19.11.16 Soifer Irish, Jews and Christians in Medieval Castile

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Thomas W. Barton

The Medieval Review 19.11.16

Soifer Irish, Maya. Jews and Christians in Medieval Castile: Tradition, Coexistence, and Change. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2016. pp. xviii, 308 + 3 maps. ISBN: 978-0-8132-2865-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Thomas Barton
University of San Diego

One of history's notable ironies is that the kingdom of Castile, arguably one of the "winners," has retained so few of its medieval administrative records compared with other regimes that ended up faring less well, such as the Crown of Aragon. These circumstances help explain why Castile's historiography on medieval ethno-religious relations and administration is comparatively underdeveloped and why this brilliant debut study by Maya Soifer Irish was such a brave choice and is so overdue and important. These limitations in the source base prevent Soifer Irish from answering definitively certain questions, concerning which historians of the Crown of Aragon and other better-evidenced environments have been able to develop more finely grained responses, but, on the flip side, allow her to engage in intertwined series of masterful problem-solving exercises. These maneuvers enable her to develop a remarkably comprehensive assessment of the trajectory of Jewish-Christian relations and administrative patterns that far surpasses (in its completeness and conclusiveness) anything yet written. At the same time, the manageable size of the pool of evidence permits Soifer Irish to paint a broad picture of Castile's Jewry that is contextualized within (and contrasted with) other better-known case studies while, at the same time, engaging with and presenting convincing answers to the most pressing questions regarding Jewish status and royal authority.

Jews and Christians in Medieval Castile is therefore much more than simply a book on Jewish history, and its ability to wear a number of hats will make it essential reading for a wide range of sub-fields. Methodologically, it represents a significant turning-point in the historiography of medieval Castile because, like other recent studies such as Elka Klein's path-breaking monograph on Barcelona or Mark Meyerson's magisterial two books on Morvedre and Valencia, it merges a mastery of the texts and secondary literature on Castilian, Iberian, and European history with a profound expertise in the history of governance. Indeed, Soifer Irish's training as a student of William Jordan and mentee of Teofilo Ruiz (in the tradition of Joseph Strayer) is clearly evident in her nuanced handling of the complex administrative documents.

Early on, in the introduction and first chapter, Soifer Irish signals to the reader that the book will be as much about the waxing and waning of royal authority and its interrelationship with the agency of powerful constituencies, most notably ecclesiastics and urban elites, as about Jews per se. Chapter 1 profiles the monarchy's evolving relationship with its Jewish subjects, which, although intertwined with or parallel to, in some ways, what historians have observed in other kingdoms, was distinctive in some critical respects. The two major arguments advanced here and developed in subsequent chapters that will be of interest to many historians are, first, that the service relationship of Castilian Jews cultivated by the kings of Castile from the later eleventh century was home-grown (as opposed to adapted from Islamic models) in northern Castile (rather than along the frontier lands) and, second, that the origins of this Jewish-Christian coexistence lay in northern Castile (and León) and were thus removed to a certain degree from the efforts to conquer lands from the Muslims to the south that have so preoccupied prior scholarship. In support of these arguments, Soifer Irish's delicate analysis profiles the emerging entitlement to the persons and property of the Jews as the monarchs' special "servants," breathing life into the laconic privileges known as fueros that were issued by successive kings and then repackaged and redeployed in complex ways. This chapter serves as an appropriate precursor to the rest of the study, which illustrates how the legal status of Jews and the administrative and service relationships established by these diverse foral foundations became repeated sources of tension in the negotiations among the monarchy, Christian urban communities (embodied by their concejos), and their Jewish inhabitants that took place largely during meetings of the royal court (known as the cortes). One of the most notable achievements of this book (and its central objective) is exploring how the "triangular relationship" (237) between these groups fostered the development of an increasingly severe anti-Jewish discourse that eventually, by the later fourteenth century, threatened the very presence of Jewish communities within Castilian society.

The path of this exploration over the next seven chapters, like the growth of this discourse itself, is multi-layered and full of unexpected twists and turns. Chapter 2 directs its attention at the social context of the Jews' settlement and integration within the modestly sized towns and cities that were situated along northern Castile's major artery, the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela. Just as this Jewish migration, which was welcomed and protected by successive Castilian monarchs, paralleled the influx of Christian settlers, so too these Jews similarly developed diversified economic pursuits, serving as traders, small-scale agriculturalists, moneylenders, and artisans. Although the city of Burgos stood as the major cultural and administrative center in the region, a significant subset of the Jewish population resided in semi-urban environments.

The next three chapters form part 2 of the study, which is dedicated to examining the role played by the church in shaping the existences of Castilian Jewish individuals and communities. The primary accomplishments of this part are two-fold. First, Soifer Irish joins a chorus of other recent scholarship (by Robin Vose, Harvey Hames, and Alex Novikoff, among others) to question the assumption that the Castilian church sought to dismantle pluralism by converting resident Jews (and Muslims). Although individual, prominent church leaders participated in the formation and deployment of an anti-Jewish discourse, Castile's ecclesiastical leadership's receipt of considerable rights to lordship over Jewish communities (including their tax revenues) encouraged them to be pragmatic and remain supportive to the Augustinian tradition of protecting Jewish life and worship (and the model case here utilized by Soifer Irish that has been explored so revealingly by Lucy Pick is Archbishop Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada of Toledo). Building on Peter Linehan's still unsurpassed assessment of the thirteenth-century Castilian church, Soifer Irish distinguishes the more aggressive papal agenda, expressed at legatine councils, that sought to impose disruptive limitations on coexistence from the laissez-faire tendencies of the Castilian ecclesiastical establishment, expressed in local church synods and diocesan councils. Here, too, she enriches her analysis by showing how shifts in royal policy-making regarding the Jews and, accordingly, the tactics of non-royal constituencies were heavily conditioned by economic and political developments within the kingdom. She exposes, for instance, a fascinating domino effect caused by the downturn in Castile's economy in the latter half of the thirteenth century, during the reign of Alfonso X: decreased royal incomes combined with his expensive projects prompted Alfonso to ratchet back donations of Jewish taxes to prelates and extort greater revenues from Jewish communities, which, in turn, increased the churches' reliance on tithes paid by Jews and the reliance of ecclesiastical institutions and individual churchmen on Jewish credit. Apart from its ingrained passivity and tendency for pragmatism, the Castilian Church's reliance, at every level of its hierarchy, on Jewish credit during this phase of difficult economic turmoil helps to account for its accommodation of Jewish lending. When ecclesiastics did ultimately adopt harder stances against Jewish usury, it was more in self-interested resistance to the pursuit of old debts by royal collectors (entregadores) than out of any fidelity to ideological principles (as was also the case with the concejos, as Soifer Irish shows later in chapter 7). Throughout part 2, and especially with her case-study on the bishopric of Palencia that comprises chapter 5, Soifer Irish's ability to operate simultaneously as an economic, political, ecclesiastical, and Jewish historian enables her to reconstruct and evaluate the complex, often causal interrelationships between seemingly disconnected phenomena.

In the third and final part, which I found to be the most creative and free-form section of the book, Soifer Irish weaves together the different strands of the previous chapters to explain why and how Castile developed an anti-Jewish discourse. Chapter 6 manifested impressive handling of sophisticated primary and secondary sources on Jewish theological and communal history (reminiscent of Elka Klein's work on Barcelona). Although its title suggests otherwise ("The Jews of Castile at the End of the Reconquista (Post-1250): Cultural and Communal Life"), this chapter's major accomplishment is to show how the complex fracturing of Castilian Jewish communities over Maimonidean rationalism and the "revolutionary eschatology" equipped by Kabbalistic mysticism that notably prompted moral and religious reforms by R. Abulafia of Toledo in the 1280s was encouraged by Alfonso X and even amounted, in Soifer Irish's view, to "an extension of the Alfonsine reform project" (165). Chapter 7 focuses intently on the development of the royal Jewish policy and begins to illustrate the central role played by the Crown in paving the way for the anti-Jewish discourse that took shape in the cortes. Alfonso X's tardy implementation of papal norms to impose social barriers between the Jewish and Christian communities, combined with his excessive tax demands from Jews (driving them further into money-lending) and aggressive pursuit of debts to Jews using royal entregadores and judges, fanned the flames of resentment and hostility towards the Jews amongst theconcejos. As Soifer Irish explains clearly in Chapter 8 through her careful rereading of both the cortes legislation and the booklets (cuadernos) that provide a perspective on the genesis of the petitions lodged by the concejos, the messages broadcast and circumstances generated by the Crown's policy-making fed the growth of an anti-Jewish discourse, especially when, for instance, Enrique II de Trastámara disingenuously commandeered this discourse in his successful bid to secure control of the Castilian throne during the civil war of the 1360s. Paralleling what chapter 4 had illustrated with the Church, here in chapter 8 she is able to show plainly how the concejos objected not to Jewish lending per se (because they wanted this vital access to Jewish credit) as much as to royal (as opposed to local) management of unpaid debts, Jews in inappropriate positions of authority, and Jewish landownership. Her re-envisioning of the dynamics at the cortes, which far exceeds previous scholarship in its creativity and sophistication, shows how Castile's anti-Jewish discourse emerged as a product of negotiation and collaboration between the procurators of the concejosand the king and his officials. Soifer Irish is also able to use, cleverly, circumstantial evidence to demonstrate that representatives of the targeted Jewish communities were present at these sessions and sought, with mixed success, to invest themselves with sufficient agency to nudge the trajectory of the proceedings in a less harmful direction.

It is only natural that a book as richly textured and complex as Jews and Christians in Medieval Castile would inspire some lingering questions, only a subset of which I have room to identify here. First, regarding Soifer Irish's contention that the coexistence developed in Castile was home-grown, is it possible that those early fuero-granting monarchs were influenced by models in place elsewhere? Even if they did not implement these measures along the frontier, does this necessarily signify that the process was so hermetically sealed? Second, given numerous clear instances where the monarchy was bound to respect and adapt to the guidelines established by previous royal privileges, what was the collective real-world impact of these limitations on the Crown's claimed absolute authority over the Jews? Third, considering Soifer Irish's contention that there were theological and sacramental dimensions to the anti-Jewish petitions lodged at the cortes, to what extent does this case represent a deployment of the resolutions regarding Jewish status that have been examined by recent work on race and racism, such as M. Lindsay Kaplan's enlighteningFiguring Racism in Medieval Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2019)? It would also be interesting to consider Soifer Irish's observations on the phenomenon of Jewish lending and its regulation by the Crown in light of Julie Mell's recent The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender, 2 vols. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Finally, readers might find themselves wondering how this anti-Jewish discourse helped engender the violent pogroms that began in Seville in 1391, and why were they apparently fomented by a man (Ferrán Martínez) who was not formally affiliated with the concejos. Soifer Irish foreshadows very briefly her thinking regarding this last quandary at several points in the book as well as in her conclusion and has already begun to publish articles and present papers on a line of research that will culminate in a monograph devoted to the roots of this outbreak. If that second book can come close to the quality of this debut study, it will be well worth the wait.

In conclusion, as a historian who has long struggled to understand fragmentary and seemingly contradictory administrative records within the context of the Crown of Aragon, I frankly found myself dumbfounded, at times, at Soifer Irish's keen ability to discover patterns and fashion sophisticated arguments with much more limited and problematic evidence than I have ever had to contend with. Apart from representing a major advance in our understanding of medieval Castilian history (which naturally plays such key roles within Iberian, European, Mediterranean, and world history), Soifer Irish's finely crafted study should also serve as a model of research, interpretation, and writing for students and seasoned historians alike.

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