I am grateful to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy of this book. It is available to purchase via their website here. Given that Princeton University Press very kindly sent me a review copy, I felt that it was only proper to produce a more comprehensive review than I might otherwise have done, so I feel I must earn my keep.
At its peak in 1200 the medieval Anglo-Jewish community numbered around five thousand individuals. In the century prior to the accession of Henry II (r. 1154-1189), however, the Jewish population would have been considerably smaller. There are no estimates of the size of the Jewish population at this point but, given that Jews had only begun to arrive in England after 1066, it is hard to envision a population of more than a couple of hundred (at most). In contrast, it has been estimated that the Christian population between 1100 and 1200 was perhaps 1.5-2 million people. Consequently, most Christians would never have met a Jew. Therefore, their conception of a “Jew” would have a been a construction, assembled by the Church and disseminated to the population. In this magnificent tome, Mother of Mercy, Bane of the Jews: Devotion to the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Norman England, Kati Ihnat explores that construction in relation to the cult of the Virgin Mary in England. As Ihnat elucidates in the introduction, Mary was a “universal saint” in England during this period. She could appeal to men as well as women, was an important figure for the Chruch (particularly those reformists who endorsed chastity) and secular society, and was not just perceived as an intercessor but was also a powerful Saint in her own right (and according to Eadmer of Canterbruy may even have superseded her son in prominence). In this book, Ihnat sets out to explore the development of the cult of the Virgin Mary in England between 1066 and 1153, and bases her argument primarily upon Benedictine sources, by necessity of survival. Moreover, Ihnat does not seek to “[look] for the ‘real Jews’ behind their fictional counterparts [which] is a trap, for the sources examined in this book are not historical records but instead tools for religious practices”. This is a really important point because all too often we have been subjected to discourses which assume that because Jews were present in England at the time, literary sources must be treated as reflecting that. As was the case with Marian literature in medieval England, this book is one of contrasts. It contrasts expressions of devotion to Mary with attacks upon the Jews who refused to believe.
In Chapter One, Ihnat discusses devotion to Mary in medieval England, both in public and in private. This discussion is divided three contextual sections, before considering the role the representation of Jews in that literature in the final section. The first two sections are concerned with the role of Mary within the liturgy. Section one we are introduces us to the feasts of Mary’s Conception and Presentation at the Temple. In particular, Ihnat focuses upon the Conception, tracing it from the pre-Conquest period, to its (brief) suppression in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, and the revival by the early twelfth century. Additionally, Ihnat also explores the significance of two of the key proponents of the feast of the Conception: Anselm abbot of Bury St. Edmunds and Osbert de Clare, of Westminster. This latter figure, who appears to have been a colourful character, was particularly important, not only because a number of his liturgical writings survive, but also because he was a key figure in the establishment of the cult of St. Anne in England. Feast days are all very well and good but they only come once a year. Consequently, section two discusses how Mary retained her preeminent position in England during this period though the adoption of daily and weekly liturgical offices relating to Mary. Here, Ihnat paints a similar picture as in the feast days. Prior to the Conquest, daily and weekly Marian offices emerged, being stifled in the immediate aftermath of the Normans, before resurging by the early decades of the twelfth century. The final expression of devotion to Mary which Ihnat discusses is prayer, which is focus of section three. As she points out, this is a more problematic aspect of study because whilst the previous two sections had explored areas which were explicitly public. It does not, however, follow that prayer was inherently private. Indeed, during the period covered by this book prayer was likely to be public as well. Regardless, with the same level of precision which was demonstrated previously, Ihnat outlines that this was the period in which the ave Maria became solidified in English custom. She also outlines the role of Anselm, future Archbishop of Canterbury, and Eadmer of Canterbury in establishing Marian prayers, as well as a particularly intriguing section on pictorial representations of the Virgin. Finally, chapter one concludes by situating the Jews within this context. Two things came out of this for me. First, the extent to which anybody who opposed any aspect of Mary’s narrative could be “tarred… with the Jewish brush”. Second, it becomes apparent that attacks on the Jews were cumulative, and at particular times of the year, such as Advent, could increase in severity.
The model which was used so effectively by Ihnat in Chapter One is replicated in the following chapter. That is, the initial sections provide the vital context, before finally bringing in the way in which Jews were integrated is discussed. Chapter Two explores the ways in which devotion to the Virgin Mary was articulated and expressed in England during this period, by focusing upon the key aspects of Mary’s life. Thus, in sections one and two, which focus upon the Incarnation, championed by Anslem (future Archbishop), and the Conception, written about by both Eadmer and Osbert (see above), respectively, we are treated to a wonderful exposition of how these events emerged and were portrayed in England during this period. Similarly, the work of William of Malmesbury and Honorius Augustodunensis are discussed in relation to Assumption. Moreover, this section also includes a particularly successful section on the use of imagery. In concluding, Ihnat considers the way in which Conversion was intertwined into the work of the aforementioned writers, and how the theme was to become an integral element of this style of writing.
I shall treat the following two chapters together. This is partly as a result of the fact that I am rapidly running out of words, but also because they share the same source base. Chapter Three, explores the emergence and development of hagiographies and miracle stories relating to Mary. Miracle collections in particular were long viewed with suspicion by historians, but the work of scholars like Simon Yarrow and Matthew Mesley has demonstrated that this cannot only be an important source, but also can be used to study representations of Jews. Here we see that such narratives did not emerge in isolation but, rather, in conjunction with many of the texts that we have already been introduced to. The fourth, and final, chapter is most easily described as the piéce de résistance of the book. In a work of such exceptional scholarship, it is no mean feat that in this final chapter Ihnat managed to exceed even her own standards. In a chapter devoted to the role of Jews in miracle tales, however, we are introduced to something which can only be described as “practically perfect in every way”. Commencing with a brief exploration of the origins of this relationship, Ihnat then regales us with an exploration of manifestations of the legend of Theophilus. I think that this section is so successful because this legend has attracted a lot of attention in vernacular literature, for example in Adrienne Williams Boyarin’s superb Miracles of the Virgin, but here we see the Latin equivalent. Following on from this, we are introduced to the legend of the Jewish boy who is thrown into an oven by his angry father, only to be saved by the intervention of Mary. Thereafter, several more prominent themes of Marian miracle tales are explored. This chapter is a triumph not only because of the skill in which these narratives are explored, but also because of the significant themes which emerge in the portrayal of the Jews.
For me, this book is little short of magnificent for four reasons (or rather for four reasons which I am going to explain here – we would be here until Judgement Day if I were to discuss everything I liked). First, most books of this type focus upon one type of source. In contrast, Ihnat explores “Devotion to the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Norman England” in its many facets, through the guise of multiple sources, thereby presenting something approaching a complete picture. Second, each form of “Devotion” is explored fully before considering how Jews were woven into that picture. Third, some historians are good at presenting what others have argued, but abysmal at expressing their own viewpoint. This can make it difficult to work out what the historian is actually arguing. In contrast, Ihnat’s book is the epitome of clarity. There is an argument which runs throughout the book, as well as individual chapters, but also she responds to what other historians have argued and that means that reading this book is not like pulling teeth to get the historians viewpoint. Fourth, and finally, Ihnat combines the study of the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Norman England with the representation of Jews in relation to that. Who doesn’t want to read about that? As far as I can tell, that’s a marriage made in heaven!
To conclude, when you read a lot of academic history books, you grow to expect them to exude quality. All historians should be able to use sources critically, conduct extensive research using both primary and secondary sources, and present an argument which they think is convincing and fits the evidence. Consequently, it can be difficult to distinguish a good book from a great one. This is, of course, exceptionally subjective. For me however, a great book must do the things that I have just outlined to the highest possible level, but by its very definition must also do something more. It should leave the reader with a sense of joy at having taken the time to read such an exceptional scholarship and a minor sense of disappointment at having come to the end of the journey with that particular book (for the present at least). It goes without saying that great books are much rarer in academic circles – particularly if you are as pedantic as me – but Ihnat’s book certainly fits the bill. I was genuinely saddened to finish this book and delayed reading the conclusion for a day so as to prevent the imminent end arriving. I suppose that it the occupational hazard of combining the highest calibre of research, argument and writing into a single book: the reader is always going to want more, and call for an encore. At two-hundred pages (or as near as makes no difference) this is not, by any means, a short book. If, however, the next one could be doubled I was be elated! I admit that that is a caviller use of hypocrisy given that I have to be all but tied to my desk when producing academic writing but it’s my blog so I can say that.