This book challenges the standard conception of the Middle Ages as a time of persecution for Jews. Jonathan Elukin traces the experience of Jews in Europe from late antiquity through the Renaissance and Reformation, revealing how the pluralism of medieval society allowed Jews to feel part of their local communities despite recurrent expressions of hatred against them.
Elukin shows that Jews and Christians coexisted more or less peacefully for much of the Middle Ages, and that the violence directed at Jews was largely isolated and did not undermine their participation in the daily rhythms of European society. The extraordinary picture that emerges is one of Jews living comfortably among their Christian neighbors, working with Christians, and occasionally cultivating lasting friendships even as Christian culture often demonized Jews.
As Elukin makes clear, the expulsions of Jews from England, France, Spain, and elsewhere were not the inevitable culmination of persecution, but arose from the religious and political expediencies of particular rulers. He demonstrates that the history of successful Jewish-Christian interaction in the Middle Ages in fact laid the social foundations that gave rise to the Jewish communities of modern Europe.
Elukin compels us to rethink our assumptions about this fascinating period in history, offering us a new lens through which to appreciate the rich complexities of the Jewish experience in medieval Christendom.
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Elukin offers some fascinating evidence: 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; it's further marred by its credulous handling of medieval historiography (for a comparison, and also for a complication of the categories of "Jew" and "Christian," see the work of Daniel Boyarin, who is fully aware of the work of, say, Bloch and Foucault); and, especially, it hardly considers the counterarguments. Rhetoric against heretics could get nasty, yes, and violence against Jews should be understood within the larger context of medieval European cultures; but surely the repeated massacres and expulsions of Jews, and the centrality of antijudaism to, say, the development of Mariolotry suggests that Jews were a special object of hatred for medieval Christians.
Furthermore, that Jews did not feel themselves to be in danger does not mean that they were not in danger. We here in their future 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. Elukin seems to assume that Jews were rational actors. But people aren't rational, or not only rational. 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, people continue to occasionally enjoy good weather, and to live near the water; no doubt many Pakistanis will move back to the coast after this latest round of flooding subsides; no doubt we Americans will continue hyperconsuming until we meet our well-deserved end. This doesn't mean we're not in danger. It just means that, like people generally, we're insufficiently pessimistic, unable to do what we should to escape our coming doom.
For a much less friendly review, with charts on violence against Jews in medieval Germany, see Michael Toch in The Catholic Historical Review 95.3 (2009): 604-7.more