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.