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Canadian Jewish NewsChallenges the standard view that this was a dark period for Jews.
— Sheldon Kirshner
"This book offers a much-needed corrective to nearly every treatment of medieval European Jewish history. Instead of an emphasis on persecution and different theories about its sources in church or state policies or in popular anti-Semitism leading to the expulsions of 1290, 1306, and 1492, Elukin proposes a paradigm shift that stresses the everyday convivencia of Jews and Christians who lived side by side most of the time. This book seeks to overturn a dominant view about Christian persecution of Jews in the Middle Ages, reinforced for over fifty years by the Holocaust."—Ivan G. Marcus, Yale University
"This book analyzes the circumstances of Jewish life in medieval Europe in such a way as to explain how Jews managed to survive in Europe at all. Elukin argues that when all the evidence is considered, Jews and Christians did not live in a state of continuous hostility, nor were Jews constantly in danger of annihilation by their Christian neighbors. He really challenges the master narrative of a continuous Christian persecution of Jews whose logical and inevitable conclusion was the Shoah. Elukin will also irritate a lot of people who believe this, but he will be right and they wrong."—Edward Peters, University of Pennsylvania
"The strength of this book lies in its lucid narrative and broad historical arc. As such, it can function as an introduction to the Jewish Middle Ages for undergraduate students—the purpose for which it was, in fact, written. Seen from that angle (and accompanied by much critical guidance), it becomes a valuable resource, providing a fresh look at many of the most important texts about Jewish-Christian relations in an idiom and from a mindset that is accessible for today's students."—Pinchas Roth, Journal of Jewish Studies
The period from the fifth century and the first incursions of non-Roman peoples into the territories of the empire to the end of the Carolingian hegemony in the ninth century is usually seen as a period of relative security and tolerance for Jews. By trying to explain the tolerance, scholars have emphasized how unusual it is and how it degraded into more "normal" persecutorial relations after the year 1000. This division of medieval history between an early period of tolerance and a later period of persecution prevents us from seeing the dynamic nature of the Jewish experience before and after the year 1000. Moreover, asserting the tolerant quality of Christian treatment of Jews in early medieval Europe has had the unfortunate effect of setting in apparently higher relief the persecutions of Jews in the centuries following the First Crusade. The experience of Jews in the early years of the medieval period was certainly more complicated than any clear-cut opposition of tolerance or persecution. Jews and Christians of early medieval Europe engaged each other across a larger spectrum of relationships and experiences. Jews were deeply integrated into the rhythms of these local worlds, living as natural participants in the culture, politics, and societies of early medieval Europe.
Our search for usable evidence to illustrate the complicated dynamic between Christians and Jews will lead us quickly from the island of Minorca in the fifth century, to the towns of sixth and seventh century Gaul, to the divided society of Italy in the seventh century, and to Visigothic Spain of the same period. These variegated societies set the boundaries for the experiences of Jews in Europe until the eighth and ninth centuries, when the descendants of Charles Martel-in particular-Charlemagne, gave some kind of unified religious and political identity to Western Europe.
The first "micro-Christendom" where we can see something of how Jews and Christians lived together is the island of Minorca in the early part of the fifth century. Jews could look back on centuries of continuous settlement in many of the towns and cities of Roman territory in Spain, France, and Italy. Even under the increasingly harsh decrees of Christianized imperial legislation, the Jews still had been guaranteed the protection of Roman laws to practice their religion. Early Christian theology, articulated by Augustine, reinforced this attitude in Christian terms by asserting that Jews must be allowed a place in Christian society since they helped prove the antiquity of Christianity and the authenticity of Scripture. The transition to a Christian empire did not radically alter the restrictive toleration of Jews. The laws emphasized the second-class status of Jews by prohibiting the conversion of Christians to Judaism. They limited contact between Jews and Christians by prohibiting mixed marriages and tried to prevent Christians from attending Jewish religious rituals. The social and physical sphere of Jews was restricted by the prohibition on the construction of new synagogues. At the same time, and this is the tension that would animate much of church law on Jews for the rest of the Middle Ages, Jews were guaranteed the freedom to practice their religion, even if that freedom was granted in denigrating and abusive language.
The fifth century presented challenges to Jews and Christians alike. Christians were still struggling to shape their own religious identity. We are still not sure what being Christian meant to the mass of people of these largely agricultural societies. Moreover, those people who identified in some way as Christian were constantly subjecting their own religious identities to challenges and redefinitions. Catholics struggled violently among themselves and with Arians, Manichees, Donatists, Pelagians, and others as each group sought to define itself as orthodox and others as heretical. This was not an irenic, unified Christian world; it became even more complicated when the Roman Empire, increasingly Christianized after the conversion of Constantine in 337, was reshaped in the fifth century by massive incursions of ethnically non-Roman tribes from the north and east of Europe. These warrior groups, many already culturally Romanized, created new elites, ethnic identities, and sources of power in the lands of the empire. Even if the "fall" of Rome was really a "transformation," the accompanying tragedies of wars, famines, and plagues shaped a fifth century in which Jews and Christians alike faced very uncertain futures.
It is against this background that we find the letter of a Christian cleric, Severus, describing the forced conversion of some members of the local Jewish community in Minorca to Christianity in 418, following the arrival of the relics of St. Stephen on the island. As we will see throughout the period, Jews maintained a range of personal relationships with Christians. And even under the open violence of radicalized Christians, Jews responded as fellow participants in a local culture rather than as an isolated and persecuted minority. Jews were firmly established in the local society of Minorca before the conflict with Christians began. In apparent opposition to or disregard of some of the provisions of the Theodosian Code, Jewish leaders dominated the political life of the island, with one serving as defensor-essentially governor-for the island. According to Severus,
the Jewish people relied particularly on the influence and knowledge of a certain Theodorus, who was pre-eminent in both wealth and worldly honour not only among the Jews, but also among the Christians of that town [Magona]. (2) Among the Jews he was a teacher of the Law and, if I may use their own phrase, the Father of Fathers. (3) In the town, on the other hand, he had already fulfilled all the duties of the town council and served as defensor, and even now he is considered the patronus of his fellow citizens.
As Severus looked back to a time before the period of conflict, he recalls that relations between Jews and Christians had been marked by a warm civility. "In the end," he writes, "even the obligation of greeting one another was suddenly broken off, and not only was our old habit of easy acquaintance disrupted, but the sinful appearance of our longstanding affection was transformed into temporary hatred, though for love of eternal salvation." The bishop could not create a false history of the island where Christians had always been antagonistic toward Jews. Some kind of social peace had prevailed before the arrival of the relics. That was what was so galling to the radicalized cleric.
In addition to the normal bonds of neighbors, Jews and Christians shared a common liturgical culture based on Scripture. This connection was apparent even to Severus when he remembered the preliminaries to a debate between the two communities. As Jews and Christians marched together to a synagogue for a public debate, "along the way we began to sing a hymn to Christ in our abundance of joy. Moreover, the psalm was 'Their memory has perished with a crash and the Lord endures forever' [Ps. 9:7-8], and the throng of Jews also began to sing it with a wondrous sweetness." Did the two groups use the same tune, or did Jews sing in Latin or Greek with the Christians? Or did the Jews recognize the psalm and begin a counter singing in Hebrew? Whatever the case, Severus recognized that the intimate sounds of liturgical music and a shared if contested Scripture connected the two communities.
As the letter opens, Severus's attempts at converting Jews had been going on for well over a year when the relics of Stephen arrived. Nevertheless, Severus remembered the appearance of the relics as the event that galvanized his followers. The physical reminders of holy men and women had become the focus of Christian religiosity during the past two centuries. They provided Christians with a locus for prayers and miracles of healing. Moreover, early Christian bishops cemented their control over local communities by orchestrating the discovery and translation of the relics of local holy men and women.
The relics may have inspired Severus, but at least in Minorca, there was no sudden conversion of the mass of Jews; it took an enormous amount of pressure to bring Jews to the baptismal font. Jews had to make difficult choices when faced with radicalized Christian violence. Some Jews followed the great men of the community into the Christian fold. Their leadership was not enough to persuade all the Jews. Severus describes stubborn resistance: some individuals took to the caves or held out in small groups. Severus remembers that Jews invoked the Maccabees as models for their struggles against the Christians. Individual actions under these conditions could never be predicted. Severus records that "a certain Jewish woman (by God's arrangement, I suppose) acted recklessly, and doubtless to rouse our people from their gentleness, began to throw huge stones down on us from a higher spot." An unknown number seemed to wait out the explosion of Christian radicalism and perhaps later returned to a more openly Jewish identity. The Jewish response reinforces the impression that this was a dynamic situation where individual actions and perceptions of Jewish power and security affected the outcome of the confrontation.
Whether by miracles or intimidation, some significant number (more than five hundred if we believe Severus's account) of Jews ultimately converted. The editor's scholarly detective work has revealed, however, that Severus's victory was not as absolute as he wished to present it. In fact, even in 419-after the conversions-the Christians were still faced with a resilient Jewish community. The Jews of Minorca had not been destroyed. Their great men still occupied positions of influence and power-albeit some as newly converted Christians. Perhaps Severus had exaggerated the number of conversions in the first place. More likely, some conversions had been temporary measures, and part of the Jewish community reconstituted itself after the first wave of Christian intimidation.
It is important to remember that what Jews faced in Minorca was not unusual for other people throughout the Romanized world of the early fifth century. As the Huns, Vandals, Goths, and then other migrant peoples disrupted the societies of the empire, many localities would have seen groups persecuted or relocated. In this new environment when the reach of the central authorities in Rome and Constantinople had begun to weaken, many populations had to negotiate for their security and survival with local leaders. Under these conditions, traditional definitions of identity and loyalty would have come under great pressure. Jews of Minorca, at least, could weather flashes of Christian violence and extremism because their roots in the locality went very deep.
In addition, their connections to neighboring communities gave Jews refuges in towns that had not seen such outbreaks of Christian violence. As Severus recalled,
there still remained two women who refused to race to the fragrance of Christ's unguents: the wife of that Innocentius whom we mentioned above, along with her sister, a widow of excellent reputation. (2) Yet the moment she learned that her sister's husband, Innocentius, had been converted, she boarded ship. We not only permitted her to do this, we even encouraged her, because she could not be turned to faith in Christ by either words or miracles.
The Mediterranean world still offered many safe harbors for Jews.
* * *
We can see many of the same patterns in Jewish-Christian relations slightly later in Merovingian Gaul. By the fifth century, the barbarian people known to the Romans as Franks had come to dominate these territories after many years of jockeying for power with local Roman leaders as well as other non-Roman peoples. By the end of the fifth century, a more or less unified kingdom was established when the great king Clovis, who had embraced Christianity (Catholicism) before a crucial battle, founded his own dynasty. At least that is the image we have from Gregory of Tours who recounts Clovis's exploits in his Ten Books of History, written in the sixth century.
In many ways, Christianity was a newer religion for the Franks than for the more Romanized people in Minorca. It is impossible to know what kind of Christianity or Christian identity was formed in the melting pot of Arians, Catholics, Romans, and Franks after Clovis converted. We really only have Gregory's impression of how the Frankish military suddenly adopted Christianity after Clovis's conversion. For the larger Frankish society of Clovis's day, which included Roman natives of Gaul, and even of Gregory's a generation later, we know very little about the nature of Christianization.
We cannot assume that Gregory's own intense and internalized sense of Christian identity was diffused throughout all levels of Merovingian society. His repeated insistence on the efficacy of relics and saints' tombs to perform miracles suggests that he felt he had to convince a skeptical audience about the new religious economy of Christian healing and salvation. He knew there were alternatives to the messages of Christian bishops. The common peasants were easily deceived, as Gregory delights in telling us, by fake miracle workers and prophets:
That same year there appeared in Tours a man called Desiderius, who gave it out that he was a very important person, pretending that he was able to work miracles. He boasted that messengers journeyed to and fro between himself and the Apostles Peter and Paul. I myself was not there, so the country folk flocked to him in crowds, bringing with them the blind and infirm. He set out to deceive them by the false art of necromancy, rather than to cure them by God's grace.
Gregory was not too sanguine either about the capacity of more educated people to become true Christians. Even one of his own priests, he recounts, could not bring himself to believe in bodily resurrection. At the very least, we have to be open to the possibility of a rather differentiated population with a variety of ideas about what constituted normative or correct Christianity. The world of Gregory of Tours and the Franks of early medieval Gaul is not then necessarily a monolithic Christian community in which all people identifying as Christian shared the same self-identity, or, for that matter, beliefs about Jews. It is unlikely then that Jews would have felt themselves facing a homogenous Christian population. (Emphasizing the varied nature of Christian belief and habits in Gaul is not the same as insisting on a very thin layer of Christian belief covering a deep rooted and resilient paganism.)
When Gregory does take note of Jews-which he does infrequently-what is apparent is how they seem a natural part of the local society of Merovingian Gaul. Even in one of Gregory's lives of the local martyrs, he gives us a picture of Jewish and Christian children studying and learning the alphabet together. The bonds to a particular locality would have been strong in what essentially remained an agricultural society. Even Jews in towns would have connections or interests in the agricultural hinterland on which their lives depended and from which real wealth and status in society derived. These Jews and Christians met on all social levels. That interaction often provoked Christian clerics. Gregory, for example, chastised Christians who consulted Jewish doctors. He recounted one story of a man who rejected the healing offered at a proper Christian shrine and
went off home and consulted a Jew, who bled his shoulders with cupping-glasses, the effect of which was supposed to be that his sight would improve. As soon as the blood had been drawn off, Leunast became as blind as he had been before. He thereupon returned once more to the holy shrine. There he stayed for a long time, but he never recovered his vision ... Leunast would have retained his health, if he had not sought the help of a Jew after he had received God's grace.
Excerpted from LIVING TOGETHER LIVING APART by Jonathan Elukin Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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