Wednesday, 22 March 2017

[#63] Elisheva Baumgarten, Ruth Mazo Karras and Katelyn Mesler (eds.), Entangled Histories: Knowledge, Authority, and Jewish Culture in the Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia, 2016).

I am greatful to the University of Pennsylvania Press for providing me with a review copy of this book. You can purchase it from their website here.
Entangled Histories is an edited collection concerned with my favourite century, containing contributions by some of my favourite historians. Consequently, it was with a great deal of excitement that I received my review copy of this book from the University of Pennsylvania Press. That excitement was tempered somewhat by two concerns. First, would this be another study which professed to cover European Jewry but in fact was one where ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’ (to quote Alexandre Dumas)? Second, given the background of two of its editors, would it be a study of women masquerading as a more general study? The answer two both turned out to be an emphatic and resounding no! On the contrary, this book is diverse in its every particular. Ordinarily, that would be the most remarkable feature of a book of this type. Not so here. The overwhelming success of this book comes from its basic premise. That is, rather than adopting the monochromal outlook of previous scholars, it is very much a shares of grey book. As many of the essays in this collection demonstrate, it is no longer enough to talk of ‘influences’. Instead, we should think of ‘integration’ and ‘absorbing’ ideas. Although there is little in this volume on England, I took something from every chapter which is applicable to the historiography on medieval Anglo-Jewry.
The first section of this book “Intellectual Communities and Interactions in the Long Thirteenth Century” confronts the basic premise of scholarship on medieval Jews. That is, the division between Ashkenazi and Sephardi. The essays in this section demonstrate that the two groups were not hermetically sealed, nor were themes received in the same way in different areas of the same religion. Ephraim Kanarfogel’s essay, for example, demonstrates that “matchmakers” were common among Ashkenazi but were practically unheard of in Sephardic communities. He goes on to Argus, however, that while in France girls under the age of twelve could have marriages arranged for them, while this was rare in Germany. Similarly, Mordechai Cohen’s article illustrates that the same intellectual idea could emerge in both regions, but in very different ways as a result of the cultural heritage that they were part of (i.e. incorporating Christian or Muslim ideas). At the same time he demonstrates that ideas could be transmitted to the opposite region – Rashi, for example, influenced the work of Nahmanides. Adopting a different approach again, Avraham Reiner’s study of Rabbenu Tam demonstrates that Jews could also be involved in intellectual discussions with the wider Christian world. Indeed, Reiner even demonstrates how the latter could impact upon Jewish biblical interpretations. The influence of the wider Christian world is picked up on in the final essay in this section by Judah Galinsky. This essay highlights that at the end of the eleventh century the Germany communities, which had been intellectually superior until the massacres of the 1090s l, were surpassed by the French tosafists. Not only does Galinsky demonstrate that the character of French intellectuals was different that of their German cousins, in that the latter wrote for other intellectuals where the former targeted all levels of society (though some were more elitist than others). One reason that is ascribed to this is the proximity of writers to the Parisian book trade. As far as this chapter is concerned, I would have liked some discussion on who was producing these books, on what scale, and how that rioted into the Christian production of books (in the vein of Marc Epstein’s work on illumination).
It should come as no surprise, given that I work primarily on secular issues, that my favourite part of this book is section two: “Secular and Religious Authorities”. Luke Yarborough’s essay on the role of the Madrasa highlights that this institution was important in driving Christians and Jews from the upper echelons of society not because of the ideas that they promulgated but the networks that they created over time. For me, the stand out essay of the entire collection is Rebecca Winer’s on notarial culture in Perpignan and Barcelona. This chapter explores the way in which debts were recorded and challenged. To be perfectly honest, I was astounded by the similarities between our work (down to the fact that the same person commented on both). If Winer’s article is my favourite, then the one that I find most intriguing is Kati Ihnat and Katelyn Mesler’s essay on wax images. As with so many items venerated by Christians during this period, there were serious worries that Jews would desecrate the holy images. The final essay in this section, written by Piero Capelli, provides an interesting discourse on the role of the apostate Nicholas Donin in the Paris Talmud Trial. 
The final section of this volume, ‘Translations and Transmissions of Texts and Knowledge”, which was, for me, the most challenging section of the book. I’ve never claimed to be an expert in anything, but my weakest point has always been intellectual history. That being said the chapters in the section are just as interesting, and rewarding for those who decipher their meaning  (I’ve read them twice already and still am not convinced that I’m at that point). Yossef Schwartz’s essay provides a fascinating discourse on two men who were part of the same community, with the same intellectual influence and yet divereged markedly. Moreover, the fact that they were involved in translation: from Latin and Arabic to Hebrew respectively, is a particularly interesting point. Following on from this, S. J. Pearce provides a remarkable discussion of the Mamonidean influences of a volume of the Alexander Romance. I love this chapter in particular because she lets the manuscript which she is focusing upon do the work, rather than trying to manipulate it to serve here purposes, and for me that is what history is all about: observation and consideration. Uri Shachar’s essay then provides an intriguing new discussion of a topic well known to medievalists: crusading rhetoric. What is new about this essay is that it considers a wide range of source material (including Muslim sources) to highlight repeated literary tropes across the religions. Finally, Elisabeth Hollander concludes by demonstrating the way that a text could be interpreted in diffident geographic regions.
Above I have simplified the contents of a superb book – in some places monstrously so (this is also necessary given the platform which I am using). What I now wish to convey is that Entangled Histories is, for me, one of the most important publications of the last decade (if not two). The framework which it provides is both original and invigorating. It opens up a world of possibilities, away from the negativity of the past, to ask genuine questions of how Jews and Christians interacted on a human level. I also think that this book opens the door to a whole range of future projects. I have already noted the similarities between Rebecca Winer’s and my own work on moneylending and feel that it would be a really good first step to explore that theme of moneylending through Europe and North Africa generally in a similar way.  Equally, to use the concept of entanglement on a national / regional, secular, level would also have remarkable results. I am thinking specifically of England here, but I suppose any other area could be studied in a similar vein. So, I think that this is a vital study, and suspect that in years to come it will be perceived as an instant classic, and would highly recommend that you, dear reader, obtain a copy with all possible haste.