Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages / Edition 1

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In the wake of modern genocide, we tend to think of violence against minorities as a sign of intolerance, or, even worse, a prelude to extermination. Violence in the Middle Ages, however, functioned differently, according to David Nirenberg. In this provocative book, he focuses on specific attacks against minorities in fourteenth-century France and the Crown of Aragon Aragon, Catalonia, and Valencia. He argues that these attacks - ranging from massacres to verbal assaults against Jews, Muslims, lepers, and prostitutes - were often perpetrated not by irrational masses laboring under inherited ideologies and prejudices, but by groups that manipulated and reshaped the available discourses on minorities. Nirenberg shows that their use of violence expressed complex beliefs about topics as diverse as divine history, kingship, sex, money, and disease, and that their actions were frequently contested by competing groups within their own society.
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Editorial Reviews

American Historical Review
[This book] is written with a stylistic flair that makes it a pleasure to read, a model of historical research and exposition at its best.
— Marc Saperstein
Medium AEvum
Nirenberg has ventured unescorted down all manner of unexplored paths.... This is a highly sophisticated piece of work, clever in the best sense of the word, rich and variegated, a treasure-house of perceptive scholarship, sensitively nuanced, beautifully controlled, a delight to handle and a joy to read.
— Peter Linehan
The Historian
Nirenberg's argument is elegant and precise.... [His] superb scholarship has done a great service in a matter of great importance, and not only to historians.
— Edward Peters
Medium Aevum

Nirenberg has ventured unescorted down all manner of unexplored paths.... This is a highly sophisticated piece of work, clever in the best sense of the word, rich and variegated, a treasure-house of perceptive scholarship, sensitively nuanced, beautifully controlled, a delight to handle and a joy to read.
— Peter Linehan
The Historian - Edward Peters
Nirenberg's argument is elegant and precise.... [His] superb scholarship has done a great service in a matter of great importance, and not only to historians.
American Historical Review - Marc Saperstein
[This book] is written with a stylistic flair that makes it a pleasure to read, a model of historical research and exposition at its best.
Medium AEvum - Peter Linehan
Nirenberg has ventured unescorted down all manner of unexplored paths.... This is a highly sophisticated piece of work, clever in the best sense of the word, rich and variegated, a treasure-house of perceptive scholarship, sensitively nuanced, beautifully controlled, a delight to handle and a joy to read.
From the Publisher

Winner of the 1998 Herbert Baxter Adams Prize, American Historical Association
Winner of the 1996 Premio del Rey Prize, American Historical Association
Winner of the 1998 Best First Book in Iberian History Award, Society for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies
Winner of the 2000 John Nicholas Brown Prize, Medieval Academy of America

"Nirenberg's argument is elegant and precise.... [His] superb scholarship has done a great service in a matter of great importance, and not only to historians."--Edward Peters, Historian

"[This book] is written with a stylistic flair that makes it a pleasure to read, a model of historical research and exposition at its best."--Marc Saperstein, American Historical Review

"Nirenberg has ventured unescorted down all manner of unexplored paths.... This is a highly sophisticated piece of work, clever in the best sense of the word, rich and variegated, a treasure-house of perceptive scholarship, sensitively nuanced, beautifully controlled, a delight to handle and a joy to read."--Peter Linehan, Medium Aevum

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691058894
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 1/26/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 800,825
  • Product dimensions: 6.07 (w) x 9.11 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

David Nirenberg is the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where he is also dean of the Division of the Social Sciences and the founding director of the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society.
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Read an Excerpt

Communities of Violence

Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages

By David Nirenberg


Copyright © 1996 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-6623-6



IN MODERN TEXTS the words "fourteenth century" are often accompanied by others such as "calamitous" and "crisis." To demographers at least, this must surely be the bleakest of medieval centuries. The previous three hundred years had been expansive ones during which European plows conquered new territories, agricultural productivity increased, trade recovered, and the population grew. By 1300, however, with little fertile earth left to find, agricultural yields (always appallingly low by modem standards) began to fall. A civilization that in the previous century had effortlessly raised new cities, new cathedrals, new governments, came to weigh more and more heavily on its countryside. The result was famine. In 1315–1318, for example, bad weather and bad harvests resulted in "the great" famine that affected most of northern Europe. Hunger and its attendant diseases reduced the population of some areas (like Essex in England) by as much as 15 percent. The Mediterranean basin, spared in 1315–1318, suffered similar dearth in the early 1330s culminating in 1333, a year that Catalans would later call, with hindsight, "the first bad year." These were reminders, if any were needed, that medieval society was walking a knife-edge. Premodern demography is scarcely an exact science, but it appears that the population of Europe grew very little, and perhaps fell slightly, between 1300 and 1347.

Nevertheless, it was not famine but the arrival of the bacillus Yersinia pestis in 1348 that definitively awarded the fourteenth century the title of "calamitous." No precise demographic instruments are needed to measure the effect on the European population of the arrival of the Black Death: whether the death toll was 25 or 50 percent, it was a disaster. The epilogue discusses some of the initial reactions to this disaster and their importance for the treatment of minorities. Here it is sufficient to point out that the fourteenth century pivoted on a mortality so massive, so widespread, and so unexpected that it has few parallels in any age.

Hunger and plague might be attributed to divine wrath. War was a more immediately human failing, and an increasingly expensive one. The fourteenth century was a century of war. It opened with Philip the Fair's wars against England in Aquitaine (1294–1303) and against Flanders (1302–1305), and closed in the midst of the so-called Hundred Years War (1337–1453). Besides destroying people and property, these conflicts further depressed economies already fragile. Even the most bloodless of these wars, like the one in Aquitaine, proved extraordinarily expensive. Armies, then as today, needed to be paid, and kings paid them with funds raised by taxes. The machinery of royal fiscality therefore grew more oppressive at the same time as resources were diminishing, producing conflict.

Some of this conflict occurred between kings and their subjects. If in the thirteenth century kings tended to claim and exercise greater and greater power, these claims were increasingly, sometimes violently, challenged in the fourteenth. Baronial rebellions and tax revolts against monarchs occurred throughout Europe, the deposition and murder of England's Edward II (1327) and of Castile's Peter the Cruel (1369) being the most dramatic examples. But many other social relations were also polarized: between urban elites and laborers, city dwellers and countryfolk, peasants and seigneurs.

Relations between minorities and majority suffered as well. The history of minorities can easily be made to parallel the cataclysms of the fourteenth century. Jews, for example, were expelled from England in 1290; from France in 1306, 1322 (or 1327), and 1394. They were massacred in Germany in 1298, 1336–1338, and 1348; in France in 1320 and 1321. Lepers were attacked, imprisoned, or burned in France in 1321; witches were pursued more or less everywhere after 1348. For minorities, the fourteenth was among the most violent of centuries.

* * *

Within this general European context the Crown of Aragon was in some ways exceptional, in others not. Like the rest of Europe, the Crown suffered from food shortages and famine (e.g., the "first bad year" of 1333, the "year of the great hunger" in 1347, the "bad year" of 1374), from plague, and from war. Some of these wars, like the eternal campaigns against Sardinia, were at least fought away from home. Others—for example, the long "War of the Two Peters," which broke out in 1356 between Peter the Ceremonious (1336–1387) of Catalonia-Aragon and Peter the Cruel (1350-1369) of Castile—were bloody and destructive affairs from which the Crown's economy took decades to recover. All these wars had one thing in common: they were expensive.

Like other European monarchs, the kings of Catalonia-Aragon found their attempts to extend the reach of royal power increasingly resisted by barons and burghers alike. In the Crown of Aragon this resistance sporadically took the form of "unions," sworn confederations of nobles and municipalities mobilized to assert their privileges against the monarchy. In this they were more successful than elites in other countries. At times, and particularly in 1347–1348, the conflict between king and unions was indistinguishable from civil war. In 1347 King Peter was forced to ratify the Aragonese Union's demands to avoid being taken prisoner. For the next year he waged war against the nobles and cities of two of his kingdoms, Aragon and Valencia, and lost. Only the arrival of the plague allowed the defeated king to escape imprisonment in Valencia and reconquer his territories. The bitterness of the conflict is apparent in the king's professed desire after his victory to raze the city of Valencia and sow it with salt. When his advisers counseled against this, he contented himself with beheading and drowning some rebels, as well as forcing others to drink the molten metal of the bell that they had forged to call their cohort to arms.

In all these categories of calamity Europe and the Crown of Aragon were more or less congruent. But there were also more structural similarities in areas that specifically affected the treatment of minorities. For example, virtually the same general legal and ethical principles justified to Christians the existence of Jews throughout Christian Europe. It is tempting to argue that the Islamic concept of dhimmi status survived in Spain even after that land was reconquered from the Muslims. This status allowed "Peoples of the Book" (i.e., Christians and Jews) living in Islamic states to practice their religion privately in relative freedom, though burdened by higher taxes and some restrictions on dress and social interaction. Yet one searches in vain for such a general principle of toleration in the Christian Crown of Aragon. What religious and legal arguments there were for permitting the existence of religious minorities were those current in the rest of Europe. Christians since the time of Augustine had argued that Jews should be tolerated in Christian society as abject witnesses to the truth and triumph of Christianity, and they did so in Iberia as well. The great law code of the Castilian king Alfonso X "the Wise" proclaimed that

the reason the Church, emperors, kings, and other princes permitted the Jews to reside among Christians is this: that they might live forever as in captivity and serve as a reminder to mankind that they are descended from those who crucified Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Similarly, the protection that Muslims and Jews enjoyed at law in the Crown of Aragon stemmed from the same legal fiction that legitimated the protection of Jews in France, England, or Germany: that all Jews (and Muslims) were slaves of the king's chamber, his royal treasure, and therefore not to be harmed by anyone except, of course, the king himself.

Yet there were important differences between the Iberian countries and the rest of Europe. The most obviously relevant difference is in the demographic weight of minority populations. Most European countries had (at some point in time) small minorities of non-Christians, usually Jews, living among them, but none of these populations approached the number of non-Christians, most of them Muslims, who dwelled in the Crown of Aragon. The sheer numbers of non-Christians in Iberia rendered them less exotic. No Iberian writer fantasized, as the German Wolfram von Eschenbach did, that the offspring of a Christian-Muslim couple would be mottled white and black: they knew better.

The distribution of minority populations in the Crown affects many aspects of minority-majority relations. This is especially true in the case of Mudejars (a word commonly used by historians to designate Muslims living in Christian Iberian lands), whose condition in the Crown of Aragon cannot be separated from the pace of the Christian reconquest. The Muslim invasion of Spain in 711 had confined the Christian polities to a few counties clustered in and about the Pyrenees. The future kingdom of Aragon was limited to the six hundred square kilometers of valleys above the river Aragón. Further east the future Catalan counties stretched from Girona to a bit beyond Barcelona. Until roughly the year 1000, these were the frontiers delimiting what we might call for the sake of convenience Old Catalonia and Old Aragon. Because these regions had never been firmly controlled by the Muslims and were reconquered so early, very few Mudejars would live there in the fourteenth century.

Following the collapse of the Islamic caliphate of Córdoba in 1031, both the kingdom of Aragon and the Catalan counties began to expand at the expense of the Muslims. By the mid-twelfth century, Aragon had conquered the Muslim kingdom of Huesca (1096) and Zaragoza (1118), as well as the dry lands beyond the Ebro River: Calatayud, Soria, Daroca. Aragon had expanded to roughly its present-day borders. Catalonia, too, extended its borders beyond the ancient frontier of the river Llobregat, past Tortosa (1148) and Lleida (1149), forming an area called New Catalonia whose frontier with the Muslim kingdom of Valencia was south of the river Ebro.

These were considerable conquests. They needed to be populated with laborers if they were to be productive, and with Christians if they were to be defended against Islam. The conquerors therefore encouraged the immigration of Christians from their older territories and beyond (e.g., from France) into the newly conquered areas. Because this immigration was not always large enough to satisfy labor demands, they also permitted some of the old agricultural labor force to remain in place. They granted peace treaties to the Muslims they conquered so that those Muslims would continue to work their traditional holdings. These treaties stipulated the terms of surrender for the defeated Muslims, but they also guaranteed extensive privileges for those who chose to remain: among others, the right to continue practicing Islam and the right to govern their own communities according to Islamic law.

As a result, both Aragon and New Catalonia had extensive Muslim populations. There were roughly 6,000 Mudejars in Catalonia circa 1250, for example, with most of these concentrated around the Ebro River. In Aragon the number of Mudejars was much greater: perhaps as much as 35 percent of a total population of approximately 200,000 was Muslim. Every major town in that kingdom had witnessed continuous Mudejar habitation in the centuries since its reconquest, and in some rural areas Muslims constituted a majority of the population.

The gradual extension of the Aragonese and Catalan frontiers had taken centuries. The most spectacular expansion of the Crown, however, took place within the lifetime of one monarch: James the Conqueror. When the adolescent James I assumed the throne in 1213, he could sign himself king of Aragon, count of Barcelona, and lord of Montpellier. Within some thirty years he tripled the number of his crowns, adding the kingdoms of Mallorca and Valencia to the list. The subjugation of the Muslim polities of Majorca, Minorca, and Valencia was dramatically rapid. King James defeated the wali of Majorca in 1229–1232 and reduced the much larger kingdom of Valencia in a series of campaigns between 1237 and 1245. Thanks to these campaigns the Crown of Aragon almost doubled in area, while the population of Muslims within its borders more than tripled (see map 1). The kingdom of Majorca was relatively small, and its resettlement was accomplished without the granting of substantial rights to the conquered Muslims. The opposite is true of Valencia. There Muslim numerical dominance of the countryside was the rule, not the exception, and an Islamic population of well over 100,000 outnumbered Christian settlers by more than three to one at the time of the Conqueror's death in 1276.

This immensely variable distribution of the Muslim population meant that Muslims in different parts of the Crown experienced minority-majority relations differently, as a comparison of Muslim status in the kingdoms of Aragon and Valencia makes clear. The Muslims in Aragon had lived in a Christian polity for centuries. They had watched the frontiers with their coreligionists recede further into the distant south with every passing year. Some, among them many members of the intellectual and military elites, had followed the frontier, emigrating to Muslim lands. Those who remained developed allegiances to their new lords. In Valencia, on the other hand, the reconquest had been recent and the frontier with Granada was both close by and easy to cross. Further, in Valencia the Muslim military and intellectual leadership was to some extent still intact. As late as 1317, for example, there was still a Muslim ra'is ruling over Crevillent, albeit as vassal of a Christian king. Equally important, in Valencia Muslims were for many yean following the reconquest a numerical majority, overwhelmingly so in the countryside, whereas in Aragon they remained a minority.

Variations in demographic weight, date of conquest, and proximity to Muslim Granada also affected the cultural development of Mudejars in Valencia and Aragon. In Valencia, the large Mudejar population could isolate itself from contact with Christians, especially in the countryside. Muslims could live in villages with other Muslims, pay taxes to Muslim (and sometimes Jewish) tax collectors who kept the tax rolls in Arabic, shop only in Muslim stores, and so forth. It seems, in fact, that a large proportion of the Valencian Mudejar population could not even speak the language of its conquerors, preserving Arabic and refusing to learn Romance.

In Aragon and Catalonia, on the other hand, where a smaller Muslim population had been incorporated piecemeal over centuries, Muslims tended to live cheek by jowl with Christians. Even when Mudejars were assigned a specific quarter for their habitation, as often happened in the larger towns, effective segregation was seldom achieved and Muslims could be found living in Christian neighborhoods as well. In the countryside there were some villages populated entirely by Muslims, but many others had mixed populations. In such villages Muslims and Christians jointly paid taxes, fought rival villages, tended sheep, and even governed each other. Such a setting encouraged acculturation, at least in language. Nearly all Muslims in the north spoke Romance. It has even become commonplace to state that, because of assimilation and the emigration of elites, many Muslims in Aragon and Catalonia forgot much of their Islamic culture, including Arabic. This position seems overstated, since it makes little sense of, for example, the existence of a Mudejar medical school in Zaragoza in 1494, or the petition in 1385 by the Muslim aljama (corporate municipal body) of Fraga that it be allowed to conduct all of its legal business in Arabic. It nevertheless remains true that the Muslims of Aragon and Catalonia were much more integrated into the majority Christian society than those of Valencia.

* * *

The distribution of the Jewish population in the Crown is in some ways the inverse of the Muslim. First, there were far fewer Jews in the Crown than Muslims. Estimates range from a maximum of 20,000 Jews in Aragon, 25,000 in Catalonia, and 10,000 in Valencia to a minimum of perhaps half that, or between 6 and 2 percent of the population of the Crown. Further, unlike Muslims, Jews had greater demographic weight in urban areas than in the country as a whole. For instance, cities like Barcelona or Girona in Catalonia and Huesca in Aragon probably had populations that were more than 10 percent Jewish. Some smaller provincial towns also had relatively large Jewish populations. Santa Coloma de Queralt, a town of roughly 150 houses, had some fifty Jewish families in the early fourteenth century, and in the village of Montclus in Aragon Jews may even have constituted a majority. Though there may have been scores of rural villages like Sarrion in Aragon with one or two Jewish inhabitants, these Jews did not make up an important (or at least not a measurable) fraction of the Jewish population.

Just as Jews were more urban than Muslims, they were also more acculturated. One obvious index of this acculturation is language. Jews entered the Crown in a variety of ways: some emigrated from Muslim lands, others were conquered by Christian armies along with the Muslims, and still others came from elsewhere in Europe. Regardless of their provenance, however, all Jews in the Crown spoke the local Romance dialect as their language of everyday life, even if many retained Hebrew and Arabic as languages of religion and learning. Jewish social structure also approximated Christian models more than the Muslim one did. Jews, for example, modeled their society on the Christian division into upper, middle, and lower classes, and conflict among these classes was an important source of social unrest. Mudejar society, on the other hand, was relatively horizontal, and internal Mudejar conflict stemmed from lineage group feuds, from 'asabiya (solidarity between agnates), not from class struggle.


Excerpted from Communities of Violence by David Nirenberg. Copyright © 1996 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 3
Ch. 1 The Historical Background 18
Ch. 2 France, Source of the Troubles: Shepherds' Crusade and Lepers' Plot 1320, 1321 43
Ch. 3 Crusade and Massacre in Aragon 1320 69
Ch. 4 Lepers, Jews, Muslims, and Poison in the Crown 1321 93
Ch. 5 Sex and Violence between Majority and Minority 127
Ch. 6 Minorities Confront Each Other: Violence between Muslims and Jews 166
Ch. 7 The Two Faces of Sacred Violence 200
Epilogue: The Black Death and Beyond 231
Bibliography of Works Cited 251
Index 281
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