Here Mesley explore the role that gender had upon the representation of Jews in literature with particular emphasis on a miracle story in Gerald of Wales’ Life of Saint Remigius, written between 1197 and 1199 which presents the story of the blind, deaf and dumb Jewess who went to Lincoln cathedral with blasphemous intent but was cured and subsequently converted.
The first time that I read this essay, I expected it to be a trial by ordeal which had to be endured in order to progress through the edited collection. Indeed, there was one sure indicator in the title that I wouldn’t like it: ‘Gerald of Wales’ – not one of my favourite medieval writers by any stretch. However, sort of like that last chocolate in the box which you’ve convinced yourself you wouldn’t like, and as such leave until last, but find it to be the most enjoyable of all the chocolates, I found when I actually read this essay I really loved it and wanted more of writing relating to this topic. Looking back at my notes as well, this essay proved to be a watershed moment for me when I became interested in gender history to a major extent and that is in no small part due to the themes raised by Matthew Mesley in this piece (and as such is to blame for my ‘obsession’ with the subject).
In this essay, Mesley provides a discussion of a miracle story in the Life of Saint Remigius which contains a blind, deaf and dumb Jewess who, by Remigius’ miracle, had her senses healed, and promptly converted to Christianity (for a very competent discussion of this see Mesley: 2009, pp. 178-240). In particular, Mesley considers the way in which gender impacted upon traditional constructions of the Jews. Moreover, Mesley provides a very competent discussion of the factors which influenced the traditional construction of the Jew and how these can vary for Jewesses. Similarly, he places his narrative within the context of other examples of the Jewess in English literature, like those in the Life of Christina of Markyate (2009) and who associates with Godleiva of Canterbury (incidentally, the Christina of Markyate description made such an impact on me that the passage is pinned on my wall). Like Mesley, I agree that this narrative was directed at a Christian rather than a Jewish audience, however I find his discussion of dating the miracle less convincing. That it not to say that there is anything wrong with it, merely that it assumes that the Jewess was not an artificial construction of Gerald’s.
I only have one problem with this essay and two things which I would have liked. Mesley’s essay focuses heavily on women and I would have liked to have seen a more nuanced gender analysis. In terms of what I would have liked in addition to what Mesely presents: first, there is a tantalising section towards the end whereby he touches upon Jewish visitations to Christian shrines and this could have been developed further, in my opinion, to suggest ways in which local custom and general belief interacted with each other. My second problem is that this is a standalone piece, and this is made worse by the fact that historians in general, and historians of medieval Jews in particular, have been slow to consider the role of the miraculous in the medieval world (for exceptions see, for example, Yarrow: 2006 and Mesley and Wilson: 2014) – in other words this essay is very good but, the glutton that I am, I want more of it.
Mesley, Matthew M., ‘The Construction of Episcopal Identity: The Meaning and Function of Episcopal Depictions within Latin Saints’ Lives of the Long Twelfth Century’ (Exeter, unpublished PhD diss., 2009).
Mesley, Matthew M. and Wilson, Louise E. (eds.), Contextualizing Miracles in the Christian West, 1100-1500 (Oxford, 2014).
The Life of Christina of Markyate, ed. and trans. C. H. Talbot, et. al. (Oxford, 2009).
Yarrow, Simon, Saints and Their Communities: Miracle Stories in Twelfth-Century England (Oxford, 2006, rpt. 2010).