Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Jews of Stone

by J J Cohen

So I've got this talk coming up at the University of York -- last one of the conference, no pressure: after me there is just tea and the Croxton Play. In my lecture I'm working with William of Newburgh (AKA Billy Newby) since his Historia rerum Anglicarum is the richest account we possess of the York massacre. William is such an energetic, conflicted, and perturbable writer that reading him never becomes stale.

My York project is intimately related to my Leeds piece of last year. That talk followed Hugh of Lincoln across an unexpected threshold, into a Jewish household offering potential amity, into a space where the frozen-in-time theological figure of the Jew of Unbelief might become the human, adaptive, local, limited Jewish neighbor. The Jew of Unbelief is a figure consigned to partitioned, segregated, superceded space-time. The Jewish neighbor is the near-dweller, he whose door may be open to Elijah, but may also be ajar so that the Christian boy across the street can find his way to the kitchen. I did not make an argument for commensality (though I wish I could have), and I allowed for aggression and fantastic violence on both sides. These are the questions I posed:
How do we free medieval Jews from their freezing in typological amber? How do we escape the temporal tyranny practiced against them, and give medieval Jews the possibility of a fully inhabited, living and changing present, as well as an unpredetermined future? How do we restore to medieval Jewishness the same mutability discernible in Christian identity and belief? Can we find places where orthodoxy and orthopraxy break down, can we discover an improvised space of relations where the interactions that unfold within a heterogeneous community might be rather different from officially produced and publicly professed creeds? Can we glimpse in lived praxis a coinhabited space where Christian and Jewish convivencia is not detemporalized but extemporalized, unfolding differently from what orthodox narratives might want or suggest?
These questions, I should say, are those I never cease to ask ... and for me they have taken on a personal saliency as Alex's bar mitzvah looms. And maybe that's why my York paper will be looking more closely at Jewish adaptation to local environments, at Judaism as a moderately flexible, semi-adaptable practice in which acculturation and boundary-crossing are constants, where doors may be open to returning or wayward prophets, to neighborhood kids, to the entrance of local customs, and, well, to modernity itself.

This time, though, rather than follow a boy as he crosses a domestic portal, I'll follow a stone as it tumbles from a tower and crushes a mad hermit.

William of Newburgh's Jewish narrative arc begins in Book 4 of the History with an inauspiciously closed door. Having come to London to witness the coronation of King Richard, the "leading men" among the English Jews are barred from the church at which he is to be crowned, and forbidden to enter the palace for the celebratory feast. Yet once the palace doors do open, the Jews find themselves conveyed inside with an entering mob. They are immediately attacked with clubs and stones. Thus begins for William the English tale of an "unbelieving race," the "enemies of Christ" against whom the Christians have been inspired with "novel confidence."

William states that he records the story to transmit it to the future. It is worth memorialization because it displays "an evident judgment from on high upon a perfidious and blasphemous race" (4.1). William's language is familiar here, because it is borrowed: nothing original about stressing Jewish perfidy, unbelief, racial distinctiveness, impiety. What is striking about the episode, though, is William's recurring stress upon Jewish economic prosperity (the Jews attend Richard's coronation to ensure that they can enjoy the same affluence under him that they experienced under Henry), as well as his insistence that the violence in the Jewish-Christian interactions he records is novel. In fact the economic gains made by the Jews and the newness of their persecution and its attendant violence will be two themes that obsess him throughout his narrative. Thus to comprehend the Jewish choice of self-sacrifice over conversion during those desperate moments in besieged tower, William invokes Josephus and the History of the Jewish War, as if York were Masada and Jewish "madness" and "superstition" eternal (4.11). These twin preoccupations -- economic prosperity, discomforting novelty/lack of historical precedent -- are inter-related: what bothers William about Jewish affluence, for example, is the Jews' ability to mimic newly prosperous Christians by living like them in impressive houses. Instead of lingering among Christians for Christian utility, as eternal reminders of the Passion they enacted upon Jesus, the Jews of England had the audacity to adapt to, participate within, and accelerate the financial system, becoming "happy and famous above the Christians" (4.9) -- but more accurately, becoming prosperous in a way that some Christians likewise had. The Jews gall William because (1) they are more visible as signs of this resortment of wealth; (2) they seem to have integrated themselves not only into the contemporary economy, but into contemporary community, especially through their sometimes opulent housing in the midst of the city.

Both William's preoccupations (Jewish profit within a changed economy; unprecedented Jewish identities) find expression in what might be called William's poetics of stone.

The violence against the Jews begun in London migrates northward to York. The city's Jews find their "castle-like" houses plundered. Jewish families take refuge in the royal tower, where they are besieged for days. A hermit appears and walks about in his white gown, inciting the gathered crowd to violence, urging "Down with the enemies of Christ!" (4.10). As he approaches the tower wall, a large stone tumbles from above and crushes him. William sees in the falling stone a divine judgment: the mad hermit is the only one "of our people" to die at the encounter. The deadly stone is one of several the Jews hurl. Their only weapons, these rocks are said to be "pulled out of the wall in the interior" (I am not fully certain what this means, because the tower was at this time constructed of wood: a stone foundation, perhaps?).

The tumbling stone resonates with the geology of the William's narrative: his Jews can be stone-hearted, according to the Christian hijacking of Ezekiel 36:26; with their law full of the "letter that killeth," the Jews live a kind of petrified life, re-enacting Masada in York because time is incapable of altering their nature, of providing them with anything but the same old script to re-enact; the Jews reside in opulent [stone] houses in the midst of the city.

Just as stone in the Middle Ages is not nearly so inert a substance as it might at first seem, neither will stone stay in its place at any point in William's narrative. To give one example that offers a glimpse of where my paper heads, in the first book of his History William describes this mysterious excavation:
In another quarry, while they were digging very deep for materials for building, there was found a beautiful double stone, that is, a stone composed of two stones, joined with some very adhesive matter. Being shown by the wondering workmen to the bishop, who was at hand, it was ordered to be split, that its mystery (if any) might be developed. In the cavity, a little reptile, called a toad, having a small gold chain around its neck, was discovered. When the bystanders were lost in amazement at such an unusual occurrence, the bishop ordered the stone to be closed again, thrown into the quarry, and covered up with rubbish for ever. (1.28)
What message, may I ask, does a toad on a golden chain, sent into the future within two fused stones and received by an uncomprehending audience, what message does this prodigy convey about the future of the Jews of York?


Martin Foys said...

Jeffrey - I've over the years done some research on the Jewish presence in medieval London, in connection with what Chaucer's view of past (or possibly present) Jews in London may have been. Some day I'll have to write it up.

I cannot imagine you do not know this already, but Jewish poetics of stone in York aligns but inverts with the historical factoid that when the barons refortified the London walls in 1215, they sacked parts of the Jewry, and used stones from the Jewish houses for the repairs. As Stowe reports:

From Walter Coventry and Ralph Cogshall in the 17th of K. John I read: In the year 1215 the 17th day of May being Sunday the Barons came to London and entered through Aldgate in the service time, where they took such as they knew favoured the King, and spoiled their goods: they brake into the houses of the Jews and searched their coffers to stuff their own purses that had been long empty After this Robert Fitzwalter and Gefferey de Maundeville, Earle of Essex and the Earl of Gloucester chiefe leaders of the army, applied all diligence to repair the Gales and Walls of the City with the stones of the Jewes broken houses.

These stones possess moments of an overlaid and telling 19th century historicity as well; they above quotation is pulled from a note in an 1817 Gentlemen's Magazine commenting about a stone recovered and reputedly from the wall with strange writing that the correspondent presumes to be Jewish. See here:

~ Martin

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks so much for that link, Martin, and for your thoughts.

I know of Stowe's fascination with the Jewish writing on the London wall especially well from my colleague Gil Harris's work on it: he has a chapter in _Untimely Matter_. I didn't knw about the 1817 note you've directed me to though, and I love its richly thick temporalities.

Mo said...

so jealous you get to see the Croxton Play! can you make a cell phone video?

Anonymous said...

Can't wait.

Around the time of the excavations of the Jewish cemetery here - there was a lot of debate about why the graves were not marked by stones as was supposed to be the Jewish custom but was apparently not in medieval York.

this absence of stone markers caused a bit of a fuss, and 'fortified' the claims of those who wanted to argue that this could not be a Jewish cemetery.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Mo: cell phone video? How much are you willing to pay for that?

Sarah, thanks for that tidbit of local history. I am wondering if you know where the stone hurled by the Jews from the tower might have originated? Am I right in thinking it could be from the base or foundation of the wooden tower itself?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

And one more thing about Jews and Christian stonework, since Martin brought up that rich topic. Kathy Lavezzo is currently working on an absolutely fascinating project right now about the architectural space and medieval English Jews, which looks at (among many other things) Bede's connecting of the Jews to the stone of the Jerusalem temple and the Jewish financing of Christian architectures, like cathedrals. She is presenting at the conference on Thomas of Monmouth's Life of William of Norwich (a vita obsessed with the mapping of Jewish space).