Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Religious Polemics and Conversion in the Middle Ages

Anastasia KeshmanSt. Stephen’s Hand in the Wrong Hands: On a Little-Known Anti-Jewish Account from Medieval France

We have an account of how the hand of St. Stephen came to Besancon in France. The purpose of this account was to justify the authenticity of the relic. St. Stephen’s relics were hidden until they were supposedly discovered in Jerusalem in the fifth century. Immediately after the hand was brought to France from Rome it was placed in a reliquary. This reflects the reality of twelfth century France when the story was written rather than the early Middle Ages when the event allegedly took place.

Jewish thieves stole the relic in the time of Protadius (seventh century) because they wanted the golden reliquary. They threw the hand into the river Dubius. This is a parallel to the original martyrdom of St. Stephen who was stoned by the Jews. A miracle happened and the river split, leaving the hand unharmed. Fishermen found the relic. The people of the church came to the river and brought it back in solemn ceremony. According to the account, the joy of the people was as if St. Stephen had come down from heaven.

Jews play a prominent role but this is not an anti-Jewish polemic. Rather it is a miracle story in which Jews play an incidental role. Jews are greedy for gold and driven by the Devil. They do not see or hear the truth. That being said, there is no physical description of Jews. They are not described as stinking or as big nosed. The St. Stephen text avoids abusive language of Jews. Unlike later medieval texts, there is no violence done to the Jews. The Jews in the text are transient, coming and going. This may be a reference to Jewish merchants passing through. As is often the case in Christian miracle stories, Jews know but do not believe. Thus, even though they do not accept Christ, they have access to particular knowledge that serves the Christian cause. For example, the Jew, Judas, finds the true cross for Queen Helena. The Host desecration miracle of the later Middle Ages also serves this purpose. Jews steal the Host and torture it. The Host then bleeds as in Paolo Uccelo’s Miracle of the Profaned Host painting.

The Jew serves to demonstrate the power of the holy object and set the miracle in motion.

Luis CortestIsidore of Seville, Thomas Aquinas, and Alonso de Cartagena on Forced Conversion.

One way to think of the Latin fathers is a period in which doctrine was established. You have history of events which also serve to establish doctrine. Few works can rival Augustine’s City of God. One of his goals was to explain the existence of Jews. According to Augustine, the Jewish Diaspora helps Christians. Jews need to be dispersed to serve as witnesses. Augustine’s was a policy of relative tolerance. Whether this position is true it is clear that there is an alternative that is far more hostile as in the case of the Visigoths. It was official policy to engage in forced conversion in the seventh century as was the case with Sisebut in 612.

Isidore of Seville was a contemporary of Sisebut. Besides for his etymology, Isidore also dabbled in the contra Judaeos genre. In this period conversion was a collective act not something for individuals. Baptism was considered the beginning of the road to becoming a Christian. There is a demise of the pagan intellectual elite. This created a need for a new line of apologetics to go after those who were only nominally Christian.

The thirteenth century has been viewed as a time of intense anti-Semitism. Jeremy Cohen connects this to the friars. Such leading members of the Dominican order as Raymond Martini and Raymond of Penafort wanted a lasting solution. In pursuit of this they created an organized mission to the Jews and used rabbinic texts. Thomas Aquinas wrote Summa Contra Gentiles as per request by Penafort. There is no call for forced conversion in Aquinas. Jews and heathens are not to be compelled to believe because they never received this belief. Those who received it, though, ought to be compelled to keep it. According to Aquinas, Jews ought to be able to practice their rites because it helps the Christian faith. Other religions carry no such benefit. Jewish children should not be baptized against their parents’ will. This would violate the rights of their parents. Also children might be persuaded later if only they could come to Christianity through reason; this opportunity would be lost if force were used. There is also the argument from natural law; according to natural law the child is connected to his parents until it comes to the use of reason. Clearly not all of the friars followed a fanatical line in regards to Jews.

Alonso de Cartagena was a converso and son of Pablo de Burgos. Cartagena defended the sincerity of the conversos. Norman Roth sees Cartagena as one of the key figures in establishing the Inquisition. He put through the decree from the Council of Basil banning the practice of Judaism by conversos. Forced conversion was a practice to be done in mass and not to individuals. This was something Torquemada would later fail to understand.

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