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...


Anonymous said...

Ethan Zadoff and Pinchas Roth provided another highlight for me: gently teasing out the distinctive and conscious Englishness of anglo-Jewry (in the 13th century) from those on the continent. All summed up in the drinking of beer ... (which somehow seems particularly relevant).

And then there were Robin's jewish Bowie bonds - which still mystify me!

Eva said...

that's because beer did (and does) not pose the same kashrut problem as wine does. wine is the obsessive centre of attention in discussions of idolatry, whereas beer is a kind of neutral drink.

Nigel Grizzard said...

I've been to York many times before the conference. I learnt so much that was new to me about the Jews of Medieval England, I'm grateful to Sarah, Settina and all the speakers who made such an informative three days.