Thursday, 13 October 2016

[#54] Patricia Skinner, ‘Confronting the “Medieval” in Medieval History: The Jewish Example’, Past and Present, 181 (2003), pp. 219-247.

Nota bene: I wrote this while waiting for a job interview so hope that it is up to standard - it certainly couldn't be worse than the interview - I will check it in a few days to make sure.

Academic Entry:

A discussion of the impact and implications of periodisation in the case of Jewish history during the Chiristian middle ages.

General Entry:

In 1991 Robin Mundill commented that ‘[i]t is a surprise to most Englishmen that in the wake of the Normans a community of Ashkenazi Jews began to colonise England’ (Mundill: 1991, p. 203). Two decades later Robin wrote a much more enthusiastic endorsement of the field, writing that it had come ‘out of the shadows and into the light’ (Mundill: 2011). As ever, I take a more cynical view of the picture than Robin did. Far from concluding from his article that it was time to put up the bunting, I felt (and still feel) that the end of the first decade of the twenty first century also marked end of a chapter for medieval Anglo-Jewish studies which had begun in 1887. That is not a bad thing though. From my perspective, this is incredibly exciting. I do not mean this in terms of the number of historians working in the field – though this has certainly burgeoned in recent years. Rather, I mean this in terms of the approaches which historians are adopting and the sources which they are using. Consequently, I think that 2010 was a watershed which will shape scholarship for the next century, and I’d love to organise a conference that brought these new strands together to present the ‘new perspectives’, as it were, in the unlikely event that any funding bodies are interested! With hindsight, there were signs that these developments would take place, one of which was this article by Patricia Skinner. Whilst medievalists like Robert Bartlett had included the Jews in his textbook, this was not typical of scholarship (Bartlett: 2000, pp. 346-360). For me, Skinner’s article makes such omissions much more difficult, however, because she expertly outlines the case for the inclusion of the Jews in medieval scholarship.

                Skinner commences with an excellent discussion of periodisation. Like everybody who has studied history at university level, I have strong feelings on this. I think that ‘medieval’ is very Christian, male, and European. Consequently, I loathe using the term, particularly in a Jewish context. That being said, I don’t have a better solution and tend to think that Winston Churchill’s quotation ‘democracy is the worst of government, except for all the others’ could be used within the context of periodisation. Building upon this discussion within the field of medieval history, Skinner goes on to explore how historians have defined the ‘Jewish Middle Ages’. These two strands are then brought together in the following section of Skinner’s article where she explores what medieval means in terms of the Jews who lived in Europe during this period. Of course, for a medieval period at all, there must be a period which follows that is categorised (by modernists) as ‘modern’. Consequently, what this means in the Jewish context is also discussed by Skinner in a particularly intriguing (if brief) discourse.

                Anybody who works on any aspect of Jewish history is aware of the ever present, long shadow of the first half of the twentieth century. This is an element of the historiography which requires tact as well as scholarly discussion (consequently, it’s not something that I write about!). A historian of Skinner’s calibre, however, has no problems providing a succinct, yet inoffensive exploration of this theme. The same could be said of her discussion of the role that the state of Israel has had in influencing the study of Jews during this period. Finally, Skinner concludes with a theme which I think has no place in a discipline that I love: postmodernism. I don’t want to see historian reinforcing old barriers and writing ‘Jewish’ history as a separate entity. Rather, in the vein of 1989, I want to see sledgehammers taken to barriers in whatever guise they come in, and I want to see the process of unification begin. Thus, I want to see all peoples, regardless of race, gender religion or anything else, included under the same roof. Consequently, I think that this thought provoking essay by Patricia Skinner if definitely worth a read!

Work Cited:

Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225 (Oxford, 2000).

Robin R. Mundill, ‘English medieval Ashkenazim – literature and progress’, Ashchkenas, 1 (1991), pp. 203-210.


Robin R. Mundill, ‘Out of the Shadow and into the Light – The Impact and Implications of Recent Scholarship on the Jews of Medieval England 1066-1290’, History Compass, 9 (2011), pp. 572-601.

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