Ora Limor

title.none: Gregg, Devils, Women, and Jews (Limor)

identifier.other: baj9928.9901.004 99.01.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ora Limor, The Open University of Israel,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Gregg, Joan Young. Devils, Women, and Jews. Reflections of the Other in Medieval Sermon Stories. SUNY Series in Medieval Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Pp. x, 275. $62.50 ISBN:0-791-43417-6. ISBN: $20.95 ISBN:0-791-43418-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.01.04

Gregg, Joan Young. Devils, Women, and Jews. Reflections of the Other in Medieval Sermon Stories. SUNY Series in Medieval Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Pp. x, 275. $62.50 ISBN:0-791-43417-6. ISBN: $20.95 ISBN:0-791-43418-4.

Reviewed by:

Ora Limor
The Open University of Israel

Devils, Women, and Jews is a collection of 83 medieval sermon stories (exempla) translated into modern English. The collection is divided into three chapters, each devoted to one of the three groups specified in the title -- Devils, Women and Jews, with an introduction to each chapter and a general introduction which opens the book. Thanks to this book, a large body of exempla dealing with "others" and exposing medieval stereotypes, fears, misogyny and anti-Semitism is now available in modern English. This important collection will no doubt be of considerable use to anyone interested in medieval history and medieval culture. The stories are very readable. In the preface, Gregg tells us that she has tried to keep the stories as faithful as possible to their originals. While translating them into modern English, she has retained medieval vocabulary, unless doing so would have obscured the meaning, and she has adjusted syntax only in the interests of comprehensibility, preferring a liberal, if somewhat stilted, sentence structure, to any kind of paraphrase or revision that might have distorted the original text (p. x).

However, apart from being a collection of exempla -- and indeed an excellent and valuable one -- the book also has a thesis, which is indicated in the title of the book and elaborated in the introductions to the three chapters. According to Gregg, devils, women and Jews are "an unholy trinity, a dark and distorted reflection of the orthodox trinity of Christian doctrine" (p. 4). "Linked by pride, disobedience and carnality, devils, women and Jews found a preeminent place as figures of both fear and scorn in the medieval exemplum" (p. 19). Devils, women and Jews, we are told, were the ultimate "Other" of medieval Christianity. They "embodied an otherness that threatened one's redemption and necessitated one's constant vigilance and opposition" (p. 18).

The first question to be asked, even before reading the introductions and the stories, is the question of choice. Are devils, women and Jews the only "others" of the Christian identity? What about Moslems, pagans, heretics, lepers, homosexuals and other sinners? (See, inter alia, R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society. Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950 - 1250, Oxford 1987). Even if devils, women and Jews do figure in medieval sermon stories more often than other "others," Gregg should have justified her choice, at least explaining the qualitative and quantitative differences between the "others" she included in the book and those she chose to leave out.

The second question, which concerns the very thesis of the book, becomes increasingly disturbing as one reads the introductions and the stories: are the three sides of the triangle "devils, women and Jews" as similar as Gregg would have us believe? Is the symmetry between the three parts of this "unholy trinity" really so obvious?

Let us first look at the introductions. The general introduction (pp. 1-22) deals with the nature and function of exempla literature, its development and diffusion, its form and function, and with medieval mentality and its notion of the Other. Gregg attaches great importance to popular narrative as a key to decoding the values of a specific culture, moreover, as "a key to understanding...the encounter between opposing cultures and between those groups within a culture that are defined as the Other" (p. ix). Sermon stories make theology vivid, says Gregg. They reveal the interchange between popular and scholarly theology, revealing cultural notions and religious beliefs that, through being told and retold from the pulpit, became imprinted in the medieval mind.

While the historical introduction to the development of exempla literature is quite short -- as a matter of fact, too short and too general -- the definitions of the theological uses and the social and cultural functions of sermon stories are very helpful and clear. Gregg stresses the central didactic role of sermon stories as a main tool in making profound and complex theological doctrine accessible to listeners. She describes the pedagogical merits of sermon stories: they had a single, unequivocal meaning and a clear, complete rhetorical structure; they relied on old, known authorities and were therefore reliable and "true." Following Sander L. Gilman (Difference and Pathology. Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness, Ithaca 1985), Gregg defines the psychological role of the Other (or in this case, the Others) in reflecting and shaping fears, beliefs and cultural notions. Feelings of guilt and obsession with sin were projected onto the external Other, who became "a dark reflection of unresolved doubt and anxiety projected as obstacles to salvation that were legitimate targets of enmity" (p. 20). Both the general introduction and the introductions to the three chapters are very readable, and speak in a very clear and convincing voice.

In the introduction to Chapter 2, "Devils in Medieval Sermon Stories" (pp. 23-45), Gregg explains the place of devils in medieval society, the variety of sources from which images of the devil were derived and the way exempla became a vehicle in the formation of medieval imagination regarding the devil. The introduction to Chapter 3, "Women in Medieval Sermon Stories" (pp. 83-110), describes the main motives that shaped the concept of women in male medieval theology and culture -- a very unflattering concept indeed. Sermon stories tended to become instrumental in the oppression of women, revealing a strong clerical anti-feminism, while women's voice was never (or almost never) heard. It is hard to find among the many medieval sermon stories examples of ordinary, let alone good, women. The "heroines" of medieval sermon stories are whores, seductresses, witches, daughters of Eve and mothers of sin, whose main business was to arouse sexual desire in innocent men and hence obstruct their way to salvation. The only remedy for women was to abandon their womanly nature and become "holy women," that is, nuns.

The introduction to Chapter 4, "Jews in Medieval Sermon Stories" (pp. 169-203), describes the concept of the 'Jew' in Christian culture. Given the nature of her sources, the picture presented by Gregg inevitably comes out as one sided and flat. Obviously, the "truer" picture is much more varied and differentiated, as portrayed by modern scholarship (such as the works of Jeremy Cohen, Robert Chazan, David Berger, R.I. Moore and others, all of them ignored by Gregg).

Some of Gregg's assertions are over-simplistic or inaccurate. For example, she exaggerates the power of the Church to prohibit public and private disputations. The Church's vehement condemnations and numerous regulations (starting from at least the 13th, not just the 14th century, as Gregg writes on p. 224) against encounters between lay Christians and Jews are the best proof of their common existence. There are also outright errors. One example is Gregg's treatment of the Jewish Badge. True, in the Third Lateran Council, Innocent III decreed that Jews should be distinguished by their clothing. Nevertheless, he did not say how, neither did he order them to wear "a badge of identification" (certainly not a yellow wheel (p. 185), which was just one of many local interpretations of the general decree). Other examples of mistakes or of unsatisfactory information may be found in the short introductions to the stories. The very famous legend of the "Finding of the True Cross" (p. 211) deserves a much better and much more accurate introduction, based on recent scholarship (see S. Borgehammar, How The Holy Cross was Found: From Event to Medieval Legend, Stockholm 1991; J. W. Drijvers, Helena Augusta: The Mother of Constantine the Great and the Legend of Her Finding of the True Cross, Leiden 1992). The existing introduction not only lacks basic information, but also includes mistakes: Eusebius (who was bishop of Caesarea, not of Rome) does not mention the discovery of the Cross; Ambrose was not Eusebius' contemporary; the version of the story that includes the Jews dates from the first half of the fifth century, and was introduced to the Christian West by Gregory of Tours. Another example in which basic historical information is lacking is the introduction to the story of the Jews' attempt to rebuild Jerusalem (p. 214), clearly an echo of Julian the Apostate's attempt to rebuild the temple in 363.

Still more problematic is the overall thesis of the chapter. In most of the sermon stories about Jews in this collection (such as the legend of the "Finding of the True Cross") the Jew converts to Christianity, thus fulfilling his role in Christian history of salvation and proving the Christian truth. As Augustine taught the Christian world, Jews have an important place in Christian history. Unlike devils, they are ultimately not destroyed, but baptized. Christian eschatology is an optimistic eschatology, of hope and redemption, not of vengeance (see Israel Yuval's definitions in "Vengeance and Damnation, Blood and Defamation: From Jewish Martyrdom to Blood Libel Accusations," Zion 58 [1993], pp. 33-90, in Hebrew). The converted Jew is the ideal Jew, the type of eschatological Jew who, at the end of time, will acknowledge Jesus' messiahship, thus initiating the last stage of human history and preparing the way for the Second Coming.

In most of the stories, such as the story of the "Finding of the True Cross (J4)," "The Jew and St. Nicholas" (J2), "The Jew who Attacks a Christian Crucifix" (J6), and the stories about the Virgin or the Eucharist (J10, J13, J14, J15, J16, J17, J18, J19 and J20), the Jew is the final witness to the Christian truth. In these stories, Christian hesitations and uneasiness with "problematic" basic dogmas, such as Virgin Birth or Transubstantiation, are projected onto the unbelieving Jew. By accepting these dogmas, the Jew, formerly a hostile adversary, becomes a witness to the truth of Christian dogmas, the ultimate authority (strengthened by his Jewish knowledge and Jewish genealogy) for the authenticity of Christian symbols and relics.

In other words, Jews are indeed the final Other of Christianity, but this otherness is much more complex and elaborate than its depiction in Gregg's introduction, and the stories, in their naive but at the same time sophisticated way, present this otherness in all its complexity. At the final stage, devils will be destroyed, but women will repent or become nuns and Jews will convert. This is the lesson to be drawn from the sermon stories; after all, in sermon stories the lesson is the most important thing.

It seems that the term "Other," so commonly used in postmodern discourse, is a very useful category, especially when dealing with minority groups of all kinds; but the risks are as many as the advantages. In the case of devils, women and Jews, it helps perhaps to understand their place in Christian imagination, but it should be used with great caution, lest it blur the differences and smooth over the exclusiveness of each group. Hopefully, the prospective readers of this volume will be capable of perceiving commonalties without disregarding the specific differences.