18.05.19, Nisse, Jacob's Shipwreck

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Charlotte Newman Goldy

The Medieval Review 18.05.19

Nisse, Ruth. Jacob's Shipwreck Diaspora, Translation, and Jewish-Christian Relations in Medieval England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017. pp. xi, 235. ISBN: 978-150-170-3072 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Charlotte Newman Goldy
Miami University

Jacob's Shipwreck is an important contribution to our understanding of Latin Christendom as home to both Christians and Jews. Examining a group of post-biblical Jewish texts that scholars of both religions translated, adapted and eventually anthologized during the Central Middle Ages, Ruth Nisse deepens our understanding and stimulates new questions. The already broad subtitle--Jewish and Christian views of the Jewish diaspora, the various definitions of translation illustrated by these texts, and the changing quality of Christian-Jewish interactions--does not reflect the book's richness. Nisse also places the texts in particular political moments, addressing the written cultural trends in historiography, romance, and science, and identity formation by members of both religions. Her discussion especially demonstrates how some northern Jewish scholars were part of the renovatio of pan-European culture, highlighting subtle indications of Jewish acculturation in works reiterating their differences. While this is a densely argued work, the actual text is only 153 pages. The vast array of scholarship obvious in the sixty-five pages of notes and bibliography will interest medievalists of many disciplines.

Nisse's focus is England during the long twelfth century and the settlement of Anglo-Jews (from sometime after 1066 to 1290). Most of the writers come from the period of Henry II (1154-1189) through Henry III (1216-1272), taking the community through its greatest growth and protection, and the reversal of those conditions. The parameters of "England" are fluid as were cultural boundaries. While texts are located in the territory politically connected to England during the Norman and Angevin periods, Nisse uses these manuscripts to demonstrate that scholars of both religions (and their works) traveled and were part of the wider cultural world of medieval Europe. Her detailing of the history of these texts makes connections between Rome, Byzantium, Carolingians, and the Italian peninsula, particularly in relation to questions of empire and the meaning of the diaspora. These sections will be of interest to medievalists when teaching the long span of history or culture. Eventually each chapter focuses on written cultures in the Isles. Studying Anglo-Jewry presents both opportunities and challenges. Royal records have left us a relatively large amount of information about the small Anglo-Jewish community but we have fewer direct Jewish sources, including what manuscripts were available to them. This inevitably leads to assumptions about the location of writers or manuscripts with which some readers may disagree, but all will find the discussion of cultural and personal interactions thought-provoking.

Nisse chose which texts to examine for multiple reasons. All are post-biblical "apocryphal" literature, translated and adapted into Hebrew or Latin during the central Middles Ages. Some also became points of contention. All demonstrate "the dynamics of appropriation, [as] authors claim to recover a text from the other religious group and then identify its origins as part of a larger imaginative narrative about history and language" (3). Since the "true meaning" of scriptural texts had been contested since early Christianity and become part of disputations (actual or literary), there is a long scholarly tradition of studying them to understand the disintegration of Christian views of Jews. These post-scriptural texts have only been studied individually, but Nisse makes unique observations by putting them together. She demonstrates how less canonical texts displayed many of the same attitudes found in disputations, but also fit the revival or creation of new genres of writing.

The focus of chapter 1 is two texts based on Josephus' first-century Greek works about the destruction of the Second Temple. The Christian text, Hegisippus, was a fourth-century Patristic Latin version that combined Josephus' two historical works with 2 Maccabees, and was prized for a reference taken to be Jesus. Its popularity in twelfth-century England was part of the interest in historical writing, especially using the patristic link of Christianity to the Roman Empire, and implying that the newer Angevin Empire was its descendent. The Jewish text, Sefer Yossipon, was a free translation of parts of Hegisippus written in Hebrew, probably mid-tenth century (another period of empire) in the Italian peninsula. It gained popularity among European Jews after the 1096 massacres in the Rhine generated Jewish martyrdom literature and increased apprehensions about living in the diaspora. There were at least three more recensions, the last in a twelfth-century anthology. By 1190, the parallels between Masada and York gave both works resonance for Jews and Christians (such as William of Newburgh) in England. According to historian and social commentator Gerald of Wales, Robert of Cricklade of St. Frideswide, Oxford, was first to recognize that Jews had a text parallel to Hegisippus but with no reference to Jesus. Robert confronted Oxford's Jews, claiming they had "erased" Jesus from history. Nisse points out that Gerald was elaborating the trope that Jews are falsifiers, but goes further, tying his criticism to other current issues. On one level, he may be entering the fray over the revived popularity of Hebraica Veritas that led the Victorines to interact more with Jews. At same time, Gerald uses the Temple story to link Angevins with the Roman Empire, as England planned to launch the Third Crusade to recover Jerusalem from Salah ad-Din. Nisse argues that the popularity of the Sefer Yossipon was an attempt to reappropriate both their history and language, but that it "resembles... 'chivalric historical fantasy' seen in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain" (46). She is not arguing that the Jews read Geoffrey but rather that it is an example of how they shared the ethos and preferences of the time. This chapter is the longest and densest in the book but touches on a multitude of themes. I cannot do justice to the wealth of scholarship brought together and insights provided in the discussion.

Chapter 2 turns to the renewed popularity of the Aeneid and its story of Rome's founding. Multiple versions were written in newer genres and various vernaculars, including the Anglo-Norman Roman d'Enéas. Geoffrey of Monmouth clearly connected the story to England's founding by Brutus in The History of the Kings of Britain. The entry for Anglo-Jews was a brief version of the story in the Sefer Yossipon. For twelfth-century Anglo-Jews, Nisse argues, "the Hebrew text undermines the basis of Rome and the linear ideal of European 'translations of empire' through diasporic geography and the fictional recovery of a 'lost' Rome in Jewish texts" (15). It is "a subversive geneology" (17) of Empire, at the moment that the new Edomites, the Angevins, are building upon imperial legacies. This also is an appropriation of the story because the Hebrew recension erases Troy. Aeneas/Agneus is a North African who returns there with his Latin wife and son, transforming the story from a Roman/Edomite triumph into one of the Jewish diaspora. She also argues that Anglo-Jews embraced the historical fictional literature of the Christians. Most scholars of northern European Jewish culture use the rabbinic exhortations that Jews avoid secular literature as a contrast to the intercultural opportunities and interests of southern European Jews. Nisse makes a convincing argument that in the creative, multicultural and multilingual twelfth century, Anglo-Jews used extra-biblical literature creatively and to participate in its culture.

Nisse particularly develops the theme of Jewish-Christian cultural interaction in England the chapter about two twelfth-century Hebrew texts translated from Latin and French, and adapted by Berekhiah ha-Nakdan, "a prolific Anglo-Norman rabbinic scholar" (75). The first is a translation of Adelard of Bath's Latin Natural Questions into the Hebrew Uncle and Nephew. The adaptation reflect the author's theological differences but also a wide knowledge of philosophy and science. One point of disagreement is over whether animals have souls. Here language itself is key, as Berekhiah uses Abraham ibn Ezra's discussion of two Hebrew words for soul to distinguish between animals and humans. Nisse presents Berekhiah's interplay of language as an example of conflict experienced by diaspora Jews who viewed Latin as the oppressor language needing mediation and purification, but had an interest in it, and probably some intellectual interaction with it. In the 1190s, Berekhiah wrote another cross-cultural work, Fox Fables. In his prologue, he says he drew on fables from all languages, and scholars have identified classical Aesop, French texts including Marie de France's Fables, and Hebrew ones from the Talmud. While he often relates the translator's need to purify them, Berekhiah displayed a sophisticated knowledge of linguistic subtleties, genre, and content. In the decades between these two works, however, Anglo-Jews experienced the first signs of problems in their relationship to the king. Richard I's 1189 coronation was the scene of the first major violence against Jews, which continued after Richard left on Crusade, culminating in massacres and the mass suicide in York. Nisse characterizes Berekhiah's prologue as a prophetic exhortation towards the Jews, saying they not only had failed to recognize their king was not a friend but had collaborated with him, and warning that the wheel of fortune was about to turn (91). Nisse also argues that Berekhiah "translates" the meaning of the Talmudic fable of the fox and fish. Told by Rabbi Akiva to explain why he was willing to die at the hands of the Romans, Berekhiah tells it as "a tale of hypocrisy," highlighting the trope of Jewish infighting (97). In doing so, Berekhiah rejects the praise of martyrdom in a growing body of Hebrew literature.

Berekhiah ha-Nakdan's story illustrates the above-mentioned opportunities and challenges we face when examining Jewish life in England. Nisse recognizes that Berekhiah is associated with the Anglo-Norman world celebrated by his son Elijah in 1233 Rouen. We know Berekhiah was in Provence, the center of the translation enterprise among the Jews of Latin Christendom. For nearly a century, scholars have disagreed about when and where he was in England. Cecil Roth was criticized for identifying him as the Oxford Anglo-Jew "Benedict le Puinter" who contributed to the Northampton Donum to ransom Richard I. "Le Puinter" is a French translation of "ha-Nakdan," a Hebrew word for pointer but applied to someone who understands the vast subtleties of Hebrew. I find Nisse's arguments persuasive even if he was only in England later in life. The epithet was regularly applied to Berekhiah, who demonstrated that quality in all his rabbinic commentaries and the ones discussed here. As she enumerates, Oxford puts him in proximity to various Latin texts and explains his understanding of English references in Adelard. It places him near Alexander Neckham who also wrote on science, fables, and may have consulted Jewish scholars. There are parallels with Abraham ibn Ezra's multilingual skills and interests. It is possible Berekhiah met and was influenced by the exiled Sephardic scholar in Provence and then again in England. Alternatively, even a provincial Anglo-Jew could have shared a wide love of intercultural exchange, and sought it by going to Provence. Nisse's internal evidence and logic has me convinced.

The last two chapters move into the thirteenth century, when royal and clerical attacks increased to create a real decline in security and quality of life for Anglo-Jews. The texts examined are both Christian appropriations of Greek texts written by Egyptian Jews in the first or second century. The first is Joseph and Aseneth, an elaborate and romantic version of the patriarch Joseph's marriage to an Egyptian woman and success in the Pharaoh's government in this earliest diaspora. This was a text with a rare happy ending, but it tapped into anxiety about conversion following 1096, and medieval rabbis turned Aseneth into a Jewish exile with no need to convert. In the late twelfth century, someone (probably at Canterbury) translated the earlier Greek text to Latin. Its attraction for Christians may have been the popularity of romance and chansons de geste, but placed within an anthology of apocrypha it also added to a refiguring of the Jewish role in history. In the thirteenth century, Henry III supported Franciscan efforts to encourage Jewish conversion and created the Domus Conversorum to house them. As elsewhere in Europe, conversion efforts raised anxiety about its impact, especially on women. Aseneth's story inverts the fear into prefiguration, echoing Mary Magdalen's conversion to Christianity through chaste love for Jesus.

The other Hellenic Greek text discussed is Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which--Nisse argues--demonstrates appropriation related to anxieties about Jews being a secret enemy of Christians, and Christian anticipation of the apocalypse. Nisse draws the title of the book, Jacob's Shipwreck, and its opening passages from the "Testament of Napthali" in which Jacob and his sons are shipwrecked. In the Jewish text, the cause and result are traditionally Jewish. The shipwreck occurred because the brothers argued among themselves resulting in their scattering (the diaspora), and can only come together when they reconcile. The Christian version has a Christological ending, when Levi (the priest) prays and saves all of them. Chapter 5 turns to the full text, translated by Robert Grosseteste at Oxford in 1242, the same year of the Talmud trials in Paris, which once again raised fears of Jewish conspiracy as well as eschatological fears surrounding the Mongol (said to be the Lost Tribes) invasion. The reception of Grosseteste's book was good, and Matthew Paris designated it "as genuine Hebrew prophecy" (144) and an opportunity to understand God's message missed by the Jews.

Nisse's conclusion pulls together the multiple themes of the book but two fourteenth-century works return us directly to the ownership and meaning of language. The Travels of John Mandeville continued to undermine the idea of Hebrew Veritas, turning it into a diasporic language used to facilitate the international anti-Christian conspiracy, while Eleazar's Book of Memory credits Hebrew with providing "memory, consolation, and the pleasure of resisting and absorbing the worldview of other nations" (153). It is not possible to give the reader more than a taste of the richness of this book but it deserves to be read by scholars of history, religion, language, and literature.

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