Thursday, April 02, 2009


by J J Cohen

Some time ago I posted about an exhibition at the British Library called Sacred, and noted Mary Beard's dubiousness about its injunction to tolerance. In general I agree with Beard: most religions, in their orthodox manifestations, assert an inviolable and singular claim over truth. Tolerance is therefore possible only to the extent that this Truth is held silently or not insisted upon. Actual practitioners of many religions will often therefore choose not to live their faith in its most orthodox manifestation. They will opt for a quiet, ad hoc and adaptable heterodoxy which enables a living together with others.

I've been returning to this question of tolerance and coexistence as I prepare my lecture for Leeds, since I'm interested in orthodoxy, praxis, and coinhabited space -- a fancy way of saying that I am mapping something of what happens when Jews and Christians dwell as unsecluded neighbors. What passes between the groups? What middle space might be formed in which the othodoxies and orthopraxes cease so much to matter? Neighborliness and violence are so far my keywords, because they meet in strange ways: sometimes with horrendous results (propinquitous Jews are blamed for the deaths of Christian children), sometimes with a heroic ones, sometimes in mutedly affirmative ways, and sometimes even in a complex relationship that allows violence to be part of something more than a strategic coexistence, allows violence to be heard as a minority's complaint. More on that last point at a future date, but for the time being I want to stress that this coinhabited space is hybrid both culturally (a mutable network of Christian-Jewish exchange) and temporally (stereotypy inherited from the past comes up against an adaptive present heavy with several possible futures).

So I've been meditating a bit on Matthew Paris's narration of the murder by Jews of young Hugh of Lincoln. This little boy's death enabled the flourishing of the most successful of the child martyr cults in England, the only one to gain royal sanction. You can find the whole episode in a pretty good English translation here.

Matthew Paris is no friend of the Jews. He's the one who gives us, for example, the infamous (and no doubt spurious) story of Abraham of Berkhamsted, who kept a statue of Mary in his privy so that he could defecate upon it every day. His narration of Hugh's martyrdom never hesitates for a moment to wonder if the nineteen Jews executed for the murder might have been innocent. For Paris, the Jews practice upon contemporary Christian innocents the same tortures that they practiced upon Jesus, for no other reason that they are Jews, and Jews do such things, eternally. Jewishness, in other words, is a temporally frozen identity.

Yet there is a line in Paris's martyrdom narrative that has always struck me. Hugh's mother is frantically searching for her missing son:
The boy's mother had been for some days diligently seeking after her absent son, and having been told by the neighbours that they had last seen him playing with some Jewish boys of his own age, and entering the house of one of that sect, she suddenly made her way into that house, and saw the body of the child in a well into which it had been thrown.
We know that Hugh was kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured in that house. Here he was crowned with thorns, beaten, made to drink gall. All of this happens, of course, against his will. Yet in the narration of the abduction, a few words from Paris open up the possibility of glimpsing another world: "they had last seen him playing with some Jewish boys of his own age, and entering the house of one of that sect." The Jews of medieval Lincoln did not live in segregated space: they were not, like the Hebrayk peple of Chaucer's Prioress's Tale, inhabitants of a ghetto. The Lincoln Jews lived with and among their Christian neighbors. They shared urban space, and to some degree they shared lives.

Sometimes, Matthew Paris quietly admits, Jewish and Christian children even played together, on the streets and in each other's homes.


Karl Steel said...

Great work on the Matthew of Paris thing. I hope I'm not making false promises here, but I'm almost certain that somewhere in my notes, I have something about Insular Christians helping their Jewish neighbors hide goods during a pogrom: have you run across any such thing yet?

On the statue in the privy thing, I can think of at least one other version of the story. See Gilbert Dahan. “Les juifs dans les Miracles de Gautier de Coincy.” Archives juives 16 (1980): 41-49, 59-68, where a Jew visits the house of a Christian friend [useful for your work!], sees the image, which he seizes angrily and throws into a privy. Also from my notes: The Christian retrieves the image, which he washes and puts back in place, and it gives off oil-I think-that heals all believers. The end announces the hatred of the Jews for the Virgin. This is another well-known story-in some versions, the image is beaten then thrown in a fire, but remains intact but takes on the color of blood, a story that’s found in Gregory of Tours’ Miracles, PL 71:724. Seems that there are 2 lines of this miracle: one in which the Jew sees the image in a church, and steals it in the dead of night, and another in which the Jew sees it at the home of a Christian [and there's your opportunity] and just grabs it and runs (or throws it in the privy right there).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I think that reference might be from ITM, when Sara Rees Jones shared that she was looking at property records that suggested this. Sara, do I remember that correctly?

Thanks as well for the references, Karl. That first one will be especially useful!

Anonymous said...

This is what I wrote back then:

So the law may define twelfth-century Jews and their wealth as property in one way – but traces of their and their neighbours’ use of property might reveal something quite different about what they felt and practiced about assimilation at a specific place and time, for example.

Not quite as specific as what you had in mind. HOWEVER I have since met a very bright person who is just finishing an entire PhD on this topic. I will put you in touch by email.

They will be at our conference next year.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thank you Sarah -- and sorry to leave the H off your name!!

Karl Steel said...

Sarah, sounds fascinating.

And Jeffrey, I tried 20 or 30 different searches, and I can't seem to track down what I'm looking for. I'm almost positive I'm not inventing the reference. In the meantime, perhaps this bit from my notes will tide you over:

Hyams, P. “The Jewish Minority in Mediaeval England, 1066-1290.” JJS 25 (1974): 270-93.

We have connections between Xian and Jews: "Gerald of Wales tells, for example, of a Jew making puns in Latin or French on the names of the churchmen who were his fellow travellers on a long and boring journey down the Welsh border" (274). Points out that fear of illicit sex between the faiths was on both sides (274). Says that "moralists of both persuasions spoke out against the dangers of casual everyday contacts because they were so normal" (274). Christians who had close contact with the Jews could be in some danger: we have friars converting, such as the Dominican Robert of Reading, who had himself circumcised before 1275: too much time studying Hebrew and talking to Jews, and died in prison (275). Sheriff's were closely associated with Jews because they supervised them, and this may have led to their being considered as members of a lowclass profession (275-76).

You may also want to look at:
Golb, N. "Notes on the conversion of European Christians to Judaism in the eleventh century." JJS 16 (1965): 35-46.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks Karl. That Hyams essay was field-defining -- in fact the Matthew Paris translation I linked to in the post was put up by Paul.

Matthew Gabriele said...


In one of the Hebrew narratives of the anti-Jewish violence that occurred during the First Crusade, it says that the Jews of Worms (I think) initially sought refuge with their Christian neighbors. The Jews were eventually found and killed but this little anecdote, to me, suggests that the Jews at the very least thought (my guess, rightly) their neighbors would protect them from the crusaders. Also, the burghers of Mainz initially resist a siege in order to protect their Jewish neighbors.

See my "Against the Enemies of Christ: The Role of Count Emicho in the Anti-Jewish Violence of the First Crusade," in Christian Attitudes toward the Jews in the Middle Ages: A Casebook, ed. Michael Frassetto (New York, 2006), 84-111.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for that Matt. I've just recalled the book from the GW patron who was hording it so I look forward to reading your essay soon.

My own impression is that despite those who wanted to do the Jews in, in almost every case you can find potential protectors: a sheriff, an archbishop, locals...

dtkline said...

Gotta love those subversive children, playin' together and all.