by J J Cohen
From some work in progress:
The twelfth-century cleric Gerald of Wales tells a story about a Jew who doubted Saint Frideswide of Oxford.
The narrative appears in his Gemma ecclesiastica ["Jewel of the Church"]. This text on canon and moral law seems to have been composed during Gerald’s studies at Lincoln towards the close of the twelfth century – a time when Jews and Christians were living in the city together, sometimes quite peacefully, sometimes not. In a long arc of examples illustrating God’s propensity to strike those who question Christian dogma deaf, dumb, paralyzed, or defunct, Gerald supplies an episode “which took place in modern times,” when the body of the city’s patron saint was translated from the monastery in which she died to a shrine church.
The event took place in 1180, and may have been witnessed by Gerald himself. This moment of civic celebration was marked by frequent miracles worked by the Anglo-Saxon virgin, drawing a stream of worshipers to her new tomb. A certain young Jew infiltrated the crowd, with hands and legs tied by cords as if he were paralyzed. After “mockingly” begging the saint for help, he would unbind his ropes and declare himself healed, shouting “Behold, what great miracles the holy Frideswide can work! She has cured others in the same way as she has just now cured me.”
This nameless Jew, in other words, undermined through histrionic excess the marvels supporting the saint’s revitalized cult. Riffing on what Judith Butler called “gender insubordination,” we might call this irreverent Jewish imitation “dogma insubordination”: a parodic overperformance of an orthodox norm that empties that norm of self-evidence, that erodes its foundation by exposing its status as effect “disingenuously renamed” as cause, a fabrication susceptible to disruption. The Jew’s confrontational parody of saintly healing was meant to cast doubt on the veracity of the Oxfordian efflorescence of cures. Can an obscure virgin from five hundred years ago really be so powerful “in modern times”?
The Jew, in other words, seems to be speaking a thought likely on more minds than his own. He pays a price for his lampooning of orthodoxy, hanging himself in his father’s cellar by the same cords with which he faked a divinely given mobility. He dies uttering an unspecified blasphemy, a last and a lost protest against the narrative vengeance machine that swallows him, that engulfs every Jew in Gerald’s text who dares poke a lance against a crucifix or hurl a rock at an image of Christ or desecrate a host. Although his parents attempt to conceal their son’s suicide, the event is quickly made public by “the Jewish family’s servants and nurses, who were Christians” – to the “great joy and rejoicing” of the Christians, and the “great shame and confusion” of the Jews (Jewel of the Church 1.51, p. 118).
[An early instance here of Jewish humor. Nowadays Christians just laugh at Jewish jokes, or groan, or throw a tomato. Back then God forced you to kill yourself. No one likes a yid punk].