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.