Rachel Stocking

title.none: Drews, Unknown Neighbor (Rachel Stocking)

identifier.other: baj9928.0610.035 06.10.35

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Rachel Stocking, Southern Illinois University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Drews, Wolfram. The Unknown Neighbor: The Jew in the Thought of Isidore of Seville. The Medieval Mediterranean, 59. Leiden: Brill, 2006. Pp. xii, 388. $167 (hb) ISBN-10: 90-04-14964-3, ISBN-13: 978-9004-149-64-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.10.35

Drews, Wolfram. The Unknown Neighbor: The Jew in the Thought of Isidore of Seville. The Medieval Mediterranean, 59. Leiden: Brill, 2006. Pp. xii, 388. $167 (hb) ISBN-10: 90-04-14964-3, ISBN-13: 978-9004-149-64-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Rachel Stocking
Southern Illinois University

In the second decade of the seventh century, the Visigothic king Sisebut ordered the forced baptism of all of his Jewish subjects; the act was subsequently enforced and elaborated by the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633. These events were followed by at least 60 years of recurring rounds of forced baptism, vituperative laws suppressing Jews and Judaism and restricting forced converts, church council enactments confirming those baptisms and laws, and a number of anti-Jewish writings by leading church thinkers. This outpouring of hatred was unparalleled in Western Europe until the later Middle Ages, when many similar stereotypes, social fears, legislative obsessions, and theological rationalizations reappeared to more damaging, widespread, and better-documented effect.

Specialists in Visigothic studies have tended to consider anti-Judaism as an issue apart; studies entirely devoted to the topic are rare, particularly from non-Iberian scholars. The issue has received some attention from historians outside the field, largely because of the involvement of Isidore of Seville, who wrote an anti-Jewish tract titled de fide catholica contra judaeos and was the presiding bishop at the Fourth Council of Toledo. Both the tract and some of the council's anti-Jewish canons had long-term influence outside Iberia, making Isidore an important figure in the development of medieval anti-Jewish ideology and policy-making. Opinions on his role have differed, partly because Isidore appears to have equivocated on the issue of forced baptism. In the years after Sisebut died he twice questioned the practice: in his description of Sisebut in his Historia Gothorum, and in the Fourth Council's canon 57. On the other hand, his de fide contains very hostile language and is one of the longest, most elaborate collections of Christian anti- Jewish prooftexts ever produced. Moreover, while canon 57 rejected the use of force in the future, it also called upon priests to force baptized Jews to keep the faith. Furthermore, the Fourth Council instituted a number of other innovative repressive measures, including the removal of Jewish children from their parents to be brought up as Christians. Thus, some see Isidore as working hand-in-glove with Sisebut, and the de fide as written in support of forced conversions, while others have presented the bishop as a consistent foe of religious coercion, a moderating force against royal excesses, even a committed supporter of the Iberian Jewish communities. Most recently, Jeremy Cohen characterized Isidore as deeply concerned with the conversion of Jews in the kingdom, and the de fide as written in support of Sisebut's forced baptisms, against which he had only "slight reservations." [1] In Cohen's broader view, Isidore's approach created a clear role for Jews in Christian history and society by endowing their conversion with profound significance, but at the it same time made possible his rationalization of forced baptism, thus illustrating the potential for early medieval anti- Judaism to both concur with and run counter to the traditional Augustinian theology of Jewish witness.

Wolfram Drews also seeks to address the apparent contradictions in Isidore's attitudes towards Jews and Judaism in order to better understand his place in the long-term development of medieval anti- Judaism. At the same time, he contends that Isidore's position cannot be fully understood without careful consideration of his role in Visigothic anti-Judaism, and of the role of anti-Judaism in the seventh-century kingdom. Thus, his book enters into debates in a number of fields, arguing that while Isidore opposed forced baptism and criticized Sisebut, his failure to fully elaborate the position of Jews in his society contributed to the radicalization of Visigothic anti-Judaism after his death. At the same time, he argues that Isidore, like Augustine, did envision a continuing role for Jews in Christian society, and in so doing may have exercised an "extenuating influence" on later periods, mitigating anti-Jewish tendencies that sought to eliminate Jews and Judaism entirely (321).

Drews bases his approach on an extensive analysis of the de fide, examining the work within the double context of Isidore's other works and his immediate social and political situation. After a preliminary contextualizing chapter, he focuses two lengthy chapters on the de fide. The first of these explores the structure, sources, method, argument, and theology of the work. Through this analysis he weighs in on debates over Isidore's intended audience and the purpose of the work, agreeing that it was not meant for missionizing amongst contemporary Jews or for educating forced converts. According to Drews, the sources and biblical texts Isidore used would not have been authoritative to that audience, and the arguments of the work make no sense without a previous acceptance of Christ. Rather, the work was aimed at "theologically educated" Christians, including lay people, written to inculcate them with Christian culture by using historical or "hermeneutical" Jews and Judaism as negative foils.

Chapter Three continues the focus on de fide but also examines material from Isidore's other works to analyze his use of received anti-Jewish tradition and to understand his overall attitude towards Jews and Judaism. According to this analysis, Isidore reproduced the main patristic stereotypes, and repeated the Augustinian witness theology, but his discussions were concerned only with historical Jews. He showed little interest in the Jews of his own society, and did not develop the Augustinian conclusion that contemporary Jews had a continuing role in Christian society as witnesses, "librarians," and "desks." At the same time, while Isidore agreed with Augustine's vision of Jewish conversion at the end of days, his optimistic view of the present world and lack of immediate eschatological expectations meant that the end-time conversion scenario did not apply to his own society, either. Isidore's lack of interest in contemporary Jews, however, did not mean that he was unconcerned with Judaism, nor that he envisioned no role for the Jews in his own society. According to Drews, his intense hermeneutical interest was grounded in his desire to use Jews as the "backdrop" or "negative foil" for his real project: the creation of a unified Christian society based on the construction of a new Catholic gens Gothorum, an identity that would incorporate both Goths and Christian Hispano-Romans. For Drews, Isidore's understanding of Jews as identity-defining "outsiders" created a potential--indeed, a necessary--continuing role for Jews in Visigothic society.

Drews' relevant context for understanding Isidore's attitude is a period of shifting identities in the years following the Visigoths' conversion to Catholicism in 589 at the Third Council of Toledo. In his first and fourth chapters, he argues that the conversion nullified the previous identity-defining distinction between (Arian) Goths and (Catholic and Jewish) Hispano-Romans, and raised the cultural stakes in an already emerging trend toward the politicization of religion and the Christianization of kingship. Reccared, the king in 589, established a model of royal religious responsibility that subsequent kings sought to emulate, and contemporary Christian writers, including Isidore, portrayed the Third Council as the origo gentis for a new gens Gothorum, making Catholicism "the very foundation of Gothic ('national') identity" (134). While this identity amalgamated Christian Goths and Hispano-Romans, by its nature it excluded Hispano- Roman Jews, whose status as Roman citizens was also being undermined by the receding importance of Roman law and legal distinctions. Yet Reccared did not attempt to eliminate Judaism, and while Jews' status was weakened, these shifting "paradigms of identity" did not inevitably lead to Sisebut's forced conversions. In fact, according to Drews, Sisebut, in seeking to emulate Reccared and ensure his own salvation, weakened the new identity by making it too inclusive. Unwillingly baptised Jews "endangered the integrity of the very faith that constituted the basis of 'national' identity and political unity" (259), and eliminating Judaism threatened to eliminate the demarcation between insiders and outsiders that was necessary for maintaining the new Goths' self-perception as distinct.

According to Drews, this context explains not only Isidore's attitude towards Jews and Judaism, but also his entire educational and cultural program. Working from a "point of view...completely determined by the Gothic perspective" (281), Isidore sought to strengthen the new identity through Christian education and culture, and recognized the necessity of a continuing role for Jews as the backdrop for this identity. Thus, when the negative effects of Sisebut's measures became apparent, he criticized him very harshly in the Historia Gothorum and at the Fourth Council of Toledo, the canons of which, according to Drews, indicate a gradual "trend toward a less severe attitude" toward contemporary Jews (222). For Drews, the fact that within five years this trend was irrevocably reversed is largely explained by Isidore's failure to clearly elaborate the role of actual Jews in his own Christian society. "By covering up possible theological (christological) differences inside Christian society on the one hand and by promoting a negative image of Judaism as an opponent and antithesis of that society on the other he prepared the ground for anti-Jewish measures" (288), despite his criticisms of forced baptism.

Drews' discussion of the de fide is solidly grounded in extensive textual analysis. One emerges convinced that the de fide was not intended for use as a missionary tool among Jews, and that Isidore did not explicitly address the position of the Jews in his own society in this work. Yet the positive content of Drews' argument--that Isidore's interest in Jews in this work was as hermeneutical backdrops for his project to create a unified Catholic Gothic identity--is inadequately supported. In his analysis of the de fide, that contention rests heavily upon the plausible but unprovable assertion that the work was intended for a broad audience of "theologically educated" laypeople. For further support Drews turns to Isidore's other works, to his policy-making, to the larger historical context, and particularly to the scholarship of early medieval ethnic identity. In these discussions, although he brings forward a number of important concepts and intriguing pieces of evidence, there is no sustained textual analysis to support his rendition of Isidore's vision, nor to support the larger claims for a generalized effort at Gothic identity building, which he presents as fundamental to understanding the subsequent history of Visigothic anti-Judaism, and in some senses, the Visigothic kingdom itself.

The lack of textual support is particularly problematic in two key areas. First of all, his analysis of anti-Jewish policy-making is superficial. To be sure, these laws and canons do not necessarily reflect how (or even if) anti-Jewish attitudes were put into social practice at any given time or in any given community. They can, however, provide insight into how ideologies may transform, conflict, or become contradictory in response to changing social, political, or cultural circumstances. Isidore's apparent equivocations about Jews and religious coercion, for instance, are only perceivable through the analysis of the canons of the Fourth Council of Toledo; the lack of a full discussion of those canons makes Drews' assertions about Isidore's unchanging vision of the role of Jews in his own society unconvincing. While it is true that canon 57 rejected future forced baptisms, that rejection cannot be understood in isolation from the coercive language and policies in the very same canon and in the council's other canons. Nor can subsequent Visigothic anti-Jewish attitudes, policy-making, and religious identity construction be understood without the careful comparative analysis of subsequent rounds of laws and canons. In support of his reconstruction of Gothic religious identity, Drews characterizes subsequent legislation in blanket statements, failing to recognize the ongoing contradictions and redefinitions in religious identity that followed the Fourth Council's simultaneous ratification of religious coercion and rejection of forced baptism.

Secondly, while the concept of identity is undoubtedly essential in understanding the virulence and radicalization of Visigothic anti- Judaism, ethnic "self-perception" (271) is a tricky category of analysis in the best of circumstances. In seventh-century Iberia, where the written sources are overwhelmingly normative and homogenizing while the distribution of social authority was evidently contested and fluctuating, the modern reconstruction of a monolithic shared ethnic consciousness--even a purely ideological one--is a debatable enterprise. The predominance of normative Visigothic sources has in the past contributed to a historiographical predominance of monolithic ideological reconstructions, homogeneous cultural categories, and binary analytical oppositions from which the Visigothic field is now slowly emerging. To give such a construct determining force not only in Isidore's thinking and but also in a chronologically static vision of all Visigothic anti-Jewish policy- making undermines the contribution Drews makes by introducing the concept of identity in the first place.

Drews' insistence that anti-Jewish theology and policy-making are centrally important in understanding the political and religious culture of the seventh-century Visigothic kingdom is an important contribution to Visigothic studies. The effort to consider Visigothic anti-Judaism within the framework of identity construction, cultural capital, and insider/outsider dynamics points in a profitable direction for future considerations. His focus on the de fide, and on Isidore's role in the development of Visigothic anti-Judaism also bring to prominence facets of Isidore's thought that have not been integrated sufficiently into scholarly considerations of the Isidorian cultural and educational program and its significance. Finally, Drews' insistence that Isidore's anti-Jewish ideas and work must be considered within his contemporary social and political context is fundamental. Yet his contextualization--which is central to his overall argument--is insufficiently developed, weakening many of his conclusions.


[1] Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law (Berkeley, 1996), p. 121.