Thursday, December 25, 2008

AJS Conference Day One Session Two (Interreligious Hostility in Medieval and Early Modern Times Part II)

(Part I)

Flora Cassen (University of Vermont)
“The Jewish Badge in Renaissance Italy: The Iconic O, the Yellow Hat, and the Paradoxes of Distinctive Sign Legislation”

This is an analysis of the use of Jewish badges from the perspective of semiotics. We have many different examples of Jewish badges from the Middle Ages, a blue strip, tablet of law, red badge and the O. A Jewish badge could serve as an icon or a symbol. An icon resembles the thing it is meant to be related to while a symbol has an arbitrary relationship to its object. We have the example of a transition in various states in Northern Italy at the end of the fifteenth century from an O badge to yellow hats. The O can be seen as an icon. Either it can refer to the Jewish cry of suffering, him being counted as a zero within the community of men or it can refer to the zero productivity of his usury. The color yellow is a symbol. It was meant to show cowardice and shame, but this is something fairly arbitrary. The advantage of yellow hats was that it could easily be seen as opposed to the O badge, which was quite small and could easily escape notice. In both cases these objects were meant to create boundaries between Jew and gentile. What we have here is a tension between theory and practice. The O badge was something more theoretical while the yellow hat had little theory but was effective in practice.

Emily Rose (Johns Hopkins University)
“Distinctions without Much Difference? Ritual Murder, Blood Libel, and the Need to Classify”

This presentation was an attack on the late Gavin Langmuir for his distinctions between ritual murder and blood libel and anti Judaism and anti Semitism. In truth these distinctions have nothing to do with the way medieval people thought and merely serve modern needs.
Langmuir’s distinctions have become common place within academic literature.

According to Langmuir the early ritual murder charges, such as the case of William of Norwich, were different than the blood libel, which we first see only in Fulda in 1235. In the case of ritual murder the charge is that the Jews murder a Christian child in order to reenact the crucifixion of Jesus. This has nothing to do with the Jews needing blood or of them using blood for the Passover matzot. The blood libel only came later and it is something different; Jews are charged with being demonic creatures that drink blood. This leads to the distinction between anti Judaism and anti Semitism. Christian anti Judaism simply pegs Jews as blasphemers, heretics and even as Christ killers. This is different from the darker anti Semitism which places Jews as demonic beings outside the pale of the human race; thus Jews are not human beings and are, by their very nature, evil. (Langmuir talked about “chimerical” anti Semitism; Jews being accused of committing crimes that no one could have seen them commit and go beyond reason.)

Langmuir’s work came out of Cecil Roth, who in the 1930s, argued for the distinction between English anti Semitism and German anti Semitism. This had to do with Nazi era apologetics and not the Middle Ages. Roth was trying to distinguish English culture, with its more “gentlemanly” anti Semitism, from the murderous anti Semitism of German culture. This was perfectly okay with English anti Semites who wanted to distinguish their social anti Semitism from Nazi anti Semitism.

Langmuir had his own apologetic interests. As a Christian he wished to distinguish the Church and Christianity from anti Semitism. The most extreme acts of violence against Jews become the product simply of popular medieval culture and had nothing intrinsically to do with Christianity. In truth there one medieval culture, Christianity, that covered all of Western Europe. Anti Semitism comes out of this culture and it lead to the persecution of Jews.

(This was a well done presentation, but I would strongly disagree with it. At times historians have to make distinctions that may not have been readily apparent to those living during the time period. There is nothing wrong with this just as long as one willing to keep these distinctions as theoretical models and recognizes that the reality on the ground might have been more complex. It is important to talk about ritual murder as something different from a blood libel. It is also important to distinguish between hatred of Judaism as a religion and hatred of Jews as a race. It is for this reason that most historians are not comfortable using the term anti Semitism outside of the context of modern race based anti Semitism. For everything else anti Judaism is really a far more useful term.

I am sorry about this but there is not one medieval culture. England is not France. Northern France is not Provence, which is not Germany. These places are different with different social and political realities on the ground. The fact that Jews were newcomers to England, who came with the Norman conquest, is relevant. The expansion of the French monarchy is relevant. The political collapse of the Holy Roman Empire at the end of the thirteenth century is relevant. You cannot do medieval history without recognizing these issues.)

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