by J J Cohen
Israel Jacob Yuval's research has for a long time been -- paradoxically -- both influential and cited mainly at second hand, since relatively few scholars have the facility in Hebrew to read his work in its original. Most of these citations at one remove involve an article published in Zion (1993) in which Yuval argued for a relationship between the Jewish choice of mass suicide and the murder of loved ones during Crusader persecution, and the later circulation of the myth that Jews killed Christian children in mockery of the Passion. Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (trans. Barbara Harshav and Jonathan Chipman) offers in lucid English the author's patient exploration of a thesis that has proven extraordinarily controversial -- challenging as it does the received idea that medieval Jews were the patient victims of an antisemitism bearing little relation to the realities of Jewish medieval life. Scholars had assumed, in other words, that no Jewish story could be discerned in narratives like Thomas of Monmouth's twelfth-century account of the boy-martyr William of Norwich. Such fables were the hateful dreams of a society that wanted no real knowledge of its Jewish other. The Blood Libel consolidated Christian community through fantasy; the host desecration myths had nothing to do with matzoh or Pesach. As a result of such analysis, medieval Jews in much contemporary scholarship seem to inhabit the frozen timelessness that Christians ascribed to them. But shouldn't they be just as eligible for voice, modernity, the possibility of affects both positive and negative (i.e. a life as something more than a holy, docile and long suffering people)? Can the truth of medieval Ashkenazic Jewry amount to something a little more full than an early version of Fiddler on the Roof?
Yuval's thesis is in many ways profoundly commonsensical, allowing that a story involving blood and sacrifice and children might travel across religious boundaries and become something different, yet connected. Medieval Jews and Christians did not inhabit closed spheres. They learned from each other and even borrowed beliefs, rituals, eschatology. Much of Yuval's work demonstrates the ways in which these Jews were not passive victims to Christian violence, but possessed a well developed mythology of a Messiah King who would take vengeance against Christian violators. Jews could even dream of an End Time in which Christianity would be cleansed from the earth ... and imagine that one way to precipitate this apocalypse might be through spectacular acts of communal self slaughter.
Two Nations in Your Womb is a provocative, compelling book. In my own work I've been interested in how every cultural/social/racial/whatever barrier erected to segregate difference into discrete categories always ultimately fails. Yuval's research demonstrates how Jewish and Christian thought interpenetrated, and how in the end a Jewish story can be discerned in ritual murder and host desecration narratives. His closing chapter on the millennial hopes of the thirteenth century (the Christian year 1240 marked the year 5000 of Creation for Jews) made me see a troubling episode from Mandeville's Travels in an entirely new way -- about which more later. For the time being, though, let me say that every medievalist interested in Jewish-Christian relations during the Middle Ages ought to read this book, offering as it does a complicated view of stories that have too often been treated as not much more than yet another lachrymose segment of the road leading towards the Holocaust.