Mary Clayton

title.none: Scheil, Footsteps of Israel (Mary Clayton)

identifier.other: baj9928.0601.007 06.01.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mary Clayton, University College Dublin,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Scheil, Andrew P. The Footsteps of Israel: Understanding Jews in Anglo-Saxon England. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. Pp. xii, 372. $65.00 0-472-11408-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.01.07

Scheil, Andrew P. The Footsteps of Israel: Understanding Jews in Anglo-Saxon England. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. Pp. xii, 372. $65.00 0-472-11408-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Mary Clayton
University College Dublin

This subtle and compelling book, the first extended treatment of the Anglo-Saxon understanding of Jews and Judaism, is a deserving winner of the ISAS outstanding first book award and a fascinating contribution to the study of Anglo-Saxon England. Andrew Scheil's title comes from a phrase used by Bede, vestigia Israhel, and it was with the textual vestigia rather than the actuality of Jews that the Anglo-Saxons had to deal. There is no evidence of Jewish communities in England until after the Conquest; instead the Jews were "present as imaginative, textual constructs, manifest only in the distorted shadow cast by the Christian tradition" (3). Jews and anti- Judaic discourse, as Scheil scrupulously and elegantly demonstrates, were an integral part of the structure of medieval Christianity, and their meaning was constantly redefined, adjusted, and transformed: "By repudiating Judaism, defining it as lack, Christianity inexorably yokes itself into a tormented relationship with its sibling. This ambivalence gives the Jews a curious ideological mobility, a capacity to be deployed as sheer rhetoric in the flux of everyday life" (313). Following Langmuir's History, Religion and Antisemitism, Scheil differentiates the anti-Judaism of the early Middle Ages from the anti-semitism of the twelfth century onwards, the latter being more irrational and fantastical than the former.

Part One of this book deals with Bede, who describes the Jews as blind, sick, corrupt, mad, cunning, bumbling, stubborn, sterile, false, deformed, crippled and damned deicides; Bede also, however, sees them as potentially blessed, possessed with redeeming qualities, diligent, in need of help and healing, as a people who were once God's chosen people and who will be brought back into the fold at the Last Judgement. These contradictory treatments, vividly illustrating the mobility, complexity and flexibility of Jews as a signifier, are covered in chapters entitled "Bede and Hate" and "Bede and Love" respectively and lead into a discussion of the inextricable links of Jews and Gentiles and of conversion. For Bede, a treatment of conversion bring with it thoughts of the conversion of his own people, the English, who, though Gentiles, are also related to the Jews: "And we have been admitted among the descendants of the Israelites, since, although according to the flesh we have our origin from other nations, nevertheless by the faith of truth and by purity of the body and the mind, we follow in the footsteps of Israel" (96).

Part Two deals with the populus Israhel as it functioned as a "foundational mythos for societies of the early medieval West" (104) and, in particular, for the English. Beginning with the Historia Ecclesiastica, and then tracing the image in Bede's models -- in Eusebius as transmitted by Rufinus, Orosius and other late antique authors -- Scheil deftly demonstrates how the populus Israhel can be used by different hands to respond to different contexts. The populus Israhel tradition in Britain begins with Gildas, for whom the Britons are the latter-day people of Israel, suggesting to later writers that the Anglo-Saxons are the New Israel, the populus Dei; it is developed by Bede, Alcuin, in Old English biblical poetry and there are suggestive parallels in Beowulf, which Scheil suggests is "in part, a meditation upon the populus Israhel mythos" (187), a mythos which was "part of the way in which the poet understood history" (188). The history of the Jewish people was thus part of the way in which the Anglo-Saxons understood the relationship between past and present.

Part Three of this book, entitled "Jews, Fury, and the Body," deals with what Scheil terms "somatic anti-Judaism," the more virulent anti- Judaic emotions we find in a variety of Anglo-Saxon texts. Scheil traces a set of connections "between Jews, flesh, gluttony, mental instability, and transgression" (198), exemplified in the late Antique period in Avitus and Arator and stretching back, through New Testament apocrypha, to the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles; he finds this complex of images in the representation of Jews in the Vercelli Book and the Blickling Homilies, which for Scheil represent "a spirituality at odds with the central practices of the Benedictine Reform" (202). Both the prose and the poetry (Elene and Andreas) in the Vercelli Book demonstrate similar anti-Judaic rhetoric, heightened in the poetry which links Jews and cannibals (Andreas) and an active intention to destroy Christ and the influence of the devil (Elene). The Jews' "god is their belly" and this gluttony brings in its wake lust, disease and mental imbalance: this matrix is clear in Vercelli 7 and in Andreas and is a precursor of the grotesque images of the bodies of Jews in the later Middle Ages. Jews are connected too to women and their bodies and, by way of total contrast, to the Virgin Mary. The links between Mary and the Jews are at their most developed in the apocryphal texts narrating the story of Mary's death and assumption, found in OE in Blickling 13 and the Assumption homily in CCCC 41. Scheil argues that the apocryphal, sensational traditions drawn upon by both Vercelli and Blickling, with their "talent for metaphorical expansion and flights of theological fancy" (277), create a "baroque montage of anti-Judaic images" (277), pulling the Christian community together through a shared hatred and contrasting with Aelfric's more logical, careful treatment.

Part Four is devoted to Aelfric and the tenth century and his De populo Israhel and Maccabees are given a chapter each: the Jews in De populo Israhel are interpreted in such a way as to allow Aelfric to support ideologically the Benedictine Reform values of authority and obedience, while in Maccabees social arguments about the roles of monks and aristocrats in Aelfric's own society are central to his treatment of the Jews.

There are some things that I would quibble with about this book: the differences between Vercelli and Blickling, on the one hand, and Aelfric, on the other, are exaggerated by the choice of texts from the anonymous collections and from Aelfric. By concentrating on Aelfric's Old Testament narratives but on anonymous New Testament accounts, we are not comparing like with like and similarities are obscured in order to highlight what Scheil sees as a division between two traditions. One might have a very different view if a different selection of texts were chosen for analysis. Indeed, where Scheil touches on the anti-Jewish invective in Aelfric's account of the martyrdom of Stephen, for example, the similarities with the anonymous texts are very obvious. But this book is a major achievement in advancing our understanding of how the Anglo-Saxons viewed Judaism; it is sophisticated, beautifully structured and full of insights into late Antique as well as Anglo-Saxon texts and thought.