Clifford’s Tower, where the Jews of York met a gruesome fate in 1190, hounded by a mob of Christians.
The origins of antisemitism in Britain, especially England, have induced a great deal of lush discussion. This is the grim pasture, readers, I’m going to get you to graze upon for a bit. I do English, so the way I’m going to do this discussion is textual analysis of case studies, but hopefully it’s legible. My ultimate aim with this is to discuss what the medieval times might imply for us today. But first, have a potted history of the Jews.
The Jews haven’t had an easy ride (has any group of people over a long enough time period?) and summarising the multiform strifes they endured from the 2nd century CE onwards to the 13th century is inevitably going to be piecemeal and insufficient. However a simple explanation could begin with a rebellion against the Romans. Having endured slavery and general torment from them, the Jews unsuccessfully rose up, and their situation got worse as a result – Jerusalem was made a ‘pagan city’ and they dispersed to the most significant extent in their history so far. Eventually, wending their way across Europe (as a general rule, Ashkenazi Jews were Northern Europe, Sephardic Jews were Southern Europe), they eventually found England. Being at the arse-end of the world, England was practically the last stop in the story of medieval Jewish settlement. They came over with William the Conqueror in 1066. Their legal status was lesser and protected as subjects of the king, as if they were semi-property. Many practised usury as a living, but this phenomenon arose mainly because they literally couldn’t work as anything else. Some Jews got very wealthy; most Jews lived in poverty. However, people focused, of course, on the edge cases – in York, on Coney Street, a moneylender bought an ostentatious house overlooking the Ouse, and was naturally rather unpopular as a result. Jewish displays of wealth were profoundly annoying on a theological level to Christians; it was a popular view among scholars who subscribed to the views of St Augustine that Jews essentially should be subservient owing to their being Christ-killers. The blood libel, the idea that Jews require Christian blood at Passover, spread like wildfire among more hateful Christians. Jews were required to wear a Star of David to mark themselves as Jewish, though often their appearance and language with its strange symbols marked that out already. Special levies were directed at them (this was always the case as they were the king’s subjects, but in the 13th century things only got worse). Usury was even outlawed and many Jews were out of jobs. Eventually the Jews were cast out in 1290 – prefiguring many, many more expulsions. Of course, Jews returned to England after many years – but it’s the medieval period I’m looking at.
It’s fascinating to think about antisemitism throughout history – the similarities and differences are so illuminating, of course, for our own times. Looking at it through history can seem like a dispassionate dissection of prejudice, how it operates, how it manifests. Of course it’s not that simple – we receive these impressions indelibly through past events – looking at the blood libels rampant in medieval England makes me sick to the stomach not because I think of the countless Jews harassed, humiliated and killed at the hands of ordinary bigots centuries ago, but because the first image that flashes into my head is the piles of bodies at Auschwitz. It’s always a more immediate image. It’s as if the idea of indirect causation holds absolutely no weight for a moment – I can draw a line straight from the fury of Thomas of Monmouth (who I’ll be looking at in this post) to the rhetorical bile of Hitler. It makes sick, intuitive sense, though no self-respecting historian would base any essay on it (though there have been many books giving sweeping accounts of antisemitism through time). Wondering why it makes sense is probably the stuff of a separate post.
But it’s no wonder that we conceive of the medieval times as barbaric bigots who don’t shine a light on our more enlightened, anti-racist modern selves. It’s hard to convince people that patronising medieval minds with the presentist smuggery of enlightened modernism is just plain wrong when this sort of stuff crops up. This is the sort of age which proclaims “Pagans are wrong and Christians are right” – quite literally – just read The Song of Roland. This proclamation is then bound up in in-group/out-group prejudice of a very human variety. No wonder any Other has a rough time if this is the attitude. But it’s actually more subtle than that. You have to look at conceptions, perceptions, receptions of the Other via the Norm. That’s because, at the end of the day, a discussion of racism is a discussion of what the Norm thinks of the Other, never vice versa. Indeed, I’d like to suggest by the end of this that these texts are ultimately about and for its Christian readership, despite extended ‘use’ of the Jews.
What makes a good example of that kind of thing? How does putting words into the mouths of Jews sound? Good, then we can get rid of this preamble.
Rood screen depicting the murder of William of Norwich. Costumes unmistakably mark out the Jews.
MEET THE VENTRILOQUISTS
I’m working with two texts – William of Newburgh’s ‘History of English Affairs’ and Thomas of Monmouth’s ‘Life and Passion of William of Norwich’. To stop confusion right in its tracks I’m going to refer to ‘Newburgh’ and his ‘History’ and ‘Monmouth’ and his ‘Passion’. (I can just hear you clamouring to get your hands on these sexy-sounding texts – good news – Monmouth’s ‘Passion’ has been published just last year by Penguin Classics! Go go go!) They’re quite different. One is a dispassionate account of events, a precursor to a lot of historical writing, an integral part of the so-called ‘twelfth-century renaissance’. The other is part-saint’s-life part-cult-recruitment-pamphlet. And yet they both share the characteristic of having Jews deliver lengthy speeches, explaining their motivations and their innermost thoughts. A trope of fiction in texts purporting to some degree of truth? Welcome to medieval literature!
Or in stronger language – the authors both ventroliquise the Other to achieve alternative ideological ends.
One thing is immediately clear – Monmouth is far, far more virulently hateful against the Jews. Outwardly so. His entire first part is more devoted to the passion of William of Norwich – his Christ-like death. (This isn’t blasphemy, many saint’s-lives employ this trope.) And guess who’s responsible? Them Jews with their “vileness”. According to Monmouth, a group of Jews lured innocent little William into their home at Passover and gruesomely killed him in a warped crucifixion. On the other hand, Newburgh claims they are merely “perfidious” and “ought to live among Christians for our own utility; but for their iniquity they ought to live in servitude”. It’s that Augustinian theology again – the voice of a moderate antisemite. It should be noted this is in a passage about the massacre of the Jews in York in 1190, though. There is nothing ‘moderate’ about medieval antisemitism; it is pervasive and hides in plain sight (a phenomenon not restricted to the 12th century). That said, ideological divergence here will account for their different approaches to characterising the Jews.
But ultimately there are similarities we shouldn’t ignore: they rely on the mystery of their ‘otherness’ for their accounts to work. This mystery about the Other is altogether alluring – the Jews appear, as Anthony Bale writes, in all guises “with regularity from marginal doodles to theological tracts”. It is possible to find, for example, paintings depicting Jews reading – only the Hebrew characters are garbled and nonsensical. So it’s productive to think of this mystery itself as like a gap in interpretation, one that needs to be bridged. How do the texts bridge this gap?
For example, Newburgh uses Josephus extensively – his ‘Bellum Judaicum’, a classic of Jewish history, was evidently in use. This is by any account a genuine and earnest attempt to understand Jewish motivations, Jewish tradition. The Jewish massacre is likened to the famous siege of Masada – Jews, after a hellish mob hounded them from their homes, and cast out of the castle, found the structure on Clifford’s Tower their last defence at the hands of a siege. Most self-immolated in this old wooden tower, later rebuilt in stone. The rest asked for mercy and baptism; they were killed. This act of suicide at a siege is directly paralleled to the events at Masada hillfort – where the Romans besieged Jewish families until they decided to kill themselves rather than die at the hands of the legionaries. Newburgh, in effect, makes the same connection I did – Jewish history and injustice is all inextricably linked, there is a weird fatalism, a weird tradition at work. Jews in the past equal Jews in the present, somehow. Of course Monmouth does the same thing, to more insidious ends. He claims the murders of Christians are an intrinsic part of Jewish tradition. Understanding Jewish tradition is key to understanding the true character of the Jews, it seems.
Let’s continue this thread of seeing how the character of the Jews is accessed through tradition – both use Jewish ‘elders’ to do the majority of their speaking – a kind of authority within the othered community to represent the group as a whole. (We do this today when we demand for ‘representatives of ‘the Muslim community” to stand up and condemn violence committed by Muslims.) Of course it also lends a sort of authority and gravitas to their speech. Monmouth doesn’t make much of it (a “certain person who had considerable authority among them” speaks – you can practically feel his contemptuous shrug!) but Newburgh makes a whole song and dance of it, expanding imaginatively from his source material. “A most famous doctor of the law … [was] held in honour among them all, … and was obeyed by all, as if he had been one of the prophets.” This is the man who tells the Jews that they will kill themselves. Monmouth wants us to focus on the action, Newburgh is telling us to sit up straight and listen to the speech. Monmouth is enacting a kind of ideological sleight of hand, Newburgh is being upfront and genuine about his intent, so it would seem. Newburgh isn’t sympathetic, however – just more sympathetic than Monmouth (which isn’t difficult).The self-immolation is roundly condemned as “horrid” and a “crime”, while the elder is “that most cursed old man”. What is important, however, is this focus on the speech.
The speech itself is grand and elegiac. “Therefore, let us willingly and devoutly, with our own hands, render up to Him that life which the Creator gave to us, since He now claims it, and let us not wait for the aid of a cruel enemy to give back what he reclaims”. Vocalising the Jews’ final thoughts, we have access to Newburgh’s imagination. He’s trying to rationalise their motives for suicide, and presents his conclusions in the speech. If anything, instead of showing there is some innate tendency to suicide, Newburgh is showing a process. Tradition is a rhetorical tool in this process, with the language closely matching Josephus’ original account at Masada. Invoked but not explicitly mentioned are Jewish touchstones such as Kiddush ha-Shem, which is the practice of suicide to avoid an undignified death at the hands of an enemy. This is therefore a speech not targeted towards actual Jews – this is all once again a characterisation of the Other, intended to be realistic but aimed at Christians.
Monmouth sheds any pretense of psychological realism – he does not aim to understand the motives of the murderers. They speak as one. “Just as we have condemned Christ to a most shameful death, so we condemn a Christian, so that we punish both the Lord and his servant.” Apparently the Jews acknowledge Christ’s lordship – which only goes to show just how insidious they are in his eyes for murdering his servant and ridiculing Christ. It’s not meant to make sense, it goes for emotional blows. You have to get on Monmouth’s level to understand precisely what is actually being said. For example: “We punish both the Lord and his servant in the punishment of reproach; that which they ascribe to us we will inflict on them.” This is not a statement intended to help us sympathise with or understand the Jews – that wouldn’t make sense. It’s that Jews scorn a just Christian punishment, and that scorn is a sign of their vileness. In accepting the very truth of Monmouth’s story, you’re engaging in his games of signification – you accept his ideology completely – that their bloodlust is a sign of their resentment to us, the Christians, and they’re completely incompatible with life in a Christian land:
“Therefore, what remains to become common knowledge, if not the truth of the events, and the discovery of the truth to the detriment and danger of us all? Because of our lack of foresight, and not undeservedly, our people will then be totally eliminated from the realm of England.”
This utterance is not in any way realistic. It sounds more at home in a trashy novel with the worst villains ever. Except, of course, this blatant use of the Jews as mouthpiece had a real effect – because of the blood libel, relations with European Jews were severely strained in the 13th century, and there was much violence. This question of elimination was to prove prophetic, when the Jews were exiled in 1290. (The original Latin eliminare used here disturbingly implies both ‘extinguish’ and ‘exile’. I sense this ambiguity was very much intended.)
Earlier I called Newburgh a ventriloquist. Compared to this, he hardly seems such. After all, this is not only getting us to hate the Jews even more, but is foreshadowing William’s body’s eventual discovery – this is the inventio genre of medieval literature in a nutshell – a saint’s dead body is miraculously found, further proof of the saint’s holiness. The focus, then, is always William, always Christian, even when the antisemitism is rifest. However, I want to suggest that ultimately Newburgh’s focus is always on Christian conduct, and that even in a passage so sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, it is about the Christians. Interest in the Norm always foregrounds interest in the Other.
William of Newburgh.
THE NORMAL GAMES
Geraldine Heng writes that “the manipulation of domestic minorities is a formative moment in the self-construction of national majorities. Knowing who and what a religious-racial minority is, is an essential stage in knowing who and what a national majority is, and is not.” I would also add to this that in these texts it provides a strategy for that ‘national majority’. At the end of the day, the purpose of talking about the Other, bridging the interpretive gap that is their unknowable identity, is so that the Norm knows how to react to the Other. It was never about the Other, it was about the Norm. The disputatio genre, for example, set Jews and Christians in debate – usually very one-sided debate – where the Jews typically explain their beliefs and then the Christians reply and show the flaws. It’s educating Christians on how to interact with unbelievers, what to say – in other words it’s moulding the Norm in reaction to however the Other has been manipulated in that text. This is what we see here, very plainly in Monmouth – a manipulation with words. The threat Judaism poses to the Norm is not theological but far more emotional, deeply ingrained, even on a national level – they invoke their protected status in a trial. Basically, the entire economic and political structural support of Judaism needs to be stamped out in England (and obviously a way to do this is literally to buy into the saint’s cult).
This manipulation is not so plain in Newburgh. After all, his sympathies definitely lie with the York Jews and not the York Christians, although the suicide isn’t condoned. The Christians are roundly condemned, no matter the extent of Jewish sin. Well, I’ll amend that – they’re roundly condemned for temporarily forgetting their Christian superiority: “in their blinded understandings, they perverted that passage of David” and “without any scruple of Christian conscientiousness, [they] thirsted for their perfidious blood.” Using the Jew’s voice, then, is once again for shaping and defining Christian morality.
“Behold the bodies of those unfortunate people … in our trouble we have gained understanding, and acknowledge the truth of Christ; we, therefore, pray your charity … let us live with you in the faith and peace of Christ.”
Moved by the pathos of this speech, most realise that their actions are wrong – and then a few evildoers massacre them. While Newburgh’s ultimate aim is Christian sympathy, this is not made easy by the fact that the motivation for sympathy is their conversion to Christianity. It undoes any potential humanistic message about the intrinsic worth of a Jewish life if the rabble is only moved by Christians-to-be. The Other themselves, being all other-y (and “perfidious”), cannot provide moral guidance in this worldview. The jargon word is that they lack that kind of agency – and that is a very racist portrayal indeed.
So what we’ve learnt from these texts is that ultimately antisemitism contains many different strains under the same umbrella. You can have a sympathetic antisemitism in Newburgh and a hostile one in Monmouth, and they’re given the same name. That’s counter-intuitive, but maybe it makes sense, as they use a similar technique – the Other ventriloquised to form a demarcation on acceptable actions and thoughts for the Norm. But the crucial difference is that Newburgh aims to bridge that gap I mentioned, and Monmouth doesn’t (if anything, he seems to be seeking to muddy the waters!). That’s perhaps the difference between sympathy and hostility.
However, we see that even a sympathetic viewpoint has limitations and that such a perspective is bound by circumstance and preconception – he can’t actually know what was said, nor indeed is his grasp of events airtight without doubt. The message of this is simple, despite the complex range of antisemitic matter these texts cover: so long as that antisemitic context exists, the content itself will never fully attain the truth of the Jewish subject’s voice. It will always be a characterisation that tells us more about the Norm than the Other. Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak writes in her seminal essay ‘Can The Subaltern Speak?’:
“Not only does such a model of social indirection – necessary gaps between the source of ‘influence’ … the ‘representative’ … and the historical-political phenomenon … – imply a critique of the subject as individual agent but [it also implies] a critique even of the subjectivity of a collective agency.”
What is she actually saying here (a reasonable question to ask about any literary theorist since the 1970s)? In our case, the Jews are the ‘influence’, the historians the ‘representative’ and “the historical-political phenomenon” (by the way, what phenomenon isn’t historical or political?) is the antisemitic context of medieval England. That word ‘agency’ crops up again – not only is it difficult (Spivak might suggest impossible) to even have the Norm representing the Other truthfully, the Other can’t even adequately represent themselves, since the Norm might make themselves the object of attention!
It’s a scary thought – that gap can’t be bridged, and if we follow that line of logic, maybe the Norm stays the Norm and the Other stays the Other. What’s truly scary about this idea is that maybe racism doesn’t truly end – as long as there’s one group to be ‘in’ or ‘out’ of, then there you have a group’s power.
If anything else, despite this rather nebulous, theoretical chat, the texts have taught us moderns some rather disturbing things – for example, the strongest thoughts are the most camouflaged. It was an unspoken fact of medieval England that Jews were inferior to Christians. Either in the eyes of God, or even at a basic moral level. A comforting thought is that I think there is considerably more anxiety about this act of ‘ventriloquism’ we saw. Spivak’s article’s very existence, whether you agree with it or not, shows that our era is at the very least concerned about such things in comparison to the medieval era. Few thoughts now are unspoken or unchallenged. Right now I would there indeed still exists a Norm and an Other, and there always will be – but I would guess that slowly but surely that gap is being bridged. History is by no means a neat progression towards an ideal state, but I would say that, looking back at the past, more and more people are now heading in the right direction. That direction being, in my view, a fully realised awareness of the infinite richness of an individual’s constitution (a definition of which might be another blog post). As long as we don’t forget what the past holds for us in the present, that trend should continue.
- Bale, Anthony. “Fictions of Judaism in England before 1290.” The Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives. Patricia Skinner. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2003. 129-144. Print.
- Dahan, Gilbert. The Christian Polemic against the Jews in the Middle Ages. Trans. Jody Gladding. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.
- Dobson, Barry. “The Medieval York Jewry Reconsidered.” The Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives. Patricia Skinner. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2003. 145-156. Print.
- Heng, Geraldine. “The Romance of England: Richard Coeur de Lyon, Saracens, Jews, and the Politics of Race and Nation.” The Postcolonial Middle Ages. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. New York: Palgrave, 2001. 135-172. Print.
- Otter, Monika.Inventiones: Fiction and Referentiality in Twelfth-Century English Historical Writing. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press 1996. Print.
- Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorti. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 66-111.
- Thomas of Monmouth, The Life and Passion of William of Norwich. Ed. Miri Rubin. London: Penguin, 2014. Print.
- Vincent, Nicholas. “William of Newburgh, Josephus and the New Titus.” Christians and Jews in Angevin England: The York Massacre of 1190, Narratives and Contexts. Ed. Sarah Rees Jones and Sethina Watson. York: York Medieval Press, 2013. 57-90.
- William of Newburgh. Historia rerum anglicarum. Trans. Joseph Stevenson. Vol. 4. Web. Fordham University. Accessed Sun 1 March 2015. <http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/williamofnewburgh-four.asp.>