A study of how piety manifested itself in the social and gender history of medieval Ashkenazi Jewry focusing particularly on Germany and northern France.
If you study medieval religion for long enough then, sooner or later, you will be confronted by a tedious tome upon medieval piety. Oft times, when reading these, you get the urge to scream that the perceptions of a few members of the intellectual elite cannot, and should not, be treated as representative of medieval life and attitudes. I am delighted to say that Elisheva Baumgarten’s Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz is not such a tome. It is no secret that I have been a fan of Baumgarten’s since I first read her work several years ago. This book in particular provides a lively discussion of the way that social and gendered structures manifested themselves among the Ashkenazic Jewry within the framework of practical piety. Anybody who is familiar with Baumgarten’s scholarship will know that she excels at the study of women and gender, as well as considering the social context of medieval Jewry. Certainly, this book encapsulates both of these elements at their best – it is also a tour de force for feminist theory more generally (I do not mean that as a criticism – I like historians to take a position and stick to it!). Finally, before I outline the contents of this book, one of the most successful elements of the text, for me, is the social history element of the study. This is because, there is a tendency among historians (I am guilty of it myself) to write about the Jews as a homogenous group who only lived together and were isolated like an island in a sea of Christianity. As Baumgarten convincingly demonstrates in this book, however, medieval Ashkenazi Jews lived alongside, and were influenced by, the Christian majority in all facets of their lives, even if they did retain their cultural identity.
In chapter one, Baumgarten considers the role of the synagogue within the Jewish communities covered by her study. This is where her gendered approach is especially important because the role that women could play in the synagogue is well known. Consequently, by considering the reality of Jewish life during this period, she paints an intriguing, and convincing, picture of the role that women could, and did, play in the Jewish community. Moving on from this, in a chapter which I may actually be in love with, Baumgarten discusses the role of fasting and atonement in medieval Jewish society. I think that this is a particularly successful discourse for two reasons. First, the way in which this chapter is juxtaposed with the previous – the self versus the place as it were – is incredibly thought provoking. Second, the way in which she incorporates the significance of the Christian context into the development of this aspect is exceptionally well thought out. Sticking with the theme of self-improvement, in chapter three the importance of charity is discussed. One of the things that I associate with Judaism is charity, so Baumgarten’s consideration of the role of gender in charitable donations through the lens of Nurnberg is fascinating. Given my love of women’s history, it should come as no surprise that I think that chapter four is little short of epic. Here, Baumgarten explores how women could, in reality if not theory, inhabit male spaces by fulfilling roles that are traditionally thought to have been the preserve of men. In the final chapters, the role of appearance in portraying piety, as well as attempting to exude piety that people simply didn’t have, are considered. For me, the constancy of piety in the lives of medieval Jews makes this one of the most important studies on the social lives of medieval Jewry currently available. I have no doubt that the calibre of the scholarship and the writing combined will make this text required reading for decades to come.
Whilst this is an excellent monograph, I would have liked it a lot more if it was purely a study of Germany and Northern France. At the beginning of the book, Baumgarten makes a statement which has been repeated time and again in the historiography (in various formats). That is:
I have not included the Jews of England as a distinct group in this discussion, since sources from that community are not plentiful enough to provide an adequate picture of daily pious practice. However, following scholars have suggested that English customs most closely resembled the practices of Jews in northern France, I refer to evidence from England at various points in this book.
Such a statement irritates me endlessly. If that is the case then, as I see it, the historian has two options. Either, acknowledge that the evidence is insufficient in the case of England to discuss in this way, or use different sources. Having said that, my personal bugbear is not enough to ruin the reading experience and does not detract from the quality of Baumgarten’s scholarship. Therefore, I have no problems recommending this book. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that anybody who is interested in medieval religion, social structures or Jews should make it required reading!