Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Anthony Bale, The Jew in the Medieval Book

Tis the season for all Jews to be reminded by every jingling bell how little a space they have in this contemporary and oh so Christian culture.

Well, not really. I do know plenty of Jews who get grumpy round about now. Temple Micah, where the Cohen family belongs, even hands out special "sunglasses" at the Hanukkah service that transform Christmas lights into tiny stars of David. But then again, plenty of Christians become irritable at this time of year. And atheists. And let's not forget our group reading this summer of Lee Edelman's No Future, a book which makes the compelling argument that Ebenezer Scrooge is right and Tiny Tim must die.

You readers know that I'm a syncretist, and find joy in small things like the fact that the celebration of Christmas is just as much about the celebration of winter, and of the solstice, and of a whole bunch of cornball things from deep in the human past that remind me of what's good in homo sapiens (even if they don't do enough sapienting). At this most festive time of year, I offer you the draft of my forthcoming review of Anthony Bale's The Jew in the Medieval Book. And yes, I must admit that I did once snap the cover of that volume closed on my son's hand and exclaim "Look! There is a Jew in my medieval book."

OK, here it is. The review will appear in some form in Studies in the Age of Chaucer next year. Has anyone else read this book?

ANTHONY BALE. The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms, 1350-1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xiv, 266. $85.00.

Meticulously researched and lucidly composed, Anthony Bale’s The Jew in the Medieval Book combines rigorous historicist readings with excellent manuscript work and familiarity with critical theory. The book contributes to the vigorous conversation that has unfolded over the past decade on the relation of England’s Jews to its literary culture. Scholars such as Sheila Delaney, Denise Despres, Steven Kruger, Lisa Lampert, and Sylvia Tomasch (among literary critics); Ruth Mellinkoff and Debra Higgs Strickland (among art historians); and Jeremy Cohen, Kathleen Biddick, Robert Chazan, Gavin Langmuir, David Nirenberg, and Miri Rubin (among historians) have provided the groundwork for Bale’s project.

As his starting date of 1350 indicates, Bale is interested in post-Expulsion depictions of Jews. Previous scholars have typically attempted to capture the Christian imagination of Judaism by deploying large conceptual frameworks: the virtual Jew (Tomasch), the spectral Jew (Kruger), the hermeneutic Jew (Cohen), the Protean Jew (Despres). Without directly engaging such capacious epistemologies, Bale implicitly follows Nirenberg (Communities of Violence) in arguing that anti-Semitism is better understood as antisemitisms: what he calls “massive, transhistorical narratives” (9) must yield to dynamic local histories. Even if stereotypes invoked by a text might seem “universal” (the Jews as poisoners of wells, the Jews as Christianicidal), they are nonetheless given definitive shape through specific context, convenience, and strategy. Bale therefore stresses the lack of agreement among Christian interpreters over the place and meaning of the Jews, observing that “even as established Christian interpretive models existed, writers rarely chose to subordinate their impressions of contemporary Judaism to such a model” (25). Rather than invoke the Jew to confirm some pre-existing doctrinal position or repeat some unchanging typology, medieval writers employed Judaism to create a space in which theology is not reaffirmed, but questioned and destabilized. Jews as imagined by medieval English writers, in other words, function not as an assimilated component of Christian universal history, but as perturbing figures through whom authors may grapple with the discontents such a transhistorical model generates.

Bale structures his book around the analysis of four medieval narratives. Each typifies a genre: the Jew of Tewkesbury, who tumbles into a latrine and dies in excrement because of his reverence for his Sabbath (“history”); the miracle of the boy who, after his murder at Jewish hands, continues to sing a Marian hymn (“miracle”); the worship of the child martyr Robert of Bury St Edmunds, supposedly killed by local Jews (“cult”); and the Arma Christi, a display of the instruments of Christ’s suffering that included a spitting Jew (“Passion”). A strength of his study is that he does not rely upon published editions for sources, but reads his texts within wide manuscript context. Thus the chapter on the caroling dead boy contains, as expected, a detailed examination of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. Because the focus is upon the “discontinuities and divergences,” however, this supremely literary rendition finds itself jostled by versions of the same story in places both predictable (the Vernon manuscript) and surprising (an unattributed redaction of Chaucer’s tale snuggled next to and finally intercut with Lydgate, BL Harley MS 2251).

The book in its entirety is useful for any scholar seriously contemplating late medieval piety, literary culture, social identity, and otherness. The chapter examining Chaucerian materials will, however, be of special interest to the readers of this journal. Given that a series of original and highly influential articles have appeared over the past twenty years on the Prioress’s Tale (especially the work of Aranye Fradenburg, Bruce Holsinger, and Lee Patterson), it may seem that little space remains for new readings. Chapter three (“Miracle: shifting definitions in ‘The miracle of the boy singer’) opens with an invocation of the Wandering Jew, terra cognita to be sure, but then surprises with his follow-up interrogatory of “What of the wandering Christian?” If Jew and Christian are “ambivalently interconnected,” he reasons, shouldn’t Chaucer’s itinerant text in which a pilgrimage fails to reach its destination offer a meditation on the multiple possibilities that straying into Jewish space offers? Bale tracks in the Prioress’s Tale two warring elements, each with its own trajectory: an expansive land- and soundscape characterized by “extreme physicality and loss of control”; and a “lapidary vocabulary” that would immure such vagrancy within the gem-like martyr and his marble tomb (“morbid permanence and closure”). Chaucer’s tale, Bale argues, resists the reduction into timelessness that other versions of the story embrace. The desire to limit and bound the narrative he ascribes to the Prioress, and the desire to keep alive its “bodily, historical and geographical disjunctions” he grants its actual author. Bale’s contextualization of the litel clergeon into the whole of Fragment VII (a series of narratives obsessed with male bodies, boys, chastity, violence) could be better. Yet he does offer a compelling meditation on the space the tale opens to explore problems of genre, authority, and orthodoxy.

If there is anything to quibble with in the volume, it is Bale’s refusal to engage with actual Jews. About Christian fantasies of Judaism, and disallowing that a fantasy may engulf some portion of a historical reality and carry that reality far forward in time, the book is in a way as Judenrein as England post-1290. Bale writes in the introduction “I do not aim to enfranchise those ‘hidden from history,’ a target implicit in much writing on historical Jewry” (p.5; if the Jews are ‘hidden from history,’ they are hidden in plain sight!) While such a recovery project is clearly not what every medievalist can or should undertake, the separation of Jewish reality from Christian imagining often goes too far. The Jews of Bale’s book are the context-adapted products of an eternal present; they do not carry with them the imprint, weight, or memory of actual history. Passive figures, they find themselves wholly adapted to the demands of a specific moment. Bale argues that “a contextualised, historically contingent antisemitism does not necessarily involve Jews but can stand alone in Christian culture” (107). He is speaking about the events surrounding the cult of Robert of Bury St Edmunds, a veneration that came into being as fifty-seven Jews lost their lives. The intimacy of its Jewish population to Bury’s economic and cultural systems has been well documented. The violence exacted by Robert’s cult was practiced against bodies onto which fantasies were projected, but these were also real bodies not nearly as passive as Bale’s formulation implies. Medieval Jews were, as the events at York demonstrated, a people who could resist. Could they also survive their own eradication? Is it possible to hear something of a Jewish history resounding, even deep within a Christian fantasy – especially because, as Bale has so brilliantly emphasized, such Christian fantasies tend to be internally incoherent, heterogeneous, impossibly full?

Miri Rubin in her book Gentile Tales stages an astonishing sequence in the text’s middle where the Jews answer back, giving them a voice that has much to say to the Christian fantasies she analyzes. Anthony Bale lacks such a moment in his own work, but he has nonetheless authored a tremendous book. Because The Jew in the Medieval Book seamlessly combines the theoretical (Deleuze and Guattari, for example, make a useful appearance in the Chaucer chapter) with the archival and the historical, and because its ambit is so capacious and its findings so well argued, this volume will be required reading in medieval studies for years to come.

9 comments:

Karl Steel said...

On that first sentence: "familiarity" sounds kind of weak after the ringing praise of "rigorous" and "excellent."

I've not read this book, but I will, at least for the Tewkesbury story, given my interest in alimentary discourses in antisemitism and Christian/Jewish contact (and interpenetration). I have read Bale's "Richard of Devizes and Fictions of Judaism," Jewish Culture and History 3 (2000): 55-72, where he writes on excretory imagery that "the Cronicon's versions of these images suggest that Judaism is 'inside' Christianity, the undigested infection ('morbid matter') encroaching on the Christian body. If the Winchester Christians are disgusted at the matter within, Richard suggests that they should literally be disgusted with themselves" (60).

I've also read his “Fictions of Judaism in England before 1290” in Patricia Skinner, ed, The Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary, and Archaeological Perspectives. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell P, 2003. 129-144 and thought it a very fine article. I'm not sure if he included any of this material in his book, but the beautiful, deeply moving conclusion to this article speaks to some of your concerns, as it's a meditation on a Jewish scripture used to strengthen the binding of a Christian book. Also, he writes here “I do not wish to suggest that antisemistism is merely a fascinating rhetorical posture; we must always be mindful of the victims of the discourses we will encounter in the following pages." So I might suggest modulating your critique by reference to these articles, if you haven't yet read them or if they don't appear in some form already in the volume.

But, yes, I would like to see more on, say, converted synagogues and their afterlife, and I'd like to know a lot more about the domus conversorum. Robert Stacey has something coming out or already out yes? that I expect will be essential reading.

For the interested, here is the Tewkesbury story from Woodburn Ross, Middle English Sermons,
Þer was sumtyme a Iewe þat on hur Sabaothe day fell in-to a foule stynkynge pitte. And þer com a man and sawe hym in þis foule pitte, and wold haue holpon hym owte. And þe Iewe seid naye, for cause þat itt was is Sabooth day: ‘Þer-fore þou shalt not traveyll with me, ne I will not traveyll with þe.’ And so þis man lete þe Iewe lie still. So with-in a lytill while for stynke of þis pitt þe Iewe died þere. Trewly so I am right aferd þat þese men þat will not turne from hure synne, to suche tyme as þat þei dye in þe stynke of hure synne, as þe holy man Iope seyþ, ‘Ducunt in bonis dies suos, et in puncto ad inferna descendunt.’” (159)

And from another source
Thomas of Burton, Monasticon de Melsa Vol. ii, pp. 134-47. In rolls series, ed. Edward A. Bond. 942 G79 no.43 [I think my notes are off here]: Richard, earl of Gloucester, offers to help the Jew out, but he says, “Sabbato nostra colo; / De stercore surgere nolo” [I am honoring our Sabbath; I am unwilling to get out of this filth]. On the next day, the Jew asks for help, but Richard refuses it, quipping that “Sabbata nostra quidem, / Solomon, celebrabis ibidem” [Solomon, you will celebrate our Sabbath in that place]

Also, for the interested, a photo I took of a late medieval anti-Jewish sculpture from York: here.

J J Cohen said...

Thanks Karl. That somewhat weak "familiar" is intentional.

I know the two [superb] articles you reference well and they are part of what spurred my critique (as did Rubin's book ... but in a way, as did the pioneering work of Cecil Roth, who was to our hindsight often wrong, but nonetheless discerned much that is affirmative and vivacious in Jewish life through records that speak mainly of hatred and death).

Still, I can see that by foregrounding absence I make my appraisal of the book seem much less of an endorsement than I intended: this is an excellent, excellent piece of work that everyone should read. Thanks for your input. The 1K word limit is a prison!

Stacey published a piece on the Domus many years ago in Speculum; I can find it of you want. Kathy Biddick is doing some very good work on it right now, esp. its transformation into the Public Records Office.

Karl Steel said...

Oh, I know that Stacey, “The Conversion of Jews in Thirteenth-Century England.” Speculum 67 (1992): 263-283. I just remember it as a very good article, and I want more from him (looking forward to reading his new Adam of Bristol book, which I think might finally be out). I'll look to the Biddick, as I bet it fulfills what I want precisely.

That somewhat weak "familiar" is intentional.

Okay.

J J Cohen said...

That sounded imperious, didn't it? I didn't mean it that way.

All I meant is that Bale is not someone -- like ITM's own Eileen Joy or you Karl, or Mary Kate -- who integrates theory into practice to the extent that these are not separable strands. He invokes "theoreticians" like D&G from time to time, as they are useful in certain bounded situations: thus, D&G on the refrain to illuminate the territorializing effect of the litel clergeon's song. But you couldn't say his book is deleuzian.

Biddick hasn't yet published the Domus piece, so far as I know (I heard it as a conference at Princeton a few years ago and was wowed)... a related essay will be in my forthcoming archipelago collection.

J J Cohen said...

Let me put what I was saying about Bale more affirmatively: he represents the very best of tradition methods as applied to the reading of medieval texts within their historical contexts, and uses some contemporary theory to prod his analysis down some intriguing new roads. He is quite well read!

Sarah Rees Jones said...

Oops, Karl! Not late medieval, but Victorian - one of many pieces of medievalism in a city by then aggressively conscious of its medieval past. It is the portal over the main entrance to St Wilfrid's, a new Catholic church built close to York Minster in the 1860s.

So it is nearly contemporary with the Burne Jones piece that Eileen discussed here once before, but with a very different resonance and(in ways that Bale would certainly appreciate) speaking to a very particular immediate, local context.

Karl Steel said...

Sarah: thanks so much! Wow.

Thanks for the kind words in lumping me in with the smart set: I'll work to merit them.

J J Cohen said...

Here is what I am actually submitting to SAC. Karl, you will see that -- as always with the smart things you say -- you have had your imprint.
------------------------
ANTHONY BALE. The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms, 1350-1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xiv, 266. $85.00.

Meticulously researched and lucidly composed, Anthony Bale’s The Jew in the Medieval Book combines rigorous historicist readings with excellent manuscript work. The book contributes to the vigorous conversation that has unfolded over the past decade on the relation of England’s Jews to its literary culture. Scholars such as Sheila Delaney, Denise Despres, Steven Kruger, Lisa Lampert, and Sylvia Tomasch (among literary critics); Ruth Mellinkoff and Debra Higgs Strickland (among art historians); and Jeremy Cohen, Kathleen Biddick, Robert Chazan, Gavin Langmuir, David Nirenberg, and Miri Rubin (among historians) have provided the foundation for Bale’s project. The book’s achievement is to have synthesized much of this work without offering a monolithic culmination or alternative. The analytical strength of The Jew in the Medieval Book derives from its rejection of the idea that the figure of the Jew possesses a static role within some overarching hermeneutic. Bale employs an intertextual methodology to argue that the imagined Jew offers Christian writers a locus of discord and confusion where the past can be created, orthodoxy might be undercut, and the Other reveals “that which is inside” (166).
As his starting date of 1350 indicates, Bale is interested in post-Expulsion depictions of Jews. Previous scholars have typically attempted to capture the Christian imagination of Judaism by deploying large conceptual frameworks: the virtual Jew (Tomasch), the spectral Jew (Kruger), the hermeneutic Jew (Cohen), the Protean Jew (Despres). Without directly engaging such capacious epistemologies, Bale implicitly follows Nirenberg (Communities of Violence) in arguing that anti-Semitism is better understood as antisemitisms: what he calls “massive, transhistorical narratives” (9) must yield to dynamic local histories. Even if stereotypes invoked by a text might seem universal, such recurring slanders are given definitive shape through specific context, serving particular strategies. Bale therefore stresses the lack of agreement among Christian interpreters over the meaning of post-Incarnation Jews, observing that “even as established Christian interpretive models existed, writers rarely chose to subordinate their impressions of contemporary Judaism to such a model” (25). Rather than invoke the Jew to confirm some pre-existing doctrinal position, medieval writers employed Judaism to create a space in which theology could be questioned and destabilized. Jews as imagined by medieval English writers therefore functioned not as an assimilated component of Christian universal history, but as perturbing figures through whom authors may grapple with the discontents such a transhistorical model generated (31).
Bale structures his book around four medieval narratives, each typifying a genre: the Jew of Tewkesbury, who tumbles into a latrine and dies in excrement because of his reverence for his Sabbath (History); the miracle of the boy who, after his murder at Jewish hands, continues to sing a Marian hymn (Miracle); the worship of the child martyr Robert of Bury St Edmunds, supposedly killed by Jews in imitation of the torture of Jesus (Cult); and the Arma Christi, a display of the instruments of Christ’s suffering that included a spitting Jew (Passion). Bale reads his texts within wide manuscript context. Thus the chapter on the caroling dead boy contains, as expected, a detailed examination of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. Because the focus is upon the “discontinuities and divergences,” however, this supremely literary rendition finds itself jostled by versions of the same story from places both predictable (the Vernon manuscript) and surprising (an unattributed redaction of Chaucer’s tale that was snuggled next to and finally intercut with Lydgate in BL Harley MS 2251).
The book is essential for any scholar studying late medieval piety, European literary culture, and social identity in its relation to alterity. The chapter examining Chaucerian materials will, however, be of special interest to the readers of this journal. Given that a series of original and highly influential articles have appeared over the past twenty years on the Prioress’s Tale (especially the work of Aranye Fradenburg, Bruce Holsinger, and Lee Patterson), it may seem that little space remains for new readings. Chapter three (“Miracle: shifting definitions in ‘The miracle of the boy singer’) opens with an invocation of the Wandering Jew, terra cognita to be sure, but then surprises with a follow-up interrogatory of “What of the wandering Christian?” If Jew and Christian are “ambivalently interconnected,” Bale reasons, shouldn’t Chaucer’s itinerant text – a framework narrative in which its structuring pilgrimage fails to reach its destination -- offer a meditation on the multiple possibilities that straying into Jewish space offers? Bale tracks in the Prioress’s Tale two warring elements, each with its own trajectory: an expansive land- and soundscape characterized by “extreme physicality and loss of control”; and a “lapidary vocabulary” that would immure such vagrancy within the gem-like martyr and his marble tomb. Chaucer’s tale, Bale argues, resists the reduction into timelessness that other versions of the story embrace. The desire to limit and bound the narrative he ascribes to the Prioress, and the desire to keep alive its “bodily, historical and geographical disjunctions” he grants Chaucer. Bale’s contextualization of the litel clergeon into the whole of Fragment VII (a series of narratives obsessed with male bodies, boys, chastity, violence) could be better. Yet he offers a compelling meditation on the space the tale opens to explore problems of genre, authority, and orthodoxy.
The Jew in the Medieval Book does not engage with actual Jews. Disallowing that a fantasy may engulf some portion of a historical reality and carry that reality far forward in time, the book is in a way as Judenrein as England post-1290. Bale writes in the introduction “I do not aim to enfranchise those ‘hidden from history,’ a target implicit in much writing on historical Jewry” (p.5; if the Jews are ‘hidden from history,’ they are hidden in plain sight). While such a recovery project is clearly not one every medievalist should undertake, the separation of Jewish reality from Christian imagining cannot so easily be assumed. Bale argues that “a contextualised, historically contingent antisemitism does not necessarily involve Jews but can stand alone in Christian culture” (107). He is speaking about the events surrounding the cult of Robert of Bury St Edmunds, a veneration that came into being as fifty-seven Jews lost their lives. The intimacy of its Jewish population to Bury’s economic and cultural systems has been well documented. The violence exacted by Robert’s cult was practiced against bodies onto which fantasies were projected, but these were also real bodies not nearly so passive as Bale’s formulation implies. Medieval Jews were, as the events at York demonstrated, a people who could resist. Could they also survive their own eradication? Is it possible to hear something of a Jewish history resounding, even deep within a Christian fantasy – especially because, as Bale has so brilliantly emphasized, such Christian fantasies tend to be internally incoherent, heterogeneous, impossibly full?
Miri Rubin in her book Gentile Tales stages an astonishing sequence in the text’s middle where the Jews answer back, giving them a voice that has much to say to the Christian fantasies she analyzes. Lee Patterson has done the same in his essay on the Prioress’s Tale … as has Bale himself in two brilliant essays that laid the groundwork for this volume. Bale lacks such a moment here, but he has nonetheless authored a tremendous book. Because The Jew in the Medieval Book seamlessly combines the theoretical (Deleuze and Guattari, for example, make a catalytic appearance in the Chaucer chapter) with the archival and the historical, and because its ambit is so capacious and its findings so well argued, this volume will be required reading in medieval studies for years to come.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks, and nice--and kind--work. Very good point on the Robert of Bury, done is an admirably even tone.