16.06.01, Baumgarten and Galinsky, eds., Jews and Christians in Thirteenth-Century France

Main Article Content

Flora Cassen

The Medieval Review 16.06.01

Baumgarten, Elisheva, and Judah D. Galinsky, eds. Jews and Christians in Thirteenth-Century France. The New Middle Ages. New York:Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. pp. xxv, 282. ISBN: 978-1-137-28719-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Flora Cassen
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
fcassen@email.unc.edu

In a year that has seen commentators across the board ask whether Jews should stay in or leave France, Elisheva Baumgarten and Judah Galinsky's volume, Jews and Christians in Thirteenth-Century France, is a welcome reminder of the Jews' long history in the French Hexagone. The editors and contributors to this rich and thought-provoking book collectively discuss several difficult questions with nuance and intelligence. Their overarching goal is to "focus attention upon the unique trends that characterized European society and culture in the thirteenth century" through the prism of continuities and changes in the lives and intellectual production of the Jewish and Christian communities, and in the relations between the two groups (4). This is important, because, as the editors remind us, not only is the thirteenth century "somewhat overlooked," but what precisely constituted France at the time was not clearly defined (1). Moreover, it is original because whereas previous generations of scholars have studied French Jewry as part and parcel of Ashkenazi Jewry, the authors of the essays presented in this volume make a special effort to explore the features and characteristics that distinguished the cultural and intellectual production of French Jews from that of their German brethren. Thus they clarify not only the differences between southern and northern European medieval Jewries, but as the editors write at the end of their introduction "one can assume that Jewish communities would have felt a close affinity to each other despite cultural differences. Nevertheless this would not have invalidated a sense of belonging to specific places" (11).

One may ask, of course, if living in France could have meant anything to thirteenth-century Jews given that French identity as we know it today did not yet exist at the time, and that many of the articles in this collection examine conflict between Jews and Christians (polemics), persecution (trial against and burning of the Talmud), and discrimination against French Jews. But our inability to fully grasp medieval expressions of French identity and the fact that the Jews' identity was complicated by their religious otherness does not invalidate the editors' point that place matters. Where one grows up, the neighbors one interacts with, the local political culture, but also the climate, landscape, and food--all these factors matter and contribute to shaping a personal individual and communal identity. To their credit the editors do not attempt to simplify what must have been a complex constellation of identities related to religion, geography, language, and community. On the contrary, the picture of France's Jewish and Christian communities and of the relations between them that emerge out of this volume is rich and multilayered. Baumgarten's and Galinsky's collection of essays shows that despite their differences, Jews and Christians inhabited the same world, reacted to similar trends (albeit in their own ways), and forged relations that transcended physical violence by Christians on Jews and rhetorical violence on both sides.

One strategy adopted by the editors to illustrate the Jews' integration in French life is to offer parallel essays on Jewish and Christian scholarly and literary production. Thus the reader can see that both groups were engaging with biblical texts in new ways and grappling with similar questions. Lesley Smith (chapter 1) examines theological commentaries to the Bible and the Ten Commandments. The commentaries produced by university scholars tended to be fairly uniform, but those produced for pastoral care presented new and innovative interpretations suggesting that by the thirteenth century scholarship had moved beyond the confines of the university. Margo Stroumsa Uzan's essay (chapter 2) follows with a gendered analysis of the use of devotional books in the commercial town of Arras. She shows that the Books of Hours were designed for women, while Psalters were for men. The Books of Hours reflect the rise in importance of secular women and emphasize their responsibility for their children's education and their husbands' salvation. By contrast, Jewish communities at the time tended to exclude women from religious rituals. However, this did not translate into a greater exclusion of Jewish women from French society. As Anne E. Lester shows in her study of Christian lay women (chapter 12), who were often marginalized and called "little women" in legal documents, Jewish and Christian women were connected through neighborhood relations. Belonging to the same place can transcend religious boundaries and examining this can help us integrate Jews into the history of medieval France. Finally, Sara Offenberg (chapter 13) offers an analysis of a beautiful Hebrew prayer book created at the same time as the Books of Hours that underlines the collaboration between Jewish and Christian artists and scribes.

Consistent with their goal of presenting scholarship on thirteenth-century Jews and Christians in parallel, the editors have divided the book in three parts: Learning, Law, and Society; Polemics, Persecutions, and Mutual Perceptions; and Cultural Expressions and Appropriations: Art, Poetry, and Literature. In the first part, Ari Geiger (chapter 3) examines why Christian interest in Hebrew biblical commentaries apparently decreased in the thirteenth century; he shows that rather than a decrease in Christian Hebraism what we see is a shift towards Jewish philosophy and the Talmud. Karl Shoemaker (chapter 4) writes about the ius commune in France showing that French lawyers and judges changed judicial practice in France reappropriating and repurposing classical models. Judah Galinsky (chapter 5) moves from broad studies of thirteenth-century society to examining new genres of writing among Jews. He shows that French Jewish writing differed from the writings produced by German Jews in their emphasis on making them clear and accessible to secular members of their communities. Finally, Yossef Schwartz (chapter 6) offers a stimulating reevaluation of the trial against the Talmud in Paris in 1240 by placing it in its northern French political and Christian context.

In part two, focused on polemics between Jews and Christians, and persecution of Jews, Daniel Lasker (chapter 7) uses the work of Joseph Official, a French Jewish polemicist, to isolate the characteristics of northern European Jewish polemics. Lasker argues that southern European polemics were philosophical and rationalistic in nature, but Official, who was from Provence, changed styles when he wrote for a northern French audience, critiquing Christianity in a markedly harsher and more vulgar tone than was customary in the south. David Berger (chapter 8) shifts from a geographical focus to a temporal one and examines the change in polemics from the twelfth to the thirteenth century providing an important reevaluation and critique of Amos Funkenstein's classic article. Next, in "Of Milk and Blood" (chapter 9), John Tolan offers an insightful reevaluation of Pope Innocent III's attitude to the Jews. While scholars agree that Innocent's reign represented a hardening of papal policy towards the Jews, Tolan argues that this was due to the pope's deep fears of Jews polluting society. Thus, Tolan suggests that protoracial discussions of Jews' bodily fluids, in particular blood and milk, may have appeared as early as the thirteenth century. Ephraim Kanarfogel examines the other side of the same coin: rabbinic discussions of contacts with Christians (chapter 10). While Jewish opinions on Christians were varied and complex, Kanarfogel also shows that Jews' willingness to engage in business relations with Christians rose through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Finally, Jessica Elliott (chapter 11) turns to Jewish converts to Christianity and how they were perceived by Christian chroniclers before and after the expulsion of 1306. She shows that negative rhetoric towards converts increased sharply after 1306.

In the third part, the authors' focus turns to culture and the arts. Cyril Aslanov's essay (chapter 14) on the 1288 lament from Troyes studies the emergence of Judeo-French, arguing that it resulted from the Jews' growing isolation in French society. Susan Einbinder (chapter 15) examines an old French translation of a classic Hebrew poem--Ansikha Malki (translated by Einbinder and Rosenberg in the appendix). This translation and others demonstrate a sophisticated interest in Jewish culture and symbols. The Jews' embeddedness in French culture is further illustrated by Rella Kushelevsky (chapter 16) in her enlightening comparison of Hebrew and French tales.

All the essays are well-researched, meticulously edited, and to the point. Indeed, this a rare example of an edited book with a coherent construction and in which the different essays are in real dialogue with one another. A minor shortcoming is the comparative lack of articles on the social history of Jews and Christians. Other than that, this is a volume of uncommon thematic coherence and all together a superb piece of scholarship.

Article Details

Section
Reviews