Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Medieval Jews as Scapegoats

          As we’ve seen multiple times in literature for this course, the Jewish community often took the fall for crimes committed against Christians.  In several readings—The Prioress’ Tale, The Child Slain by Jews, Theophilus—Jews are the clear-cut villains, murdering virtuous Christian children and enticing Christian men to make blood pacts with the Devil (who has apparently nested deep within their Jewish hearts.  Charming.)  We have briefly discussed a question that will inevitably cross any modern reader’s mind: How could these people—the characters in the story, the authors of the tales, the medieval audience—have believed in this portrayal of the Jews?  How could they have justified such unerring prejudice, even decades after the majority of the Jewish community had been expelled from England in 1290?  There may not be a clear answer, but by looking at a time of similar bigotry—the early spread of the Black Death in the mid-14th century—some light can be shed on the correlation between Jewish presence and Christian anxieties.
            Steven F. Kruger’s “The Spectral Jew: Conversion and Embodiment in Medieval Europe” explains that the Christian community’s ability to construct a social identity was dependent on the “othering” of non-Christians, in order to maintain “a religious hegemony crucial to Western European hierarchical (Chrsitian, masculinist, heterosexist) society” (25).  The desire for a solidified Christian identity—both personal and social—must have been present throughout plague-time, which was arguably the height of anxiety for medieval Christians and Jews (and every other mortal race) alike.

Victims of the Plague
         To set the scene a bit: The Bubonic Plague, commonly referred to as the Black Death, was an awful disease that spread throughout medieval Europe like wildfire.  The symptoms included these huge black abscesses called “buboes” which were painful and pus-filled and generally popped up in a person’s lymph nodes—meaning sick people were lying around, moaning and crying, with painful black swellings around their throat, armpits, and groin.  The Black Death could essentially kill someone overnight, and had such a high mortality rate that you might have seen the majority of your family wiped out in under a week.  People had no clue what caused it, and so speculations flew.  Astrology, humors, and the classic Wrath of God were all possibilities, but the only explanation that offered a quick-fix cure came down to human agency: The Jews must have poisoned the drinking wells.

Jews being burned for poisoning the wells
            Nevermind the fact that Jews and Christians drank from the same wells and were dying in equal numbers; after centuries of tension, the Jewish community was an easy target.  Still, despite widespread antisemitic sentiments, how could Christians—who had lived and worked alongside Jews for generations—truly believe that their neighbors were the heartless Devil-worshippers of folklore?  It is true that certain Jews confessed to the well-poisoning allegations (most notably Agimet of Geneva), which would have assuaged the guilt that Christians might have felt in accusing them; despite the fact that these confessions were almost certainly a result of torture, Jews were still murdered en masse for their alleged crimes.  More likely, the pervasive “othering” of the Jewish community over the span of centuries finally culminated in the justification of Christian violence against what we today can recognize as a blameless community.  In medieval reality and literature alike, the Jewish community often suffered for Christian piece of mind.

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