Sara Lipton

title.none: Baumgarten, Mothers and Children (Sara Lipton)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.040 05.01.40

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Sara Lipton, SUNY-Stony Brook,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Baumgarten, Elisheva. Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe. Series: Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pp. xvi, 275. $40.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-691-09166-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.40

Baumgarten, Elisheva. Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe. Series: Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pp. xvi, 275. $40.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-691-09166-8.

Reviewed by:

Sara Lipton
SUNY-Stony Brook

If social historians have just cause to lament that topics as central to human experience as birth, childhood, sex, and marriage are woefully undocumented for the pre-modern period, the problem is considerably compounded for historians of medieval Ashkenaz (northern French and German Jewries). Jewish communities kept no birth, death, marriage, or tithe records; Jewish saints went through no meticulous canonization processes; Jewish courts produced no coroners' rolls; and outside Iberia Jews remained by and large unexamined by medieval inquisitors, to mention just a few of the sorts of sources profitably consulted by scholars of medieval Christendom in recent years. Elisheva Baumgarten is therefore to be applauded simply for tackling so elusive a subject as mothers and children in medieval Ashkenaz; that she has produced so instructive a study, one that illuminates both lived experience and the ideological and ritual frameworks that structured and reflected it, is impressive indeed.

Mothers and Children intersects with two prevailing historiographical discussions, both lucidly mapped out in the Introduction. First, the book enters into the debate over the nature of medieval childhood sparked by Philippe Aries in 1960, and still alive, if not quite raging, more than forty years later. Baumgarten is clear from the outset that she will come down firmly on the side of those who, contra Aries, hold that childhood was indeed recognized as a distinct life stage in the Middle Ages, that (whatever the emotional risks involved, given the high mortality rate) people did indeed love their children, and grieved when they lost them. Secondly, in this work she joins a group of scholars who have sought in recent years to highlight the interactions among high medieval Jews and Christians, and to trace the mutual influences exerted between the two faiths.[[1]] Following the lead of Ivan Marcus, Baumgarten characterizes the manifold Jewish borrowings from Christian myth, ritual, and social patterns that she finds in her sources as "inward acculturation"--not the passive adoption of Christian culture by the Jewish minority, but the creative adaptation of that culture to Jewish needs and traditions.

The book proceeds to make these twin arguments through a systematic examination of the stages of family life: birth and its attendant religious and social rituals, infant care, and parenting practices and values. In each chapter, Baumgarten follows the same basic method: she examines parallel Christian attitudes and patterns, consulting both "mainstream" medieval historiography and Christian primary sources, crisply discusses relevant theoretical approaches, and then focuses her energy on close reading of the Jewish sources, which consist mainly of a generous range of rabbinical texts from France and Germany ca. 1000-1300: responsa, communal takkanot, or regulations, talmudic and biblical commentaries, ritual prayerbooks and customaries; as well as medical treatises and books of moral advice and instruction. Some of these sources are little known, and several remain unpublished. This approach is so eminently sensible that I feel compelled to note how rare such thoroughly comparative work actually is. Throughout, her scholarship is thorough and meticulous, and her judgment is intelligent and reliable, tending more toward caution than toward creative leaps. Baumgarten is likewise judicious in her use of anthropological and gender theories, which inform her interpretations when appropriate and useful, and never gratuitously intrude.

The overarching theme of the book is the many similarities between Jewish and Christian ideas about and experiences of family life. In Chapter One, "Birth," Baumgarten demonstrates that Christian and Jewish women followed similar medical practices, shared recipes and remedies, and remained in daily contact with each other. They also displayed congruent beliefs: for example, both Jews and Christians blamed male infertility on female spells; and both Jews and Christians, while granting that infertility was just grounds for ending a marriage, sought to limit divorce (which nevertheless remained considerably more common among Jews than among Christians). In both religions, written discussions of birth privileged male authority and emphasized male spiritual centrality, even though in practice men were excluded from the actual birth chamber. Moreover, Baumgarten notes that Jewish and Christian attitudes toward sex and reproduction actually grew closer during the centuries in question, as Christians accorded increasing value to procreation and Jews, influenced by the religious culture around them, accorded increasing respect to celibacy.

Although one might expect religious difference to come out more strongly in the area of religious ritual, resemblances between Jewish and Christian approaches and practices likewise emerge in Chapter Two, "Circumcision and Baptism," and Chapter Three, "Additional Birth Rituals." Utilizing Geertzian 'thick description' and drawing upon Victor Turner and Arnold van Gennep, Baumgarten points out the shared social aspects of circumcision and baptism: both were rites of passage, both enacted and signified acceptance into the community, and the role of the 'baalei brit' was analogous to and probably modeled on Christian godparentage. The Jewish 'sabbath for the mother' was an adaptation of Christian churching (which was itself an adaptation of the biblical purification rite), and in the ceremonies known as Hollekreisch (the bestowing of a non-Hebrew name on both boys and girls) and Wachnacht (a festive meal the eve before circumcision) Jews ate the same sweet cakes and evoked the same pagan Germanic goddess as Christians did in similar circumstances (this latter point is one of the more startling pieces of information in the book). It has long been known from both Jewish and Christian sources that Jews commonly employed Christian wet nurses, but Baumgarten demonstrates (in Chapter Four, "Maternal Nursing and Wet Nurses: Feeding and Caring for Infants") that here, too, contacts were more extensive and intimate than previously imagined. Jewish children often resided in their Christian nurses' homes, and even ate their (non-kosher) food; and if Jewish women were rendered uncomfortable by an excess of breast milk on the Sabbath, when the expressing of milk was forbidden, they were allowed to nurse the children of their Christian friends and neighbors.

By this point, it comes as no surprise that Chapter Five, "Parents and Children," finds more similarities than differences between Jews and Christians. Both confessions embraced the same gender hierarchy, placing fathers before mothers; both saw 'mother love' as natural and assigned the care of children to the female sphere; both warned against excessive mourning for dead children. Infanticide was apparently practiced by both Jews and Christians and for similar reasons (though because pregnancies were harder to hide in the tiny, close-knit Jewish communities and because of the high risk that abandoned children would end up Christians, abandonment seems to have been rarer among Jews than among Christians). Even the practices that have been cited as most differentiating Jews and Christians (Christian monastic oblation on the one hand, and Jewish Kiddush ha-Shem, or 'sanctifying the name of God,' which refers to the killing of children in order to prevent their forced baptism in times of violence, on the other) are read by Baumgarten as proof of shared value systems. Both were justified by recourse to the same biblical models, and both deployed sacrifice and a reversal of 'natural' patterns to demonstrate devotion to God.[[2]] Additional parallels supported by this study include the gradual diminution of religious roles for both Jewish and Christian women, the growing centrality of penance to both faiths, and the sense that everyday inter-faith relations were often more frequent and friendly than leaders of either community desired.

Baumgarten forwards her case with prudence and discretion, always explaining her reasoning and tying her claims firmly to the evidence. If a drawback to this approach is a sometimes rather tentative tone, the great advantage is that the conclusions that are offered are generally very convincing. Indeed, Baumgarten is so scrupulous about not overreaching her texts or wandering from her topic that I confess I occasionally found myself wishing for a slightly broader discussion or more extended exploration of the fascinating issues raised. For example, though Baumgarten notes (30-32) that Jews and Christians both tended to blame male infertility on female magic, she does not mention who generally assigned the blame, whether or how often this 'blame' was converted into explicit charges, and what the social or legal implications of such charges may have been in either community. The equation of maleness with sacrality and femaleness with impurity implicit in the analysis of the circumcision ritual (75ff.) might have been probed more deeply. A fuller description of the economic bases of Jewish life would have enriched the section on marriage (83ff.), and overall there is but little examination of women's economic activities. In some places one would welcome fuller citation of the sources; in general, there is less attention to language and analysis of texts qua texts than there might have been. But this is the inevitable wish list of the greedy reviewer; it does not detract from the book's value in the least. Though the fact that members of a small minority community were influenced in every stage of life by the world around them may be unsurprising on one level, the observation goes against the flow of much twentieth-century Judaic Studies scholarship, and has only recently begun to be re-acknowledged and explored. Baumgarten has thus made a major contribution in so carefully and convincingly delineating the interconnections of medieval Jewish and Christian family life.

In fact, I think the potential significance of the work extends even beyond its articulated goals. Whereas Ivan Marcus ultimately characterized the ritual he examined as a polemical counter-image, a form of Jewish resistance to the dominant culture that ultimately solidified communal identity, Baumgarten's book implicitly draws a picture of a considerably more fluid society, one in which cultural boundaries were often blurred, and Jewish identity was surprisingly hybrid, as well as subject to fairly regular modification and adjustment. This impression of fluidity and hybridity presumably arises from Baumgarten's focus on the non-elite, non-official sphere of women and children. Does it apply only to that sphere? Were women and children indeed, as religious texts (and images) sometimes implied, less thoroughly "marked" by their faith than men? Or does it, rather, more accurately portray medieval Jewish culture as whole, correcting distortions that have arisen from previous inattention to women and gender? It is one of the many achievements of this fine book that it provokes such important and difficult questions.

[Errata: Vincent of Beauvais died in 1264, not 1064 (p.52). In Chapter Two, there are two endnotes numbered 102, throwing the next four notes out of sequence.]


[[1]] See especially Ivan Marcus, Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe (Yale University Press, 1996); John van Engen and Michael Signer, eds., Jews and Christians in Twelfth-century Europe (University of Notre Dame Press, 2001).

[[2]] A point also made by Ivan Marcus, Jeremy Cohen, Israel Yuval and others in various contexts.