contributor.author: Harvey Hames

title.none: Meyerson, A Jewish Renaissance (Harvey Hames)

identifier.other: baj9928.0601.021 06.01.21

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Harvey Hames, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, hames@bgu.ac.il

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Meyerson, Mark D. A Jewish Renaissance in Fifteenth-Century Spain. Series: Jews, Christians and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pp. xx, 272. $35.00 0-691-11749-7. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.01.21

Meyerson, Mark D. A Jewish Renaissance in Fifteenth-Century Spain. Series: Jews, Christians and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pp. xx, 272. $35.00 0-691-11749-7. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Harvey Hames
Ben Gurion University of the Negev
hames@bgu.ac.il

The book is a remarkable feat in that it gives an in-depth study of the fortunes of one Jewish community, albeit with tentacles that reach out beyond the boundaries of Morvedre (modern Sagunto), which raises serious questions about the master-narratives which are used to describe the evolution of Spain on the one hand, and history of Christian-Jewish- Muslim relations on the other. What is truly remarkable is that Meyerson's approach is multi-layered, in that he does not restrict himself to elites or intellectual life or economic history, but combines them all in order to give a more rounded and far more involved and engaging reconstruction of the community.

This book is the continuation of Meyerson's Jews in an Iberian Frontier Kingdom: Society, Economy, and Politics in Morvedre, 1248-1391 also published in 2004 in Brill's The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World series. The first book deals with the earlier period from the conquest by James I of Valencia from the Muslims until the pogroms of 1391, which devastated many of the Jewish communities in the Iberian Peninsula and were a catalyst for mass conversions. Both books question generally held assumptions regarding the place of the Jews in Christian society, and reject a teleological approach which assumes that all roads ultimately lead to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Meyerson draws on a vast amount of archival material to show how the uniqueness of Morvedre demands moving away from the all-encompassing narratives to a closer examination of each community based on the available evidence. In other words, the story of the Jews in Morvedre over some two hundred and fifty years, while sharing common attributes with the Jewish experience elsewhere in Christian Europe, is inextricably linked with the particularities, changes and fluctuations of life in the Kingdom of Valencia.

The tale that emerges is one of ups and downs, renaissances and downturns. The first volume shows that from a position of strength in the immediate aftermath of the Reconquista, the emergence of a Christian kingdom in Valencia by the end of the thirteenth century meant that the place of the Jews in Christian society came under review. The confirmation of the inferior status of the Jews also brought about a downturn which limited their possibilities in many spheres of life and their unstable position in society is evidenced from the Union's attack on the aljama in 1347-48 and the Castilian occupation of Morvedre (1363-65). The volume under review here starts with the reconstruction of Morvedre after the violence of 1391 and the place of the Jews in this process.

From a period of unease and difficulty in the immediate aftermath of the pogroms which wiped out the Jewish community of the capital Valencia, the Jewish community of Morvedre starts to flourish and grow. This growth was supported by the Christian authorities who, following the introduction of the censal and violari in the late fourteenth century, which changed the credit mechanism and freed Jews from their traditional role as creditors, envisioned the Jews as citizens of the town on a more or less equal footing to Christians, particularly regarding financial matters. The special status of the Jews prior to 1391, their occupations as tax farmers and money lenders, which had made them so hated and despised, changed in the aftermath, as both they and their Christian contemporaries had similar financial obligations. The Jews were crucial to the economic life of Morvedre and were seen and judged in that light by their Christian neighbours. Most of the animosity found in the archival material between Christian and Jew does not derive from their respective religious affiliation, but from misdeeds relating to business contracts or other financial obligations. The archives reveal the extent of Jewish contacts, the social circles in which they mixed, the diversity of their economic interests, and the strategies they adopted to maximise profit and minimise risk. This impressive period of growth and expansion continuing until the expulsion could only happen if the Jews were confident of their standing in the broader community and could count on both royal and local support when faced with adversity.

After 1416, the lack of arbitrary royal demands for subsidies, which had led to exorbitant taxation and a source of constant tension between the members and different classes of the community, also changed the nature of relations within the aljama. Interestingly, Meyerson shows how one sign of this change was the increased use of violence in defense of individual and family honour. This was not just imitation by the Jews of their Christian (and Muslim) neighbours, but an exercise of "status competition" which had, in the past, been severely limited by all- encompassing fiscal politics. Also interesting is the fact that the method of election to the positions of leadership in the community was changed by the bailiff general in 1479 and was affirmed by King Fernando in 1481. At that juncture, the King clearly still foresaw a long and productive future for the community.

Meyerson's use of archival material is legendary. He manages to connect documents found in diverse places and teases out the details of daily life in many different areas, including trade, agriculture, slave owning, ties between members of the different faiths, and the relations between the Jewish aljama and the Christian authorities. Relations between the Jews of Morvedre and the large converso community in Valencia are another area which also comes under the microscope. As Meyerson shows, indifference was impossible, and notwithstanding modern sensibilities regarding the religious convictions of the conversos, reality was more complex and colourful. Familial ties played a large role in the nature of the contacts between new-Christians and their former co- religionists, and while some truly converted to Christianity and regarded their former brethren with shame and were often spiteful towards them, others maintained an outwardly Christian life-style while continuing to observe some elements of Jewish praxis in private. The Jews of Morvedre were very involved in helping those conversos who wished to maintain a semblance of Jewish life, and this contributed to their downfall with the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition in 1484. As in many other places in Spain, it was realised that the only way of making the conversos sincere Catholics was by getting rid of the Jews who supported and aided them. Thus, the edict of expulsion spelled the end for the community of Morvedre as it did for the other Jewish communities of Spain.

If there are some minor quibbles, then perhaps one is the almost total reliance of the author on archival material. While the picture that emerges of the community in Morvedre from the archives is fascinating, it is possible that use of other primary sources such as literary works and Rabbinic responsa from the period might have fleshed out and enhanced our knowledge of this community and its relations with both the Jewish and Christian worlds. Indeed, very little attention is given to the intellectual life of the community both in relation to other Jewish communities in the Crown of Aragon and with the Christian majority. Another quibble might be with the reason given (p. 156) at the end of the chapter discussing Jewish and Muslim relations, for most of the Jews of Morvedre setting their sights on Christian lands after the expulsion in 1492. Meyerson suggests that this was because of the good relations that had developed with Christians and the more subjugated state of Muslims in Valencia. However, the Jews of Morvedre were clearly in touch with Jewish communities living in Muslim lands and must have been aware of the relatively secure and prosperous state of the Jews who had the recognised legal status of dhimmi. If anything, the memory of persecution and subjugation at the hands of Christians over the centuries would have been more enduring and omnipresent.

This book is an important reminder of just how much care is needed when we make broad and general statements on the basis of extremely little indeed. In addition, it is a caution against adopting master-narratives which, while they might be useful for those with political agendas, are really not very helpful for those who wish to truly engage with all the complexities and intrigues life throws our way. To write a book (really two books) as engaging and detailed as this one requires a broad knowledge of the secondary literature and the ability to piece together thousands of documents in different archives, and Meyerson has done this with consummate skill.

It is a shame that this study was split into two volumes and then printed by two different publishers. Aside from the difference in price between the two volumes, there are great advantages in reading them together. Only then is it possible to grasp the full extent of the importance of Morvedre for local, Spanish and Jewish history. The long period covered by the two books from the Reconquista to the Expulsion gives one a sense of the immense political, social, religious and cultural changes in the Christian, and Jewish and Muslim communities and in the constantly changing nature of the relationships between them. It also helps to bring the historical master-narratives into closer focus, and allows the reader to see the many cracks and fissures which should no longer be simply ignored.