12.10.20, Aron-Beller, Jews on Trial

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Francesca Bregoli

The Medieval Review 12.10.20

Aron-Beller, Katherine. Jews on Trial: The Papal Inquisition in Modena, 1598-1638. Studies in Early Modern European History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 278. ISBN: 978-0-7190-8519-2.

Reviewed by:
Francesca Bregoli
City University of New York, Queens College

Unlike the infamous Spanish Inquisition, which primarily targeted conversos (baptized Jews and their descendants), the Roman Inquisition in Counter Reformation Italy was mostly concerned with Protestant heresy, blasphemy, and witchcraft. Nonetheless, practicing Jews came often under prosecution as well. Although the Catholic Church technically did not consider them heretics but infidels, a bull issued by Pope Gregory XIII in 1581 authorized inquisitorial supervision of professing Jews for offences such as denying belief in God, blaspheming or mocking Christianity, proselytizing Christians to Judaism and dissuading Jews from baptism, possessing prohibited books, keeping Christian servants and wet-nurses in Jewish homes, as well as sorcery and "devil worship."

The new book by Katherine Aron-Beller adds to our existing knowledge on the relationship between the Papal Inquisition and the Jews with a judicious and prudent study of inquisitorial prosecutions in Modena, the capital of the Estense Duchy in the center-north of Italy, between 1598 and 1638. Aron-Beller's aim is three-fold: "to deepen existing insights into the role of the Papal Inquisition in Jewish life, the intricacies of legal jurisdiction over Jews in the early modern period, and the daily interaction of Jews and Christians on the eve of ghettoization" (239). Though the book is occasionally marred by vague prose, the reader interested in early modern Jewish history and in the history of the Inquisition will be rewarded with much fascinating material that not only confirms recent understandings of the ways in which the Holy Office worked in Italy, but also nuances our current knowledge of Jewish-Christian relations.

The chronological scope of the study is significant. In 1598 Duke Cesare d'Este lost his capital Ferrara to Papal forces and transferred his court to Modena. During the same year, despite conflicts between the Duke and the Pope, Modena rose to full inquisitorial status. Forty years later, after various deferrals and much negotiation, the thriving Jewish community of the city, which functioned as the local commercial class in the absence of Christian entrepreneurs and numbered approximately 700 individuals, was forced into a ghetto. These forty years, historians have argued, were also the most active in the Modenese Inquisition's history, with nine Inquisitor Generals investigating above all charges of heretical blasphemy and superstition. Of the 1678 trials carried out between 1598 and 1638, 186 were against Jews and interested a total number of 325 Jewish male and female suspects (2).

The first section of the book introduces and clarifies the complex background against which the Papal Inquisition operated in Modena, as well as details concerning inquisitorial procedure and punishments, and Jewish reactions to the tribunal. In Chapter one, Aron-Beller provides a description of the beginnings of the Counter-Reformation Inquisition in Italy, stressing the lack of uniformity and standardization within the system, which depended on local context and reflected the political fragmentation of the Italian Peninsula. The practical limitations that the tribunal faced almost everywhere outside of the Papal States is a theme to which the book returns frequently. This chapter, which also includes a discussion of the canons that allowed the Inquisition to try practicing Jews, and background information on the Este Duchy and Modenese Jewry, will serve well college-level students unfamiliar with Italian literature on inquisitorial proceedings against Jews.

Chapter two sheds light on actual inquisitorial procedures and Jewish responses to accusations. Aron-Beller's research confirms that the tribunal adhered to fixed legal limits and did not treat Jewish suspects differently from Christians, except for minor procedural details. While there is no evidence that Jews were treated more harshly than non-Jews, the tribunal relied preferably on Christian witnesses to confirm accusations and did not publicize sentences against Jews, rather reading them in private. Perhaps even more revealing of the motives of the Modenese Inquisition, Aron-Beller emphasizes its predilection for transforming punishments against Jews into fines (Christians were given salutary penances and other spiritual penalties for similar offences) (66). Although she does not fully investigate this possibility, one cannot help wondering if financial benefit was one of the reasons for the unusually high number of trials against Jews in Modena before 1638. Jewish reactions also confirm another well-established historiographical datum, the political and diplomatic know-how of early modern Jews. Individual suspects quickly learned how to defend themselves and how to negotiate the system to their advantage, thanks to ducal help and assistance from the Jewish community itself (73-75).

How should we evaluate the legal limits adhered to by the Inquisition, the discretionary nature of the tribunal's punishments, and the capable response of Modena's Jewry? Based on these premises, Aron- Beller believes that "we must treat with caution any assumption that the Holy Office seriously affected Jewish life." (76). While emphasis on the Inquisition's realism and legal limits offers a welcome check to overly dramatized depictions of the tribunal's work, its risk is cynicism if not tempered by caveats and contextualization. It is hard to believe that Modenese Jews were not impacted, at many levels, by the local Inquisition, which actively attempted to discipline them by orchestrating Hebrew book requisitions, gaining unannounced access to their homes to check on illicit behaviors, and employing spies and delators in its service. Might not Isacco Sanguinetti's statement from 1600 ("we Jews are filled with fear when we hear the name of the Holy Office") reveal something more than just "his need to gratify the Holy Office" (76)--perhaps the anger, confusion, or frustration of a targeted minority?

The second part of the book offers a convincing study of the main types of Jewish offences investigated by the Modenese tribunal. Chapter three focuses on the domestic realm and Chapter four on the streets of Modena. Both chapters offer a fascinating glimpse into Jewish-Christian relations in an early modern city before ghettoization and provide welcome additions to the social history of Jews in seventeenth-century Italy and the exploration of Jewish popular culture. The hiring of Christian servants by Jews, a common occurrence repeatedly condemned by the Church, generated the highest number of trials against Jews in Modena (87). Based on these proceedings, Aron-Beller constructs a fine, balanced investigation of the relations between Jewish masters and Christian servants across a wide spectrum of social classes, devoting special attention to the particular case of Christian wet-nurses.

The practice of hiring wet-nurses among early modern Jews was either a sign of wealth and status or a solution for women who could not otherwise nurse their own children. Hiring a Christian wet-nurse was normally only a last resort in case a couple could not find a Jewish one. In fact, as the century progressed and regulations tightened, the Holy Office (whose clerks, for a fee, provided Jews with the licenses necessary to hire approved Christian wet-nurses) requested that Jewish babies only be nursed in the wet-nurse's home. The Modenese trials show that Jews had a high degree of trust in the Christian women they hired; the wet-nurses, for their part, accepted their positions as employees of Jews without qualms. Only two cases of Jewish infant baptism carried out by Christians are known in Modena between the 16th and the 19th centuries. This is a strikingly low number compared to the Church's reach into Jewish households in the neighboring Papal States, as shown by Marina Caffiero. Most importantly, none of the wet-nurses condemned their masters in the proceedings--when anti- Jewish bias could have colored their depositions--and none of the Jews were accused of having forced the women to dispose of their milk during Easter, an anti-Jewish libel that recurs in non-Modenese trials. Turning her attention to the Modenese countryside, Aron-Beller comes to similar conclusions regarding the cordial relationships between Jewish masters and Christian servants, who did not reveal any hint of disliking their employers during inquisitorial interrogations, but rather the expectation to be "treated well and paid accordingly" (112).

Blasphemy (bestemmia and bestemmia hereticale) was the second most common offence for which Modenese Jews were tried. These verbal offences, investigated in Chapter four, could range from simple lack of respect, to deliberate insults against God or Christianity, to abuse of converts and even Jews who lived at the margins of the community. Interestingly, several Jewish delators were involved in denouncing their coreligionists to the Holy Office for these offences, likely as a way to seek redress for perceived wrongs outside of Jewish institutions. These trials offer an excellent vantage point to explore acculturation among the lower strata of the Jewish population, to shed light on the Jewish poor and liminal figures such as neophytes and prostitutes, and on the proximity between Jews and converts before ghettoization. The larger implications of Jewish marginality and liminality in Modena become slightly unclear at the end of the chapter. Despite such moments of vagueness, the section demonstrates that Counter-Reformation "stigmatization of illegitimacy and abandonment of children" (151) did impact the Jewish community and that the presence of many converts "who crossed the Jewish/Christian border at will" (151) profoundly affected Jewish life on a daily basis before ghettoization.

The third and final part of the book contains three chapters arranged as micro-histories. Individual trials are presented as "tales" complete with dramatis personae and a theatrical description of the scene. Chapter five treats the story of Miriana Sanguinetti, a wealthy Jewish maiden who considered converting to follow a Christian suitor, but eventually remained Jewish. The tensions caused by the Christian misunderstanding of a Passover ceremony and related merrymaking, which happened to fall during Easter, are investigated in Chapter six. Finally, Chapter seven studies the trial of the wealthy Moise de Modena, accused of proselytizing Christians during Purim. Aron-Beller is at her most convincing in her sympathetic exploration of Miriana Sanguinetti's predicament and her treatment of de Modena's case. The latter trial illuminates the political and legal savvy of early modern Modenese Jews, some of whom were "exceptionally literate and well-educated and could clearly mount legal challenges aided by professional lawyers" (227-228). Thanks to his wealth and powerful connections to the court, de Modena hired a capable defense lawyer who worked to gather testimony in his favor. The chapter provides further confirmation of the limited hold exercised by the Inquisition over the Jews of Modena and the crucial fact that the tribunal "could not monitor Jews independently of the Duke" (233).

Aron-Beller's case studies provide scholars with important material to nuance our knowledge of social exchanges between Jews and Christians in early modern Italy. It is in the investigation of these social intricacies and complexities that the book shines. When it comes to its contribution to the broader history of the Inquisition in Italy, the study's "revisionist" approach is in line with recent works that have advanced our understanding of the limited power and reach of inquisitorial tribunals outside of the Papal States. The reader is left with the marked impression that, because of the particular circumstances of the Jewish community and the buffer offered by the ducal court, inquisitorial control over Jewish behaviors and alleged transgressions could not be very effective in Modena. Aron-Beller also presents Modenese Jews as unfazed by the tribunal, carrying on with their lives without paying too much attention to the controlling attempts of the Inquisition. This line of interpretation, based primarily on the inquisitorial proceedings, is less convincing. As Aron-Beller emphasizes, the Inquisition's "conscious mitigation, its objectivity and fairness towards Jews, and its types of punishments were far milder than in secular courts" (240). From a purely legal perspective, this is a well-taken observation. One cannot help but wonder, however, whether "fairness" is an appropriate term to describe proceedings that were frequently based on basic misunderstandings of Jewish practices and rituals and informed by the tenet of Jewish theological error, unlike proceedings in lay courts. Nevertheless, this valuable volume helpfully demonstrates that inquisitorial prosecution against Jews in early modern Italy did not mean persecution, but strictly adhered to standard legal norms.

In conclusion, the volume successfully relies on careful exploration of inquisitorial trials to shed light on Jewish-Christian relations in Modena and its environs before ghettoization. It will appeal to a wide variety of readers interested in early modern Italy, Jewish history, and the history of the Papal Inquisition.

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Author Biography

Francesca Bregoli

City University of New York, Queens College