17.12.03, Shoham-Steiner, ed., Intricate Interfaith Networks in the Middle Ages

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William Chester Jordan

The Medieval Review 17.12.03

Shoham-Steiner, Ephraim, ed. Intricate Interfaith Networks in the Middle Ages: Quotidian Jewish-Christian Contacts . Studies in the History of Daily Life (800-1600), 5. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. pp. xii, 347. ISBN: 978-2-503-54429-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
William Chester Jordan
       Princeton University

The Central European University is involved in a struggle to maintain its relative autonomy and academic reputation these days. What the outcome will be, no one knows, but the volume under review reminds the scholarly community that the role the CEU has played for medievalists has been profound. Most of the essays in the book, the editor writes, "emanate from an intensive and fruitful workshop at the Central European University" (4). The interest and quality of the articles confirm how fruitful that workshop must have been.

The subject of the volume is the relations among Jews and Christians in the High and Late Middle Ages, mainly in Central Europe and Iberia. As it is not geographically comprehensive, neither is the book thematically comprehensive. The avowed purpose is to bring to the forefront some new directions in research, directions which stress the quotidian or commonplace interactions among people. Yet a few of the articles seem to ignore the quotidian. This is particularly true of Piero Capelli's essay and that of Tamás Visi. Capelli discusses Jewish conversion to Christianity and deals mostly with the celebrity cases: Petrus Alfonsi, Nicolas Donin, Pablo Christiani, Abner of Burgos, and a few others. He speculates on the possible intellectual motivations of the converts (rationalism, anti-Talmudic convictions, and so forth). It would be a shame if scholars interested in elites failed to turn to this volume and missed Capelli's very interesting essay. The same must be said of Visi's. Specialists in the diffusion of medical knowledge should not miss his study of plague treatises. The plague was a factor that encouraged those interested in nature to traverse the boundaries of sectarian religious knowledge.

The other essays are truer to the overall intention of the volume. Not marked as such but a very nice contribution is that embedded in the editor's introduction, a brief study of criminal networks which bound Jews and Christians. More like synopses--very valuable synopses, to be sure--are Katalin Szende's piece on the effects of royal policies on Hungary's Jews and Flocel Sabaté's on Jewish neighborhood life in Catalonian towns. Illicit sex is the theme of Carsten Wilke's essay. Is there any truth to Ibn Verga's hypothesis that male sexual transgression across confessional lines in Iberia contributed to the decline and fall of Spanish Jewry in the Late Middle Ages? The jury, one might say, is still out.

Also concentrating directly on aspects of quotidian life are articles by Lilach Assaf, Gerhard Jaritz and Eveline Brugger. Assaf explores changing naming practices in Germany. I use the word 'explores' very deliberately. This is a suggestive piece, which, one hopes, will stimulate further work on whether naming practices over time can be shown to reflect wider and deeper developments in social life and whether studying these practices can also generate new historical insights. Jaritz takes on the subject of medieval Jewish sumptuary laws, largely in Central Europe. He has to argue back on many occasions from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century laws because the evidence is so thin for the Middle Ages, but he does so with great care. In the process he documents many similarities between Christian and Jewish views of what constituted the line between proper and conspicuous consumption. Brugger, meanwhile, addresses a Jewish society under persecution in fourteenth- century Austria. She finds evidence that even in these fraught times Jews and Christians were still capable of working together in quotidian ways and did so.

The volume closes with two articles that deal with artistic aspects of late medieval Jewish and Christian interaction. The margins of society, Katrin Kogman-Appel reminds readers, attracted artists, who depicted the ugly, downtrodden and sick, all of which categories cut across confessional lines. Her discussion of paintings of people with goiters is stunning, and the pictures themselves, arresting. Zsofia Buda's essay probes the interplay of Christian and Jewish motifs in the Hamburg Miscellany and makes intelligent suggestions about their multivalent function.

Readers' gratitude must go to the editor of the volume and to the individual authors of the essays--and, finally, to the CEU for helping to make the whole project possible.

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