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22.02.20 Boyarin, The Christian Jew and the Unmarked Jewess

22.02.20 Boyarin, The Christian Jew and the Unmarked Jewess

In the long, complex, and disturbing history of racism, Jews occupy a unique place. Dominant analyses of racism often stress how it involves fantasies about unbridgeable lines of difference that bar certain social groups from full access to the liberties, powers and eschatological trajectory accorded whites. In the case of medieval England, the most obvious example of such a concept of racial alterity emerges in the alignment of a Christian versus non-Christian opposition with a white-black color polarity, a pattern that was elaborated to construe a host of discernible physical characteristics--above all, skin color--to a host of essential or unchanging attributes, both mental and physical. As important work by such critics as Anthony Bale, Ruth Nisse, Lindsay Kaplan, Lisa Lampert-Weissig, and Suzanne Akbari has made clear, Jews have a complicated and telling relationship to such practices of racial othering. As Bale and Lampert have shown, partly due to the centering of late medieval English affective piety on Christ’s persecution, the English (and many Christians even today) imagine all Jews as Christ-killers who share in the crucifixion. And as Kaplan reveals, moreover, the medieval English adumbrated subsequent racisms in their denigration of contemporary Jews as slaves and their association of Jews with distinctive skin tones.

But at the same time, efforts in medieval England to draw firm lines of difference between Christians and Jews faced certain obstacles. In theological terms, Jews are yoked to Christians through such factors as Jesus’s Jewishness and Christianity’s basis in Judaism. Scholarship by Lampert-Weissig on gender and Jewishness as well as work by Jill Robbins on typology has engaged these complexities. What remains underexamined, until now, is what Adrienne Boyarin describes as “the possibility of real or performed visible similarity” between Christians and Jews (1). Her groundbreaking book highlights how in medieval England--particularly during the period prior to the expulsion when Jews lived within the archipelago--Christians understood Jews not just in terms of their differences from but also their similarities to each other. In a searching account of what Boyarin terms “a polemics of sameness,” The Christian Jew and the Unmarked Jewess shows how “medieval Christian writers and artists frequently sought to reveal, manipulate, and cope with the problematic sameness of Christians and Jews” (1). In other words, Boyarin reveals how English authorities seized upon their similitude to Jews and strove to deploy it as a means of codifying Christian authority and power.

Boyarin offers an important intervention in the usual account of antisemitic literary history in medieval England. The received understanding of medieval English texts, recounted in crucial works by Steven Kruger, Sylvia Tomasch, and others, emphasizes the virtual, imaginary, or spectral nature of the Jewishness they depict and the bourgeoning of such images precisely when Jews had officially been forced out of the archipelago. Inverting this dynamic, Boyarin looks at such works from the pre-Expulsion period as the Ormulumand the Legend of Adam of Bristol to reframe that literary history by showcasing moments where, instead of conjuring a purely imaginary Jewish presence, “the historical, representational and exemplary overlap so thoroughly that contrast and absence are insufficient frames of analysis” (2). In other words, the blurring tracked by Boyarin is a matter of the opposition of not just Christian and Jew but also of fact and fiction.

Still another intervention made by Boyarin concerns received understandings of gender and the image of Jews in medieval Christian culture. As Boyarin observes, many critics highlight how Christian texts identify the Jewess with a notably unstable Jewishness; in particular, scholars such as Kaplan stress how the femininity of a Jewish woman renders her not quite Jewish and indeed difficult to apprehend as a Jew. Namely, thanks to her female pliability, the Jewess is particularly susceptible to Christian conversion. Boyarin contends that an analysis of Christian discourses of sameness puts the Jewess into sight with clearer lines, revealing how “a Christian desire to be the correct(ed) Jew--not just to supersede but to absorb or become the Jew--finds its focus in the figure of the Jewess” (8).

The book is divided into two parts. Part One defines and elaborates what a polemic of sameness entails in medieval English texts from a host of genres including devotional poetry, chronicle, sermons, and legal records. It begins with two examples of what Boyarin calls historiae. The first involves a Northampton Jewish man named Sampson, whose criminal case is recorded in a 1277 memoranda for the Exchequer of the Jews. As punishment for impersonating a Franciscan preacher, Sampson is sentenced to walking “naked through city streets with a flayed calf around his neck and the calf’s entrails in his hands” (15). Boyarin reads this punishment as a means of both shamefully confirming Sampson’s Jewishness and positioning Sampson within a Christian account of biblical history and redemption. A second historia involves several records concerning the discovery in 1230 of a recently or partially circumcised five-year old Norwich boy, who was found near the River Wensum in 1230. Boyarin highlights the obsessive examination and reexamination of the boy’s genitals, a process that “signals the weakness of the visual identifying markers of Christianness or Jewishness” and complements the uncertainty over identity witnessed by the boy himself (alternately called Jurnepin or Odard) and the Jewish and Christian groups who claimed him for their own (25).

Chapter One elaborates further on the manner in which Christians in high medieval England exploited Jewish-Christian indeterminacy for various ideological ends. Boyarin first returns to the examples of Sampson and Jurnepin/Odard, then considers Thomas of Monmouth’s libel about the ritual murder of William of Norwich. After putting depictions of Jewish-Christian similitude into productive conversation with Homi Bhabha’s idea of mimicry, Boyarin turns to the twelfth-century homilist Orrm, who “provide[s] the first explicit definition of the word ‘Jew’ in the English language” (38). As Boyarin well demonstrates, an abiding concern of Orrm’s c. 1180 sermon collection, the Orrmulum, is “persuading the laity to continue Jewish practice and follow Jewish law within a Christina spiritual rubric,” particularly through the example of the disciple Nathaniel (39). Orrm’s destabilization of the opposition of Jew and Christian is such that it “strains” his “anti-Jewish passages, almost to the point of semantic collapse” even as its notion of Christian superiority extends to the idea that “the best Christians are...also the greatest Jews” (48). The chapter ends with a look at what is perhaps “the earliest English ballad” (49), a mid-thirteenth-century poem about Judas Iscariot, whose portrayal of Pontius Pilate affirms how early English texts “invite meditation on how a non-Jew can be or become Jewish” (53).

In Chapter Two Boyarin returns to the Orrmulum to further demonstrate how attending to Jewish-Christian blurring in that sermon cycle uncovers its aims and organization, including how the harmonizing Orrm “is as preoccupied with ‘saming’ Hebrew scripture with the Gospels as he is with saming the four Gospels with each other” (60), and how Orrm’s notorious linguistic repetitions stem from discernible typological concerns. Boyarin’s important analysis reframes the significance of Orrm. Jettisoning the argument that Orrm may have been a convert, Boyarin stresses his Christianity, as evinced by his learned engagement with the “contemporary hermeneutics” of the twelfth-century Christian west (71). The remainder of the chapter discusses Jocelin of Brakelond’s account of Bury St. Edmunds Abbot, Sampson of Tottington (d. 1211). Not unlike Orrm, Jocelin exalts the Christian incorporation of ideal Jewishness: Abbot Sampson “not only opposes but also resembles and incorporates the” very Jewish community in Bury which he “seeks to expel and supersede” (79). Among Sampson’s Jewish qualities are his association with documents and his “large nose,” red beard and other “visual caricatures” of Jewishness (87).

The second part of Boyarin’s monograph centers on Anglo-Jewish women, whose depiction by “Anglo-Christian[s]...marks the epitome of polemical uses of sameness” (9). This second section is as eclectic in the textual genres it examines as the first part: legal tracts, hagiography, blood libel, and alliterative poetry are among the resources Boyarin analyzes. As with part one, this section opens with two historiae. First, Boyarin engages in an act of creative and speculative historicism to unpack the life of Alice of Worcester, a late thirteenth-century convert to Christianity, via two letters she wrote to Edward I. For Boyarin, Alice’s situation “at the interface of religions, languages and scholarly disciplines” presents a rubric to unpack the depictions of Anglo-Jewish women she will discuss in the remainder of her monograph (103). Boyarin’s second example is that of Jewess who passes as a Christian in the thirteenth-century ritual murder libel of Adam of Bristol. A “master of seeming Christianity” who is also “unrepentantly Jewish” (109), the woman serves as a means by which “stereotypes of femaleness are interacting with stereotypes of Jewishness” for a slew of Christian ends (110).

Chapter Three centers on the lives of Anglo-Jewish women. After rehearsing the obstacles standing in the way of uncovering these women’s experiences--above all, their appearance largely in Christian documents--Boyarin looks at the substantial presence of Jewish women in law courts. Records reveal the agency allotted women regarding marital relations, women’s immersion in “documentary and book culture,” and their skill in multiple languages (119). She then assesses evidence regarding the relationships between Christian and Jewish women. Drawing upon and complicating work by Elisheva Baumgarten and Hannah Meyer, Boyarin considers how “even within a system that was explicitly hostile to Jews,” relations of support and assistance could emerge in households where Jewish women employed Christian wet nurses, traded with Christian women, and engaged in other exchanges with Christian women (129). The chapter ends by considering the secrecy and uncertainty surrounding Anglo-Jewish women who converted to Christianity. Throughout the chapter, Boyarin uses the historical record to describe particular Anglo-Jewish women, such as Claricia and Juliana (two converts to Christianity), Dame Abigail of Kent and Comittissa of Gloucester.

Chapters Four and Five “turn to establishing a corpus of medieval Anglo-Christian texts” that portray Anglo-Jewish women (148). Instead of stressing the pliancy of the Jewish women portrayed in Christian texts, Boyarin contends, “we must read the Jewess for her sameness and look for her unmarking” (147). This project begins by bringing to light, in Chapter Four, the important role female characters have played in major Jewish libels, such as the Marian statue desecration libel told by Matthew Paris and the Jewish Boy, a widely-told myth about a Jewish boy attacked by his father for attending mass. Boyarin then engages in a helpful comparison of the Jewish Boy myth with subsequent boy martyr libels, making clear how, in the latter group of myths, “Christian mothers all behave like the Jewish mother” in Jewish Boy tales (159). Here, as elsewhere, a Christian investment in being like a Jew emerges in Boyarin’s analysis, a pattern to which contemporary Jewish chroniclers were attuned. Finally, after surveying various depictions of first cannibalizing Jewish mothers and then cannibalizing Christian mothers in texts such as the alliterative Siege of Jerusalem, Titus and Vespasian, and the Neville of Hornby Hours, Boyarin returns to the myth of Adam of Bristol, whose depiction of a Jewess and the Virgin Mary offers a heuristic on narratives like Siege, clarifying the ideological support such texts provided for the 1290 expulsion.

The final chapter of Boyarin’s book further traces the fundamental unknowability of Jewish working women such as wet nurses and maidservants in the Adam of Bristol libel, Thomas of Monmouth’s ritual murder libel, Jocelin of Brakelond’s chronicle, the Judas Ballad, and several new texts, including John Lydgate’s poem about the boy martyr Robert of Bury, the Life of Christina of Markyate and the c. 1260 Anglo-French ballad Hugo de Lincolnia. Boyarin offers a close reading of the depiction in Christina’s Life of her mother Beatrix and a Jewess, two figures who work together to collapse “Christian-Jewish stereotypes and gendered tropes” (197). The chapter ends by offering an important critique of received scholarly ideas about the figure of the Jewish femme fatale, clarifying how no medieval precedent existed for this figure, who is instead “a late accretion informed by postmedieval stereotypes” (209). Boyarin offers a detailed and convincing survey of possible medieval models for the motif--taken from sources including the Alphabet of Tales and Jacob’s Well--only to clarify how all those medieval English antisemitic texts hinge upon the Jewish women’s “unmarked” nature and similitude to Christians. This chapter is framed by an engagement with Amy-Jill Levine that stresses the overall undecidability of the Jewess “across many times and places” (219).

After a conclusion in which Boyarin reiterates the “paradigm shift” she seeks to accomplish in her book (224), she presents a series of valuable appendices that offer editions and translations of primary materials examined in her historiae and her final chapter.

The breadth and depth of Boyarin’s analysis is stunning. As comfortable with Anglo-Norman and Latin as she is with early English, Boyarin skillfully examines an array of materials, from visual culture, to legal, devotional, literary and historical sources. Importantly, many of those primary materials have not appeared in analyses of the medieval Anglo-Jewry, largely because it is only by training our gaze on similitude and not difference that such texts and images become relevant. By expanding the archive in this manner, Boyarin has laid invaluable groundwork for future studies of the many previously unexamined or underexamined texts covered in The Christian Jew and the Unmarked Jewess.