Gender and Difference III: Jews on the mind

One conclusion I drew from this year’s Gender and Medieval Studies conference was that I probably need (as a historian) to think about Jews more often than I do at the moment. As may have emerged in both my previous posts, the conference had a number of papers that discussed or touched on Jews and Jewishness, whether from a literary, historical or art history perspective. This was obviously a deliberate choice by the organisers, since two of the four keynote sessions discussed Christian images and ideas of Jews, and it was a very useful one for several reasons.

At one level it gave me insights into gender that had never occurred to me before. This was particularly the case with Sara Lipton’s paper on the ‘visible Jewess’. One of the relatively few things I thought I knew about the history of medieval Christian/Jewish relations was that one key sign that anti-Judaism (religious hostility) had been replaced by anti-Semitism (racial hostility) was the appearance of pictures of Jews with caricatured features (ugly, hooked nose). I remember a talk by Dominique Iogna-Prat at the IHR a number of years ago when he showed us what he thought was the earliest one there was, from the mid-thirteenth century. What hadn’t occurred to me, until I heard Sara Lipton, is that these caricature Jews were all Jewish men. She showed pictures to demonstrate that Jewesses were still showed as ‘normal’ women even when their husbands were shown in this stereotypical way. It was only towards 1400 that female Jews began to be distinctive in artistic depictions and artistic stereotypes both of the beautiful ‘Oriental’ Jewess and the ugly hook-nosed Jewess developed. (She linked this to the ever increasing marginalisation of Judaism in Christian Europe. Initially, Judaism could be seen as a religion maintained by male Jewish intellectuals and Jewish women, seen as potentially more convertible than men, could be pictured as unmarked ‘women’. When Judaism came to be seen as a religion maintained domestically via household practice (particularly after the forced conversion of Jews), the Jewish wife/mother, as the main conduit of this, was now the key symbol of the Other). That insight, that the marking of ethnicity wasn’t consistent across gender, hadn’t occurred to me as forcefully before, although, of course, when I came to read some articles about gender and early medieval grave goods a few days ago, it’s there as well.

Considering Judaism is also very useful for gender studies because it reminds us again of the contingency of medieval Christian ideas of masculinity. It’s all too easy to start seeing medieval masculinity as natural or inevitable: medieval Jewish masculinity challenges ideas that a Christian celibate priesthood was the best method for religious reproduction, the view of some feminists that a married priestly elite would automatically have lead to an enhanced religious role for clerical wives, and the view that elite masculinity must be based on physical strength.

But the conference also reminded me of how often (at least later in the Middle Ages) medieval people had Jews on their minds. Even in countries, like England, which theoretically had no Jews after 1296, the figure of the Jew keeps cropping up in all kinds of texts. Maybe those of us studying the early Middle Ages should be considering whether Jews were thought about as much then (and if not, why not?) There’s a recent book out on the idea of the Jew in Anglo-Saxon England, which I haven’t looked at yet, but might be revealing. I think it’s fair to say that Jewish history is (at least in the UK) fairly marginalised within medieval studies. I’m not sure how easy it would be to get its research feeding more into the mainstream, but the conference certainly made me think it would be worth trying to do that.


One thought on “Gender and Difference III: Jews on the mind

  1. I haven’t yet blogged about the resumption of IHR seminars, but this is one of the things that came out in questions three weeks ago, that there just isn’t any good monograph on Jews in medieval Europe, certainly not early medieval Europe, despite there being enough evidence for one and several people who could write it. Until this is remedied, there is unlikely to be much progress, because half of the work one can send people to or indeed consult oneself is written by loonies with an agenda. I’m all right, because there’s a relatively sane expert on Jews in Catalonia (David Romero), but it’s not enough. One just doesn’t see anything until Jews start dying in the Crusades, whereas it’s easy enough to find them in charters before that as land-owners, farmers, and really lots of other things besides the city money-lenders or rabbinical scholars that one is encouraged to think made the sum of medieval Jewishness. (Reasons why this persists are suggested in an article I read recently, J. Cohen, “On Medieval Judaism and Medieval Studies” in J. van Engen (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies, Notre Dame Conferences in Medieval Studies IV (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 73-93, but it’s not enough by itself and it doesn’t give primary references.) Something needs doing. But who’s going to do it?


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