Larry Simon

title.none: Nirenberg, Communities of Violence (Simon)

identifier.other: baj9928.9709.004 97.09.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Larry Simon, Western Michigan University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Nirenberg, David. Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. ix, 301. $29.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-691-03375-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.09.04

Nirenberg, David. Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. ix, 301. $29.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-691-03375-7.

Reviewed by:

Larry Simon
Western Michigan University

David Nirenberg's provocative and absorbing volume contains three case studies of violence against lepers, Muslims, and especially Jews in 1320 and 1321 in France and the lands of the Crown of Aragon, followed by three more broadly based studies of violence and the Jewish and Muslim minorities of the lands of the Crown of Aragon c.1300 through the Black Death. Although some readers may find the substance of the volume far narrower than indicated by the title, Nirenberg nevertheless has written a volume about the persecution of all minorities in the Middle Ages, a volume which stands as a challenge to historians such as Norman Cohn, R.I. Moore, and Carlo Ginzburg who emphasize the importance of collective mentalities in their analysis of violence, and which stands as a challenge to all historians, especially those of Jewish history or those of Spanish history concerned with the so-called "decline of convivencia," who interpret events, especially episodes of violence, in a teleological framework. Nirenberg issues these challenges in a clear and encompassing introduction (pp. 3-17), which is followed by a lengthier chapter 1 (pp. 18-40) designed to introduce the medievalist-troglodyte who thinks Europe ended at the Pyrenees to the lands of the Crown of Aragon and its Jewish and Muslim minorities.

Chapter 2 contains Nirenberg's take on the Shepherds' Crusade of 1320, and renewed violence in France the following year against Jews and lepers. Contra Malcolm Barber and others who would attribute, in Nirenberg's view, the atrocities to "irrational hysteria" and "collective mentalities," Nirenberg adopts a more traditional viewpoint, one that emphasizes both the political and symbolic importance of the French monarchy, and argues that the atrocities of 1320 and 1321 should be seen as "social conflict expressed through and justified by competing interpretations of a variety of discourses about kingship, bodies, Jews, and the nature of evil in a Christian society" (p. 68). Anything less, the author argues, is reductionist. Chapter 3 follows the pastoureaux in 1320 as they headed south of the Pyrenees and slaughtered 337 Jews in the royal castle of Montclus. Nirenberg carefully reconstructs from archival evidence this event and its surrounding history; violence was apparently limited to a very small area and with the tragic exception of Montclus fatalities not to be found. Both accusations of complicity in regard to the renegade pastoureaux and fines against Jews, designated to help with the burial of the dead but who rioted upon arrival at Montclus, proved to be excellent sources of further royal revenue. Rather than see broad sympathies with the violent anti-Semitism of the pastoureaux, Nirenberg is inclined to see a royal "construction of complicity" to further its increasing fiscal rapacity.

Chapter 4, "Lepers, Jews, Muslims, and Poison in the Crown (1321)," traces the history, from a wide variety of published and especially unpublished sources, of leper hysteria and well poisoning allegations in 1321 in Aragon and Mediterranean Spain. "Lepers, foreigners, locals with creative enemies" all suffered more from poisoning accusations, Nirenberg finds, than did "Muslims and Jews, despite the fact that historians have focused only on the latter" (p. 108). The long-term effects on social relations as a result of leprosy accusations, set in motion by royal edicts of 1321 and more or less reversed within a year, seem in the lands of the Crown of Aragon to have been "none." Leprosy was viewed with considerable fear and revulsion, but leprous individuals returned to being seen as proper objects of public and private charity. Although the study of the events of 1320 and 1321 north and south of the Pyrenees have commonalities, Nirenberg concludes that the function and effect of stereotypes and accusations "are closely dependent on social context and conflict, and therefore differ greatly from time to time and place to place" (p. 124). I myself view this as almost axiomatic, but I do wonder if scholars predisposed to the opposite view, those who give primacy to ideologies and collective mentalities, will be persuaded by the argument here.

Chapter 5, "Sex and Violence between Majority and Minority," forms the first of three searching and fascinating chapters on systemic as opposed to cataclysmic violence. A wide variety of published Christian, Jewish, and Muslim primary sources is supplemented by unpublished materials from the royal registers in the Crown of Aragon Archives and an array of local and theoretical secondary studies in these three chapters. Nirenberg charts the great amount of anxiety and violence generated by inter-confessional sexual intercourse. He demonstrates the ideal of exclusivity among all three religious groups, and documents the burning, castration and torture visited especially upon minority males who have sexual intercourse with Christian females. Christian prostitutes faced a very real burden to prove their minority clients had passed as Christians, and the author engages in an extended analysis trying to account for why laws prohibiting miscegenation would apply to prostitutes as well. Nirenberg believes that for some "miscegenation becomes the cuckolding of Christ" (p. 151), and that the prostitute not only represented manhood and embodied the Christian male community, but that "the overlap between her role as receptacle of communal Christian male lust, on the one hand, and medieval theories about the physical and spiritual bonds created by intercourse, on the other, transformed the prostitute into a concrete representation of a community of men united to each other by a common sexual bond" (pp. 154-55). The final portion of the chapter (pp. 159-65) announces that these boundary-maintaining sexual taboos "might serve to render other types of interaction less conflictual, lessening their potential for violence." No evidence is provided for this, though the author does seek to demonstrate the way in which fines and the context of various communities diminished and diffused violence.

Chapter 6, "Minorities Confront Each Other: Violence between Muslims and Jews," parts of which were earlier published in Viator 23 (1993), seeks to demonstrate how "particular and contingent historical situations encourage the emergence of intolerant religious discourses and give them strength" (p. 166). Although very few studies have been made of Jewish-Muslim interaction in Christian Spain, Nirenberg is able to make skillful use of documentation published by Y. Baer, J. Boswell, M.T. Ferrer i Mallol, and others, as well as material indexed by J. Regne or found by the author himself in Barcelona's archives. The world revealed in these documents is, in a single word, competitive: "competition," "competitive," and "competitors" are the three most frequently used words in the chapter, with only "conflict," "conflictual," and "discourses" offering themselves as rivals. This chapter is perhaps the most enjoyable of the volume to read, and it ranges widely through topics of taxation, dietary law, civic processions, slavery, and conversion, concluding with brief analyses of a consilium of Oldradus de Ponte (d. 1337?) and an anti-Jewish polemic written in Arabic by an Aragonese Muslim from the city of Huesca in 1360. Nirenberg's sensitivity to the religious law of medieval Muslims and Jews is admirable, and his nuanced explanations are persuasive. Rather than argue solely that competition in a hierarchical and Christian-dominated world generated competitive religious polemic--it certainly did this as well--I am surprised that the author does not seek also to make the argument (akin to ones advanced in the immediately preceding chapter and the following one as well) that the mutual exclusivity of these two religiously intolerant sub-societies, especially the juridical and legal boundaries which they erected and the harsh ideological stances taken in their polemics, actually freed individuals to cooperate with each other across these boundaries, especially in the prosaics of daily life. This is what a fair amount of the surviving notarial evidence certainly suggests. Although the author has adopted the broadest possible interpretation of what constitutes violence, his focus on the "conflictive" and "conflictual" does not tell the complete story of Muslim-Jewish interaction.

Chapter 7, "The Two Faces of Sacred Violence," preliminary portions of which were published in Annales 50 (1995), is an extended analysis of the attack on the Jewish call, or quarter, of Girona during Holy Week of 1331. Like student riots in Seoul, South Korea, which can turn nasty, or like the anti-Spanish government protests staged in Barcelona on the eve of September 11 (Diada Nacional de Catalunya, ironically the anniversary of Barcelona's defeat by Philip V, the Bourbon abolisher of Catalonian privileges), which have not turned deadly violent in many a year, Holy Week riots were regular and controlled. More rumors than rocks flew, and civil officials, especially royal officials, considered it their duty to protect the Jews and contain clerical and youthful excesses. Nirenberg finds that "Holy Week riots were annual, customary, and quasi-liturgical, not some aberrant symptom of a system gravely ill" (p. 201). The events of Valencia in 1322 or Girona in 1331 were striking because "their violence, ritualized though it may have been, far exceeded the norm" (p. 223), and there is no inexorable line from these Holy Week riots to the massacre of Jews in 1348 or 1391, much less to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Some scholars and students will find that Nirenberg's argument here rankles. I myself am persuaded, though perhaps reluctant or unable to see quite how "these violent rituals reiterated a discourse legitimating the presence of Jews in Christian society." Since cathartic and tension-relieving elements have been attributed by scholars to medieval religious drama and by anthropologists to instances of ritualized violence, the absence of any mention of catharsis in the author's analysis is, I assume, deliberate. The connection between Jews and royal government (see pp. 221- 23) in Holy Week violence returns the reader to some of the themes introduced in Nirenberg's early chapters.

An epilogue entitled "The Black Death and Beyond" (pp. 231- 49) details the cataclysm of 1348 and the role ascribed to Jews and Muslims in it, and concludes by arguing that an "embrace of linear narratives of escalating hatred ... makes no better sense when applied to the period after the plague than it did in the period before" (p. 246). Nirenberg fashionably returns time and time again to the language of the critical theorist, but the particularity of his careful analysis leads him to some rather unfashionable conclusions. The principles of sociological analysis, augmented by psychological and anthropological theory, inform and interpret rather than aprioristically subvert the data and "competing narratives" at Nirenberg's disposal. The result is a remarkable work of scholarship; Communities of Violence should be of interest not only to those studying Europe's ethno-religious minorities, but to all scholars interested in questions of dominance, persecution, violence, and the "other."

The volume includes both a 29-page Bibliography of Works Cited--it is Nirenberg's frequent recourse to comparative and theoretical perspectives which makes this bibliography, when viewed on its own, full of surprises--and a detailed Index. Where English translations are available for various works cited, as for example with entries of Augustine, Julio Caro Baroja, Americo Castro, Michel Mollat and Philippe Wolff, Ariel Toaff, Jaume Vicens Vives, and the Visigothic Laws, it would be useful for students to know of the existence of translations; conversely, several entries fail to list the translator's name. Princeton University Press is to be praised for permitting the author to utilize full notes and to quote so extensively from primary materials. It is convenient that when cited documents were abstracted by Jean Regne the references to this catalogue are often given; it would be even more convenient, given the ubiquity and accessibility of Regne's work, were all such references provided. Citations of secondary works are usefully expanded to include primary references contained therein, though this occasionally results in misleading references; the "Arxiu Historic de Mallorca" appears, for example, in the list of abbreviations, though the archives in question has for decades been named the Arxiu del Regne de Mallorca, and prior to that contained a Spanish rather than Catalan name.

Copyediting errors and misprints are few in number. One finds Majorca and Mallorca utilized interchangeably throughout, including on the same page (p. 23); "persecution" appears where "prosecution" is meant on p. 115; "Castille" (p. 121, n. 77 and elsewhere) appears for "Castile"; there is a typographical error in the biblical citation on p. 123 n. 81; the correct adjective of "synecdoche" is "synechdochic" or "synechdochical," even if "synecdocal" (p. 151, n. 90) would be easier to pronounce; and word-for-word identical sentences appear on p. 161 and p. 37. Interest of twenty percent per month (p. 175) would be usurious from even the nastiest of loan sharks, whether in Majorca of the 1390s or Hamtramck of the 1930s, and twenty percent per year must be meant, even if the amount is to be compounded monthly, or was expressed as four diners per pound each month (i.e. 48 diners per pound a year, 48 diners per 240 diners, or twenty percent a year). The correct verb is "catechize" rather than "cathecize" (p. 187), and the text is missing a "which" in line one of p. 205. Accent and diacritical marks are of course especially demanding with Arabic and Hebrew names to say nothing of the extensive use of Spanish and Catalan; errors and oversights here too are few in number. The font in both the text and notes is small--the volume is far lengthier than it appears- -and this would not be a problem were it not for the very light print in at least the review copy I received. Students and scholars alike would benefit from the press's issuing a paperback edition of the volume.

On a final note, I might add that my fulsome enthusiasm for this volume is shared with more than just the five individuals who provided the press with blurbs of high praise for use on the dust jacket; at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City this last January, Nirenberg's volume won the biennial Premio del Rey book award, given to the outstanding work in medieval Spanish history published in the previous two years.