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This book presents a synthetic history of the family--the most basic building block of medieval Jewish communities--in Germany and northern France during the High Middle Ages. Concentrating on the special roles of mothers and children, it also advances recent efforts to write a comparative Jewish-Christian social history.
Elisheva Baumgarten draws on a rich trove of primary sources to give a full portrait of medieval Jewish family life during the period of childhood from birth to the beginning of formal education at age seven. Illustrating the importance of understanding Jewish practice in the context of Christian society and recognizing the shared foundations in both societies, Baumgarten's examination of Jewish and Christian practices and attitudes is explicitly comparative. Her analysis is also wideranging, covering nearly every aspect of home life and childrearing, including pregnancy, midwifery, birth and initiation rituals, nursing, sterility, infanticide, remarriage, attitudes toward mothers and fathers, gender hierarchies, divorce, widowhood, early education, and the place of children in the home, synagogue, and community.
A richly detailed and deeply researched contribution to our understanding of the relationship between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors, Mothers and Children provides a key analysis of the history of Jewish families in medieval Ashkenaz.
|Publisher:||Princeton University Press|
|Series:||Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||7 MB|
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Mothers and ChildrenJewish Family Life in Medieval Europe
By Elisheva Baumgarten
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2004 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionIN HIS FIRST LETTER to Héloise, Abelard draws a sharp distinction between family life and the life of the philosopher:
What harmony can there be between pupils and nursemaids, desks and cradles, books or tablets and distaffs, pen or stylus and spindles? Who can concentrate on thoughts of scripture or philosophy and be able to endure babies crying, nurses soothing them with lullabies, and all the noisy coming and going of men and women about the house? Will he put up with the constant muddle and squalor that small children bring into the home?
The focus of this study is the cradles and the nurses and the noisy coming and going of men and women about the house ... exactly that which Abelard intended to dismiss-the connection between these aspects of medieval life and the more accessible lives of scholars. This study follows the Jewish family in medieval Germany and northern France during the High Middle Ages, from the birth of a child until that child was ready for formal education. An understanding of the family unit, the most basic building block of the medieval Jewish community, is essential in order to broaden our knowledge of Jewish family life in the past and to comprehend the Jewish community. During the period of their lives examined here, children were under the supervision of their mothersand other women. The girls remained under this influence until they got married, whereas the boys left the female sphere sooner and began their formal religious education under the guidance of male tutors and teachers at the age of five, six, or seven. As mothers played a central role in their children's existence during these years, this study has placed special emphasis on their lives. It is, however, a book about both mothers and fathers, about their shared goals and their distinctive roles.
Each aspect of Jewish life studied here is compared with that of the Christian surroundings. Each issue is evaluated not only in the context of Jewish society, but in that of European society as a whole. In some cases, these two separate groups are, in fact, one, for Jews and Christians lived in close proximity and, as neighbors, maintained daily contact with each other. In other cases, the inner structure of each society commands our attention, as the practices studied were conducted on distinctly parallel planes, with no direct contact between the two societies. By examining Jewish families along with Christian ones, we may identify shared social structures and mentalities, as well as differences.
Family History and Gender Studies
Until recently, motherhood and childhood were considered subjects without history. Many scholars of Jewish society, like those studying other societies, took for granted that the lives of mothers and children in the past were similar to those of their modern contemporaries, but in recent decades, social historians have revealed the great variety of cultural and social patterns that have characterized different societies, demonstrating the extent to which this assumption was incorrect. Among the first, prominent studies to examine these topics was research on the lives of medieval families; and to a great extent, interest in the topics of motherhood and childhood began with the examination of medieval European culture.
Central to this investigation of family life in the past was Philippe Ariès's book L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime. This book generated a polemic that precipitated a new historical discourse. As Barbara Hanawalt has recently argued in her summary, and assessment of several decades of this debate, despite the refutation of many of Ariès's arguments, his book is still central to all studies of childhood and family life. A central focus of the initial debates following the publication of Ariès's book was his characterization of the emotional attachment of parents and, especially of mothers, to their children. Many of the conclusions attributed to Ariès in this context-such as the lack of parental love toward their children and especially the lack of grief over the death of children (as a consequence of high infant mortality)-became fundamental tenets of a school of research that sought to portray premodern parent-children relationships as characterized by neglect and indifference. While detailed research over the past three decades has persuasively argued that medieval parents were, in fact, emotionally attached to their children and has refuted many of the other claims made by Ariès and his followers, there is no doubt that his study was a central factor motivating much of the subsequent research. Important surveys and detailed studies written by Shulamith Shahar, Barbara Hanawalt, Pierre Riché, Danielle Alexandre-Bidon, Monique Closson, Didier Lett, James Schultz, and most recently Nicholas Orme among many others, have demonstrated the complexity of medieval childhood.
While Ariès focused only on childhood, some of his followers and critics expanded the field of study to include questions dealing with parenting in the past. Different models of parenthood and, especially of motherhood, were studied, giving rise to the awareness that being a mother or father in the past was not the same as parenthood today. While a small portion of this research was motivated by ideological purposes, particularly the work of radical feminists such as Elisabeth Badinter, most of this scholarship drew a new picture of a historical phenomenon that had received little attention in previous research. Book-length studies by historians such as Clarissa Atkinson and, more recently, Mary Dockray-Miller, as well as a number of authors of essays published in edited volumes on medieval motherhood, have examined attitudes toward motherhood and the medieval reality of mothers' lives, while other scholars have studied birthing and infant feeding practices.
This study of motherhood was instigated by an additional set of interests as well. The feminist revolution revived interest in the lives of women in the past. At first, heroines were sought out and the actions of women in the public sphere were emphasized, and little attention was devoted to the lives of unexceptional women. Feminist scholars tended to ignore the private lives of women and their traditional functions-as mothers, wives, and daughters. Many feminist historians, like many other feminists during the 1970s and 1980s, saw a basic conflict between motherhood and feminism. Consequently, motherhood was one of the last topics to be addressed by feminist historians. When private life was studied, the questions investigated were usually limited to marriage and marriage practices.
Fifteen years ago, the first book on motherhood in medieval Christian society was published; since then, more have followed. Along with the study of motherhood and the lives of women, a new awareness has affirmed the necessity of examining the roles and understandings of men as fathers in the past. These studies of fathers are only beginning to be published, almost fifteen years after the first appearance of studies on motherhood. While some of the studies of motherhood, particularly those popular two decades ago, addressed questions of emotional attachment, most recent studies have focused on understanding the historical context and culture of family life in the Middle Ages.
Although much has been published on childhood and on the lives of women in the past, few studies have examined women and children together. The history of childhood has been adopted by social historians, as well as by scholars interested in psychoanalysis. The history of women has been examined by historians interested in the family, who have often studied the role of women as part of their discussion of marriage and of the division of labor in society. These scholars were interested in women as one of the components of the family, but often not as a topic in and of itself. By contrast, feminist research concerning the lives of women in the past adopted other methods of inquiry. In these studies, the interest was in women as a separate group, often portrayed as at odds with male hierarchies, resisting or submitting to them. Research that sought to outline an exclusively women's "History of Their Own," always included a chapter devoted to family life. These chapters were, however, often lopsided, presenting only women's stories, while all but ignoring the men.
Over the past two decades, women's studies has shifted to include both genders, as scholars have realized that one cannot study women and their lives without examining men and their place in society. This shift has led to an inclusion of the lives of men and of society at large in the study of the lives of women. Feminists have demonstrated the extent of men's presence, even when the main subject of their inquiry is women, thus reversing the attempts to isolate a separate female sphere. Such a female sphere was suggested both by more traditional historical writings, which allocated women a place only in the domestic sphere, as well as by feminist historians, who sought a point of entry into women's lives in the past. A prominent example in this context is birth, an area that in premodern times, was supervised by women and took place exclusively in the presence of women. As, however, gender perspectives were introduced to research, this supposedly female sphere, like others, came to be seen as a reflection of the society in its entirety, rather than the world of women alone.
In addition, not only is the constant inclusion of both men and women necessary for historical analysis, but as many of the sources studied, especially in the medieval period, were written by men, new methods had to be developed for examining these sources. Only so could scholars come to understand the perspective from which they were written and how that perspective presented the women mentioned in these sources. As noted over a decade ago by Christaine Klapisch-Zuber, the women presented in the medieval sources are often idealized; their descriptions are not of actual medieval persons. Consequently, we must take care to distinguish the sources referring to actual women and their deeds from sources referring to an ideal of womanhood, whether fair or wicked. In our case, in which the writers were all men, and generally wrote their observations about women for a male audience, these distinctions are of utmost importance.
In summary, the study of motherhood and childhood, and the broader study of family life share many characteristics. In both cases, historians today are studying topics that, a few decades ago, were not considered worthy of historical analysis. Scholars of family life have demonstrated time and again that, although biological functions such as birth and lactation, as well as the basic needs of infants and children, have not changed over time, the ways societies understand and satisfy these needs has. One can no longer explain these needs or functions as simply "natural." They must be understood within their specific cultural and historical contexts.
Jews in Christian Europe
The literature concerning the development of research on gender and family history is one part of the foundation for this study, providing a methodological basis for the research and a model for some of the questions posed in the pages that follow. As mentioned above, many of the scholars who pioneered the study of family life in the past were also historians of medieval Europe. As a result, their work provides not only a methodological basis but a substantive one as well. This substantive foundation has been complemented by a growing number of studies concerning women and families in medieval Europe over the past decades. The Jewish communities examined in this study shared many aspects of this well-documented world. The question of how to view Jewish society in light of this research and within the broader medieval context provides an additional foundation for this study. I will now briefly describe the Jewish communities of medieval Ashkenaz that are at the heart of this book.
This study focuses on the Jewish family in medieval France and Germany during the High Middle Ages. The earliest sources examined are from the ninth century and the latest sources are from the early modern period. The bulk of the source material was, however, written in the High Middle Ages, between the time of the First Crusade and the Black Death. Since changes in the family often evolved over time, the long period of time examined allows for an assessment of the variation in society that took place over the years.
A time framework similar to the one generally employed in studies of medieval northern France and Germany was chosen for two reasons. As is the case in Christian Europe, the Jewish sources from before the eleventh century are relatively sparse. Despite this relative dearth, the ninth and tenth centuries were formative periods both for the Jewish communities and for their Christian neighbors and institutions. The relative wealth of sources from the late eleventh century onward reflects the vitality of the lives of the Jews of Ashkenaz. This situation parallels that of the Christian world, where we find a wealth of sources from the twelfth century on, as many scholars of childhood and family life in the Middle Ages have pointed out. The early materials from the Carolingian period are very valuable, however, as they reflect a period in which changes that shaped the institutions of the High Middle Ages were initiated. This is equally true of the scarce but important documents we have of community agreements and halakhic opinions from the ninth and tenth centuries.
The terminus ad quem of this study, the mid-fourteenth century, also has shared significance for Jewish and Christian society. The Black Death has been shown to be a turning point in many different contexts, an event that provoked extreme changes in both attitudes and practices. While in some cases, these changes reflect processes that began in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, many became prominent only after the Black Death. Consequently, many studies about family life in medieval Europe end with the Black Death, just as many studies concerned with early modern Europe begin their inquiry at this point. The Black Death was also a moment of change for the Jewish communities in Europe and, as such, serves as a suitable period for the end of our inquiry. The Black Death changed the face of European Jewry. Following the Black Death, the process of expulsion of Jews that had begun in England at the end of the thirteenth century, and continued in France at the beginning of the fourteenth century, spread to some cities in Germany as well. In addition, many Jews in German communities began to move to Poland during this period. As the population moved eastward, the result of these migrations, both forced and voluntary, created a new Jewish geography. My examination of sources from after the Black Death demonstrates some of the effects of those changes and investigates to what extent changes that began earlier were accentuated, continued, or transformed after the mid-fourteenth century.
The communities examined are situated in today's northern France and Germany, and are generally called "Ashkenaz" in Jewish historical writing. Although these areas did not belong to a single geopolitical entity during the Middle Ages, and Jewish sources themselves reflect some differences between the localities, the corpus of sources that provides the basis for this study is, for the most part, shared by the two communities. Jews settled along the banks of the Rhine during the ninth and tenth centuries, in cities that over time became central Jewish establishments. The "Shum" communities-Speyer, Worms, and Mainz-were home to many important rabbinical figures as well as to the financial leaders of the time (the two vocations often went hand in hand). Additional German communities were home to rabbinic authorities and successful traders as well. Over time, Jewish settlement spread eastward, and new centers of business and learning were established.
The Jews of northern France, like their brothers and sisters in Germany, were also a vital part of the urbanization of Europe during the Carolingian era. Jewish families established themselves along the trade routes and in the large urban centers. By the High Middle Ages, larger communities, numbering several hundred families, lived in the big cities in France, while many smaller Jewish communities were established, some numbering only a handful of families. The Jews of these communities in France and Germany maintained close contact with other Jews who shared their customs-Jews living in Bohemia, Austria, and Italy (where many of the Ashkenazic Jews originated). Some sources from these areas will be examined here as well. I have not included the Jews of England in this discussion, since the Hebrew sources from England are of a different nature from those on the continent, and, despite the existing contacts between Jews in England and in Ashkenaz, the communities' traditions are not the same.
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Table of ContentsIllustrations ix
Chapter One. Birth 21
Chapter Two. Circumcision and Baptism 55
Chapter Three. Additional Birth Rituals 92
Chapter Four. Maternal Nursing and Wet Nurses: Feeding and Caring for Infants 119
Chapter Five. Parents and Children: Competing Values 154
What People are Saying About This
This thoughtful and elegant work is guided by an overriding big idea: with respect to childbirth and nurturing, Jewish parents in medieval France and Germany developed many practices very similar to their Christian neighbors. The strength of Baumgarten's work arises from two achievements. One is her wide and wise reading of the historical literature on gender and society in medieval Europe. The other is her sensitive use of a wide range of original sources, including manuscripts as yet unavailable or little used in Jewish social history. This book will be read with pleasure and benefit by all those interested in medieval and early modern Europe.
Miri Rubin, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London