Wednesday, 2 November 2016

[#58] Ephraim Shoham-Steiner, On the Margins of a Minority: Leprosy, Madness and Disability among the Jews of Medieval Europe, trans. Haim Watzman (Detroit, 2014).

I am enormously grateful to Wayne State University Press (and Kristina Stonehill there) for providing me with a PDF copy of this book. It is available for purchase via their website here.

Academic Entry:

An exploration of the role of disability in marginalising Jews in medieval society.

General Entry:

In many instances, when you pick up a book discussing medicine or disability in the past, it is written by a retired doctor retrospectively (and anachronistically) applying the buzz words of the day to the past. Such studies are not a new phenomenon, and have been produced for decades – Sigmond Freud famously sought to psychoanalyse Leonard da Vinci (1910). Such studies invariably make me want to take pins to my eyes, if only to give the doctor in question something useful to do as opposed to butchering history.  As a result, it was with a degree of trepidation that I started reading this book. To my shame I must confess that I’d not previously come across Ephraim Shoham-Steiner, so had no idea about his background, and wasn’t really sure what the content would hold (beyond the obvious). Having read the book now, I can categorically state that there was no need to worry. It was written with flare, panache, and no small amount of skill. Additionally, as all good books do, it leaves the reader with a degree of disappointment that it has ended, and elated because of all of the new questions that it raises.

                The introduction, sketches the methodological framework upon which the book was based. Additionally, Shoham-Steiner, wisely opted not to discuss every type of disability but rather to focus very specifically upon “degenerative diseases… persons deemed mad or insane, and those with visible physical deformities that rendered them dysfunctional” (p. 2). Importantly, the language which was to be employed in the text is outlined here – I am always elated when a historian opts for historical, as opposed to political, correctness. In Chapters One and Two the role of leprosy is discussed. I must admit (feeling stupid as I do) that the only time that I’ve ever considered Jews and leprosy is in relation to the so-called Lepers Plot of 1321. As a result, these chapters, discussing perceptions and reactions to lepers during this period are particularly illuminating – especially chapter two which outlines how the responsa evidence. These chapters set the model for the rest of the book. In Chapters Three and Four, the role of mental illness (madness and insanity – which are defined within their appropriate context) is discussed. I particularly liked that the author didn’t stick rigidly to Foucalt but brought in other developments from the social sciences as well in this discussion. I think that it’s fair to say that Chapters Five and Six, take on a more theoretical (even theological) tone. In these, the reader is presented with some of the contemporary explanations for physical disabilities and how this impacted spatially upon where they could go. Equally, these discussions weren’t confined to the Jewish evidence but, rather, that was used, throughout the book, as an entry point which was then explored from a variety of interdisciplinary viewpoints.

                I readily acknowledge that I’m a really difficult person to write for. When reading medieval scholarship I say “what about the Jews”. Conversely, when reading about Jewish history I remark “what about the majority community”. This book is one of the few which heads me off from the outset. In addition to masterfully using the Jewish evidence, Shoham-Steiner also provides a great deal of the Christian context which gives the impression of a finished book – as opposed to one which is missing half of the context. In the interests of perpetuating my reputation for pedantry, however, I do have one major point that I wish to raise here. In the introduction to this book, Shoham-Steiner established that disability was as much a social construct as it was a physical or mental difference. Consequently, I would have liked to have seen something on artificial constructions of disability which were applied to Jews during this period. A prominent example of this would be the way in which circumcision was portrayed in Christian art and literature of the medieval period. As a result of the perceived emasculating and feminising effects of this fundamental Jewish ritual, it would have been interesting to explore the role of gender in perceptions of disability and also whether Jewries were only separated from the Christian majority on the basis of religion, or whether there was also an inherent feeling (at least in intellectual circles) of disability among Jews. I think this would have been important, because it might suggest that Jews were inherently marginalised on multiple levels anyway. Having said that, I think that this book is truly wonderful, and is made even better by what is omitted. That is to say, there is a tendency within the historiography to produce a plethora of statistics and estimates in relation to disability. These are often based upon guess work masquerading as empirical fact in the guise of graphs and charts. Consequently, the fact that Shoham-Steiner states from the outset that the evidence simply doesn’t survive to let us make such estimates is, for me, a stand out feature of this book. In other words, he sticks to what the evidence tells us rather than stretching it to breaking point. Ordinarily, I would criticise the fact that England is lumped in with France and Germany, however, given that I can’t think of any example within the Latin sources which could be used in this book, I feel that I must let it pass (just this once).

                To conclude, this was quite an emotive book for me to read as well. I am dyslexic, something which (ironically) impacts most evidently upon my reading. Whilst there is quite a lot of support for that today, I often ponder what it would have been like to live just a few decades ago, and the language which would have been applied to me in those situations. I also recognise how fortunate I am – there are many disabilities which have, over the centuries, relegated individuals to the very edge of society. Consequently, I think that this isn’t just another academic discourse, but also raises an important point regarding the human condition. In particular, what must it have been like for somebody who was separated twice over – once culturally, and once on the grounds of a disability which transcends all aspects of all societies. I defy anybody to read this and not take something important from it, and cannot recommend it enough.


  1. Thanks dso much for the very favorable review . You are too kind.
    all the best

    Effie Shoham

    1. A privilege to read and a pleasure to write - I look forward to reading you next project on Jewish criminals, which a mutual friend told me about today!