Thursday, 26 May 2016

[#27] Sara Lipton, ‘Issac and the Antichrist in the Archives’, Past and Present, Advance Access, available online at http://past.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2016/05/19/pastj.gtw009.full?keytype=ref&ijkey=B9MIEjz8pv84nbx accessed on 26 May 2016.

Academic Entry:

In this article, Lipton provides a comprehensive discussion of the caricature of Jews on the 1233 tallage roll. In particular, she discusses the specific iconographical significance of each aspect of the caricature before expounding upon the socio-political conditions of the time.  

General Entry:

A contributory factor which convinced me to start this blog was because, occasionally, I just want to use a phrase which I cannot use in conventional academic discourse: ‘IT’S ABOUT TIME!’ [insert own applause]. As I pointed out in my brief discussion of thetallage roll itself, this caricature has long been in need of proper contextualisation and examination.  This is not least because, of the three discussions of caricatures which have been produced, one only discussed the caricature very briefly alongside other caricatures (Roth: rpt. 1962), the second did not discuss the caricature (Rokeah: 1972) and the third merely followed Roth’s outline (Hillaby: 2013, pp. 86-87). Therefore, it was with excitement, even jubilation, that I came across this article on Past and Present’s website. In it, Sara Lipton, whose book Dark Mirror did a great deal to make the key tropes of Jewish iconography in medieval Christian art accessible, seeks to properly contextualise this most famous of anti-Jewish caricatures for the first time.

            In her close examination of the individual figures, Lipton challenges most of the traditionally held assumptions about the piece, some of which are more convincing than others. For example, I find her way in which she outlines that the figure of Isaac of Norwich to the Antichrist to be very convincing. Conversely, Lipton’s suggestion that the ‘Jewish usurer’ on the far left of the document is not a Jew at all but a clerk of the lower exchequer is intriguing, but I am not convinced by the suggestion that this could be the clerk who drew the caricature himself – without any particularly strong evidence either way I do not find this kind of speculation to be particularly useful. There is, however, one aspect of the caricature which I would have expected a larger discussion on given Lipton’s previous work (esp. Lipton: 2008): the figure of Abigail. While there is a brief discussion surrounding her, I still think that she could repay closer scrutiny greatly. That being said, while I disagree with some of the finer details of this article, I find the overarching argument, that this was a satirical piece which was as much an attack on the establishment as it was upon the Jews, to be a highly convincing one. This is not least because of the erudite way in which Lipton contextualises the caricature not just in relation to its iconographical significance but in relation to its contemporary context.

One point which confuses me slightly is Lipton’s assertion that the caricature was first published by Cecil Roth in 1950. I am not entirely sure whether this means within the specific context of caricatures or whether this is, in fact, an error, because the caricature had previously been published as the frontispiece for Michael Adler’s book (1939). A second point, which is based upon personal preference rather than anything wrong with the article, is that I, personally, would have liked a larger discussion of the main, identifiable, characters rather than the brief synopsis which is provided at the beginning – though I am one of those who puts a great deal of emphasis on the textual records of England’s Jewish communities.

To conclude, while I agree with Joe Hillaby’s assertion that caricatures such as this one have ‘[i]t is now well nigh obligatory for publications relating to the English Jewry to include one of the caricatures penned by royal clerks in the margins of their documents’ (Hillaby, p. 86), I think that this article demonstrates that when historians treat the caricatures as credible sources, rather than interesting novelties, the results can be remarkable. I also think that this article demonstrates art history at its best in that it combines both artistic interpretations with traditional historical approaches which serves to fully contextualise the source under question and shed new light on it from both perspectives.

Work Cited:

Adler, Michael, Jews of Medieval England (London, 1939).

Hillaby, Joe, The Palgrave Dictionary of Medieval Anglo-Jewish History (London: 2013).

Lipton, Sara, ‘Where are the Gothic Jewish Women? On the Non-Iconography of the Jewess in the Cantigas de Santa Maria’, Jewish History, 22 (2008), pp. 139-177.

Lipton, Sara, Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography (London, 2014).

Rokeah, Zefira Entin, ‘Drawings of Jewish Interest in some 13th-Century English Public Records’, Scriptorium, 26 (1972), pp. 55-62.


Roth, Cecil, ‘Portraits and Caricatures of Medieval English Jews’ in Cecil Roth, Essays and Portraits in Anglo-Jewish History (Philadelphia, 1962), pp. 22-25.

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