(Still Lachrymose) The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom (Robert Chazan)

Invaluable for students of Jews and Jewish Studies is the focus Robert Chazan puts on Christians and Christendom in this neat little survey. The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500 is maybe the best one-stop-shop historical study explaining what happened to the medieval Jews in western Europe, primarily in France and Germany with an eye on southern Europe, Britain, and Spain. While it includes chapters and sections on the (religious) culture of the Jews., the emphasis is on political history: the shifting conditions of Jewish society in relation to Christian secular and ecclesiastical elites, an emergent burgher class, and popular anti-Jewish animosity. The arc to this telling of the story starts with our own non-knowledge about Jewish life in western Europe prior to the eleventh century, official charters and papal rulings encouraging and protecting Jewish settlement and Jews from abuse and harm, the intensification of Christian devotional life around the suffering humanity of Jesus, Crusader massacres, money-lending, blood libels and other rumors about Jewish blasphemy, anti-Jewish disputations, the putting of the Talmud on trial, the Black Death, more massacres, and a wave of expulsions that concludes the period.

Chazan wants to resist the lachrymose version of medieval Jewish history on what basis? The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500 is consistently, almost uniformly bleak despite this or that silver lining in the main body of the study; the concluding non-lachrymose epilogue works something like a backstop. Going back to Salo Baron, cultural creativity has always been the salve that binds up for non-lachrymose historians the deeply painful parts of this period. To look past catastrophe is to lose oneself in Jewish cultural creativity. One enters into the inside of the historical frame and to see there quotidian life alongside all the beautiful things, the holy and fantastical things. At the same time, The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500 can do this only incidentally because its topic is political history, not an exploration of cultural memory; also because it looks at its subject in the round, from the beginning to the end.

One thing made clear to the reader is how the politics for Jews in northern Europe was precarious and double-edged. In France and England, political authority was centralized, whereas in Germany there was no strong central authority. In both cases, royal elites invited Jewish settlement into the territories under their rule and then expelled Jews under their territorial authority. For their part, ecclesiastical elites maintained the synthesis articulated by Augustine to subjugate but not to slay the Jews, even as that synthesis began to give way as the Church and Christian life became increasingly aggressive in the twelfth century. Elite political actors in centralized political systems in England and France were able to protect the Jews until they found it politically expedient to expropriate their property and expel them from the territories under their control as these began to expand. In contrast, political life was decentralized in German speaking lands, which meant that elite political actors were unable to shield Jews against popular animus, scattered abuse, and moments of overwhelming violence (pp.170, 219-31). Socially isolated and uniquely vulnerable to economic ruin, Jewish life could flourish in western Europe only under indefinite protection.

Non-lachrymose in The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500 would be the analysis of the in-between time in relation to place, the conceptualization of Jewish society as one marked by extraordinary mobility, economic adroitness, self-government, skillful political maneuvering, and cultural creativity. Chazan goes so far as to see in this a vanguard of modernity” (p.287, emphasis added). Jewish life is described as expanding, evolving, adapting, absorbing into a larger and dynamic cultural framework for living as Jews and Jewish society move from a predominantly Muslim milieu into a Christian one (p.23). (That the Jewish medieval world could only look this way by comparing these aspects to modernity is itself worth noting.)  Chazan charts a five-hundred-year population shift of Jews further and further east, pulled into the hinterlands of western Christendom, finally into Poland and Hungary. On the one hand, the very newness of Jewish communities in medieval northern-western Europe contributed to an original sense of their foreignness. On the other hand, the span of even only a couple centuries is already a long time, creating a sense of belonging in England, and even more so in France and Spain.

Very lachrymose is this conclusion regarding that sense of belonging. “Just as the Christian majority was deeply ambivalent about the Jews in its midst, so too the Jewish minority was ambivalent and uncertain about the majority Christian ambience in which it found itself” (p.76). With the author wanting to overcome “folk memory,” the epilogue does nothing to dispel the stark heaviness that weighs down the overarching political narrative in the main body of the book. Instead of ordinary lived life, The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500 follows the documentary evidence that marks this period, some of which Chazan collected in Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages (1980). The two volumes can be read in tandem, one with the other. Neither study does anything to document “warm human contact” between Christians and Jews. That “voices in modern Europe” who today espouse diversity “have come to revaluate and esteem the medieval Jewish contribution to the ideal of a heterogenous society” is something of a head-scratcher (pp.285-6). That western Europe was no longer a center of Jewish life by the end of this period is itself a lachrymose thought.

A study of Jewish women and Jewish folk piety, the work of Rashi, Tosafists, Hasidei Ashkenaz can do the non-lachrymose work in ways that a comprehensive survey that sets Jewish life in its Christian cultural and political context cannot. These cultural linings would be charming fragments of the past; they flare up to us in the present, tugging at the fold between a sense of timelessness and time, place and placelessness. My suspicion is that the historians can only win in the struggle with lachrymose folk memory by deciding to freeze-frame this or that item or moment. In contrast to this kind of local study, The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500 follows a five-hundred-year arc with a beginning, middle, and end. It is not a static picture. There is no eternal present. This is not a study of a large people in their own land. The Jews do not remain in place. In time, the Jews are moved out.

Not static and very lachrymose is what Chazan himself calls “the dynamics of deterioration” are traced to the twelfth century (pp.239-42). As more Jews move into Christian domains, the more Christians actually come to meet living Jews and to know something of their traditions even. Now the deleterious image of the Jew drawn from the Gospels, the emotional imagery of the Crucifixion, and ecclesiastic law are brought into play, determining parameters of Jewish life defined in terms of enmity (p.34). No longer ambivalent, Chazan calls this medieval vision of Jewish enmity “an overwhelming image.” Meant to excite Christian piety, the Jews are no longer biblical stock figures; they are enemies in the “here-and-now.” Assumed is that these images “reflect,” or I would say shape, widespread perceptions. More fluid and less containable than doctrine and policy, the wild and excessive anti-Jewish imagery, never subject to church control, hangs over the gothic edifice of Jewish life in the medieval Christian west (pp.66-70). It is impossible to look past that gaze.

Thinking about The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500, I’m not sure what the historian brings to folk memory apart from more precision.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to (Still Lachrymose) The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom (Robert Chazan)

  1. Maybe Salo Baron was wrong. When I teach medieval Jewish history in Christian Europe, it’s very hard to get away from the feeling that it was actually pretty grim – not uniformly, and not at all times and in all places, to be sure, but still pretty bad. I try to convince my students that the lachrymose view is wrong, but I don’t have much conviction that I’m right.

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