Thursday, February 02, 2006
Another book review that I hope is worth sharing. This one should be out in the journal Patterns of Prejudice soon. Did anyone else like this?
Debra Higgs Strickland
Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art
Princeton University Press, 2003
The gorgeous frontispiece to this book depicts a sinuous green devil inviting a solemn Christ to indulgence, while its back cover is populated by a rainbow of demons tormenting the damned. With its crisply reproduced images drawn from stained glass windows, manuscripts, and the plastic arts; with its oversized, glossy pages and its generously spaced, wispy typeface, Debra Higgs Strickland's Saracens, Demons and Jews is more than an outstanding work of scholarship. The book itself is a work of art.
Strickland discerns in the western depiction of monsters a movement from innocent fascination to a hatred-spurred rejection. Monsters are in the process transformed from marvels to contemplate into enemies to destroy. This metamorphosis in cultural meaning is catalyzed by Christians' burgeoning desire to distance themselves from rival ethnic and religious groups. As a result the so-called monstrous races (creatures of strange body and even stranger custom who have haunted the imaginative spaces of the west since at least the time of the early Greeks) stop referring to mythic beings that dwell in some great and ambiguous Beyond and begin to incarnate those toward whom Europeans harbored a real and growing animus. Once the vocabulary of monstrousness inherited from the classical tradition was applied to the Jews who lived among the Christians and the Muslims of Iberia and the Holy Land, the possibility that these peoples might be co-equal tended to vanish. Strickland's book, then, is less about monsters per se than about the process of monsterization, a heterogeneous set of representational practices that varies over time and place but always had the same outcome: the denial of humanity to the people represented.
Saracens, Demons, and Jews begins with a succinct preface that lucidly articulates the main themes, and contains a series of five chapters that flesh out the analytic framework through close engagement with a series of specific and usually related images. Comprised of a quick excursion through classical and Christian theories of monstrosity, the first chapter is the least innovative, covering ground that scholars have been treading for several decades. The chapter culminates, however, in the bold thesis that the classical monstrous races "with their deformed bodies, strange dwellings, barbaric habits, and sinful behaviors" were the template upon which later medieval constructions of non-Christian groups were based. This emerging tradition of monstrous religious Others was hybridized with Christianity's interest in "Demons, Darkness, and Ethiopians" (the title of chapter two), so that representations of Jews and Saracens of the Middle Ages combine the infernal with the classical. Thus in a famous antisemitic caricature of the moneylender Isaac of Norwich contained in Exchequer roll for 1233, the Jew and his wife are depicted consorting with devils.
Whenever Christians imagined Jews (chapter three), they tended to think of them as a stubborn and malicious race, unchanged since their rejection of Christ centuries earlier. Thus it is not uncommon to find illustrations of biblical Jews sporting the pileum cornutum, the horned hat that medieval Christians forced Jews to wear as a distinguishing sartorial mark. Such scenes would also reinforce the pernicious notion that contemporary Jews were just as responsible for deicide as their forebears. These negative depictions of Jews would also have had real-world effects. In a world increasingly saturated with anti-Jewish visual propaganda, it was increasingly easier to allow Jews to become victims of violence, and even of mass expulsion.
Depictions of Saracens (Muslims) and Tartars (Turks and Mongols) were hardly more positive, especially once crusading fervor had disseminated powerful fantasies of the monstrousness of these non-Christian peoples. As chapter four indicates, these groups were often depicted as dog-headed men, dark-skinned demons, and deformed giants. They were also at times granted a more ambivalent existence as physically attractive people in need of conversion. A final chapter on "Eschatological Conspiracies" examines how Saracens and Jews function in Christian thinking about the end of the world. The conclusion to the book ("What is a Monster?") undermines some of the definitiveness with which monstrousness has been analyzed, offering problematic cases of affirmative monsters and declaring that "Medieval monstrosity ... is neither positive or negative: it is both" (255).
If the book has a weakness it is in its failure to explore this positive aspect, the attraction of the monster, preferring instead to equate ugliness with simple rejection. If that were simply the case, could a book about monsters be as beautiful as this one is? So many of the illustrations that Strickland reproduces are "empirically" rather vile. They are motivated by hate and prejudice. Yet they are also strangely haunting aesthetic objects, awakening human desire and making monsterization seem a work of art. Strickland does a brilliant job of researching the cultural worlds that produced these images, and she expertly traces the historical inheritance of each image as well as its potential innovativeness. If she had only said a bit more about how desire works in these images, and about how a powerful ambivalence often lurks beneath every depiction of the monster, she would have moved a little closer to her stated goal of helping to bring about a world in which "being 'otherwise' eventually might come to be more respected than despised" (20).
Saracens, Demons and Jews is a rare book: impeccably researched, crisply penned, provocative in its findings, and handsomely produced. It will provide any readers interested in the long history of how humans have denied humanity to their fellow beings much to ponder, and probably leaving them wondering why so little has changed in the course of a millennium.