Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.08.28 Einbinder, After the Black Death

19.08.28 Einbinder, After the Black Death

The medieval plague was often portrayed as the pretext for anti-Jewish violence, and Jews were blamed for causing the plague by poisoning wells, infecting Christians in various places across Europe. In this study, Susan L. Einbinder paints a detailed portrait of Jewish communities and individuals in Iberia and Southern France in the fourteenth century, convincingly showing that there were important differences between the experiences and treatment of Jews in the various towns and regions, and that these differences make universal statements about the plague and the Jews untenable. Einbinder's previous monographs, Beautiful Death (Princeton 2002) and No Place of Rest (Penn 2009) explored how the literature produced by the Jews of France reflected traumatic events through the lens of martyrdom and expulsion. After the Black Death shows how fourteenth-century Jewish thinkers--writers, rabbis and physicians--responded to the plague and the anti-Jewish violence it sparked in Iberia and Southern France. Einbinder makes a compelling argument that contemporary trauma theory, with its focus on individual experience and responses and the idea of the inexpressibility of trauma, is less than adequate for examining premodern trauma and communal violence such as that experienced by Jews in Iberia and Southern France in the fourteenth century. Einbinder brings into dialogue a variety of voices and texts--from medical treatises to tombstones--to piece together the various responses that members of the Jewish communities of Iberia and France had to both the plague and to the anti-Jewish violence it caused. The result is a nuanced and insightful study into fourteenth-century Jewish life and thought, in which the voices and testimonies of a host of individuals, about whom there has been little scholarly inquiry, frame their experiences of trauma and violence within a variety of available discourses. After the Black Death will be of much interest to scholars of Spanish/Iberian Studies, Medieval History, Crusade Studies, Jewish Studies, Medical History and Literary History.

In chapter one, Einbinder examines theories of trauma and its representation. Defining trauma as a reaction to violent or abnormal events (15), Einbinder questions to what extent human responses to trauma are universal, and how much they are shaped by cultural, temporal and geographic contingencies. The rest of the book presents Einbinder's evidence in support of the idea that the trauma of fourteenth-century plague and violence was experienced differently in different times and places, and that the various interpretive structures a community had with which individuals in that community identified played a definitive role in how that trauma and its impact was recorded and responded to. As a foil for the textual and archeological evidence about the Iberian Jewish responses to plague and Christian violence presented in chapters two through five, in chapter one Eindbinder offers liturgical and martyrological texts penned by Jews in Southern France in response to the early fourteenth-century Christian anti-Jewish violence known as the Pastoureaux/Shepherd's Crusade (echoing some of her earlier work covered in Beautiful Death and No Place of Rest).

In chapter two Einbinder turns to two textual responses to the later plague and Christian anti-Jewish violence that affected the Jewish communities of Aragon almost three decades after the Shepherd's Crusade. Both texts frame the trauma of contemporary Jews in the larger sufferings of Jews from biblical times to the present. The first text, a liturgical lament (qinah) by Emanuel ben Joseph that has received little critical attention, shows how the author uses the liturgical lament genre to place contemporary Aragonese/Catalan anti-Jewish violence within the larger arc of Jewish communal suffering. The second textual example is a marginal note scribbled in the margin of a manuscript copy of the Pentateuch, relating the eye-witness experiences of Dayas, a survivor of the attacks on the Jews of La Baume in Provence. Einbinder's careful close reading of these texts illuminates what information they reveal about particular events, as well as their omissions, and the formulaic nature of their discourse. These texts and the evidence presented in subsequent chapters support Einbinder's assertion that, "no traditional Jewish genre of commemoration, from fast-day liturgies to tombstone epitaphs...treats the plague as a catastrophe of previously unknown dimensions" (42).

In the third chapter Einbinder examines a plague treatise written by a Jewish physician, Abraham Caslari, who survived the plague and subsequently treated plague victims in Girona. The plague was not as intense there, and more people survived, leading Caslari to judge the plague a non-universal pestilential fever. Einbinder shows that in general Caslari stuck to a rational, scientific discourse in his explanation of the plague and its victims, avoiding the moral judgments found in other contemporary plague treatises, such as that of his contemporary, Jacme d'Agramant, who depicted the plague as a providential punishment. Einbinder looks to asides and comments Caslari makes in his plague treatise, as well to how he deploys a key biblical allusion, to develop the portrait of Caslari and his interpretation of the plague and its significance, arguing that he did not view it as unique, but rather as one of a type, another of the tribulations faced by the Jews. In his treatise, Caslari has only a few telling allusions to contemporary events--using a biblical allusion in Deuteronomy describing the Israelites' brutal conquest of Canaan to refer to "the geography of destruction wrought by the plague to that subtended by attacks against Jews" (80).

The fourth chapter examines how plague is depicted in the epigraphs recorded on the tombstones of the Jews of Toledo. Einbinder notes that, unlike in other parts of Europe where plague victims were often interred in communal graves, the Hebrew inscriptions on fourteenth-century tombstones in Toledo (surviving in some cases in museums and other buildings in Toledo, as well as in the copy of the epigraphs made by an anonymous sixteenth-century traveler) show that this was not the case in Toledo, where several important members of the community that fell to plague between 1343-1362 were buried in their family plots and received individualized headstones. The appendix to After the Black Death includes English translations of the 67 Hebrew epigraphs from the Toledo tombstones, and the reader can consult the complete epigraphs there. The language used to depict the plague relates it to biblical plagues and portrays its victims as among the best and brightest of the community. Einbinder finds little evidence for anti-Jewish violence in the epitaphs of Jewish victims of the plague from Toledo in the years 1349-50. "Significantly, none of these epitaphs refers to anti-Jewish violence as a compounding cause of death--a sharp contrast to the situation in Provence, Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia, and central Europe" (89). Einbinder suggests that the lack of a university culture and the role of Jews as physicians and intellectuals in the highest social circles and the court may explain this. The epigraphs, though, do show that the Jewish elite found existing elegiac poetry and norms sufficient to honor the dead: "it is striking how little the existing conventions required emendation in the face of that event [the plague]. A youth's untimely death was routinely described in terms of a truncated scholarly trajectory and wisdom beyond his years, and his loss in terms of his parents' suffering. Likewise, all dead children turn out to have been their parents' favorites." (96)

Chapter five, "Bones and Poems," is about real bones. In this chapter Einbinder does a wonderful job of weaving material evidence together with historical and literary accounts to underscore how violent Christian attacks on Jews were, and to examine the legacy of such violence among the Christian perpetrators. Einbinder builds upon Josep Muntané's work on the documents (royal and chancery records), providing background for the 1348 attack of the Jewish community of Tàrrega, using also the account of Hayim Galipapa, and, most importantly, the archeological remains of victims discovered at Les Roquetes in 2007. The bones of some 150 people buried in 6 communal graves in what was the medieval Jewish cemetery of Tàrrega (and among the objects found with them was a ring with a Hebrew inscription) reveal what Einbinder calls "lethal trauma," including blows to the heads, legs and arms. Some of the blows were made by swords, belying contemporary claims that the perpetrators of the attacks were poor outsiders, pointing instead to the local magistrates such as the mayor, Francesc Aguiló. The evidence comes from 69 individuals, 32% of whom were under the age of 20. Some of the communal graves seem to be secondary graves--indicating the bodies were reburied--and all are unusual. The king built gallows outside of town and forced the town to pay for repairs to the Jewish quarter: the city's Christians were humiliated, and may have taken it out on the Jews' bodies, as well as destroying the town records--a reminder of their role in the violence. Einbinder has found poems by a survivor of the Tàrrega massacre, Moses Nathan, who composed a proverb and a liturgical poem that alludes to the 1348 attack documented in the royal records and bodies of its victims.

In After the Black Death, Einbinder brings various forms of evidence--literary, archeological, chancery and liturgical--to explore how the experience of Jewish witnesses and victims of plague and related anti-Jewish violence in fourteenth-century Aragón and Catalonia were recorded and commemorated, and how in some cases there were attempts to silence their experiences. The evidence shows that the various Jewish communities of Iberia and their members found viable means of responding to plague and anti-Jewish violence in the traditional forms of communal expression, especially by locating this violence in the narratives of violence and suffering found in liturgical laments and in biblical allusions and exegesis. The evidence also shows that the number of plague deaths and the level of anti-Jewish violence varied between regions and towns in Southern France and Iberia. Einbinder's observations on the limitations of contemporary trauma theories for premodern subjects is particularly relevant and helps to problematize the sometimes universalizing claims of this strand of contemporary theory. Einbinder's carefully documented case studies in trauma and its expression should be taken into account in any claims made about the ways in which humans respond to violence and loss, for they show that such responses are contingent upon place, time, and discrete social realities and not universal.