17.02.14, Zacher, ed., Imagining the Jew in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Culture

Main Article Content

Carol Neuman de Vegvar

The Medieval Review 17.02.14

Zacher, Samantha, ed. Imagining the Jew in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Culture. Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. pp. xviii, 355. ISBN: 978-1-4426-466-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Carol Neuman de Vegvar
Ohio Wesleyan University
cndevegv@owu.edu

In Anglo-Saxon England the absence of actual Jews in the general population was no impediment to imagining both historical and contemporary Jews and describing them in both texts and images. Such imaginative activity included both the heroic patriarchs of the Old Testament, understood as precursors, ancestors and antetypes of Christ, and a more general population of Jews, envisioned as hostile to the message of Christianity both at the time of Christ and in the period of the Anglo-Saxons, delineated in terms of their purported attitudes and alleged deficits of character. The latter, Jews living in the period of the establishment of the New Covenant, were viewed as a foil for the emergence of the wider community of the Christian faith, and as such played an important role in the self-identification of the gens anglorum as a New Israel, chosen by God for a role in the unfolding of salvation history. In this volume, Samantha Zacher has assembled a series of articles considering various aspects of the Anglo-Saxon envisioning of the Jews as mobile or liminal metaphor (15), and how both texts and imagery deployed this metaphor in the development of a discourse of Anglo-Saxon Christian identity. In this context the Anglo-Saxon mythopoesis of the imagined Jew both built upon the work of patristic commentators of the past and served both as model for consideration of other minorities, in what may be construed as a proto-orientalist discourse, and as foundation for the emergence of anti-Semitism directed against real Jews in post-Conquest England.

In "Anglo-Saxons, Israelites, Hebrews and Jews," Stephen J. Harris examines the range of naming terms for the Jewish people used by Anglo-Saxon authors writing in Latin. Critiquing Andrew Scheil's view that these authors lacked a uniform term for the Jews, and drawing on work by Zacher, Harris ties these writers' choices to use patterns originating in Jeremiah and Nehemiah distinguishing Israel and Judah in terms of degrees of faithfulness or faithlessness; for Christian authors building upon Paul in Romans 9:3-8, that distinction is reread as between an ethnic Israel of the flesh and a transethnic Israel of the spirit. In the emergent discourse of Anglo-Saxon authors, notably Bede, writing in the wake of the Anglo-Saxons' conversion to Christianity, the latter become a new People of Israel by supersession, and the term "Judah" and by association also "Judas" and "Jew" become terms linked to faithlessness.

In "Nathan the Jew in the Old English Vindicta Salvatoris," Thomas N. Hall considers a process of progressive alteration across time with the development of the character of Nathan in the narrative of Titus's conquest of Jerusalem in the Vindicta Salvatoris, first in the earlier Latin version as an Ishmaelite, and then in the first vernacular (Old English) version as a Jew who converts both Vespasian and Titus to Christianity and incites them to revenge the murder of Christ against the Jews. In the name "Nathan son of Naum" Hall unpacks references to the prophet Nathan, and to the destruction of the wicked city of Nahum; he also notes instructively that the Old English Vindicta Salvatoris is paired in manuscript transmission with the Gospel of Nicodemus, which similarly contrasts a collective of evil Jews who plot to kill Christ and individual good Jews, notably Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who play positive roles in the Crucifixion narrative.

Damian Fleming, in "Hebraeam scire linguam: Bede's Rhetoric of the Hebrew Truth," considers how Bede sustains Jerome's idea on the primacy of the Hebrew Bible as founded on the concept of the hebraica veritas, but disagrees with him at various points and advances controversial innovative readings of his own. Fleming's reading of Bede as placing himself on a par with Augustine as well as Jerome (77), and as overtly condescending in his critique of the latter (70), suggests that not a few modern scholars might wish to reconsider their dedication to Bede as a sort of professorial role model. However, the more interesting questions suggested here are the degree and source of Bede's knowledge of Hebrew, which he flaunts both in his In Genesim and in his letter to Plegwine. Current consensus, with which Fleming agrees, has it that Bede's knowledge of Hebrew is entirely derived from Jerome, and that he could neither read nor write unmediated Hebrew on his own. However, Bede's understanding of the potential confusion of dalet andresh, although possibly derived from two separate passages in Jerome (68-70), does suggest that Bede had at least a working familiarity with the Hebrew alphabet. Later in the volume, Heide Estes (266) quotes Cecil Roth as not excluding the presence of occasional Jewish travelers in pre-Conquest England; perhaps it is worth reconsidering whether Bede may have had some brief contact with such a visitor sufficient to give him a working knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet.

In "Building Anti-Semitism in Bede," Kathy Lavezzo takes the Pauline doctrine (Romans 8:9) of the supersession of Christian spirituality over Jewish carnality and literalism as a starting point in unpacking Bede's appropriation of the buildings of Biblical Jews in his treatises On the Temple, On the Tabernacle, and On Ezra and Nehemiah as figures for symbolic Christian "structures," particularly the Church as community and institution through time. Lavezzo notes, however, that Bede's concept of supersession is troubled by the assignment of variable and sometimes mutually contradictory metaphoric readings to material substances, particularly notably stone and wood, generating an "interpretive panic" (94) in which he attempts to justify apparent ambiguity and self-contradiction among his interpretations. Lavezzo sees this situation as arising from Bede's engagement with "stone qua stone" (98) in the context of a life of monastic stability in the stone-built environment of Jarrow; her explorations here could be fruitfully expanded by consideration of the concept of stonework in Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical architecture as "more romanorum" and Bede's conceptual association of such architecture with Rome as Christian center as opposed to the predominantly carpentered architecture of Anglo-Saxon secular sites and Irish monastic communities and their dependencies. Lavezzo also finds particularly intentionally insulting Bede's first of two homilies on the dedication of a church where he compares the hardheartedness of the Jews in the face of Christian truth to wild beasts and winter storms. However, it is worth considering here that winter weather and wild beasts are standard motifs in Old English poetic metaphor for life beyond the safety of the hall, the realm of all outsiders; further, that wild beasts are compared in the same poetic tradition to both good and evil warriors (notably, in Elene, where both Constantine and his barbarian foes are compared separately to wolves and eagles, the archetypical "beasts of battle"); and that comparison of persons to inanimate phenomena of weather is not per se an insult in English literature ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?").

In his article, "Transition and Renewal: Jews and the Church Year in Anglo-Saxon England," Andrew P. Scheil notes the particular moments in the cycle of the Anglo-Saxon liturgical year where, quoting Kruger, "spectral Jews," (111) haunt the narrative at significant moments of transition. Further, casting Jews as bypassed naysayers also serves both Bede and Ælfric as homileticists in giving "shaping direction to the events of sacred history." Both authors characterize as a liminal group characterized by rage and malicious intent toward those who have made transitions from which they, both evil and tragic, exclude themselves. Scheil points out the impact such homiletic discourse, presented in churches on major feast days, would have had on its Anglo-Saxon lay audience, and suggests that it helped to lay the foundations for the endlessly recycled myths of Jewish conspiracy in or behind world events.

Daniel Anlezark, in "Abraham's Children: Jewish Promise and Christian Fulfillment," focuses directly on the underlying premises and use of specific biblical texts by patristic and Anglo-Saxon authors in the conceptualization of supersession, with particular focus of Ælfric and the poet of the Old English Exodus. Reinterpreting the promises of God to Abraham on the basis of the Pauline Epistles (Romans 9:7 and Galatians 3:1-29) extending the Abrahamic promise to imply the promise of land to the Jews and salvation to Christians, Ælfric, in his Passio Sancti Stephani, excludes the reference to the promise of land, making the covenant of Abraham more specifically relevant to an Anglo-Saxon audience who saw themselves as the new People of God, and the heirs of Abraham through Christ. Anlezark notes that in contrast to Haymo of Auxerre, who describes the Jews as children of the kingdom cast into outer darkness, Ælfric only excludes them from the Abrahamic promise, describing them in his Letter on the Old and New Testament as having lost both their divinely sanctioned land and their identity as God's chosen, a view that might be construed as less harsh were it not for the same author's more forcible homiletic castigation of the Jews as described in Scheil's article. Meanwhile the author of the Old English Exodus frames as heroic the Jews' journey out of Egypt into a new promised land, framing them as antetypes for the Anglo-Saxons as a new people of God with their own migratory origin myth.

In "Time, Liturgy and History in the Old English Elene," Thomas D. Hill examines the variations on the role of the Jews in the narrative of the discovery of the True Cross in Insular sources in a period of increasingly sacralized kingship. While in the Bobbio Missal the prayer for the invenio crucis accuses the Jews of intentionally and deceitfully hiding the True Cross in a ditch, and the Latin Invenio Crucis prose narrative scrambles chronology by having Elene rather than Titus banish the unconverted Jews from the Holy Land, Cynewulf's Old English verse Elene goes much further in adjusting history for the sake of narrative. It elides not only the historic exile of the Jews from Jerusalem but also the persecution of Christians by the Romans, adjusting the date of Constantine's reign, and identifying the character of Judas in the True Cross narrative as the brother of Stephen Protomartyr. At the end of the tale all the Jews in the Holy Land convert in response to the discovery and proving of the Cross by the sainted queen, providing a happy if purely imaginary reconciliation. One wonders however whether such a positive fiction, from the point of view of Christian listeners, would have had much impact in the context of a poem probably accessible only to a small part of the Anglo-Saxon population, as compared to the negative impact of the homilies presented in churches to a wider public, as per Scheil.

Charles D. Wright, in "Jewish Magic and Christian Miracle in the Old English Andreas," discusses how the poet of the Old English verse Andreas seems to suppress actively what he perceives as magical practices in previous versions of the story: the Jewish practice of wearing phylacteries, the pagan magic of sortes or prognostication by casting lots, and even the Christian apotropaic use of cross-sign. The latter does appear in the Old English prose Andreas, but the anonymous poet of the verse Andreas substitutes sphragis or the residual beneficent presence of baptismal chrism on the foreheads of the converted. Given recent work by many scholars, and by Karen Jolly in particular, on the Anglo-Saxon use of affective Christian rituals in contexts from medicine to agriculture, and the probability of the active participation of the Church in these rites and certainly in recording them for posterity, one wonders in what historical setting the Andreas poet placed himself in such strong opposition to even so mild and thoroughly entrenched a practice as blessing oneself with the sign of the cross. Wright's article opens the door to a substantial reevaluation of this poem, its context of composition and its intended audiences.

In "Hagar and Ishmael: The Uncanny and the Exile" Catherine Karkov considers the roles of Sarah and Hagar in Bede's In Genesim and the Genesis illustrations to the Old English Hexateuch (London, British Library MS Cotton Claudius B.iv). Reading Hagar as a deformed banished double of Sarah, an outcast even in her own body (which Sarah effectively colonizes to produce an heir for Abraham), Karkov explores Bede's interpretation of legitimacy in the Abrahamic succession and his devaluation of Hagar's status from wife to concubine. She also notes Bede's emphasis on Hagar and Ishmael as base, carnal and persecuting, "representing the Old Covenant and the Jews" (201) a marginalized but ever-present menace that corruption within the Christian world might reintroduce. Karkov sees a parallel here to the origin myth of the Anglo-Saxons, who saw themselves as having driven out and replaced the Britons; one might also see an allusion to the oppositional conversion history in Bede and elsewhere, where the affiliates of the Roman Church is seen as driving out variant Columban practices. Karkov also refers to the work of Katharine Scarfe Beckett on Anglo-Saxon belief in the false self-identification of the Saracens as descendants of Sarah, and the widespread linkage in Christian Europe of the Ishmaelites with the Arabs and the forces of Islam. Although the issues raised by the identification of the Ishmaelites both as Jews and as Muslims remain unresolved here, Karkov's juxtaposition of these two apparently antithetical constructs as components of a nascent proto-orientalism is an important contribution to post-colonial studies.

In his article, "King Edgar Leaping and Dancing Before the Lord," Adam Cohen offers a convincing reexamination of the image of the representation of King Edgar in the New Minster Charter (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vespasian A.viii, fol. 2v). Taking as his starting point Elzbieta Temple's observation of the similar poses of dancers in manuscript illuminations from the Court School of Charles the Bald, Cohen identifies Edgar offering the charter before the enthroned Christ as a reference to David dancing before the Ark of the Lord (2 Samuel 6: 14-16), an identification further borne out by details of the Charter image. He traces Edgar's links to David, not only via his ancestor Alfred's translation of the first fifty psalms into Old English, but also ex officio, given references to David in Anglo-Saxon coronation ordines. Cohen sees Bishop Æthelwold as having played a major role in the development of this image and its titulus. The trend toward sacralized kingship is also manifested here in Edgar's placement as a mediating figure between the viewer outside the frame and the figure of Christ within it; a trend carried one step further in the Regularis Concordia illumination of an enthroned Christ-like Edgar with an anonymous monk dancing at his feet (London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius A.iii, fol. 2v).

In his article, "'In those days': Giants and the Giant Moses in the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch," Asa Mittman considers the ambiguity of scale in one of the premier assemblages of Anglo-Saxon biblical imagery. On the one hand, giants are associated here with wickedness, their own and that of their human followers, following Cassiodorus and other earlier exegetes who had blamed the Flood on evildoing associated with giants, and by association with not only the primordial giants of Genesis but also Goliath, as well as the Titans, opponents of the establishment of divine order in classical mythology. One might also add to this roster the Anglo-Saxons' own thyrs, translating as either "giant" or "demon" and associated with boundary lands and wilderness. On the other hand, the figure of Moses, starting immediately after his encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, is also enlarged in the Hexateuch's imagery far beyond the scale of his Hebrew followers, and continues to grow larger from image to image beyond this point. Mittman addresses the Anglo-Saxons' self-identification in their origin myths with the migratory Hebrews in search of a promised land and suggests that the increasing scale of Moses is to be understood as an expression of his positive "post-human" transformation until ultimately, on fol. 139v he is shown walking with Christ. One might add that this image is perhaps the ultimate encapsulation of the Anglo-Saxons' view of Christian supersession: Christ leads, but looks back to Moses, taking precedence but building upon knowledge of the past.

The final article, by Heide Estes, examines the post-Conquest impact of Anglo-Saxon views of Jews and Judaism. In "Reading Ælfric in the Twelfth Century: Anti-Judaic Doctrine Becomes Anti-Judaic Rhetoric," Estes examines how Ælfric's homilies, with their use and abuse of the imagined Jew as monstrous outsider willfully obtuse and overtly hostile to the emergence of Christianity, provided the foundations of antipathy for the evolution of anti-Semitic charges of child murder, host desecration and well poisoning, leading to active persecution of post-Conquest Jewish settlements in England. In short, Ælfric's homilies laid the groundwork for the credibility of "fake news" of Jewish crimes against the Christian community, leading to real violence against the Jewish community by their Christian neighbors. Of all the articles in the volume, Estes' study of the material consequences of rhetoric and Scheil's discussion of the persuasive power of widely delivered homiletic discourse (the Twitter feed of its day) are the most powerfully apposite in the present moment.

The volume is well presented, with few flaws. Cost cutting has led many print publishers to eschew glossy pages for images, but the use of matte paper for image sections significantly reduces image quality and legibility. This is particularly problematic here for some of Karkov's close readings of the line drawings in the Old English Hexateuch. Typos in the volume are exceptionally rare; this reviewer detected only one, in the sixth line on page 253, where the reference should be to figure 26 rather than figure 25.

On the whole, the volume is a welcome and thought-provoking addition to a growing body of literature on the roles of the Jew in Anglo-Saxon England and elsewhere in the early Middle Ages.

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