Friday, September 26, 2014

Teaching the Prioress, again: Shock, Awe, and Innocence


Obviously, read Jonathan Hsy first, below, before you read me. His stuff on Vikings is great. And do your darndest to get your paws on Inhuman Nature!

Now, my post.

I've just commented, with some befuddlement, on two classes of short papers on the Prioress's Tale. I had introduced the Tale with, yes, a Trigger Warning that went something like this: "As this is a class on race and racism focused on medieval texts, many of the readings will, or at least should, horrify you. Chaucer's Prioress's Tale is one of them. It's antisemitic. For the last 50 years or so, the main debate has been whether Chaucer or the Prioress is to blame for its antisemitism. But there's no way around it: it's awful."

Despite all that, about half the papers said something like "I think this story is antisemitic," "it seems unfair to Jews," "it seems to be trying to say Christians are good and Jews are evil," "it tells us that antisemitism is really old," or, the variant, "the antisemitism in the Prioress's Tale is still around today."

I warned them, but they're still shocked. I'm befuddled but I'm also delighted, because the tale really is that horrible.

I've tried to push them towards more direct, more specific engagement, not only with the tale's antisemitism, but also with the anxieties, concerns, and assumptions that antisemitism requires to have any force at all. When a student says "this shows that medieval Christians were antisemitic," I, of course, say "the earliest written account of this kind of tale is the 1170s; they're confined to northern Europe; so we have to get more specific"; but when a student just condemns the tale's antisemitism in the broadest possible terms and walks away, then I have to lean on their good conscience. At the least, I have to teach them to close read. My main questions:
  • What's the relationship between ignorance and holiness? In other versions of the tale, the boy's 10 years old; here he's 7, just before the age of responsibility, killed before he learns how to read. The nun herself wants to become like a child of 12 months old, unable to speak even. The Prioress herself snarks at the monk, and even the 'holy abbot' in the tale is, in a way, the one to kill the boy. And what does this suggest about the way that 'simplicity' and 'goodness' tend to be equated? Is there something sinister about this?
  • Similarly, why do you assume that the Prioress's intense feeling for the Virgin has to be faked? Why do you assume that simplicity and simple expression are more authentic than fancy talk?
  • The central myth of Christianity is a martyred god who resurrects. This is the story Christianity needs to tell. While the tale blames the Jews, sort of, for killing the boy, Christianity, especially medieval Christianity, needs martyrs. The tale itself, I'll remind you, is an antisemitic fiction. So, who killed the boy? Not the Jews. The tale did. And why was the tale told? Christianity. Or to get a free dinner. One or both of these, I'd argue, is what actually killed the little boy. Think of the way that detective shows chase after killers, but need to kill women, especially women, to start the story...
  • The tale blames Satan for inspiring the Jews to murder; or it thinks Satan makes his nest in Jews' hearts. Are the Jews responsible or not? Unlike other versions of the tale, the Jews don't murder the child out of a sense of religious duty. The Prioress's Tale isn't a Ritual Murder case, but rather a random, unthinking act of violence. Also: the tale has a pure little boy who -- as a sign of his pureness -- sings a song he barely understands and who tends towards intellectual neoteny. The Jews do what they do because they have to; the boy does what he does without understanding. They're both machines, objects not agents, the one evil, the other good. Why does Chaucer strip agency from both Jews and boy?
In the next class, I'm also going to talk about this painting:

This painting, by or based on Edward Burne-Jones, appears regularly in my students' presentations on the Prioress's Tale. Probably yours too. No wonder: it illustrates the Wikipedia page on the Tale, and dominates the Google image search results. Though I've recommended ArtStor for images, the students go with what's most readily at hand (probably yours too). I imagine, though, that even if they'd gone to ArtStor, they'd find much the same stuff (but as the Brooklyn College library website is shockingly down....).

I'm going to tell them this: the image, featuring a standard pre-Raphaelite pose for Virgin and clergeon, is itself antisemitic, and just a little more subtle than the images, just as popular in presentations, of hooked-nose Jews (there, usually, to show the continuing force of antisemitic stereotypes). I thank the St Louis Museum of Art (warning AUTOPLAY) for making some of this clear to me: the image invites us in, opening the gate to let us join the virgin and boy. The Jews and the murder are in the background, cut off absolutely from the virgin by the garden wall, barred from this innocent paradise. Now, the St Louis Museum seems perfectly fine with this, and perhaps my students too, though far more innocently. As I'll argue next week, the painting is as antisemitic as the tale itself to the degree that it reproduces without condemning both the tale's hatred of Jews and its saccharine logic of sanctity.

I'll say the painting, in fact, aims to become like the Litel Clergeon. It pretends not to understand the tale. It just presents the encounter between boy and (virgin) mother -- the virgin mother who can belong to the boy entirely precisely because she remains a virgin1 -- as the tale's actual content, while forgetting, as much as it can, how the tale proves the boy's innocence by hating Jews and by murdering the boy. The painting pretends to be a holy fool and is all the worse for it.

 For more on the painting, see Eileen way back in 2007, who saw it in St Louis, and writes well about:
all the ways in which various anti-semitic discourses and even meta-anti-semitic discourses [whether in the form of apocryphal stories, reductively stereotypical tropes, satire, etc.] are made to kind of "disappear" in or move into the background of our "readings" of various texts.

1 The psychoanalytic readings come automatically, don't they? The Jews, Satan, and even the Abbot are all men who want to interpose themselves between the boy and his mother, cutting him off. The boy, refusing to learn to read, doesn't want to enter the Symbolic or doesn't want to give up on the good object of his virgin mother. The Prioress wants to be a like a child of twelve months old or less. It's basically fill in the blanks by this point, yeah?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Native, Norse, Other: Embodied Difference and Forms of First Contact


[Hey everyone, Inhuman Nature (punctum books, 2014) is now in print! Read JEFFREY's posting and download the book. Even better, make a donation.]

[An unknown artist's interpretation of an encounter between the Norse and indigenous inhabitants of North America. The “Vikings” depicted here wear nice pointy hats and the Native Americans wear feather headdresses. Image found at this website for “Vikings age combat” enthusiasts.]

This blog posting (continuing a thread on the postmedieval legacy of the “Vikings”) explores the consequences of intercultural contact in the medieval North Atlantic—or rather, divergent cultural memories of encounters between the seafaring Norse and indigenous peoples of what we now call North America. The most famous accounts of these interactions survive in the Vinland sagas written down in Old Norse (or Old Icelandic, depending on who you ask): the Groenlendinga saga (Saga of the Greenlanders) and Eiríks saga rauða (Saga of Erik the Red). KARL’s first posting on whiteness and the afterlife of “Vikings” notes the archaeological discovery of a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows (now a National Historic Site of Canada) in Newfoundland, and his second posting demonstrates how fantasies of originary claims to America (and, at its worst, notions of white supremacy) depend upon or otherwise exploit knowledge of early Norse migration into the Western Hemisphere.[1]

In his blog posts, KARL has been thinking about “heritage” and the weird warping of time that underlies competing claims to it (that’s not his wording; he puts it much better than I do!). I’d like to visit this weird legacy of the “Vikings” too but consider things through a different set of vantage points. What follows here is an adapted version of a paper I presented at a session on Postcolonial Disability in the Middle Ages at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo in May 2014 (org. by Justin L. Barker, Dana Roders, and Gina M. Hurley; the other presenters were Molly Lewis and Karen Bruce Wallace; Tory Vandeventer Pearman was the respondent.) In that presentation, I wanted to think about two things (given the aims of the session): 1. how the “medieval matter of Vinland” takes different forms in the cultural memory of later Euro-Americans vs. storytelling traditions of Native (indigenous) people; 2. how disability theory might enrich discussions of “first contact” across these reception histories.

Weird bodies

How does exactly might thinking about disability shift our understanding of cultural memories of Native/Norse contact? The descriptions of unusual or alien bodies in the sagas are one starting point. There has been much ink spilled by historians and literary scholars about how the Vinland sagas stage the very moment of first contact between the Norse and the so-called skraelingar (or “Skraelings”). The term skraeling is notoriously “slippery” as a term; in the context of the Vinland sagas it refers loosely/indiscriminately to disparate peoples who might now be identified as ancestors of the present-day Inuit peoples of Greenland and indigenous peoples of North America.[2] (Details of the Norse encounters with native peoples differ slightly across these sagas, but in both accounts a string of encounters—some curious, some hostile—generate communication failures and at times result in violence.)

In the surviving saga texts, physical descriptions of the non-Norse reveal a discomforting racializing discourse (it’s not at all surprising to me—according to Wikipedia at least—that First Nations people in Canada find the term “Skraeling” offensive). The so-called “Skraelings” in the sagas are deemed quite unattractive in appearance by Western standards. In the Groenlendinga saga, one settler Karlsefni assumes “einn maðr var mikill ok vaenn í lið Skraelinga” [one man much taller and more handsome than the other “Skraelings”] (263) must be their leader, suggesting that most others are deemed short and unattractive.[3] Eiríks saga rauða describes the natives as “svartir men ok illiligir” [dark men and ugly] (227) with “ilit hár” [bad hair] and broad cheeks. Moreover, an apparently unprovoked attack by a one-footed creature [einfoeting] who kills a Norseman with an arrow then runs away signals the perceived barbarism of the “Skraelings” (231-2). Here, external signs of physical difference register a profound sense of ethnic and cultural alterity. An Orientalist and proto-colonialist reading would suggest that these Western narratives seek to convey a culture’s radical Otherness by strategically deploying tropes of embodied difference.

There’s a general tendency to dismiss the one-footed creature as an outlandish fantasy, but I would like to more carefully consider the cultural work that this figure performs. A more generous reading of the text might put the one-footed creature in the broader context of Old Norse literary works. The fact that this creature is one-footed doesn’t necessarily come with negative connotations; the one-footed creature is actually swift and adroit, much like the praiseworthy wooden-legged warriors in other sagas (for instance, Önundr tréfótur Ófeigsson [Önundr Tree-foot] in ch. 4 of Grettirs saga). From a Native perspective, this episode might suggest something else entirely: the one-footed indigene is not at all primitive or deficient but instead deeply informed by local cultural knowledge, more carefully adapted to the environment than the Norse settlers.


Another way to approach these scenes of contact is their discussion of the sensory experience of encounter. Concurrent sense modalities (such as sound, touch, and motion) add depth to these narratives of cross-cultural contact, revealing forms of inter-perception that are activated in lieu of speech. The Groenlendiga saga flatly states that “hvárigir skilðu annars mál” [neither understood the others’ speech] (262), and Eiríks saga rauða goes further to transmit a sequence of semiotic performances: waving poles (by the natives) and presenting white shields (by the Norse) to signal peaceful trade (228). (Later the Norse bear red shields to show aggression.) Such performative encounters do not inherently privilege one cultural group over another. All parties involved adapt to one another via embodied gestures and prosthetic objects, and these newly configured environmental circumstances effectively disorient both groups.[4]

This eruption of embodied difference and adaptive communication in the moment of first contact is not incidental if these texts are viewed through the generic conventions of travel writing. From the inexplicable appearance and disappearance of the one-footed creature to an improvised communication through disjointed signs and gestures, these narratives convey the profoundly disorienting cultural and phenomenological experience of alien environment. In an astute reading of the Vinland sagas, E.A. Williamsen observes that “[a]ll travel narratives are inherently narratives of difference,” and that all travel writing must disorient precisely by constructing a vivid sense of environmental otherness (454).[5]

Attending to the negotiation of physical difference can not only shape our understanding of the narrative but also our appreciation for the text’s literary form. In Aesthetic Nervousness, postcolonial literary critic Ato Quayson maintains that disability “short circuit[s]” or disrupts available “protocols of representation” in literary works, and an encounter with alterity (cultural and embodied) can create a crisis that provokes shifts the norms of literary form (15).[6] The very inability of the text to fully represent the complexity of these encounters with alterity suggests the transformative power of diverse forms of alien embodiment.

While Quayson’s paradigm is compelling, I would resist reading these texts merely as symptomatic of some Norse “crisis in representation.” I suggest that nuanced strategies of inter-cultural adaptation also transpire here—and they do so even if these texts seem to filter all these encounters through a Norse perspective. In a presentation at the most recent Modern Language Association Convention (Chicago, January 2014), Christopher Baswell advocates “deformalist” modes of analysis that attend to “deformity” not as a deviation from perceived norms but rather as an opening up of alternate modes of representation and systems of interpretation.[7] In this sense, the disruptive force of the one-legged creature works in tandem with the text’s disorienting literary form. After the fleeting encounter with the one-footed creature is narrated in third-person prose, the text returns to the episode again but in first-person plural verse addressed to Karlsefni (read this passage in the original language at ch. 12, or in modern English at ch. 14).

The mixed form is a feature of many Norse sagas, but in this particular passage a jarringly disjointed narrative orientation results. The recursive transmission of the “same” moment in third-person prose and then first-person verse creates a narrative that moves beyond a single unitary timeline to a multifaceted perspective on the action. Oscillating between minimalist prose and highly structured verse, this saga’s twinned account of contact between the Norse and a one-footed creature suggests a dual ethics of encounter, a mode that alternates between different subject positions in the story. Rather offering a single perspective or unitary point of orientation, it models a mixed form of beholding.

Mixed beholding

This phrase “mixed form of beholding” (which I use in the context of cultural inter-perception) is a nod to disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who describes an ethics of transformative “beholding” that can emerge through encounters across embodied difference. In their book examining disability in early modern England and in contemporary theory, Alison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood observe that a kind of “generous” beholding can transpire across historically distant cultures.[8] 

[An interactive map of the Americas entitled “Stories of Encounter” invites the visitor to touch locations to read narratives about contact between Native peoples and Europeans. The earliest site indicated on this map is GREENLAND (around AD 1000); touching the image brings up an Inuit story recalling early contact with Norsemen.” Photo taken at the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC, January 20, 2014.]

In this spirit of a generous beholding of cultural vantage points, it’s possible to read different reception histories of the medieval past in tandem even if cultural conventions of narrative and notions of temporality do not readily align (or to use a related optical metaphor, “don’t see eye to eye”). In her important 2012 book on “Viking” legacies in North America, Annette Kolodny notes that Western and Native American modes of storytelling assume very different attitudes toward time when relating events of the past. As Kolodny and others have observed (and as KARL’s postings suggests), Anglophone (white) Americans and others of European descent have often sought in medieval sagas some kind of evidence for originary claims to the continent (with the Norse sagas asserted as one European claim to North America pre-dating Columbus). According to Kolodny, Native perspectives and indigenous post-contact oral traditions emphasize many waves of encounter over time and do not so much invest in establishing which group came “first.” These storytelling traditions tend to relate the varied effects of disruptive forces upon present social conditions and the continuity of indigenous cultural life.[9]

[In my office a few weeks ago. One of my undergraduate classes spent a session discussing Joseph Bruchac’s The Ice Hearts (1979) after we had read and discussed the Vinland Sagas (trans. Keneva Kunz, 2008).]

Kolodny’s book made me interested in pursuing avenues for Native-oriented counter-readings of the “Skraelings” and more complex renderings of worldviews only sketchily imagined in sparse Norse narratives. Joseph Bruchac is an indigenous writer who embraces his Abenaki heritage, and in The Ice Hearts (1979) he revises the Vinland sagas into a new “parable” that conforms to storytelling practices of his Native ancestors.[10] When we discussed this story recently in one of undergraduate classes, we considered how Bruchac inverts conventions of literary captivity narratives: his tale features a Native narrator (rather than white settler), and the story reworks the terms by which a person is considered civilized or fully human. Strange “Ice-hearts” with “sky-colored eyes” invade a peaceful Native village (3)—one is named “Eric” and another refers to the villagers as “Sgah-lay-leens,” a pointed Abenaki transliteration of the Norse word “Skraelings” (7). While initial interactions with the Norse result in violence, an “Ice-heart” boy learns valuable healing practices from the Native community and assumes the role of the Native doctor who was decapitated by his fellow “Ice-hearts.” By the end of the tale, two children with “eyes the color of the sky” (8) are adopted as full members of the native community. In this new captivity narrative, physical impairment facilitates social transformation and new kinds of inter-perception across embodied difference. It creates a world where knowledge from both cultures has value and race itself is not a barrier to cultural acceptance.

["Odin" (2008). Sculpture by Abraham Anghik Ruben; image found here.]

One of the most striking takes on these medieval traditions enacts a concretized form of cultural melding—and it too does so through a story that puts disability at the center of transformative experience. Abraham Anghik Ruben is an artist of Inuit and Norse descent who counts among his ancestors an Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefannson, a man of Icelandic ancestry, and his Inuit wife Paniabuluk. Ruben’s work adopts a mixed form through the medium of sculpture: techniques of Inuit craft work together with Norse and Celtic influences, and the motifs throughout his work meld aspects of Viking and Native lore. In Ruben’s own account of his creative process, a chronic illness (recovery from cancer) generated new, fuller mindfulness of his own cultural identity, and he began to embrace the dual Inuit-Norse aspects of his own heritage while reading many of the medieval Vinland sagas.[11] In his ongoing creative process, new cross-cultural convergences began to emerge in his art: seafaring imagery (boats and waves), shamanic practices, and the importance of women in performing such rituals.

Ruben’s sculptures not only foreground how aspects of Norse and Inuit cultures overlap, but can lend also shape new understandings of the diversity of belief systems within the original Norse sagas. Indeed, the Greenland sagas attest to the coexistence of indigenous (pagan) and Christian beliefs within Norse society. Eiríks saga rauða (ch. 4) transmits the most well-known and extensive description of a shamanic seiðr, a ritual performed by a prophetess (völva) that bears resemblance to those practiced by Saami and indigenous Siberian peoples or people somehow marked as “other” throughout Norse texts.[12] KARL offers a forceful critique of how white supremacists exploit the fantasy of a “pure” “white” “Viking” diaspora to justify conquest and stake originary claims to (North) America. Ruben’s mixed-form work reconceives an Arctic that is not “pure” but traversed by peoples whose lives and cultural practices converge.

Some thoughts…

In thinking about a convergence or “generous” mutual beholding of perspectives, I don’t mean to promote a kind of feel-good, “no-fault historiography” where all kinds of cultural differences are respected, peoples commingle, and everyone ignores the actual effects that later European settlement had on indigenous peoples. I think what I’m trying to do (here and in my classes) is to wrap my head around this idea of keeping concurrent senses of time “at play” when considering the past—even if (or especially if) those temporalities don’t ever line up with one another, or only do so erratically.

KARL’s postings have revealed to me the forces of distortion and weird/freaky/odd/queer warping of time that underlie fantasies of the past, and I’d agree with his point that we need a “renewed attention to the desire to heal the sense of displacement.” Rather than thinking in terms of a queer asynchrony or fluid “queer time,” I’m moving more toward a disjointed “crip time,” a notion of temporality that emphasizes time’s flexible pacing, contraction, and expansion (this sense of “crip time” comes from Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip [Indiana UP, 2013], at 27; on the “strange temporality” of diagnosis/prognosis time, see 37). For my part, I’m not so much interested if any (historical, archaeological, verifiable) moment of “first contact” can ever be fully recovered. I’m much more eager to “find ways into” a dizzying nonalignment of perspectives and to entertain flexible notions of heritage that are mobile, emergent, pliable, and messy.

[1] On the dating of the manuscripts and relevant archaeology, see for instance Agnes A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald (eds.), The Viking Age: A Reader (U Toronto P, 2010), ch. 11; Agnes A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald, The Vikings and Their Age (U Toronto P, 2013), 32; see also map on page i.
[3] Quotations and translations follow Williamsen (footnote 6).
[4] Side note: for a very interesting study that combines ethnography and historical contact linguistics (with particular focus on sign languages used by Native communities in the US), see Jeffrey Davis, Hand Talk: Sign Language among American Indian Nations (Cambridge UP, 2010).
[5] E.A. Williamsen, “Boundaries of Difference in the Vínland Sagas,” Scandinavian Studies 77, 4 (Winter 2005): 451-78.
[6] Ato Quayson, Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation (Columbia UP, 2007).
[7] Christopher Baswell, “Deformity.” Session: “Middle English Keywords,” MLA Convention, Chicago, January 2014.
[8] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford UP, 2009), esp. 194. Alison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood, “Ethical Staring: Disabling the English Renaissance.” In Hobgood and Wood (eds.), Recovering Disability in Early Modern England (Ohio State UP, 2013).
[9] Annette Kolodny, In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery (Duke UP, 2012).
[10] Joseph Bruchac, The Ice-Hearts (Cold Mountain Press, 1979).
[11] For Ruben’s artist statements and (auto)biography, see and
[12] See for instance, Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark (eds.), Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages (Athelone P, 2002), 117-121 and 127-131.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Inhuman Nature

by J J Cohen

I'm happy to announce that through an ongoing partnership between Oliphaunt Books and punctum books, the new title Inhuman Nature has just been released. You can download the book or purchase it in hard copy at either site -- but if you do decide to secure the e-version, may I suggest that you make a donation to punctum along the way? If everyone who reads the book in electronic form pays five or ten dollars to support open access publishing, then the impact will be significant. Bear in mind that open access is not free, and a great deal of labor went into producing the volume.

Inhuman Nature is the third title published by Oliphant and would not have been possible without the unflagging support of Eileen Joy. A participant at the panels from which the book derives as well as a longtime forger of new worlds for humanities research, Eileen has both my abiding gratitude and admiration. Oliphant is sponsored by the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, a scholarly center funded by a collaboration of the GW Office of the Vice President for Research, the Office of the Provost, and the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. I am grateful to the twenty-faculty members in nine departments who belong to the center for making it all work, somehow.

This book had its genesis in “Ecologies of the Inhuman,” a roundtable at the International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo. The event generated so much lively conversation that we reconstituted the gathering several months later in Washington DC, under the auspices of GW MEMSI. Ian Bogost joined us for that second event and astonished us with his passion for Marie de France … and his willingness to embrace this group of medievalists and early modernists interested in what happens when ecology is framed nonanthropocentrically. Carolyn Dinshaw participated in both the roundtable and the MEMSI symposium, and I thank her for her engagement. Creative presentations, camaraderie, and some late nights at the Venetian Room of the Hotel Lombardy ensured a shared sense of endeavor that culminated in this book. Here's the table of contents:

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen — Introduction: Ecostitial / Steve Mentz — Shipwreck / Anne Harris — Hewn / Alan Montroso — Human / Valerie Allen — Matter / Lowell Duckert — Recreation / Alfred Kentigern Siewers — Trees / James Smith — Fluid / Ian Bogost — Inhuman

Sunday, September 14, 2014

NOW PUBLISHED: The Holocaust and the Middle Ages [postmedieval]


The newest issue of postmedieval is OUT, on "The Holocaust and the Middle Ages," co-edited by Hannah Johnson and Nina Caputo, and I want to thank them for such a gorgeous and intellectually and historically important set of contents. I want to also thank those who offered helpful commentary in the open, online crowd review of the pieces collected here: Anthony Bale, Anna Klosowska, Kathy Lavezzo, and Karl Steel.As with all issues of postmedieval, I am so grateful for these scholarly commitments to holding the past and present in productive critical tension and to attending to what Hannah and Nina describe in their Introduction as "the difficult dialogue between the past and the present."

More fully explicated, from Hannah and Nina's Introduction, "The Middle Ages and the Holocaust: Medieval Anti-Judaism in the Crucible of Modern Thought,"
The common declaration never again evokes justified moral outrage at the atrocities of the Holocaust. It has been well enough integrated into our collective consciousness – in North America, at least – that its subject requires no elaboration or contextualization: never again will such wholesale destruction befall the Jewish people. And the world must never forget. This phrase establishes the Holocaust as historically unique, but also marks the Nazi persecution as the culmination of a millennium-long cycle of escalating collective suffering with its beginnings in the Middle Ages. Debates about this paradoxical trajectory have a long history. Already in the 1930s, scholars who sought to comprehend the virulence of Nazi antisemitism found a corollary in medieval Jewish history. In this context, ‘medieval’ represents primarily a psychological and emotional state, not a chronological timescape. The term ghetto may be an invention of the sixteenth century, and the Black Hundreds were inciting anti-Jewish pogroms in the early twentieth, but it is the medieval period that is strongly associated with origins of all kinds – not least of religious violence, mass incitement and legends of Jewish perfidy and evil.

While there are always potential pitfalls in making historical comparisons, in the wake of the Holocaust the Middle Ages have nevertheless served as a useful hermeneutic in the struggle to find a precedent for a historical and ideological process that seemed thoroughly unprecedented. But if such associations operate as powerful engines for prompting historians’ continued reflections on the arc of Western history, and Jewish history in particular, they can also be damaging when mobilized for other ends. The Nazis themselves sought to bolster the legitimacy of their regime by invoking medieval exemplars – though, unlike their victims and opponents, they did so in order to glorify an ‘Aryan’ past they revered and wished to resurrect. The malleability of such medievalisms has long been recognized as part of their ideological, as well as heuristic, utility, but the urge to invoke the Middle Ages when contextualizing the Holocaust in the broad sweep of European and Jewish history speaks to a longstanding problematic of historical understanding.

When the distinguished historian Salo Baron testified at the trial of Adolph Eichmann in 1961, he did so as an expert in Jewish history, but also, crucially, as a medievalist. In being called upon in his professional capacity to account for the long history of Western antisemitism, he acted as but one scholar in a formidable tradition that has sought to understand phenomena which are at once temporally specific, and united by uncanny features of continuity and repetition. Writing after the trial concluded, Poliakov stated that Baron’s task had been ‘to describe the background against which the destruction took place’ (Poliakov, 1962, 59). However, Baron’s later writing on the subject and the questions asked of him clearly indicate that this ‘background’ was not simply a matter of accounting for the years just prior to the war, but involved questions of deep time, and the long history of Jewish life in Europe. While the Middle Ages are often taken as a kind of ground zero for a virulent strain of antisemitism, efforts to understand the Holocaust not only reach back to medieval ‘precedents,’ but also view medieval history through a uniquely modern lens.

In this issue of postmedieval, we concern ourselves with this difficult dialogue between past and present. What is the historiographical and philosophical consequence of self-consciously examining the Middle Ages through the filter of the Holocaust? Why is the impulse to turn to medieval examples so enduring? Do such comparisons compromise the effort to preserve the integrity of the medieval (or, for that matter, the modern) as a distinct historical era? Baron’s testimony is significant, not only because it represents a moment when such questions converge in the person of one historian, but also because Baron himself struggled with the tension between a narrative of the Holocaust as a singular event and one that frames it in the broad context of recurring Jewish persecution.
As regards the more specific contents of the issue (which include pieces by Laurie Finke & Martin Shichtman, Mitchell B. Hart, Daniel Wollenberg, Jean-Claude Milner, Heather Blurton, and Richard Cole), Hannah and Nina write,
The following essays take up the challenges of adequate language and problems of conceptualizing medieval contexts in the wake of the Holocaust that remain potent and challenging. Heather Blurton reminds us of how easily our interpretations can become back readings colored by modern assumptions if we do not attend to historical specificities. When Agamben reads Richard of Devizes, he seizes upon Richard’s use of the word ‘Holocaust’ to make an etymological argument that misses the deeper resonances of the word’s meaning in its medieval context, which hints at a multi-layered commentary on medieval Jewish–Christian relations. Richard Cole takes up what he calls the ‘Jewish massed body’ as it appears in Old Norse literature, where Jews appear as an undifferentiated mass, thinking and acting as one. While this might seem like an early harbinger of the tropes of conspiracy and threat haunting the imaginations of many later antisemites, Cole demonstrates how such themes resonated differently in a cultural context where there was not any significant or settled Jewish population until much later in time. Finally, Fred Evans’ closing essay, on the ‘multi-voiced body’ and the need for an ethical spirit of generous listening and engagement, captures the mood and tone of the volume, as well as its urgency. Reflecting on the challenge scholars face in the effort to listen courageously and attentively to the past, Evans also draws attention to our collective impulses both to amplify quiet voices and to silence them as well. The stakes of such an argument are clear in the debates about the medieval roots of the Holocaust. The half-century long disjuncture between interpretations of the Holocaust either as singular and without parallel or as the most extreme persecution in a centuries-long process tests our resources and definitions of ethical witnessing. Where politics and historiography are inextricably intertwined, as was the case at the Eichmann trial, we struggle with questions of justice as well as meaning.
You can see and access the whole issue HERE.