A discussion of the iconography of the Jewess in medieval art.
I am just coming to the end of my MA degree and it seems increasingly likely that I will cease to be in academia by September, and that the project that I am working on at present will be my last. This has made me think about the very first project that I did (with a great deal of help from Robin M.) which consider the position of Jewish women in the English evidence. At the heart of that research was this article that I read by Henry Abramson, and while it does not specifically discuss England, the theme’s that he explores inherently link to medieval Anglo-Jewry. I should add the disclaimer that the research that I conducted caused me to conclude that the English evidence does not substantiate the conclusions in this evidence (though I cannot speak to other European countries) so I would strongly urge you to read it for yourself – it’s a fun piece and it had a major impact upon me, even if I did not ultimately agree with it. As a result I will try to be more circumspect with my comments so as to let you, dear reader, formulate your own opinion of the piece.
In this piece, Abramson considers the iconographical significance of representations of Jews and women and the ways in which these two interacted and merged with each other in the form of the Jewess. There is a very interesting discussion of the circumcision of Christ at the beginning which I find to be thought provoking, and this leads on to a more general discussion of Jewish sexuality. This article is rounded off with a discussion of the elements specific to Jewesses. For me, this is an important piece of scholarship because previously the role played by gender within Jewish iconography had not really been discussed. As a consequence, this article seems to conform to part of a wider trend that started to occur during the 1990s of including gender studies in medieval Jews. One point that I would make is that some of the features which Abramson discusses become more convincing or nuanced when they are considered in relation to the work of literary scholars (see, for example, Bale: 2007; Johnson: 1998). In addition, some of the arguments which Abramson promulgates in this article have subsequently been challenged by scholars like Sara Lipton (2008). Despite the plethora of interpretative problems that I have with this article, I still have absolutely no problems recommending it as it is an enjoyable piece, which opened a new area of discussion, and which I spend a lot of time thinking about.
Anthony Bale, ‘The Female “Jewish” Libido in Medieval Culture’, The Erotic in the Literature of Medieval Britain (Woodbridge, 2007), pp. 94-104.
Willis Johnson, ‘The myth of Jewish male menses’, Journal of Medieval History, 24 (1998), pp. 273-295.
Sara Lipton, ‘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.