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16.12.06, Boyarin, ed., and trans., The Siege of Jerusalem

The Medieval Review

16.12.06, Boyarin, ed., and trans., The Siege of Jerusalem

An anonymous author wrote the alliterative poem The Siege of Jerusalem in the later fourteenth century, though he was probably an Augustinian canon from North Yorkshire (18, 89). Its era of composition makes it a near contemporary of the famous English literature of the age, such as that of Chaucer, Piers Plowman and Arthurian tales like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Unlike those others, The Siege of Jerusalem is little known to modern readers partially because it has not, up until Williams Boyarin's translation, been rendered into modern English. The translator wishes not only to introduce the poem to an audience unlikely to be aware of it, but also to provide instructors, especially non-specialists, the materials to use this poem in the classroom (11-13). Thus besides the translated poem itself this "digest" (her word) also contains a wide selection of primary sources serving several purposes, among them to show literary and historical influences on the poem's author and historical documents charting the pervasive anti-Semitism of Medieval Europe and in particular its English variety. All of this plus commentary and a decent-sized bibliography are contained in a slim, inexpensive volume of fewer than 200 pages.

Williams Boyarin explains the poem's provenance, explores the possibilities of who the anonymous author was, and sets out the challenges of presenting the poem in readable modern English while remaining true to its original Middle English. The nine surviving manuscripts from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries containing parts of or the whole poem suggest it was popular in its day, second only to Piers Plowman as an alliterative poem (18). The poem relates events prior to, during, and immediately after the Roman siege of Jerusalem that culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. In the historical record Vespasian, soon to be imperator, began the siege but after he departed to assume the purple his son Titus, Vespasian's successor as emperor, completed the siege to devastating effect.

An anti-Semitic screed, the fourteenth century poem portrays the Jews as having deserved the horrors the Romans brought as punishment for their role in the crucifixion of Jesus. So the poem is, among other things, a tale of long unrequited revenge, a whipped-up mash-up of geography, fact, fiction, anachronisms, events, literary tropes, graphic violence and vitriol. In concept it resembles a modern alternative history set in poetic stanzas where the past gets reconfigured to provide a more satisfying narrative than the facts could ever have provided. The poem runs roughshod over the historical record, but in that sense is no worse than the typical film today bearing the disclaimer, "inspired by true events."

To someone who understands the actual historical events about which the author wrote, the poem is full of unintended humor. For example, the author has a ship sailing to Rome from Syria get so blown-off course that it ends up in Bordeaux, where its occupants meet Vespasian, "king" of the region (32-34). Both Titus in Jerusalem and Vespasian in Gaul suffer from bizarre ailments but Vespasian's is odder by far: a hive of bees has nested in his nasal cavity. Williams Boyarin plausibly suggests the disease was a play on Vespasian's name, since vespa is Latin for wasp. Miracles cure both Titus and Vespasian of their afflictions and they convert to Christianity. Together they become the avenging sword of Jesus by besieging and taking Jerusalem and destroying the Temple, rather than for the very different historical reasons they did so. The poem is chock full of imaginary incidents and lurid details that tell us a lot about what late fourteenth-century lay audiences liked to read or hear.

William Boyarin's translation is easy to read and the poem's themes, bad history and explicit violence will provide much fodder for discussion. Beyond this, some of the primary sources she includes appear to show where the poem's author drew his information, such as the book of the Maccabees. These sources help the student understand how what one reads affects what one writes, a valuable thing to understand about any era. This fourteenth-century author, depicting a very different time with very different people, reinterpreted and reinvented a frightful, at times horrifying, but also entertaining tale.

A number of questions come up, however, about the choices Williams Boyarin made in compiling this work. One is why she chose not to present the entire poem in a facing translation. The poem is not long: less than sixty pages in the form it takes here, and that includes fairly extensive footnotes. After the poem she includes four pages of the Middle English text alongside four pages of the same modern translation the reader has just read, an unnecessary redundancy. Presenting the entire poem in a face-to-face text and translation would give more topics for discussion for students and instructors all the way through the poem.

A second curious choice concerns some of the primary sources that Williams Boyarin includes. All of them are valuable in their own way but some of them had very little, if any influence on the composer of the poem, or even the era in which he wrote. For example, she includes substantial extracts from the 1173 Latin account of the sacrifice and murder, supposedly by Jews, of twelve-year-old William of Norwich, an event that had happened decades before. This important account establishes, among other things, the irrational anti-Semitism of its author and England in the twelfth century, but it has virtually nothing to do with the fourteenth-century poem other than demonstrating that anti-Semitism existed in England centuries before its composition. The same goes for Williams Boyarin's inclusion of several canons of the Fourth Lateran Council from 1215. These canons reveal that the early thirteenth-century Latin Christian Church was anti-Semitic, but nothing beyond that for understanding the poem or even the era in which it was written.

A third debatable choice, albeit less important perhaps, are some of the translations Williams Boyarin has included. For example, she includes two famous accounts from the First Crusade. One concerns the massacre of Rhineland Jews by crusaders on the way to the Holy Land written by Albert of Aachen, while the other, written by Raymond de Aguilers, recounts the brutal massacre of Jerusalem's population in 1099 after the crusaders broke into the city. Both translations appeared in 1921, almost a century ago, even though newer, arguably better ones, or at least more critical ones exist. These sources too, have nothing to do with the author of The Siege of Jerusalem nor do they appear to have influenced the author's writing of the poem. They do of course show the pervasive anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages.

On the one hand then, in a translation designed to open the door and throw light on an under-used source from the fourteenth century, many of the primary sources included in this work do not do that. On the other hand, however, Williams Boyarin has, perhaps inadvertently, provided an alternative, but equally valuable text, namely a short but reasonably comprehensive source book on pre-modern Western anti-Semitism that could be used in a classroom setting without privileging the poem she translated. In other words, the gospels depicting the trial and execution of Christ, the massacre of the Rhineland Jews, the story of William of Norwich's martyrdom etc. are quite useful in illustrating the depth of anti-Semitism and rancor Christians held against the Jews in Western Europe between 1095 and the time of the composition of The Siege of Jerusalem in the later fourteenth century. The poem itself functions well as a reflection of an unfortunate continuum of prejudice that lasted for centuries in the Western world.

Williams Boyarin has accomplished a great deal here. The preface, introduction, footnotes and other explanatory material are sensible, accurate, and do what they are supposed to do. Her translation of the poem delivers a valuable service and meets the intent she had in providing it. Teachers and students with limited knowledge of fourteenth-century England can now take heart that bona-fide alternatives exist to the monotonous diet of Chaucer and Piers Plowman they often get force fed in Brit Lit classes. What student will fail to be interested in the story of a gruesome siege, which includes one of the most graphic descriptions of cannibalism they are likely to read? The primary sources included here, of which The Siege of Jerusalem forms a part, if read on their own tell the sorry tale of a society that out of necessity used the services of a segment of the population (the Jews' role in moneylending), yet so willingly turned on that community when it was convenient or expedient to do so.