- Jewish Life in Early Modern Rome: Challenge, Conversion, and Private Life
The reprint anthologies of Ashgate’s Variorum series are, for historians, fascinating. Although they lack a monograph’s clarity and focus—articles overlap, and themes, arguments, and best anecdotes recur—they depict the arts, skills, habits, concerns, and range of senior scholars. With an historian at once so focused on his subject, here the Jews of Rome, and yet so versatile in interests and devices as is Kenneth Stow, a collection illuminates both the subject and the range of techniques at scholarship’s command. Stow has been publishing on Jews and on their relations with Latin Christians since the early 1970s. The present volume starts with his first published article (1972), on the burning of the Talmud in 1553, and closes with a provocative meditation from 2007 on “pre-emancipation” and the ius commune in the papal state. Despite the long temporal stretch, most of these seventeen pieces are recent: only three published before 1990 and five published in the twenty-first century.
The essays are grouped under three headings: “The Papal Challenge,” “The Search for Conversion,” and “The Jews of Rome.” Despite this division, themes run through the whole volume: the complex dialogue between the papacy and the Roman Jews; the shifting economic role of Jewish banking in the papal state; the evolving campaign to bring the Jews to Christianity; and, finally, the inner workings and responses to Christianity and to the Church of Rome’s Jews, as community and culture, before and after Pope Paul IV first shut them in their ghetto.
Stow is unusual among historians of European Jewry for mining canon law and scholastic theology as well as Jewish sources. His early articles and first three books grappled with the intellectual history, from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, of the Church’s evolving thinking about Judaism’s persistent presence, and with the fiscal implications, for the Jews, of the popes’ taxes on the communities subject to his secular rule. This early work belongs largely to the history of ideas; it heeds texts, both Jewish and Christian, and ponders their implications. In Stow’s work, words always count; he is a textual historian, a careful reader in pre-postmodern mode. [End Page 342]
In mid-career, Stow moved to social history. His bridge to this second discipline was the two Jewish notaries of sixteenth-century Rome, Piattelli padre and figlio, who for sixty years kept legal papers, in both Hebrew and Italian, for the ghetto. Like much else in Jewish Rome, these officials were hybrid; their notarial art hewed to models perfected by Christian neighbors. For historians of Christians and Jews alike, early-modern notarial papers illuminate a world otherwise rarely visible; they catch echoes of the language of those who used them and suggest the negotiations, settlements, and quarrels that shaped and flavored a community’s life. They also betray states of mind and habits of language; one of the newest essays in the anthology uses notarial documents to argue that, even when they wrote Hebrew, Rome’s Jews thought in Roman dialect. As social historian, Stow takes up the Jewish family, especially its rules and customs of courtship and marriage, by exploring the consequences of halachah (Jewish law), which allowed divorce, for the small-scale politics of the marriage market and for intergenerational relations, and by watching how Jewish marriage, on the Christian model, migrated from cousin-matches toward exogamy.
Throughout these articles, Stow stresses the complexity of the relationship, be it legal, linguistic, cultural, intellectual, or political, between Rome’s Jews and their Catholic neighbors. The popes both protected and harassed them, desiring both their presence, if only as witnesses to error, and their disappearance, as eschatological sign of history’s desired end. Meanwhile, the Jews’ Christian neighbors reviled them yet cohabited with them as neighbors, on familiar and often friendly terms. The Roman Jews, meanwhile, lived at once inside and...