The Medieval Review 14.10.22

Resnick, Irven M. Marks of Distinction: Christian Perceptions of Jews in the High Middle Ages. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012. Pp. vii, 385. $69.95 (hardback). ISBN: 9780813219691 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Frans van Liere
Calvin College

Scholars have long distinguished anti-Judaism, the rejection of Jews for religious reasons, from antisemitism, a hatred of Jews based on ethnic and racial prejudices. The latter, so the argument runs, is a nineteenth-century invention, closely linked to the racial theories emerging at the beginning of that century, and it found its culmination in the twentieth-century Holocaust. Prejudices against Jews in the Middle Ages, however, were founded exclusively on the first, not the second. This thesis was challenged by the work of Gavin Langmuir in his Toward a Definition of Antisemitism (1990). Langmuir also sharply distinguished antisemitism from anti-Judaism, but while he saw the latter as a theological argument, based on its own internal logic, he defined antisemitism as a pathological and irrational hatred of Jews. Langmuir traced this hatred to the twelfth century, when the myths of ritual murder and host desecration first appeared, most notably with the case of the boy saint William of Norwich in 1144. Of course the discussion on Langmuir's thesis is complicated by the one-sidedness and prejudice of the source materials, and indeed our own cultural assumptions. (For instance, most modern scholars have normally read Christian accusations of Jewish offenses like defecating on crucifixes, or stealing the eucharistic host for magical purposes, as patently outlandish and therefore false; but Elliott Horowitz and Ariel Toaff have suggested that, in some cases, Jews did actually commit such acts.)

Irven Resnick enters into this debate with this thoroughly researched and fascinating study, challenging Langmuir's idea by showing that what may pass for irrational thought in our eyes, was in fact part of the larger complex of medieval ideas that helped define the "otherness" of Jews in the eyes of Christians. These ideas involved a curious mix of medicine, ethnography, astrology, folklore, and theories on gender; in other words, science. The study takes a wide range of courses into account, ranging from medical texts, to encyclopedias, chronicles, exempla collections, sermons, anti-Jewish polemic treatises, and bible commentaries.

One of the clearest distinguishing marks between Jews and Christians was, of course, circumcision. For Christians, it accentuated the effeminate nature that Jews were thought to possess: Jewish writers maintained that it served to constrain wantonness and overt sexuality, while Christian writers generally argued the exact opposite, that it made them more lewd and lustful.

Another important differentiating factor that Resnick discusses is diet. What one ate was thought to have an immediate influence on one's physiognomy. Again, while Jews maintained that the eating of pigs was unclean and helped curb an unhealthy interest in sexuality, Christians pointed out that these dietary laws were in place precisely because of the Jews' natural inclination to gluttony and deviant sexual behavior. Jews were commonly identified with the meat they were forbidden to eat, and often called pigs, dogs, or other unclean animals. These sentiments were, incidentally, entirely mutual between Christians and Jews.

Resnick dedicates a substantial chapter to the link between Jews and leprosy. For medieval Christians, there was a clear connection between these two groups of outcasts; Jews were more prone to leprosy, and both led to lewdness and wanton sexuality and effeminate behavior. Of course, here, too, the theories cut both ways; Jews maintained that they were less likely to be infected with leprosy because of their abstinence from sexual intercourse during menstruation.

When a Jew converts to Christianity, does he essentially change? Or does he retain his previous identity? Medieval authors often argued that "Jewishness" took several generations to disappear entirely from one's blood line. Resnick's discussion of the case of Anacletus II, the "Jewish" pope, provides an interesting example. The medieval convert often was an outcast in two communities: his original one, and his newly adopted one. In England, Jewish converts were especially housed in a domus conversorum. In Spain, conversions back and forth were common, and conversos, or Marranos, often dwelled in a shady "in-between" world.

Were Jews distinguishable from Christians, other than by their name? Was the yellow badge seen as a necessary mark of distinction because none were visible on the outside, or were certain traits inherent to their otherness? In the last chapter, Resnick examines the notion that Jews were thought to have a darker complexion than Christians. Complexion was, of course, thought to be due to the influence of the sun and the dry southern climates, but the humoral influence of the planets Jupiter and Saturn was also supposed to have great influence on this. Resnick presents us here with a fascinating, and perhaps under-appreciated area of medieval medical thought, even if he does not entirely convince this reader that all these ideas amounted to a theory of racial distinction akin to the more racial antisemitism of the nineteenth century. However, he makes clear that the nineteenth century had an impressive arsenal of prejudice to draw on. Did the medieval world develop a sense of eradicable difference between Jews and others that was not based in religious prejudice? Resnick's book makes clear that the mutual sentiment between Christians and Jews in the Middle Ages could be ugly, and that the discussion was by no means limited to theological arguments. Contrary to Langmuir's argument, these ideas were certainly not "irrational"; they were often supported by the science of the day. Do these ideas amount to antisemitism? In some senses, the word seems an anachronism, but Resnick does confirm that the disdain for Jewish "otherness" grew after the latter half of the twelfth century. Whatever conclusions the reader may reach about the aptness of these labels, Marks of Distinction offers a window into a wide array of medieval theories authors used to justify their contempt of Jews, lepers, and other outcasts, and thus digs deep into the sometimes repulsive but endlessly fascinating "underbelly" of the medieval imagination.

Copyright (c) 2014 Frans van Liere

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