Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Future of the Jews of York

by J J Cohen

As promised, the paper that closed the York 1190 conference last week. This isn't quite the version I gave, as I altered my remarks through some late handwritten editing so that I could better bring together what had been said in the preceding sessions ... but it is fairly close. For reasons that will become clear when you get to the last paragraph I wanted to get it up here at ITM today.
You may recognize some sections of the paper. The opening is lifted from my introduction to Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages; the sections on the mocking Jew of Oxford and the mapping of Hugh of Lincoln's threshold-crossing are from my Leeds plenary last year. I hope I've brought them together, though, in a novel way.

One more note, on theory. Given the audience and the themes of the conference, it didn't seem to me the most useful place to be citing the theorists who helped me to formulate my questions. If you detect some Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, D&G, and especially Graham Harman, Bruno Latour and Michel Serres in here, well, you have a good ear. But just as important to this work are the scholars who have been rethinking Jewish-Christian interaction in the Middle Ages mainly from a historical viewpoint: Malkiel, Biale, Einbinder, Yuval, Elukin, Boyarin, Horowitz... So, the following may strike you as uncharacteristically historicist; I don't know. But I am eager for your comments.

The Future of the Jews of York

An Open Door

We’ve been talking a great deal at this conference about the access William of Newburgh’s History of English Affairs grants to the events that unfolded here in York in 1190. It’s difficult to resist portal analogies when speaking of the lost world we glimpse in his Latin prose, since his narrative opens the details of history to the examining present, enables us to feel as if we experience the unfolding events, however partially, however framed by the doorway William constructs around them. Yet sometimes within this metaphorical, textual entrance a literal door will either be ominously barred, or swing unexpectedly open. It is with one such ingress that I would like to begin.

Towards the close of the first book of William’s History, the gateway to another world appears in an earthwork in rural Yorkshire. A nocturnal traveler is returning to his village, a little tipsy from his revels. His journey is interrupted when song resounds from what had been a familiar landmark: “He heard voices singing, as though people were feasting in celebration [quasi festive convivantium].”[1] William assures us that he himself knows this mound, that he has viewed its topographical ordinariness numerous times [Et ecce, de proximo tumulo quem saepius vidi]. On this particular night an unexpected doorway into the hill reveals:
a large, well-lit dwelling [domum amplam et luminosam] crowded with men and women reclining at table as at a formal feast. One of the servants noticed him standing at the door, and offered him a cup.
Not the most polite guest, the man empties the drink and flees with the goblet.

The purloined vessel is "of unknown material, unusual color, and strange shape" [vasculum materiae incognitae, coloris insoliti, et formae inusitate]. Through theft it becomes divorced from its history, transformed from the key to another world to a deracinated souvenir of some vaguely exotic elsewhere.[2] The feast once refused recedes from memory, taking with it the story of whatever community had invited him to commensality, table-sharing. What would happen, though, if the English traveler had joined the celebration rather fled with its stolen tableware? What would have come to pass had he risked conversation with the subterranean congregants, if one of these congenial revelers had spoken the tale of who they were and what they honored at their formal repast? Whose history would this speaker narrate? Barely glimpsed by a traveler who preferred the security of his village over the incongruity of the feast, this history would likely be very different from the narrative William of Newburgh otherwise composes.

For William, too, refuses the invitation from beyond the open door, discerning across the threshold a lost tale rather than a living one. William is an author proudly English. At the beginning of his work he states flatly that he composes historiam gentis nostrae, id est Anglorum [“a history of our race, that is, the English,” 1.Prologue]. The Britons who had held the land long before are, in his account, savages. The Irish, a people whose land England was energetically annexing as William wrote, are likewise “uncivilized and barbarous.” Strange, then, to find in Yorkshire this celebration in a mound, since all the analogues to the story are Welsh and Irish, narratives in which mounds yield the entranceway to the Other World. The stately feast beheld within the tumulus transforms the mound from a local landmark of no great significance to an alien interstice quite unlike the mundane expanses that surround its rise. Had the celebrants of the underground feast been invited to speak their history, the narrative they would likely tell might reveal the difference between the attenuated narrative of a kingdom that masqueraded as the entirety of an island and the histories of a tempestuous world too vast, too motley, too entangled in an archipelago of other worlds to be so reduced.

The mound in Yorkshire figures a story that William embeds, but does not quite tell. We can excavate it, we can even admire its beauty, but we can’t assimilate into something known: like the goblet, it is formae inusitate, “rare” as well as “lacking in typical use-value.” At this conference we are most interested in what William did narrate with so much detail: the Jewish story of 1189-90, a narrative he culminates here in York. Even though Jews figure prominently only in a few chapters of Book 4, I am going to argue that they should not be consigned to so small a space. By looking into unexpected architectures like that Yorkshire mound, by detaching William’s Jewish story from a narrative that climaxes in fire and obliteration, by reading the events in the tower as something more than a second Masada – by freeing William’s Jews from the cement of familiar history – we give them something they too infrequently attain, an unpredetermined future.

Punk’d by a Jew 
I would never want to make the argument that Jewish humor is transhistorical (even if it is). I’ll simply say that irreverent Jewish humor goes way back. Take, for example, the Jewish punk from Oxford described by Gerald of Wales. Gerald’s story appears in his Gemma ecclesiastica [Jewel of the Church], composed during his studies at Lincoln towards the close of the twelfth century. At this time Jews and Christians were living in the city together, sometimes quite peacefully, sometimes not.[4] In 1190, for example, Bishop Hugh of Lincoln faced down a “raging and riotous mob” intent on violence against the Jews. When the crowd raised swords to brain him, the fearless bishop scolded them so severely that they backed down. Unlike Lynn, Stamford, Norwich, Bury St Edmunds, and York, Lincoln did not suffer a pogrom that year. Lincoln’s Jews remained fond of the bishop until his death, at least according to Hugh’s medieval biographer, who records that they wept at his funeral. This same bishop also put the brake on a cult that effloresced around one of the plunderers of Jewish homes in Northampton in 1190. An accomplice had murdered the man for his loot, the local people reported miracles and the nearby clergy reaped profits. Through a “bitter struggle” Hugh ended the veneration of the robber, a worship that he (as well as William of Newburgh, who also tells the story) condemned as a “superstitious abomination.”[5]

Gerald of Wales, writing perhaps in Lincoln during Hugh’s reign, tells a somewhat similar story about veneration, miracles, clerical profits, and cultus. A Jew in Oxford ridicules the worship of a local saint, Fridewside. The event takes place “in modern times,” as the body of the city’s patron saint is translated to a shrine church.[6] Civic celebration was accompanied by an outbreak of miracles worked by the Anglo-Saxon virgin, drawing streams of worshippers. A young Jew infiltrated the crowd, with hands and legs tied by cords as if he were paralyzed. After begging the saint for help “mockingly” [ironice], 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 evacuates its self-evidence.[7] The Jew’s parody of saintly healing was meant to cast doubt on the veracity of the Oxfordian efflorescence of cures, articulating a critique likely on both Jewish and Christian minds: can an obscure virgin from five hundred years ago really be so conveniently powerful “in modern times”?[8]

Unlike Bishop Hugh, whose skepticism was reserved for unofficial cultic practices, our Jewish punk eventually hangs 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. 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.”[9] The Jew, in other words, does not live an isolated life; his prank is directed at those with whom he shares urban and domestic space. His humor challenges; it is dark; it is directed towards the complicatedly multicultural world in which he lived. He pays for his little piece of performance art with his life. But he does not die unnoticed, or unrecorded.

By the twelfth century Ashkenazic Jewish communities cohabitated with Christians in cities across France, Germany, and England. As in Gerald’s narrative, literary and historical texts suggest that these Jews could offer through their rituals and their words a sharp challenge to Christian self-assurance. Pulled into contemporary deliberations over epistemology and religious faith, the Jews became a community intimately involved in questions of orthodoxy and unbelief.[10] In his groundbreaking essay “The Jewish Minority in Mediaeval England” (1974), Paul Hyams observed that “No devout Christian could see a Jew at Eastertide … without an uneasy feeling that his very presence cast doubt on the fundamental dogma that the Messiah had come.”[11] Christians were fascinated with Jewish irony and incredulitas, partly because Jews got to say what Christians sometimes suspected but could not safely express.

Now, medieval Jews really did disparage Jesus as “the Hanged One.” They questioned Mary's virginity. They insisted that God had engendered no son, that the Messiah was yet to arrive. But I don’t think we possess in examples like the one Gerald provides cases where Christians were listening attentively to their Jewish neighbors. The mocker of Saint Frideswide’s miracles perishes, after all, with his final imprecation unrecorded. For Gerald it suffices that his dying words constituted a blasphemy; their specific content was irrelevant. The Jew of Unbelief is mainly a Christian fantasy. A timeless and petrified type rather than a historical person, he exists within and for the Christian imagination. Immobile, existing only to be mobilized, he possesses no future other than perfunctory self-immolation.

Coinhabited Space (Love Thy Neighbor)
The religious quarantine that Chaucer described in the “Prioress’s Tale,” was never the historical experience of the England in which he wrote.[12] Until the Expulsion of 1290, Christians and Jews shared urban space. They lived alongside each other and were domestic intimates. If separation could not be enacted geographically, however, it was often done so temporally. Antisemitic medieval narratives were addicted to their binaries, with Jews figuring a superceded, frozen and lethal temporality; Christians a vibrant if Jew-endangered modernity. Jews were living fossils, lingering remnants of a surpassed history; they carried the bloody stain of deicide as if they had just crucified Jesus, and therefore were likely to prove Christianicidal (to use Thomas of Monmouth’s neologism).

Behind these reductive narratives, though, can often be glimpsed complex stories of co-inhabitance. According to Gerald the suicide of the Jew who cast doubt upon saintly efficacy is revealed in the most ordinary of ways: by the Christian servants and nurses who form a part of his family’s household. Gerald’s tale of Jewish-Christian difference is also a story of Christian-Jewish interreliance. Within Gerald’s text exists oblique acknowledgement of a mixed (if stratified) household, one in which Jews and Christians tangibly and mutually depend upon each other. Antisemitic texts often reveal a fuller domain than they intend to depict, a world in which we might witness, however fleetingly, narratives of convivencia more vivacious and complex than the reductive, hostile, and historically petrified representations at their surfaces.[13] So, to return to the household employees who ratted out the Jewish parents in Gerald’s story: did the Christian nurses, servants and neighbors who dwelled with and alongside the Jews see their employers and business relations and acquaintances as locked in another time, a time that is not (as Gerald would say) in tempore moderno? At Oxford, Lincoln, York, Norwich, London – in all of those large cities of Jewish and Christian adjacency, shared more than simply space – could something happen between Christian and Jew that might yield a story other than the timeless one provided by the temporally rigidified Jew, whose narrative is by, for and about Christians?

Such glimpsed moments of coinhabitance are revelatory but rare. It is especially difficult to discover such scenes of neighboring in the textual record we possess for the York massacre. William of Newburgh, for example, enacts in his History of English Affairs a partitioning of worlds that he articulates when describing the papal council now known as Lateran III (1179). William cites the council’s decrees at length, including Canon 26 (which he numbers 13):
No Jews or Saracens shall be permitted to have Christian servants in their houses, either under the pretence of educating their children, or as slaves, or for any other purpose whatsoever. Moreover, let those be excommunicated who presume to live with them … Jews ought to be subject to Christians (3.3)
Lateran III imagines a segregation that clearly had not held in England in 1144, when a Christian maid employed within a Jewish household offered her supposedly eyewitness narrative of the ritual murder of William of Norwich – an account with a keen sense of domestic detail, even if the interior described is used for nailing a boy to a pillar in mockery of Christ. Nor is the Council’s wished-for partition any more evident in the Oxford described by Gerald of Wales, or the Lincoln of 1255 narrated by Matthew Paris when he tells the story of little Hugh. Yet William of Newburgh writes as if such separation always holds, rarely allowing Christians and Jews to share anything but spaces of contest, struggle, and violence. William sunders into separate spheres what was likely to have been a tangled social reality. Elites may have lived in the solitude of castles, bishops within a cathedral close, but urban houses opened to the street. Jews did not dwell in ghettos. Civic space was heterogeneous, gregarious. A dirty word in the Christian medieval vocabulary is Judaizer: come too close to the Jew, neighbor the Jewish world without erecting sufficient partition, and both of you may change as a result. Both of you may enter an imaginary space – albeit, perhaps, a temporary one – where what has always been need no longer hold. Recent scholarship makes clear that Judaizing and Christianizing happened more frequently, more quietly than has previously acknowledged.

This is a long way of saying that we are used to the massacre of 1190 standing as the inevitable future of the Jews of York, the logical outcome of an endemic rivalry. We are used to understanding the Expulsion of 1290 as an inexorable rendezvous. The power of such defining moments is that they differentiate the past into the same binaries that antisemitic narrative imagines, with the Jews always having been different, out of place, their residence inherently temporary. In such accounts the Jews who followed William the Conqueror from Rouen are interchangeable with those who lived in Norwich in 1144 and those who perished in 1190 and those who vanished into the Domus Conversorum in 1253. A teleological narrative that culminates in catastrophe does not allow for those medieval Jews who may have been irreverent punks, who may have considered themselves citizens of York and England as well as rootless cosmopolitans, who may have carried with them identities that only at a first and cursory glance seem timeless, set in stone.

Jews of Stone
Matthew Paris’s account of the events surrounding the ritual murder of Hugh of Lincoln is chilling. A Christian boy and nineteen Jews perish. Sustained, national attention comes to an accusation that had previously been local, sporadic. Yet Matthew’s lethal story also contains a minor remark that quietly gestures towards a reality different from the eternal Christian-Jewish enmity that underwrites his main narrative. Made on a street in Lincoln where Jewish and Christian homes adjoin, the remark opens another world, suggests another possible reality, a possible community. Hugh’s mother enters a Jewish home because she realizes that her son likely did the same thing. She has “been told by the neighbours that they had last seen [Hugh] playing with some Jewish boys of his own age.” It seems likely that her son drowned in the basement well of the residence because that’s where he was playing at the time. But let’s not focus on his death for a moment; instead let us ask a question of his life. What would happen if we followed Hugh across that unexpected threshold, into a Jewish household offering not a fatal promise (Matthew’s narrative), but amity, maybe even commensality? This might be Hugh’s narrative, an alternate history glimpsed when his friendship with nearby and non-Christian boys enables him to cross a boundary that in antisemitic tales marks utter difference, not affiliation. Matthew Paris writes of the Lincoln Jews carted to London for their supposed participation in Hugh’s murder: “And if they were perchance pitied by any Christians, they did not excite any tears of compassion amongst the Caursins, their rivals.” This statement leads us in two directions, one historicist (the allusion is explained through context, and the Jews become figures whose meaning is determined by history), and the other transhistorical. First, Paris acknowledges a Christian economic reliance upon the Jews. Lincoln’s minster was, after all, constructed through a loan made by Aaron of Lincoln, a Jewish financier who at his death in 1186 was second in wealth only to England’s king. The city depended on its Jewish population in tangible ways, as anyone who knew the history of the magnificent cathedral was reminded each time its soaring architecture came into view. This financial reliance is stressed when the Jews merit no compassion from the Caursines, their Christian rivals in moneylending, who are happy to see their competition transported to their doom.[14]

Yet before they become insubstantial political allegory, existing only to tell a story about a contemporary regent, let me also point out another line that, again, is easy to overlook because it is so terse: “And if they were perchance pitied by any Christians” implies that the Lincoln Jews conveyed to London captivity were indeed pitied by at least some of the Lincoln Christians. The line suggests, in its small way, that more than one Jewish portal was open in welcome to neighbors, that some Christian doors might likewise be open, that Hugh was not the only resident of the city to stride across a threshold that could make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Matthew’s narrative of Hugh of Lincoln unexpectedly reveals a more intricate story of coinhabitance, of lived spaces between Christian and Jew where orthodox partition breaks down into heterodox quotidian praxis.

Here in this mixed space a lived practice of propinquity unfolds. Here frozen-in-time theological figures (the Virtual Jew, the Hermeneutic Jew, the Spectral Jew, the Jew of the Book) might become the adaptive, limited, human Jewish neighbor. As a Christian fantasy, the Jew is a figure consigned to segregated and superceded space-time. The Jew as neighbor, on the other hand, is the near-dweller, he whose door may be open to Elijah, but whose door may also be ajar so that the Christian boy from across the street can find his way within.
Little Hugh of Lincoln’s story unfolds across an open doorway, a threshold of possible welcome. William of Newburgh's Jewish narrative arc begins in Book 4 of the History of English Affairs with some inauspiciously closed doors. Having come to London to witness the coronation of Richard, the "leading men" among the English Jews are barred from the church at which the king is to be crowned and forbidden to enter the palace for the celebratory feast (interdixit  eis ingressum vel ecclesiae dum coronaretur, vel palatii dum post coronationis sollemnia convivaretur, 4.1).[15] The Jews mingle outside with the gathered crowd. When a group surges forward some Jews find themselves conveyed through the gates into the royal residence [Judaei siquidem turbis immixti, fores sic regias introibant]. They and those who linger by the doors are attacked by indignant Christians with clubs and stones [ligna et lapides]. Violence escalates, fanned by a rumor that the king has ordered all Jews destroyed [quod scilicet rex omnes Judaeos exterminari jusisset]. A massacre ensues: death by trampling, swordpoint, conflagration. When the Jews barricade themselves inside their houses, a mob sets afire their roofs. “Knowing no distinction,” the flames catch “the nearest houses of the Christians also.” Jewish residences are despoiled. In describing this irruption of violence destined to spread quickly northward, William speaks of the “novel confidence of the Christians against the enemies of the Cross of Christ.” Even as these ravages are new, even as William has much difficulty interpreting what their unprecedented advent might signify, he in the end returns to stabilities and hoary verities. “Divine vengeance” precipitates the brutality against these “stiff-necked” and “perverse” “blasphemers.” Benedict of York, forced into baptism, renounces his new identity immediately and speaks of having always been a Jew in his soul [sed animo semper fuisse Judaeum], “and he would rather die as such”: a statement at once heroic and indicative of a Christian tendency to place racial stubbornness, a resistant Jewish identity, in the very flesh. Thus begins for William the English tale of an "unbelieving race," the "enemies of Christ."

So back to those doors Richard closed against the Jews bearing gifts in his honor. Other than to make the minor point that the conflagrations of the mob do not discriminate, illuminating in their burning the urban adjacency of Christian and Jew, there seems no way across this royally barred threshold other than unwilling conveyance. No future here. Rather than follow a body that crosses a portal and perhaps tells a story rather different from the dominating narrative in which it appears, as we could with Hugh of Lincoln, I’d like to now fastforward to the end of William’s Jewish story of 1190. I want to try another tack, and follow a stone as it tumbles through the air and crushes a mad hermit. This lethal projectile – foundational, elemental, ambiguous -- is, in some ways, the protagonist of my narrative. The scene is the siege of York’s royal tower. The Jews of the city have taken their last refuge against a crowd intending their destruction:
[The Jews] kept the besiegers off with stones [saxis] alone, which they pulled out of the wall in the interior. The castle was actively besieged for several days; and at length engines were got ready and brought up. That hermit of the Premonstratensian order, whom I have mentioned, urged forward the fatal work more than anyone else. Roused by the rumour, he had lately come to the city, and in his white frock was sedulously engaged among the besiegers of the castle, repeating often: ‘Down with the enemies of Christ!’ with loud shouts … To such an extent had he persuaded himself, by his mental blindness, that he was employed on a religious matter, that he laboured to persuade others of it; and when the engines were moved forward, he fervently helped with his strength. Whence it came to pass that, approaching the wall incautiously, and not observing a large stone which was falling from above [saxum grande desuper veniens non caveret], he was crushed by it; he fell forward, and when he was lifted up, instantly expired. It thus became manifest that, either by reason of his profession, or of his order, a greater judgment fell upon him than any other, for he was the only one of our people to die miserably there. (4.10)
The agent of the hermit’s destruction is textually uncertain: was it the Jews dropping a rock upon him as he incautiously drew within range? Or did the rock tumble from one of the siege machines brought forward by the Christians? The former seems most likely, given his proximity to the wall and the detail that the Jews were stripping stones from the tower’s foundation to use as weapons, but William’s Latin is not entirely clear. Yet the result is the same: the rock’s plunge silences a vociferous critic for the Jews. The hermit’s destruction therefore seems a good thing, but it needs to be stressed that the “mentally blind” man in white who rails against the entrapped Jews says nothing that William in his own voice does not also say.

Still, the missile’s lethal arc delivers a weighty judgment from God. The hurtling stone allows the Jews to score a small victory by silencing the hateful hermit. Small, because they know their time is nearly up. The engines are in place, the tower will be breached at dawn. The stones they hurl are torn from the foundation of the architecture in which they find themselves imprisoned.

It’s hard to resist reading this physical confinement metaphorically as well: a living people imprisoned within a structure of someone else’s devising, their only way of escape through death. But the tower is also a bluntly historical architecture, constructed during the Norman reconfiguration of York, rendering it a structure that is in some ways as alien to York as the Jews are, a structure that is in some ways as intimate to York as the Jews are.[16] By 1190 Normans may have disappeared into Englishness, but the tower was one of many memorials to how profoundly the city had been altered at their hands. The Normans had many strategies for announcing their enduring possession of England, massive lithicization among them: cathedrals and castles of towering stone loomed where wood and masonry structures had been obliterated. In York the new archbishop's precinct and two castles profoundly reshaped urban space, including the Roman network of roads, and destroyed almost a thousand tenements.[17] In most cities the Norman colonization of space by stone, especially as an ecclesiastical project, was made possible through Jewish moneylending.

Social change was ongoing, as the arrival and partial assimilation of the Jewish community makes clear. Still, it seems the end of the rock’s trajectory brings us to a stopping point, an impasse. Once embedded in the ground, the stone has come to the limit of its movement and the termination of its narrative. Likewise, the Jews are stuck: as confined in the tower are they are by William’s text, with its narrative that only for a moment forgets to declare whether a murderous stone was set in motion by the Christians or the Jews – Jews who have no future, and so in fire and with sword they will re-enact a deadly past. William’s story, not theirs.

Thinking the New
Futurity is William’s preoccupation. He records his Jewish story to transmit the events to posterity. Yet his language is unfailing past-looking, especially in his limited vocabulary for Jewishness. Uncritical repetition of timeworn terms is William’s typical method for describing non-English peoples: the Welsh, Scots, and Irish are given the same feral descriptors that abound in Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury (or even, in the case of the Welsh, Bede). His Muslims are not crusade caricatures, but neither are they much more than uncomplex and unremitting enemies. Even though Jewish presence in England was only as old as the Norman Conquest, the terms of William’s antisemitism are familiar because inherited: nothing original about stressing Jewish perfidy, unbelief, racial distinctiveness, impiety. What is striking about William’s Jewish story, though, is his recurring mention of 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), and his stating that the Christian-Jewish violence he records is novel. The economic gains made by the Jews and the English newness of what unfolded obsess him throughout his narrative, even as he attempts to play down the latter.

William will often turn to the past, nervously, to discover reassurance in precedent, to imagine some principle of repetition and therefore of order. I pointed out earlier that to comprehend the Jewish choice of self-sacrifice over conversion during those desperate moments in the besieged tower, he invokes Josephus and the History of the Jewish War, as if York were Masada and Jewish "madness" and "superstition" eternal (4.11).[18] It doesn’t quite work; what unfolds in York is not the same as what transpired in that distant desert a millennium previous, a narrative of martial and rebel Jews, a story without Christian content. William’s twin preoccupations -- economic prosperity, discomforting novelty -- are inter-related: what bothers William about Jewish affluence, for example, is the Jews' ability to mimic newly prosperous Christians by living like them and among them in impressive stone houses (as the nondiscriminating fire of London stressed).[19] William states the Augustinian position that Jews linger among Christians for Christian utility, as eternal reminders of the Passion they enacted upon Jesus:
The perfidious Jew who crucified the Lord Jesus Christ is suffered to live amongst Christians [perfidus Judaeus Domini Christi crucixor inter Christianos vivere sinitur], from the same regard to Christian utility, that causes the form of the cross of the Lord to be painted in the Church of Christ: that is to say, to perpetuate the highly beneficial remembrance of the Passion among the faithful … The Jews ought to live among Christians for our own utility [pro utilitate nostra vivere] (4.9)
The problem for William is that these useful and timeless Jews, who ought to be decorative spurs to memory, were the ones finding Christians to be useful. They were adapting to modernity instead of remaining locked in a narrative 1,157 years old. The Jews of England had the audacity to participate within and accelerate financial and economic systems, becoming in William’s words "happy and famous above the Christians" (super Christianos felices et incliti, 4.9) -- but more accurately, becoming prosperous in a way that some Christians had likewise become (even while others had seen a reduction in fortune). Though he will condemn Richard Malebysse and his compeers for their blatantly financial reasons for instigating the massacre of York’s Jews, William (it must be noted) shares their hostility; his violence is textual rather than physical. Jews gall William because they are highly visible catalysts to and signs of a resortment in wealth. 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 wealth within a changed economy; unprecedented Jewish identities) find expression in what might be called William's poetics of stone. Trapped in the tower at York, the Jews excavate and hurl rocks. The hermit is crushed by a stone from the sky. The tumbling rock resonates with the geology of medieval antisemitism, according to which Jews are stone-hearted. Christian interpreters hijacked Ezekiel 36:26 (“And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh”). Thus Peter the Venerable wonders “I really do not know whether a Jew is a man … I know not, say I, whether he is a man from whose flesh the stony heart has not yet been removed.”[20] For William of Newburgh, the Jews live a kind of petrified life, re-enacting Masada in northern climes because time is incapable of altering their nature, of providing them with anything but the same old script to re-enact. The Jews invariably reside in stone houses. William repeatedly returns to the affluence and the lithic materiality of Jewish homes: in London they are “of strong construction” (4.1) and therefore almost impregnable; their domiciles in Lynn (4.7) and Stamford (4.8) are replete with riches; York Jews “built houses of the largest extent in the middle of the city, which might be compared to royal palaces; and there they lived in abundance and luxury almost regal” (4.9); Josce, a Jew who had been present in London during Richard’s coronation, possesses a house in the city “which, from the magnitude and strength of its construction, might be said to be equal to a castle of no small size” (4.9). Stone houses seem to partition the Jews, set them apart; but really they bring them intolerably close to the Christians. Or, at least, to some Christians: those for whom the stone of these houses materialized changes to the social fabric; those for whom each rock of these little castles [castella] materializes the transformation of liquid, Christian wealth via Jewish usury into Jewish holdings; those who were not pleased to see petrifying Christian typology challenged by the mobility of contemporary Jewish identities. Figuratively, stone was supposed to keep the Jews in place. In fact, though, the material is more protean than carceral.

Lapidary Networks
I have been arguing in this paper that the narratives medieval Christians told about Jews tended to lapidify them temporally: the figural Jew is immutable, the intrusion into modernity of an eternally repeating past. The Jew performs his stubbornness, carnality, literal-mindedness, and enmity against Christians in tiresome repetitions. Yet I have also insisted that when looked carefully enough, many antisemitic narratives betray their stark and rigid segregations, yielding partial views of effervescent quotidian practice, of at times affirmative Christian-Jewish neighboring. Coinhabitation sometimes fostered alliance, sharing, and becoming, contravening narrative ardor for ghettoization, abjection, and fossilization. I’d now like to extend this idea of neighboring and the improvised confederations it might engender beyond lived spaces (urban, architectural), and ask if we can’t also have instances of coinhabited space unfold within a text. We know that Jews and Christians lived together, because narratives like William of Newburgh’s tell us they did. These stories convey something of shared history into the present. But are they not also a performance of that reality itself? Can we not glimpse in the very form of these narratives (narratives that insist on segregation but are quietly undone by coinhabitation) another kind of living-together, equally troubled, violence-plagued, denied?

I’ve emphasized the ways in which William of Newburgh conceptually segregates space that is in fact plurally inhabited. Yet he also places his Jewish stories in the heart of a Christian narrative, and makes them resonate with themes that haunt the whole of his work. Jewish houses of stone abut Christian houses of stone in London, in York. Jewish identities, which can at first glance appear fashioned of immutable, typological stone, abut Christian identities, and are just as dynamic. Jewish stories neighbor Christian stories in Book 4 of the History of English Affairs. William’s fascination with stone here and elsewhere helps us to see what this unacknowledged, confounding, and nearly invisible convivencia quietly generates within his text.

The Middle Ages inherited an ambivalent lapidary vocabulary from the Bible. Stone could be foundational (Peter is the rock upon which the Church is built), inert and useless materiality (Christ could transform a stone into bread, if he wanted to), a material to convey memory into the future (Jacob erects a stone to mark the place where he saw the Gate of Heaven), a weapon (Goliath dies from a stone to the head), the door to a tomb, a substance that can cry out (Luke 19:40), a symbol of ruin (Christ’s vision of the destroyed temple, in which no stone remains standing [Matthew 24:1-2]), a mute idol (“Woe to him that saith to wood: Awake: to the dumb stone: Arise” Habakkuk 2:19). Stone in medieval texts is not nearly so inert a substance as it might at first seem. In the lapidaries it is often the hero of its own narratives, journeying the world in the mouths of fabulous beasts or the pockets of exotic merchants, radiating its innate vertu to vanquish poison or preserve chastity. According to Mandeville’s Travels some rocks possess a promiscuous sexuality: male and female diamonds, for example, copulate to bring baby diamonds into the world. Stone seems immobile only when viewed outside its proper duration; as Chaucer points out in the Knight’s Tale, given enough time stone as mutable as any substance. 

Neither will stone stay in its place at any point in William of Newburgh's narrative. Book One, for example, includes a stone architecture erected upon the field of Hastings that exudes fresh gore after each rain; the walls of Ramsey Abbey run with real blood (verum sanguinem sudarunt) when Geoffrey de Mandeville seizes the building; Green Children emerge from the ground near Woolpit, and one of them refuses assimilation to a new English life; a huge rock in an unnamed quarry is split open, revealing two smelly, hairless greyhounds living inside. The Bishop Henry of Winchester adopts one as a pet. Possessed of an astonishing appetite, it lives for many days. In another quarry workmen discover a beautiful “double-stone” (lapis formosus duplex) with an even more marvelous creature within:
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 [ex duobus subtili agglutinatione compactus lapidibus]. 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 animal [bestiola], called a toad, having a small gold chain [cathenulam auream, a pet’s 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)
The nameless bishop seems not to like the astonishment that possesses the workmen upon discovery of the doubled stone, the amazement that takes hold when the conjoined rock is cracked open to reveal dwelling at its secret interior a creature of art (the gold chain) and danger (toads were considered poisonous). He has the stone resealed  -- but with what? Once broken, can the two stones become one really be restored, can they contain the unprecedented and living phenomena which has been revealed as inhabiting their interior? A toad with a golden chain, sent into the future as the gift of two mutually dependent spheres, received by an uncomprehending but wonderstruck audience, returned to the depths of the ground by a bishop who cannot thereby end the life of the astonishing story that has already escaped from that rock, even as the being at its interior is consigned to the prison of the earth: what message does this prodigy convey about the future of the Jews of York? What message does it yield about history as discovery, inventio? Why intentionally destroy the beauty and challenge (no matter how enigmatic) of that which arises when worlds acknowledge their agglutination, their generative and irrevocable conjoining?
Giving the Jews of York a future means not just de-coupling their narrative from lachrymose history, which always knows its answers in advance, but also by allowing their narratives to live within a wider, more capacious context: here, by not isolating the Jewish section of William of Newburgh’s narrative from its embeddedness in the History of English Affairs. Just as Christian-Jewish neighboring unfolded in shared urban space, coinhabitance must be textual: neighboring is literal (Jewish stone houses with Christian stone houses) as well as literary. Jews share space in William’s book with a host of Others: Scots, Saracens, the Welsh. His world is wide. They also textually touch Other Worlds, where we behold stones yielding wonders, Green Children from a distant land who do not eat English food, sport English skin, wear English dress, utter English words ... and yet, when they do speak, prove not wholly alien. 
Might these lapidary tales hold the promise of some strange beauty, some unfamiliar future, that the dominant narrative will not yield? 

I want to end by returning to the story of stone with which I began, the Yorkshire hill within which an uncanny people celebrate an evening feast. The familiar landmark is rendered queer when the passerby observes through an open door (januam patentam) a feast in progress. Inside the mound the traveler can see a table at which men and women are reclining, “as at a formal feast.”  A servant spots him at the doorway and offers him a cup. The man takes the goblet and flees, leaving himself only a story of an invitation declined. The feast not enjoyed seems to me a refusal by William to recognize another possible narrative, one in which a passing Christian might have shared an alien table. Perhaps it is too close to Passover, perhaps I am reading this too much like a Jew, but the door left ajar, the reclining at the formal table, the ready cup: all that is missing is matzoh and bitter herbs. Does this feast not seem to be a seder, the door and the goblet ready to welcome Elijah? Of course it could not be, it isn’t, it’s Welsh or it’s Irish or it’s something but not Jewish … yet this unexpected possibility of commensality, opening in Yorkshire in a space William knows well, opening in the heart of William’s own story to perplex him, to offer an invitation to him – an invitation not so much refused as miserecognized, an invitation still enduring. Does not this invitation not still proclaim, Another world is possible?

[1] The History of English Affairs, Book 1, ed. and trans. P. G. Walsh and M. J. Kennedy (Wilthsire: Aris and Phillips, 1988) 1.28.
[2] Monika Otter analyzes the cup's diminution into ordinariness well in Inventiones: Fiction and Referentiality in Twelfth-Century English Historical Writing (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996) 105.
[4] See Gerald of Wales, The Jewel of the Church, trans. John J. Hagen (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1979) xi. Gerald was friends with Hugh of Glenoble, the bishop of Lincoln, who oversaw a thriving intellectual community in the city. Translations are from this edition. For the Latin see Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, ed. J. S. Brewer (London: Longman, 1862) vol. 2 1.51.
[5] See Adam of Eynsham, Magna Vita Sancti Hugonis [The Life of Saint Hugh of Lincoln], ed. Decima L. Douie and Hugh Farmer (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1961) volume 2, 4.4 (probable defense of Jews in 1190), 5.17 (suppression of cult), and 5.20 (Jews at funeral). On the cult of the robber of Northampton, see also Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075-1225 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000) 472. William of Newburgh tells the story as well (4.8); Nancy F. Partner describes it s an example of his “intellectual fastidiousness”: Serious Entertainments: The Writing of History in Twelfth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977) 73-74.
[6] The event took place in 1180, and may have been witnessed by Gerald himself. Jewel of the Church, trans. Hagen, 308n.
[7] See Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss (New York: Routledge, 1991), 13-31; quotations from p. 29.
[8] The Jew’s name is given as “Deus-cum-crescat” in the version of the story by Prior Philip of the monastery of St. Frideswide in his Appendix ad acta S. Frideswidae, de libro miraculorum ejus (c. 1180). The story differs only in the details of the discovery of the young Jew’s death. In his translation of the Gemma ecclesistica, Hagen suggests that Philip may have been Gerald’s source (p. 308n).
[9] Jewel of the Church 1.51; translation p. 118. The Latin for the conclusion runs: “quin immo per servientes eorum Christianos et nutrices in crastino statim id publice, cum Judaeorum opprobrio grandi et confusione, Christianorum autem gaudio magno et insultatione, procuravit” (p.154).
[10] I use that word as John H. Arnold does, as a term more flexible than heresy: unbelief is “the absence of something expected … divergent, ‘superstitious’, heretical and skeptical viewpoints … intriguingly varied forms of dissent and divergence from the orthodox norm” (Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe [London: Hodder Arnold, 2005] 4).
[11] Paul Hyams, "The Jewish Minority in Mediaeval England, 1066-1290," Journal of Jewish Studies 25 (1974) 270-93 at 280. Hyams provides another episode of Jewish unbelief involving Saint Frideswide when in describing Jewish anger against Christians he writes “Incidents such as that which occurred at Oxford in 1268, when a Jew threw down and then trampled upon a crucifix as it was being carried in a solemn University procession towards the shrine of St. Frideswide were to be expected from time to time” (284). On Christian doubt and projection of uncertainty onto Jews, compare Gavin I. Langmuir, who invokes a similar thesis throughout his work: Toward a Definition of Antisemitism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) and History, Religion, and Antisemitism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
[12] This partitioning is not, however, stable: Anthony Bale attentively maps the ways in which the boundaries are violated in the tale in The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms, 1350-1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) 85-86.
[13] Arguing that northern Europe saw a “convivencia in a minor key,” Jonathan Elukin surveys contemporary work on convivencia that stresses its coexistence, cultural interpenetrations, rivalry, friction, jealousies, violence, and mutual creative influences via affection and infection. See Living Together, Living Apart: Rethinking Jewish-Christian Relations in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007) 135-8, quotation at 136.
[14] The Caursines, or Cohorsin money lenders, are condemned by Matthew Paris early in history (1235). He writes that “there was hardly anyone in England, especially among the bishops, who was not caught in their nets. Even the king himself was held indebted to them for an incalculable sum of money” (Matthew Paris’s English History vol. 1, p. 2). Matthew accused the Caursines of using trickery to cloak their usury. “Even the Jews,” he observes, “seeing this new kind of usury arise among the Christians, derided our Sabbaths, not undeservedly” (4).
[15] The noun palatium will return a bit later in the text, in York, when the houses of two Jews from that city who are attacked in London (Benedict and Josce) are said to reside in houses like royal palaces. See 4.9.
[16] As V. D. Lipman observes, both castles and Jews were Norman imports: “Jews and Castles in Medieval England,” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England 27 (1984) 1-18, at 1.
[17] Fleming gathers copious evidence for the systematic seizure and destruction of urban property and architectures to make room for Norman edifices in Kings and Lords in Conquest England 194-204; my description of the changes in York are based on 195-96.
[18] Cf. Anthony Bale, “Fictions of Judaism in England Before 1290,” in The Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2003): “Newburgh's text strives to master the meaning of the past and the (Christian) narrative into which it must be accommodated. The iconoclastic and bloody nature of the event, and the shock of its newness, left Newburgh without an exemplar by which to comprehend the incident within a Christian frame of reference ('this hitherto unheard of event'). It is thus not surprising that when he came to write about the self-slaughter of the Jews of York in 1190 Newburgh used Josephus' account of the mass-suicide of the zealots at Masada to understand and interpret the catastrophe. The current validity of Judaism is refracted through its relation to the past and through its use to the Christian present; the reality of Jewish life (and death) is subjected to its literary role." (139)”
[19] Cf. Anna Sapir Abulafia: “The late eleventh and the twelfth centuries in north-western Europe were a period of rapid economic expansion … Christian moralists were faced with the fundamental challenge of working out whether it was indeed a good thing for a Christian society to seek monetary profits rather than the poverty which the apostolic Chrurch had extolled. All this affected Christian attitudes to Jews. The Jews of France, England and Germany were visible in the period as entrepreneurs and moneylenders. They were certainly not the only people occupied in this way, but there can be no doubt that their economic activities did boost the growing economy. Thus unease about the making of money was often expressed by Christians by attacking the Jews for doing just that.” “Bodies in the Jewish-Christian Debate,” Framing Medieval Bodies, ed. Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994) 123-137, at 129.
[20] Petri Venerabilis adversus Iudeorum inveteratam duritiem 3 ll.564-70; cited in Anna Sapir Abulafia, “Bodies in the Jewish-Christian Debate,” 127.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

York 1190 in 2010

by J J Cohen

Just wanted to point out the postconference website, which already has several posts, including one on Jewish blindness.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Thoughts on the York 1190 conference

by J J Cohen

Some adjectives for describing the York 1190 conference: intimate, convivial, challenging, warm, perturbing, filled with hope. 

We spent three days intensely together. In sessions and at meals and over drinks, we dissected the narratives of what unfolded in 1190 from both Christian and Jewish points of view, we spoke of related events (antecedent violence against the Anglo-Jewry; the ritual murder accusations; the expulsion of 1290; Longbeard’s uprising; the archae and Exchequer; the ethics of contemporary historiography). No matter what the subject, though, and despite spending a great deal of time indoors (at CMS, at the Hospitium), a sense of place suffused the proceedings. 

Clifford’s Tower looms at city’s edge, as beautiful as it is ominous. I walked by the structure as I made my way from the train station to the hotel, and overheard an elderly couple remark their joy at the daffodils just blossoming around the motte. Later that evening, I cut through the parking area at its base to find a shortcut into the town center, and watched the darkening sky take the light from the stonework. No matter that this architecture is not the wooden tower in which the Jews of the city were trapped. No matter that we’re not even sure if that tower of 1190 was located on the mound where its stone replacement looms. Something about the tower, something about being in York to discuss a massacre that had taken many lives within that very city, was palpable in the proceedings.

I did not attend every paper. One morning I lingered in my hotel room, drinking the instant coffee and eating the biscuits that English hotels always seem to provide, rewriting and then reading aloud my lecture. The delay provided an excuse to wander slowly into town, picking up treasure at the Jorvik Gift Store for my kids, thinking a lot about the temporalities that accretions of stone holds along the way. Another time, halfway through a panel, the call of the city’s wall was too potent, and I walked the crenellated way to the Sainsbury carpark that has paved the medieval Jewish cemetery. I wish I hadn’t missed anything, though, as what I did experience was so good.

The event was the first academic conference dedicated to the events of 1190. It was, therefore, a long time coming … and would not ever have ever arrived without the labors of Sarah Rees Jones and Sethina Watson, whom I’d like to thank here for having brought something so important into being. I’ll be putting my closing plenary up at ITM in due course, hopeful for your feedback as I refine the work. You can also look forward to the proceedings being published as an edited collection.

In the meantime, though, I thought I’d share some of what I found to be the conference highlights. They are, given that I am idiosyncratic, idiosyncratic.
  • Joe Hillaby’s presentation to Barrie Dobson of a compendium of his essays on medieval Jews. Since Dobson’s work opened the way to examining York in 1190 for most of us, the event was a fitting instigation for the conference. Dobson called the gathering an event that helps to redeem York for what happened there, and for the silence to which it was long consigned.
  • Paul Hyams described the “punctuated equilibrium” that existed within social relations (and especially relationships of trust, for which he foregrounded faith) between Christians and Jews. Crusading and the advent of Easter could be spurs to violence, but “normal” relations did tend to return.
  • Hugh Doherty stressed the York focus of the surviving evidence. When Benedict of York was baptized in the riots following Richard’s coronation, it was at the hands of the prior of the church of Saint Mary at York (Heather Blurton made the brilliant observation to me that we might glimpse a Christian-Jewish friendship here: the baptism may have been offered by a cleric who knew him, in order to prevent his death at the hands of a mob who did not). Hugh traced the intricacies surrounding the offices of sheriff and constable, wondering if 1190 could have unfolded as it did if these officers had not been so recently replaced.
  • Alan Cooper built on his previous work suggesting that William fitz Osbert (AKA Longbeard) returned from crusade traumatized by the suffering he witnessed at Acre. William became a spokesman for the poor and critic of the king’s officials. Alan wondered if one of the threads that connects the unrest of 1190 to that of 1196 isn't the dissatisfaction of the lower classes we can just glimpse in each – people whom the new, lucrative international economy was leaving out.
  • Emily Rose spoke about her forthcoming book on Thomas of Monmouth, arguing that he gives us a fairly accurate portrait of Norwich life in 1170. In both the paper and the book she looks to the immediate legal circumstances surrounding a prosecution of a knight to find the origin of the ritual murder accusation (which she describes as a conventional rather than novel narrative, reasoned and effective; she sees little of anyone but the upper classes in it).
  • Carlee Bradbury gave a lecture on a Jew who had the bad fortune to be hanging on to the coffin of the dead Virgin Mary just as she is assumed into heaven. She then showed a monkey-based version of the same scene.
  • Heather Blurton gave a powerful paper arguing that whereas the Passion underwrites narratives of ritual murder, the frame of William of Newburgh’s narrative shifts to exodus. She also had a riveting suggestion that John of Stamford, a plunderer of Jewish homes who was briefly venerated popularly, may have been a ritual murder case.
  • Ruthe Nisse explicated the Josephus behind William of Newburgh's narrative. Christians and Jews possessed different versions of Josephus: the Christian one featured an interpolation that declares Jesus the messiah. Quite a problem that this passage seemed to be struck out of the Jewish versions…
  • Anna Abulafia described the royal support of Jewish moneylending as having a built-in time bomb: while allowing Jews to become affluent, the king could ruthlessly pursue debts, ensuring that outrage against them was inherent. She asked how Jews view the Christians they were supposed to serve, and emphasized that “theory and practice are very, very different things”: despite so many prohibitions, Jews and Christians interacted at almost every level, including domestic. She argued that from the crown’s point of view, their Expulsion was their required last service.
  • Sarah Rees Jones emphasized the Norman reconfiguration of York and royal interest in the city. She noted the attention Geoffrey of Monmouth paid to the place, and the patrons his work found there, emphasizing the antagonism between local landholders and the king. 1190, she argued, was an intensification of hostility among all ethnic groups, the result of preceding royally-triggered turbulence in the city. She then quite movingly described the ways in which citizens might express desires for communal solidarity, for tranquility, for domesticity, in ways that could confederate Christians and Jews.
  • Kathy Lavezzo gave a breathtaking architectural reading of Thomas of Monmouth’s “city text,” demonstrating how the Christian minster and the Jewish house become intertwined spaces. She emphasized the competing interests that keep the Christians from unity, and read closely the ambivalence Thomas holds towards crowds (they can be like the Jewish minority: united, violent).
  • Anthony Bale provided a glimpse of his soon to appear work on the aesthetics of persecution. He began by asking the difficult question “How can we remember pain?” then linked textuality to the production of experiences like fear and terror. Anthony described the well developed medieval culture of gentleness that in fact depended on pain, and spoke of the delightful, precious uses to which horror could be put within that culture. He shifted to the Jewish side of things and a close reading of some Hebrew writing, arguing that Jews had agency in the production of texts that helped them to feel persecuted, remember pain: Kiddush haShem not just as a practice, but a memory and a collection of remembering, performative texts.
  • Hannah Johnson examined how the contemporary practice of understanding and describing Jewish martyrdom has changed, moving away from memorializing modes to what she called an ethics of contingency that stresses ambivalence, the unpredictable, and complicated local relations. She used ethics to describe the specific attitude of engagement, the orientation of writer towards scholarship, the relations that one’s scholarship enacts … and in a very nice contextualizing gesture then framed the interpreters, observing how Israel Yuval (for example) creates his narratives within contemporary Israel and within a transnational world, both of which leave their imprint.
That's a quick summation of some of the the things that stayed in my mind and that I jotted down on the plane flight home. There's much I haven't mentioned, like what a food lover's city York has become, and how I had the best Old Fashioned of my life with some disreputable local graduate students, as well as several other adventures. More to follow...

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dispatch from the Medieval Academy Meeting @ Yale: The Toronto Feminists

Figure 1. Bracha Ettinger, "Matrix-Family Album," series, n. 3


I was not able to attend the annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, held at Yale University this past weekend [18-20 March], but Kathleen Biddick has graciously agreed to let us post here the comments she made on a roundtable organized by Nancy Partner, The Toronto Feminists: How Did We Get Here from There? And Where is "Here"? The panel featured Kathleen Biddick, Dyan Elliott, Judith Bennett, and Maryanne Kowaleski, all of whom prepared remarks in response to questions posed by Nancy Partner beforehand. As is to be expected, Kathleen Biddick's remarks are richly provocative [especially her formulation, via the radical psychoanalytic thinking of Bracha Ettinger, to transmedieval transubjectivities, and her call for blasphemy at the end], and they also provide a rare insight into Biddick's own academic autobiography:

March 20, 2010
Yale University, New Haven
PANEL: The Toronto Feminists: How did we get Here from There? And where is “Here”?
Organizer: Nancy Partner
Panelists: Judith Bennett, Kathleen Biddick, Dyan Elliott, Maryanne Kowaleski

Response: Kathleen Biddick, Dept. of History, Temple University (Kathleen.biddick@temple.edu)

Question 1 In grad school, what did the category terms “woman/women” seem to mean, if and when they ever occurred at all? When can you remember “sex” being mentioned in connection with historical research? And when do you think you first learned the word “gender”?

Thank you, Nancy Partner, for organizing this panel. Your invitations have always productively provoked my thinking. The chance to participate in your 1993 Speculum special issue on Studying Medieval Women: Sex, Gender, Feminism gave me the opportunity to explore what Joan Scott has called the “psychodynamics of critique”—in her words “the critical refusal to accept the rules (the terms of identity) set by someone (or some group) I nevertheless care deeply about, indeed whose aims I share and whose approval and affection I also seek
(“Finding Critical History,” in Becoming Historians, ed. James M. Banner and John R Gillis [Univ. of Chicago, 2009], p. 41).

My critical contributions today, as then, are offered in such a spirit.

Let me open with a conjuring.

How many feminists ghosts can fit on our podium? MANY
so please let me conjure just one: Nellie Neilson, one of 8 women to have received an American doctorate in history before 1900, at age 53 (1926) first elected female fellow the Medieval Academy, and at age 70 (1943) first ever elected female president of the American Historical Association. Neilson has always inspired me. Her work embodied precociously the productive tensions of critical history: in her loving attention to language, she cultivated a Maitlandian sensitivity to philology (Frederick Maitland being her English mentor) and at the same time she attended to the particularity of the archive. She channeled her archival studies of the estate of Ramsey Abbey to Ambrose Raftis (Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies), the dissertation supervisor of Judith, Maryanne, and myself. In his own dedication to critical history, I now conjure Raftis (alas now, too, a ghost) to our podium as an honorary feminist.

Let me now move on to your questions: when did we encounter the categories women, sex, and gender?

My short answer: Blame it on Barnard College Class of 1971. I dedicated my first book, The Other Economy: Pastoral Economy on a Medieval Estate (1989) to my medieval mentors at Barnard College: Suzanne Fonay Wemple and Maristella Lorch and the company of Barnard women, 1967-71. As early as 1966, Barnard professor Annette Baxter was already precociously offering a course on the History of American Women. I learned about sex and gender when I studied with the internationally famous and deeply dashing sociologist, Mira Komaravosky, a pioneering expert on gender, especially on masculinities. Our class studied her then recently published and now famous book on BLUE COLLAR MARRIAGE. Given my class background, it seemed to me that I was learning more than I wanted to know about masculinity, femininity and gender. I can remember vividly a rather tearful interview with Prof. K. in which we discussed my discomfort over the painful closeness of her book to my background. Her deeply intelligent response: you are not your identity; your identity is not you. Komarovsky instilled in me a profound insight into the discursive process, an insight which stuck with me in my graduate studies and subsequent research. You are not your identity she told me; your identity is not you (Wow, thank you, Mira Komarovsky)!

And not to be forgotten, my Barnard course in Greek tragedy with the recently arrived assistant (and also beautiful) professor of classics, HELENE FOLEY, who went on to become an elected fellow of the American Academy for her feminist scholarship of Greek tragedy. Her brilliant course planted in me the seed of thinking deeply about Antigone. One of my favorite undergraduate courses,
Antigone and the Limits of Sovereignty, took root at Barnard.

But there is more to say about how Barnard, untimely in those times, shaped my desire for knowledge. There is the one professor with whom I did not get to study, a young professor who arrived at Barnard around 1968 or 1969. To the student body, she was simply thrilling; in other words, she created a buzz. This was the young Catherine Stimpson, who would contribute so much to feminist and queer scholarship and to making the academy a more livable space. Somehow, back then, we understood that she embodied what Homi Bhabha has called something new entering the world. Epistemological embodiments still thrill me.

So when I arrived in Toronto to commence my graduate studies in 1973, you could say by the standards of the master’s discourse, I was deeply deluded. I expected nothing less than the powerful and beautiful intellects of Judith, Maryanne, Dyan. And I expected Ambrose Raftis to support my work in the epistemological spaces inbetween history, philosophy, literature. And so he did! Around 1973, I had yet to discover the brutality of the disciplinarity of history—more about that traumatic fall from grace as the panel unfolds.

Question 2 …..This is my career. It consists of sitting in rooms filled with men. When did this change? And when it changed, what changed? Things feel different now, but different doesn’t feel as different as I thought it should….

The work of feminist theory is not finished yet. And it won’t be finished as long as the discourse of the master, what Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizkek have called University discourse, prevails hegemonically. According to Lacan and Zizek, University discourse is the discourse of the master who “disavows [his] performative dimension, presenting what effectively amounts to a political decision based on power as a simple insight into the factual state of things” (Zizek, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle [Verso, 2005], p. 139). By disavowing the gap between the subject position of enunciation and enunciated content, university discourse disavows fantasy.

In one of my all-time favorite books of medieval scholarship, The Master and Minerva: Disputing Women in French Medieval Culture (1995), fellow Torontonian medievalist, Helen Solterer, brilliantly elucidates how medieval scholastic protocols of dispute inscribed a female figure at their center. That feminine symbolic is what the University discourse repetitiously produces (even in the so-called days of postgender) as the disavowed foreign body at its very heart. Symptoms of such phallic thinking riddle the series of essays published recently in the December 2008 American Historical Review Forum on Revisiting “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”.

I think that fantasy can undo University discourse from within. One of the most exciting recent examples of this is the work of Bracha L. Ettinger, artist, psychoanalyst, feminist theorist and professor of psychoanalysis and aesthetics at the University of Leeds. Ettinger is reworking Lacan’s late work and Freud’s theory of the uncanny in order to rethink feminist theory beyond masculine-feminine difference (see her book The Matrixial Borderspace [Univ. of Minnesota, 2006]). To do so, Lacan warned, is to court psychosis. Ettinger breaks this taboo. In breathtaking moves she replaces the phallic structure of difference with a transubjective theory of co-emergence. She materializes her theory of these thresholds of identity and memory in her painting. Does Ettinger’s rethinking of psychoanalysis beyond the sadistic-aggressive structure of separation and radical alterity signified by the Phallus and Castration “without displacing or rejecting either “ (p.17) have any relevance for medieval scholarship?

For my work, it is her notion of transcryptum that I find most productive. Ettinger defines transcryptum as the “artobject or artevent, artoperation or artprocedure, which incarnates transcription of trauma and cross-inscriptions of its traces, in which case the artwork’s working-through of the amnesia of the world into memory is a transcryptomnesia: the lifting of the world’s hidden memory from its outside with-in-side” (p. 167).

New undertakings, such as the journal postmedieval, are exploring such transmedieval attunements. Likewise, the recently published collection of essays by Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul, Medievalisms in the PostColonial World: The Idea of the Middle Ages Outside Europe (Johns Hopkins, 2009) transcrypts. In my current project, entitled Dead Neighbors: Sovereignty and the Archive, I am attempting my own transcryptum. This project vibrates between the discourse on miracles to be found in contemporary debates over sovereignty (Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Carl Schmitt, Eric Santner) and an interrupted reading of Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies. My project stages the archive and the artevent (whether it be the Bury Cross and governmentality, the optics of Shakespeare’s play, King Richard II, and the medieval Eucharistic debate, engravings of the Turk, the name given to automata that wowed the salons of late 18th century Europe which made its way into Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History) as tuning forks that vibrate in the encounter with the corporeal, that is those dead neighbors, Jews and Muslim, out of which, I argue, medieval and early modern sovereignty fashioned its second immortal body.

But medievalists, please handle transmedieval transubjectivies with care. The University discourse resists. For example, take the fate of my NEH fellowship proposal for my project Dead Neighbors. The review panel awarded it a ranking of “no merit,” because (as the comments stated) it was not “in the spirit of the mission of the NEH.” It is labor to bring new things into the world.

Question 3 Setting: Late 90s at the American Historical Association meeting….Joan Scott and Natalie Davis walk into the crowded conference room….I could see a “wave-effect” ….I thought I was seeing that some big sea change had really happened in the profession. Right?

What vibrates in such a wave is not Scott and Davis as subjects, but rather the critique they practice. Critique is not dead yet, in spite of ferocious efforts to silence it. Critique endures in its slow, patient, focused interrogation of the “grounds of the system’s possibility.” When, for instance, King's College London recently decided to drop its longstanding faculty position in medieval paleography (a recent event to which the Medieval Academy responded) and one which, I think, needs to be heard as the canary in the mineshaft, deconstructive critique can come to our aid—in the words of Joan Scott: “what we need now is a reassertion of the value of critique, a defense of its scholarly integrity, and an articulation of its philosophical presuppositions
(“Against Eclecticism,differences 16.3 [2005]: p. 127).

The productive question to pose to King's College London is not one about preserving tradition, or the perils of presentism, or the pragmatics of practicality (as important as such interrogations might be); instead, I think, we need to grasp fully the discursive strategies whereby the corporatized Anglo-American University is increasingly reorganizing itself around sameness both in the classroom and in the research carrel. This process is already quite advanced and it has taken its toll on junior scholars in premodern studies who are especially vulnerable, I think, to the drive for sameness. Thus, many of them have to closet their passion for critique. So critique needs to ask, what are the conditions of possibility for “sameness” in the University discourse of power today?

I think we could begin a conversation about this by looking again at the set of essays recently published in the American Historical Review Forum (December 2008) on Revisiting
Gender as a Category of Historical Analysis. What seemed to have dropped out between 1986 and 2008 is critique. What is left is the becoming-orthodox of women’s studies, gender studies, queer studies.

So perhaps the time has come to plan another retrospective, this one on a famous feminist manifesto published in 1985 (Socialist Review): Donna Haraway’s cyborg manifesto. In the opening of that essay, Haraway meditates on blasphemy: “blasphemy always seems to require taking things seriously. Blasphemy is not apostasy.”