The following article is taken from the introduction of my chapter on The Wandering Jew in my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption:
The Wandering Jew was originally a symbol of the Jewish people who were themselves wanderers and outcasts among the world’s settled nations. In 70 A.D., the Jews rebelled against Rome, only to have their rebellion defeated. The Romans punished the Jews by dispersing them from their homeland and selling thousands of them into slavery. This dispersion resulted in the Jewish people migrating all over the known world and becoming residents in every European country. Because Christians blamed the Jews for the crucifixion of Christ, wherever the Jewish people settled, they were mistreated and often forbidden to reside in certain countries. Consequently, even when they settled somewhere, prejudice against them would frequently result in their migration elsewhere after a short time; the Jewish people were continually forced to wander about Europe seeking a place where they could live unmolested. During the Middle Ages, one of the harshest penalties frequently imposed upon the Jewish people was a prohibition against their owning property, which added to their wandering status and inability to remain in one place for extended periods. Because they needed a source of income that they could not achieve by living off the land, many Jews took advantage of Christianity’s prohibition to its followers of being usurers. The Jewish people filled the needed position of moneylenders, and they frequently became wealthy as a result. Consequently, the Jewish people had two primary stereotypes attached to them: they were wanderers, and they were greedy people who were constantly grasping for money.
Europeans who were jealous of the Jews’ wealth spread fabulous derogatory tales about them: Jews possessed hidden and heavily guarded treasures; Jews possessed the evil eye by which they could curse and destroy people; Jews had horns or tales, and they emitted foul odors of brimstone and sulphur which suggested their alliance with Satan because they were responsible for Christ’s crucifixion. Jews were even accused of draining blood from Christians to use for sorcery practices (Zatlin 135n). Particularly in times of social upheaval or economic crisis, such stories were circulated to encourage anti-Semitism and to validate removal of Jews by forced emigration or even extermination.
From all this anti-Semitism arose the medieval legend of the Wandering Jew. In most versions of the legend, the Wandering Jew was a shoemaker named Ahasuerus who refused to allow Christ to rest on His way to the cross. Christ punished Ahasuerus by forcing him to wander the earth without death or any form of rest until Christ’s return on the final Judgment Day. Usually, this cursed condition is interpreted to mean that Christ will eventually redeem Ahasuerus who will have atoned for his sins by his prolonged wandering (Hurwitz 222, Tennyson 201). As he wanders the globe, the Wandering Jew remarkably appears without explanation at the sites of great historical events such as the sack of Rome, the crusades, and decisive Napoleonic battles; these appearances at great events suggest that the Jew may have supernatural powers that allow him to appear wherever he chooses (Tennyson 212). The Jew’s constant wandering is enhanced by his fear that Christians will learn his true identity, so he must continually move from place to place so he is not identified and thus mistreated.
Because Christ is usually depicted as loving and forgiving, it is odd that a story would have circulated of his uttering such a terrible curse against the Wandering Jew for such a minor unkindness. Isaac-Edersheim offers the explanation that the Wandering Jew should not be understood as merely an individual sinner, but as a force in opposition to Christ, a type of superhuman figure who must be defeated (190, 198). While numerous psychological and historical explanations have been offered for the Wandering Jew legend, the Gothic novelists chose to represent him as a transgressor, and therefore, a force in opposition to Christ. The Wandering Jew is appealing to readers because everyone has a bit of wanderlust in him or her, and the Jew represented the common human fear of becoming an outcast (Isaac-Edersheim 197).
The Gothic uses wandering as a metaphor for guilt and despair, and the Wandering Jew became the perfect vehicle for depicting such emotions. The Wandering Jew feels great guilt over his transgression, a guilt that becomes nearly unbearable because of his extended life. The Wandering Jew frequently yearns to escape from his punishment by committing suicide, yet he is unable to accomplish such a deed because he cannot die until Christ’s return: if the Jew tries to drown himself, the water pulls away refusing him entrance; if he tries to jump into a volcano, he is spit out alive, and in battle, no man is able to harm him, so his prolonged life becomes only prolonged misery. Isaac-Edersheim remarks that the Jew’s prolonged life symbolizes the human repressed desire not to die (196), but ultimately, this desire is rejected when life-extension is fully considered. Marie Roberts observes that the legend becomes a lesson upon man’s moral responsibility to reconcile himself to death, for not only is death inevitable, but the reverse would be far worse (Gothic 208).
The Wandering Jew was only a minor figure in British literature before his adaptation by Gothic novelists. The first recorded reference in England of the Wandering Jew was in 1228 in the chronicle of the monastery of St. Alban’s, entitled Flowers of History by Roger of Wendover (Roberts, Gothic 74). Among the other medieval depictions of him, the most notable appears in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” where an old man must wander the earth until he can find someone willing to exchange youth for his old age. The Wandering Jew’s popularity in literature increased during the seventeenth century. He is given the name of Ahasuerus in an anonymous German pamphlet of 1602 entitled Kurtze Beschreibung und Erzehlung von einem juden mit Namen Ahasverus (Roberts, Gothic 75); Ahasuerus would become the favored name for the Jew, although Matthew Paris also wrote a story in the seventeenth century, naming the Jew Cartaphilus (Tennyson 202). During the seventeenth century, the Wandering Jew also becomes credited with healing powers attributed to the Rosicrucians, as stated in Peck’s History of Stamford and Aubrey’s Miscellanies (Roberts, Gothic 74). Later, the legend of the Wandering Jew and the Rosicrucians would become blended together in Gothic literature. Other notable treatments of the Wandering Jew prior to the Gothic novel occur in late eighteenth century German literature. Goethe wrote a fragmented tale either simultaneously with or directly after his famous The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), but it was not published until 1836 (George Anderson 168-73). Christian Schubart also wrote a fragment published in 1783 called Der Ewige Jude (Roberts, Gothic 78). Finally, Reichard’s Der Ewige Jude (1785) ambitiously chronicled the Jew’s entire wanderings throughout history (Roberts, Gothic 75). None of these early treatments, however, popularized the Jew or were of significant influence to the Gothic tradition. Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) is primarily responsible for the Wandering Jew becoming an important Gothic figure.
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of numerous books including The Gothic Wanderer. For more information, visit him at http://www.GothicWanderer.com