Elka Klein

title.none: Assis, The Golden Age of Aragonese Jewry (Klein)

identifier.other: baj9928.9807.002 98.07.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Elka Klein, Cambridge University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Assis, Yom Tov. The Golden Age of Aragonese Jewry: Community and Society in the Crown of Aragon, 1213-1327. Portland, Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1997. Pp. xix, 380. $95.00. ISBN: ISBN 1-874-77404-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.07.02

Assis, Yom Tov. The Golden Age of Aragonese Jewry: Community and Society in the Crown of Aragon, 1213-1327. Portland, Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1997. Pp. xix, 380. $95.00. ISBN: ISBN 1-874-77404-8.

Reviewed by:

Elka Klein
Cambridge University

Yom Tov Assis' The Golden Age of Aragonese Jewry is a book which hispanists interested in the history of Spanish Jewry have been awaiting for a long time. Not only does it bring together the conclusions of Assis' own numerous articles, many of them written in Hebrew, but it provides a much needed distillation of the fruits of scholarship on the Jews in the Crown of Aragon. In the generation or more since the publication of Baer's landmark History of the Jews in Christian Spain, the field of Spanish Jewish history has been blessed with a never-ending stream of local monographs, documentary publications and articles on narrow issues, but no scholar has tried to produce a broad synthesis along the lines of Baer's magnum opus.

Assis' work shares the breadth of Baer's, covering political, social, cultural and intellectual history. Like Baer, Assis combines Hebrew legal and literary, and Latin archival sources to provide a broader picture which transcends the limitations of each type of source. It is perhaps a sign of the times that Assis' work, for all its similarities, is entirely different from Baer's. Baer covered all of the Spanish kingdoms from the reconquista to the expulsion; Assis restricts himself to the Crown of Aragon and to the four reigns from 1213 to 1327. Baer read the history of Spanish Jews through heavily tinted ideological lenses; Assis lacks the tendentiousness of Baer, but he also lacks some of the synthetic vision which makes Baer so compelling even today. What Assis does present is a rich tapestry of fascinating detail about the lives of Jews and Jewish communities in the medieval Crown of Aragon.

Assis begins with the basic framework of Jewish life: the status of the Jews and their relationship to the king. Part two, the longest and most substantive part of the book, provides a detailed introduction to the institution of the Jewish community and its leadership. Part three turns to relations between communities, in particular to the way in which taxation districts (collectas), created for the convenience of the royal authorities, took on a broader significance within the communities. Part four discusses the physical composition of the Jewish quarter, including synagogues, schools, cemeteries, baths and kosher slaughterhouses. Part five turns from institutions to society, in particular to social conflict between different groups of Jews, and to family structure. The book concludes with a discussion in part six of religious life, including education and rabbinic leadership.

The time span covered by the book is the reigns from James I to James II. The nature of the sources, however, means that it does not cover them equally. Neither of Assis' primary source bases begins before the middle of the thirteenth century. The earliest sizable collection of responsa from the Crown of Aragon is that of Solomon Adret (1235-1310), and the bulk of Assis' citations of responsa come from Adret or later scholars. Similarly, the continuous series of royal registers, from which Assis takes the majority of his archival citations, begins only in 1257. Both types of sources begin as a thin stream at mid-century, expand in the 1290's, and by the end of the period increase to a torrent.

Thus it is possible to form a detailed picture of certain aspects of society for the fourteenth century which can be discerned with difficulty in the thirteenth, and barely at all before the mid-thirteenth. Taxation forms one example; we know enormous amounts about tax collection for the later part of the period, but nearly nothing before 1250. To put this in context, before 1257, exactly one document refers to the tax of the important Jewish community of Barcelona. Assis' conclusions about the second half of the thirteenth century are probably reliable, despite the episodic nature of the sources. When he pushes before 1250, however, his conclusions are more questionable. One solution to this problem would have been to abandon the framework of royal reigns, and to begin this book at 1250. Another solution would be to look beyond the registers to other archival sources. These sources suggest that the first half of the thirteenth century was a period of transition towards the regimes described in this book, but a period in which they were not yet in place, and that later thirteenth- century conditions cannot be assumed to apply earlier in the century.

Within the period 1250-1327, Assis has some wonderful insights. Buried among the detailed documentation of Assis' section on royal privileges is a delicately nuanced discussion of the tendency of the kings to issue privileges to the Jews at the same time as they made decidedly anti-Jewish decrees (pp. 27- 30). Royal vacillation over Jewish privileges has often been seen as a sign of royal weakness or inconsistency. In a mere four pages, Assis argues, to my mind correctly, in favor of a view of royal policy as internally consistent, a balancing act governed by circumstances. He offers a similarly nuanced view of the impact of royal interference in matrimonial cases, a topic on which more remains to be said (pp. 268-69). Another rich tidbit introduces the complexities of the cultural and intellectual heritage of the Jews of the Crown of Aragon, poised as they were between Muslim Spain and the Christian north (pp. 299ff).

These are only a few examples. Assis' adoption of a thematic rather than a chronological organization means that the book is full of other little nuggets like these. Readers interested in specific topics can easily find fascinating and helpful information, whether on adultery, crime, violence, wills, synagogue construction, kosher slaughtering procedures or charity funds. The difficulty of separating issues from each other has been solved by repeating information wherever necessary.

This facet of the book makes it particularly easy to assign short extracts to students, since each section more or less stands by itself. In some cases, however, the thematic organization, so conducive to the presentation of details, detracts from the bigger picture. The divisions are in some cases too narrow. Reading part 2.3 "Elections and Appointments" right after part 2.2, "The System of Communal Government," one has a sense of deja vu. The same information is presented in two different contexts, making it hard to see the system as a whole. The fragmented discussion is particularly frustrating when it comes to tracing changes. This was a period of significant and sometimes dramatic change in many areas. Although Assis describes change in each section where it is relevant, he does not succeed in communicating a sense of an overall pattern to the reader.

A related limitation in this book is the absence of context. Assis documents his assertions primarily with reference to his own encyclopedic knowledge of the primary sources, making very little reference in the footnotes to other scholarship. This leads to an excessively narrow focus. Although Assis alludes in a number of places to local Christian practice and to the practices of other Jewish communities, he does not develop these comparisons. His discussion of confraternities, for example, makes no reference to comparable Christian institutions (pp. 242-54). Similarly, his discussion of Jewish elementary education in the Crown of Aragon ignores work on comparable institutions in Ashkenaz (pp. 325-30). The absence of these references does not detract from Assis' own conclusions, but it does deny the reader the chance to put these conclusions into a broader context.

The same problem exists in some cases with regard to the basic parameters of Jewish law and tradition. For example, the discussion of the Catalan institution of the collecta (which grouped Jewish communities together for tax purposes) offers a more nuanced view of their function and development than I have seen in print until now. In particular, Assis explains how the interests of both kings and Jewish communities were served by expanding the function of the collecta beyond the simple collection of taxes (pp. 182-83). He does not, however, explain to the reader unfamiliar with Jewish law that one of the greatest difficulties faced by medieval Jewish communities was the lack of precedent in Jewish law for intercommunal efforts; thus the reader might miss the significance of the fact that the collecta system overcame that limitation only because it had the authority of the king behind it.

I cannot close without mentioning one problem with this book which is in no way Assis' own fault: the cost of this book is prohibitive. Unless Littman Library decides to bring the book out in paper, at over $90, this book is not only beyond the budget of students, but also of many professionals.

These criticisms should not detract from the value of this book. It has something to offer to a variety of readers. For specialists on Spanish Jewry, it collects in one place enormous amounts of information previously scattered in hundreds of articles and out-of-print publications. For undergraduates in Jewish or medieval history courses, it offers very readable and concise introductions to many topics. For general medievalists, familiar with the literature in their own fields, it offers the possibility of comparisons; it also presents Assis' own work, much of it previously only available to those who could read Hebrew. For students and scholars alike, who have seen medieval Jews mostly as victims of persecution, it conveys a sense of the variety and creativity of the Jewish experience in the Middle Ages, and of Jewish history as viewed from the inside. When all is said and done, this is an essential book for anyone interested in Jewish life in Medieval Spain, or in Medieval Europe.