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22.10.15 Krummel, The Medieval Postcolonial Jew, In and Out of Time

22.10.15 Krummel, The Medieval Postcolonial Jew, In and Out of Time

When teaching introductory-level undergraduate courses, the differences in how to name and describe time often come up within the first few weeks. One option, often the one most familiar to students, is the schema of BC--Before Christ--and AD--annus domini, “the year of the lord.” Alternatively, students could employ the seemingly more neutral BCE--Before the Common Era--and CE--Common Era. Ultimately, of course, the meaning remains the same: the dates 1200 AD and 1200 CE signify the same moment in time, one rooted in a Christian division of time into eras before and after the birth of Christ. However, given the dominance of this temporal system, our scholarship and teaching rarely departs from it. Even when scholars reference the Hebrew or Hijri calendar, they typically also provide the date in accordance with our current, Christian-influenced schema.

Often, the terminology of BCE and CE appears less overtly Christian than BC and AD, in that they do not require an overt reference to Christ or an identification of Christ as “lord.” Miriamne Ara Krummel, however, opens The Medieval Postcolonial Jew, In and Out of Time with a challenge to the convenient fiction that the term “CE” is a neutral one: “Our common-era temporality unfolds to reveal multiple layers of a complicated, artificially constructed system, carefully designed to seem like our common timescape was always already there waiting for us to discover it. Perhaps even more unsettling, while our religious and cultural affiliations--comprising our allegedly ‘common-era’ time--are now commonly shared, they nevertheless hide stories of a time born in an elastic starting point that speaks more of inherent xenophobias than of an authentic original moment...AD, now disguised as representing a purported ‘common era (CE), speaks more of a homogenized time when the meaning of those Latin words expands to tell a story of temporal reterritorialization that occurred over a period of almost a thousand years” (1-2). The term “Common Era,” in other words, ultimately functions only to disguise and purportedly neutralize a violent Christian colonization of Jewish time. Our “common timescape” in the 21st-century western context, Krummel argues, glosses over centuries of ideological conflicts over the definition of sacred time. These false claims about the existence of a shared temporal landscape ignore the acts of violence and appropriation that made it possible.

While many studies of Christian anti-Judaism focus primarily or exclusively on the texts and images produced by and for Christians, Krummel makes the interesting move of instead, in most chapters, pairing Christian narratives with Jewish ones. The pairing of texts offers many benefits. It familiarizes readers, including medievalists often not trained in Hebrew, with Jewish texts. It portrays Jews as actors in the battles over time and therefore attributes to the Jewish population some degree of agency, even if ultimately the Christian colonization of time has come to dominate our own temporal landscape. It also makes an important contribution to recent scholarship that emphasizes how medieval Jews, Christians, and Muslims polemicized alike, demonstrating that even moments of hostility can reveal points of contact.

Krummel in particular explores how both Jews and Christians marshaled shared “tropes of victimhood” (28) in their portrayal of interfaith conflict. Paradoxically, the same texts that reveal Jewish active participation in these discourses also attests to their lack of agency as a subordinated minority group subject to violence. Christian writers, despite the reality of their position of power as the ruling faith, also present themselves as victims, alleging Jewish cruelty against Christian innocents. The one downside of these textual pairings is that in the effort to draw connections between textual material and emphasize the nature of all these texts as constructed narratives, the author does not always emphasize the very real power disparity between Jews and Christians. Even if both Jews and Christians worked textually to portray themselves as victims, distinctions nevertheless exist: Jewish narratives often drew on lived experiences of violence and victimization--for example, the Crusade massacres--whereas Christian narratives craft fictions about Jewish violence--such as ritual murder accusations. The overall thrust of the book, however, nevertheless clearly defines Jewish subjects--and the temporalities associated with them--as marginalized.

Chapter 1 explores the breakdown of time in narratives of martyrdom, through a focus on two texts that emphasize the martyrdom and slaughter of innocent children. The Hebrew chronicle “Mainz Anonymous” memorializes and dramatizes the deaths that occurred in the course of the massacres of Jewish communities in the Rhineland in the context of the First Crusade, presenting all the Jewish dead--whether due to murder or suicide, at Christian or Jewish hands--as martyrs. The Latin hagiographical text The Life and Passion of William of Norwich, written in the wake of the first ritual murder accusation in England in 1144, describes the violent death of the child William at the hands of the Jews. These martyrdom narratives, Krummel argues, create a “perpetual present” in which “the three boys die again and again in the here and now and well into the future” (62). Their deaths, in this context, ultimately become far more important than their lives.

In chapter 2, Krummel continues to explore the concept of victimhood through narratives that highlight the disconnect between sacred and secular time. This chapter looks at five stories: two from the Hebrew “Chronicle of Solomon bar Simson,” also a narrative constructed around the Crusade massacres, and three from the late 14th-century Vernon Manuscript, which tell stories of Mary’s intercession into secular time to bring about both conversion of the Jews and vengeance against them.

Chapter 3 focuses primarily on the representation of sacred time within secular urban contexts through a focus on the York Mystery Plays (c. 1463-1477) and their performance. The chapter explores in-depth the meaning behind the identification of Jesus as Jewish in “The Conspiracy,” suggesting that this literary move works to complicate the supposed supersession of Jewish time. Ultimately, the representation of Jesus as Jewish functions to colonize Jewish time and claim it as a mere “prequel” to Christian time. Krummel also explores how the experience of the Mystery Plays might have been shaped by their specific performance context, in particular the potential proximity to the site of Clifford’s Tower and the historical memory of the 1190 massacre of Jews that took place there. At the same time, however, Jesus is not like other Jews. He is contrasted with--if also implicitly connected to--Jewish characters like Annas, Caiaphas, and Judas, who are marked by antisemitic tropes.

In chapter 4, Krummel turns to questions of gender and anachronism in two texts: the Middle English The Siege of Jerusalem (c. 1400) and the Middle English translation and interpretation of Josephus’ The Jewish War. Jewish time is presented as marginal and outdated even in the context of a distant Antiquity. Here Krummel also explores questions of gender; male figures are used to demonstrate the victory of Christianity and Christian temporality, while women appear as denizens of nonnormative time.

Chapter 5 addresses Jews’ struggle with Christianity and the claims it makes about time, employing six narratives of conversion: Joseph Kimhi’s Sefer HaBrit, an expression of anxieties about apostasy; Herman-Judah’s account of his own conversion from Judaism to Christianity; and four variants of Chaucer’s “The Prioress’ Tale.” Jews and Christians, in these narratives, both express anxieties about the porosity of their own temporality. Chaucer’s litel clergeon highlights Christians’ fear of the intrusion of Jewish time into their temporality; David Kimhi celebrates Jewish resistance to Christian temporality; Herman-Judah expresses anxiety about the impossibility of ever being free of his Jewish past.

Krummel offers a compelling case for not taking the complexities of time for granted. She ends with a call for continued exploration and of resistance to the Christian temporality of AD. Our reliance on the supposed “Common Era,” she argues, “may not spell escape from the hegemony of the all-encompassing nature of annus domini” (234). Regardless of which terminology we employ, Krummel pushes us to rethink what those choices might mean. Her work will be of interest to a number of scholars and advanced graduate students interested in literature and postcolonial theory, as well as the history of anti-Judaism and polemic, and perhaps even those invested in interrogating their own pedagogical choices as we employ terms like CE and AD in our classrooms.