Friday, August 27, 2010

Flash Review: Jonathan Elukin, Living Together, Living Apart: Rethinking Jewish-Christian Relations in the Middle Ages

I hope this study of how Jews lived among Christians has suggested that many of the fundamental characteristics and experiences of convivencia can be seen in non-Spanish settings. Jewish-Christian relations in northern Europe is actually convivencia in a minor key. Seeing the medieval past in this light will perhaps help to eliminate or at least challenge the false dichotomy between the experience of Jews in Spain (and other Mediterranean settings) and of Jews in northern European societies in the Middle Ages. Jews of England, France, Italy, and Germany were deeply integrated into the rhythms of their local worlds. They faced many of the same challenges and uncertainties as their Christian neighbors. They navigated a world of unexpected violence but recurring stability, ad hoc policies of repression and toleration. All of this suggests that Jewish-Christian relations were dynamic and cannot be understood only in terms of persecution. Jewish-Christian interaction in medieval Europe created if not a history of toleration then habits of tolerance. (136-7)
By trying to write as though the Holocaust were not the inevitable future of European Jews, Elukin aims to shift our attention away from lachrymose history to quotidian survival. In the early middle ages, at least, we shouldn't confuse clerical antijudaism with general attitudes: how much power did Church councils really have, he asks, and what could an antisemitic king do when he could barely hold onto his (Visigothic) throne? Moreover, he argues, violence was not typical for Jews, or, at least, not particular for Jews: in polities without much in the way of infrastructure, standing armies, or police forces, in a public rhetorical tradition devoted not to calm description but to evaluation--praise and blame, violence was endemic. What the Jews suffered was not all that unusual. Violence should be understood as only occasionally afflicting the Jews, who, despite it all, almost always came back to the cities or regions that expelled or massacred them. Sometimes this took a generation, as in the Rhine valley following 1096; sometimes this took centuries, as in England following 1290. But it always happened. Elukin implies, in brief, that we should not believe we know better than the Jews: if they thought it was safe to move back, why shouldn't we?

Elukin's evidence did shake some of my lachrymose expectations: Jews in early medieval Sicily established a shrine to Elijah on the model of a Christian saint's shrine; Jews in Rheims offered to bring out their Torah to help break a drought; the Jews of eleventh- and twelfth-century Speyer had to take their turns guarding the town walls; English 'ritual murder' shrines were financially unsuccessful; interfaith marriages and Christian conversions to (what we now call) Judaism occurred...every so often. But a brief work that covers this much temporal and geographical territory (from 5th-century Minorca to 17th-century Germany) must necessarily skim (see for example Michael Toch's review of Elukin in The Catholic Historical Review); its reception of Gregory of Tours and other historical narratives takes as straight fact what should be taken as discursive fact (and here Elukin could have looked to the model of Daniel Boyarin's thinking with Marc Bloch and Foucault, either here or here or here or indeed here); its conception of two clear groups called "Jew" and "Christian" could have worked more with Ivan Marcus and Israel Yuvel. Ultimately, I'm unconvinced by the rosier picture Elukin promotes. Rhetoric against heretics or peasants or women could get nasty, yes, and violence against Jews should be understood within the larger context of a Christian and exploitative and masculinist society whose objective violence is all too clear to we paranoid modern critics. But surely the repeated massacres, judicial murders, and expulsions of Jews from the late eleventh century on, and the centrality of antijudaism to, say, the development of Mariolotry (warning: pdf) suggests that Jews were a special object of hatred for medieval Christians. We may be back where we started.

Not quite, I hope: with Elukin in hand, we should read more carefully, read in the heterogeneous present of medieval Jews without having their future, our present, so clearly in mind. We read with a hope at once retroactive and future-oriented, knowing that what we think of as the past tied singly to the future could have gone another way and indeed went other ways in its own present, where we have York 1190 but also the York before that, where Jews made a community among Christians, where I imagine not every Jew and not every Christian was recognizable, primarily, as such. In a society in which Jews hired Christian nursemaids, we have to rethink the primacy of religious divisions.

That said, that Jews returned to their various particular homelands--England, France, Germany--and that they therefore did not feel themselves to be in danger does not mean that they were not in danger. We can see patterns they couldn't. Yes, Jews held on to Spain even after 1391; they moved back to the Rhine valley after 1096; they petitioned to return to England in 1320. These were mistakes. I think Elukin takes Jews as rational actors. But people aren't rational, or not only rational. Or, better, home and habits have reasons of their own. A comparison, mutatis mutandis to avoid any sense that I'm blaming the Jews for what they suffered: in 2010, in this time of climate change, Americans continue hyperconsuming. There's no indication that this will stop. This doesn't mean I'm not in danger (nor does it mean, once more, that systemic antisemitism and antisemites are identical to climate). It just means that, like people generally, I'm insufficiently pessimistic, unable to do what I should to abandon my home, my habits, and therefore myself, though I need to if I'm ever going to escape this coming doom.


Suzanne Akbari said...

There's an interesting review of this book by David Nirenberg in The New Republic 13 Feb 2008 -- he too is not convinced by the anti-lachrymose argument of Elukin, and says some useful things about the magnitude of the stakes surrounding this kind of historiography.

Suzanne Akbari said...

Here's a link to the Nirenberg review:

Jeffrey Cohen said...

That is quite the decimating review, Suzanne: not nearly as moderate as what Karl has posted. The vampirism charge at the end is especially stinging.

Thanks for this review, Karl. On a related topic, the Holocaust Museum here in DC has as part of its display a panel on why the Jews stayed in Germany as things worsened for them: wasn't the writing on the wall? why didn't they flee before they couldn't? The answer offered seems right to me, and is the very one you suggest in the end: they could not imagine the outcome that arrived, holding on to a hope that sense and rationality would return to the world. It didn't, but they weren't dumb for having remained: they were ordinary humans, nothing else.

Suzanne Akbari said...

Yes, it is a stinging review, and I think that Nirenberg himself has distanced himself somewhat from the point of view expressed in it, which was very much the product of a particular moment, politically speaking. When I call it an 'interesting' review, what I mean is that it brings us up face to face with all that goes along with the 'convivencia' argument, whether it's made about medieval Spain in particular or medieval history in general -- that there are tremendously high stakes, at some moments even more than others, in the way we choose to remember our medieval past. We have an obligation, I think, to do all we can to make the medieval past visible to those who don't know as much about it (academic and non-academic audiences); but we also have to try hard, I think, to avoid remembering it in ways that we *want* to remember. I'm not putting this very well, but I think we have to find ways to remember the past that both make clear the extent to which our desire informs our view of the past, and also make room for all the facts that we wish were not true. (I find Susan Einbinder's work especially satisfying in this regard.)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I agree with you Suzanne, and it seems that Nirenberg in that particular review is stressing that Elukin offers an interpretation born of contemporary desires, not one that does justice to history, or allows the past its full complexity.

This tension between our own situatedness in the present and the demands of a complicated and potentially alien past -- and the role of the historian in interpreting at the touching point of these time periods -- was (maybe) best framed by Caroline Walker Bynum many moons ago, when she stressed that the questions we ask of history are time-bound, but that doesn't make them merely presentist or unhistorical; these questions that change depending on when and where they are asked alter our perception of the past; what matters ultimately is that we see both past and present as OPEN.

Anonymous said...

I am trying not to assume a Jewish Christian binary in writing about York in the twelfth and thirteenth century.

Two things make it difficult. First we know less about violence directed against non-Jewish populations than Jewish ones - they were simply narrated less and in less detail (they were literally less remarkable). So much so that at least 4 historians dispute whether the 'harrying of the north' in 1069-70 ever happened - so weak and ambiguous is the evidence it left behind. The same is true of knowing positive things about jewish business life which (because of the exchequer) is simply better documented than equivalent non-Jewish lending practices. With the result that popularly it is sometimes erroneously believed that only Jews lent money, only Jews lived in stone houses (because they were so rich).

So knowing too much (or at least knowing more) about Jews leads us to the other problem - the large number of myths this is generated but dispelling them leads you right back into writing about Jews and Christians - even if you did no want to.

OK - so this is incoherent - I am incoherent right now.

Enough - on all fronts!!