Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Abraham Yagel on Joan of Arc and Merlin

Abraham Yagel (1553-1623) was one of the great Jewish thinkers of the early modern period. In his discussion of prophecy in his book, Bat Rabim, he argued, contrary to the Kuzari, that non Jews could also be prophets. As evidence to this he uses the biblical example of Balaam, but he also brings down the cases Joan of Arc and Merlin. Yagel exerts the reader:

Observe what happened to the seventeen-year-old girl who was a shepherdess during the time of Charles VII, the king of France, who was surrounded by the armies of the English king, which almost took from him [Charles] his entire kingdom. But this young maiden arose, aroused herself from her slumber, gathered her strength, left her flock in the field, went to King Charles, and told him what she told him; the essence of her words was that she desired to lead his armies and to be victorious over his enemies. And the king trusted her word and placed her in charge of his army; and she girded her weaponry and fought the king’s enemies and was victorious over them with great honor. And the chroniclers of the time sang her praises as if she were skilled in war from her youth and knew her enemy’s strategy in war.

And who would believe the account of the child born in England named Merlin, who revealed future events and secret things and who transcribed in a document before the kings and nobles all that would happen to them in the end of days, in addition to all the incredible feats he accomplished in the days of his youth, which were recorded in the chronicles of that kingdom. (David Ruderman, Kabbalah, Magic and Science pg. 86)

During the sixteenth and seventeenth century there was a widespread interest in the prophecies of Merlin, particularly in England, and there were many supposed works by him in circulation. (See Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic.) The idea that a Jew would hold up a Christian visionary, who in modern times would be made into a saint, as a true prophet is interesting. For Yagel, as with many others during this time period, prophecy was something in nature, to be studied as any other natural phenomenon, and hence was universally applicable and could be achieved by anyone. (He obviously rejected the view of the Kuzari that prophecy was a genetic trait, which only Jews possessed.) This is not really that different from Pope Clement VII being willing to accept Shlomo Molcho as a prophet. It is all in keeping with the eclectic and often strangely ecumenical mystical theological scientific worldview of early modern Europe.

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