and particularly in the folk tales, is the so-called 'Ziegenbart' (goat's beard). After the First World War, the Jewish-German statesman Walther Rathenau was assassinated and his antisemitic murderers called for his death as "a goddamned Judensau." In the Third Reich, the Hitler Youth members taunted Jews in the street with "Jewish Pig" insults, the Judensau sculptures were revived and used in Nazi propaganda, and classes of German schoolchildren were sent to see the Judensau on German churches, as part of the 'cultural enrichment.' The dehumanizing effect and consequences are well-known. After the war, several medieval sculptures were razed, usage of Judensau-related insults has been criminalized in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and today it is limited mostly to Neo-Nazis and hooligans.

Anti-Muslim offshoot

The traditional European slurs of bestiality were also used against Arabs and Muslims, then called Moors or Saracens, as evident in both medieval and Renaissance literature. Such examples may be found in 14th-century English chivalric romances and 16th-century German books and English plays. Original animosities were triggered by the religious and political reasons (i.e. the Crusades), and they are also chronologically congruent with attitudes of 13th-century scholastics who considered bestiality the worst of the intimate sins. However, in contrast to the Judensau case, these are rather sporadic than the frequent mentions, and as such do not represent the widespread and continuous tradition. The above-mentioned 'gf-word' represents an offshoot of the Judensau and its derivatives, since it is directly inspired by anti-Jewish propaganda. In the present anti-Muslim sense, a slur has been introduced and popularized by a Dutchman, it was adopted into the English language from the Dutch original, and has gained worldwide prominence in the post-9/11 environment fueled by Islamophobic hate.

The name of the responsible person is Theo van Gogh, a controversial journalist and filmmaker had a long-established reputation for being a provocateur. He began his racist career in the 1980s as an antisemite, incurring the wrath of the Jewish community by making snide and vulgar comments about what he termed "the tiresome Jewish preoccupation with Auschwitz." He wrote many antisemitic articles and introduced his own, pornographic distortion in the association of Jews with gas. In one of leaflets, he showed the image of a cartoon about two copulating yellow stars in a gas chamber and the joke "cremating Jewish diabetics must have smelled like caramel." In other he imagines Jewish writer Leon de Winter performing the 'Treblinka love game' with a piece of barbed wire around his intimate parts. In this way he reproduced the antisemitic myth of Jewish perverse and all-consuming intimate drive. According to Van Gogh, even in the gas chambers this drive got the better of them. He also made sarcastic remarks about Jews as the Gestapo's 'soaps' and 'lampshades,' and depicted Job Cohen, a Jewish Major of Amsterdam at the time, as a 'member of the NSB' and a collaborator, butcher and a 'Jew you send on a dirty job.' He had frequently been sued for libel and slander, but managed to defend himself successfully under the rubric of freedom of speech. Under repeated pressure, van Gogh was prosecuted in Dutch courts and fined on one occasion with 20 days in prison.

In the mid-1990s, Van Gogh selected a new target for his diatribes, and switched from Jews to Muslims. In his attacks on the Dutch Muslim community, he followed the same path of provocation: sick jokes, vulgar insults, and pornofication. In spite of his changed focus, including sympathy for Israel, he still reserved a negative and stereotypical role for Jews. According to Van Gogh, Muslims are "messengers of the utmost backward darkness" and "fifth columnists," while Jews are their allies in conspiring to sabotage the Netherlands. He capitalized on anti-Muslim views in his film "Submission" (described by historian Geert Mak as similar to infamous Nazi propaganda film "The Eternal Jew"), which turned him into a major public figure. The Islamophobic rampage of Van Gogh was marked by frequent use of the term 'geitenneuker' (gf-word). In his book "Allah Knows Best" he routinely substitutes gf-word for immigrant from an Islamic country. When asked why he referred to Muslims as such, Van Gogh appealed to the alleged advices in writings of Ayatollah Khomeini. In reality, these are fictitious statements from a non-existing book, that circulate on countless anti-Islamic websites. The unknown authors of false quotes were most probably inspired by the "Little Green Book," a forgery first published in 1980 and used by secularists as propaganda against the Islamic Republic.

Without any doubt, the real inspiration for Van Gogh's gf-word actually came from the Judensau derivatives, since both medieval and Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda were highly familiar to him. Beside the elements taken directly from the Holocaust, scholars are also emphasizing similarities in his film techniques to those used by Goebbels, as well as some older antisemitic canards. The stereotype of the Jew who collaborates with his Middle Eastern cousin by marriage, the Muslim, in his campaign against the Christian West, dates back to the Middle Ages. Van Gogh thus invoked the stereotype of the Jews as connivers, as depicted in the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," fabricated in the late 19th century but highly influential to this day. There's also the possibility that he took the word indirectly from Gerard Reve, a controversial writer who used similar racist slurs against immigrants, but roots remain the same. Ironically, Reve himself was known for having deviant fantasies, including making love with a donkey. Van Gogh reaped the bitter fruit of his own hate politics in 2004 when he was assassinated by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-born son of Muslim Moroccan immigrants.

In 2005 the Dutch word 'geitenneuker,' as a racist slur for Moroccans or Muslims, has been included in the 14th edition of "Van Dale," the leading dictionary of the Dutch language. Two years later it also appeared in Marc De Coster's "Groot Scheldwoordenboek," which contains a similar description and credits Van Gogh for its popularization. Still, Dutch politicians are moving in opposite direction, they announced to abolish the punishment for insulting foreign leaders, as a reaction to the Böhmermann affair. Advocates of unlimited free speech were once again boosting their self-esteem in the media, stressing the Western 'moral superiority,' and a Dutch photographer Bart van Leeuwen published a Judensau-like obscene cartoon depicting Erdoğan and a goat. Lessons from history are obviously rarely considered: the Judensau has emerged merely as an artistic expression during the Middle Ages, it gradually evolved into harsh satire in the 19th century, and only a century later the dehumanizing effect was so strong that an average German didn't see much difference between extermination camps and pig slaughterhouses. Still, he was also confident in the same moral superiority.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak is a social anthropologist and human rights defender with more than five years of experience in the Open Society Institute (OSF), an organization campaigning for human rights and reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia. His research interests include law and religion, human rights, comparative ethics, and international relations. Born in Osijek, he lives and works in Zagreb.