18.04.04, Lavezzo, The Accommodated Jew

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Jennifer Garrison

The Medieval Review 18.04.04

Lavezzo, Kathy. The Accommodated Jew: English Antisemitism from Bede to Milton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016. pp. xv, 374. ISBN: 978-1-5017-0315-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jennifer Garrison
St. Mary's University (Calgary)

With The Accommodated Jew, Kathy Lavezzo makes an important, timely, and thoroughly convincing case for the centrality of antisemitism to medieval and early modern English identity.

By placing canonical literary texts in conversation with urban histories and cartographic evidence, Lavezzo argues that medieval and early modern conceptions of "the Jew" were central to England's emerging urban capitalist identity. She coins the term "accommodated Jew" to call attention to the ways in English literary texts associate Jews with closed built environments, especially the dangerously private Jewish house which was often imagined to be a potential site of ritual murder and sacrilege. The figure of the accommodated Jew allowed authors to express anxiety about materialism and the ways in which capitalist trends threatened Christian social and spiritual ideals. As Lavezzo herself puts it: "Ultimately, my project tracks the central place of the 'Jew' in the slow process by which the English accommodated themselves and negotiated their relationship to the bourgeois, profit-minded, and domesticated sensibility they came to embrace and embody" (27).

To make this argument Lavezzo employs a unique methodology of analyzing literary texts alongside physical buildings and urban spaces. In doing so, she shows how writers use space--including everything from spatial metaphors to literal, physical locations of reading and performance--both to foster and to contest English antisemitism. She displays this methodology in her introduction by reading alongside each other Shakespeare's Shylock, the Hereford mappa mundi, and house architecture in medieval Lincoln. Through Shylock, Lavezzo helpfully offers a definition of the figure of the accommodated Jew: he is literal-minded, carnal, closely associated with his locked-up and dangerous house, deeply involved in the urban economy of the play, and a figure for the bourgeois trends (such as thrift and domesticity) that defined Shakespeare's England. She then turns to the Hereford mappa mundi which imagines Jews as exiled to Asia but also evokes Jewish stone houses in its place-icon of Lincoln. As she lays out very clearly in her introduction, English writers used spatial terms to divide Christian and Jew even as those same terms reveal the ways in which Christian and Jewish identities are potentially permeable categories. Her book goes on to trace English antisemitism over the course of hundreds of years, beginning with the Anglo-Saxons.

Though Jews did not inhabit England until after the Norman Conquest, Lavezzo argues that the figure of the Jew was foundational to Anglo-Saxon understandings of Christian identity. Through readings of Bede's On the Temple and Cynewulf's Elene, she shows how both Bede and Cynewulf explore the supersession of the Jewish tradition by the Christian one in spatial ways. Both texts explore the familiar antisemitic claims about supersession: the carnal Jewish letter is dead and meaningless in the face of the living Christian spirit of truth, and as a result, Jews are materialistic as well as incapable of textual interpretation. However, through associating Jews with the sepulchre and by honouring the materialism of Solomon's Temple (in the case of Bede) and the True Cross (in the case of Cynewulf), these authors reveal a Christian fascination with and envy of Jewish materialism.

In the second chapter, "Medieval Urban Noir," Lavezzo turns to texts composed after the Conquest and prior to the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290. Lavezzo examines a number of texts that imagine Jewish houses and synagogues as dangerous places in which Jews defy Christian ritual, re-enact Christ's crucifixion, and generally wage war against Christianity. She focuses especially on Thomas of Monmouth's Life of St. William of Norwich, the text that put the boy-martyr libel in written form for the first time in the medieval West and itself likely contributed to horrific acts of English violence against Jews. She argues that Thomas's text expresses his own fear of the disruptive and disorderly effects of commerce in urban spaces. By ascribing inhospitableness to Jews, Thomas explores how urban spaces also enabled Christian abuses of other Christians.

In her next chapter, Lavezzo reads Chaucer's Prioress's Tale as a discussion of the ways in which urban capital yokes Christian and Jewish cultures together. Through an examination of the way in which the Prioress maps out her Tale as well as maps of the once-Jewish areas of Chaucer's London (a city in which one could easily walk between Jewish and Christian areas just as the little clergeon does in the Tale), Lavezzo makes a compelling case that the Tale is highly critical of Christianity and its relationship to market forces. With its emphasis on the latrine, the Tale unites Jews, filth, and lending; however, by placing the narrative within the context of the Tales, Chaucer destabilizes the antisemitic fantasy that places the evils of usury solely on the Jews. The Tale places the latrine alongside and in conflict with the commercial flows of the city, revealing a complex relationship with England's emerging mercantile culture.

The Croxton Play of the Sacrament, the focus of her fourth chapter, likewise interrogates the moral complexities of life under capital through the figure of the accommodated Jew. By staging mercantilism within the space of both Christian and Jewish houses, the play portrays both spaces as equally dangerous. In doing so, according to Lavezzo, the play self-consciously reveals how the figure of "the Jew" enables broader discussions about the nature of urban life. Much of this chapter is spent conjecturing about a possible performance of the play in Bury's Great Market; though I personally found this aspect of the chapter to be overly speculative, her reading of the play within the context of fifteenth-century mercantile culture remains convincing.

In her fifth chapter, Lavezzo argues that the instability of space in Marlowe's Jew of Malta--marked partly by the fact that Malta, like England, was presumed to be free of Jews--reveals the destabilizing effects of greed, commerce, and materialism. Through attention to records of a converso community in London as well as the theatrical and commercial spaces associated with the play's historical performance, Lavezzo argues that Barabas's counting house, which at first seems to localize him as the greedy Jewish other, proves to be a porous space where the Jew's goods and profession pool and disperse. As she argues, "by the end of the play virtually every locale it stages emerges as yet another version of the Jew's counting house" (177).

With the final chapter, Lavezzo turns to debates about Jewish readmission. She reads Milton's closet drama, Samson Agonistes, as an indirect statement of his opposition to Jewish readmission to England. She places the play in the context of Cromwell's Whitehall Conference during which participants debated readmitting Jews into England and shows how Milton himself likely lived in close proximity to Jewish communities. In this play, the Philistines in their commitment to materialism represent the Jews. When Samson destroys the temple at the end of the play and eradicates the Jews--both the Philistines and Samson himself--Milton reveals his own demonization of Jews and his belief that they should continue to be exiled from England.

Finally, in a coda, Lavezzo looks at Charles Dickens' use of the figure of the accommodated Jew, particularly Fagin in Oliver Twist, in order to show how the Jewish and the urban had become inseparable in the English literary canon. However, by briefly considering the letters between Dickens and the Jewish couple who purchased his London home, Lavezzo ends her book on a hopeful note, showing how one Jewish home became a site of a Jewish-Christian fellowship that positively shaped Dickens' literary writing.

The Accommodated Jew is impressive in its erudition, moving skillfully across literary periods, genres, and disciplines in surprising and evocative ways. Far from presenting a simplistic narrative of change over time, Lavezzo brilliantly reveals the ways in which English antisemitic narratives--despite their frequent depth, complexity and political engagement--have proven to be disturbingly constant. My only criticisms of the book are that I found some of Lavezzo's discussions of physical locations to be a bit overly conjectural and, since her audience is likely to be a wide range of readers from different disciplines and specializations, additional plot summaries would have been helpful to many readers. Overall, this book is an exceptional work of scholarship that challenges our understandings of both antisemitism and emergent English nationalism. It deserves to be widely read by medieval and early modern historians and literary scholars.

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