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  • Marks of Distinction: Christian Perceptions of Jews in the High Middle Ages by Irven M. Resnick
  • Nicholas Vincent
Marks of Distinction: Christian Perceptions of Jews in the High Middle Ages. By Irven M. Resnick. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press. 2012. Pp. xiii, 385. $69.95. ISBN 978-0-8132-1969-1.)

Before Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, and the science of genetics, how were distinctions to be drawn between peoples for the most part outwardly indistinguishable? In the case of Europe’s Jewish minority, some such marks were self-evident: the circumcision demanded by Jewish religious practice, or the badges that, from 1215, Christian authorities demanded that the Jews wear on their outer costume. Others were traced to hidden inner realities, psychosomatic (that the irrationality of the Jewish rejection of Christ was characteristically feminine and that Jewish men were therefore cursed with female menses), humoral (that Jewish diet encouraged a surfeit of black bile and that Jews were therefore melancholic and of dark complexion), physiological (that Judaism could be equated with leprosy, and Jews with lepers), or astrological (that Jews were governed by Saturn who, like the Jews with Christ, indulged in the slaughter and consumption of his own offspring). In recent years, there has been no shortage of scholarly attention paid to such themes to which Irven M. Resnick now devotes a monumental synthesis. Whereas previous commentators—most notably Ruth Melinkoff, Sarah Lipton, and Heinz Schreckenberg—have focused upon the iconographical representation of Jews in medieval Christian art, Resnick is principally [End Page 782] interested in text rather than image. To this end, he offers a wealth of translation from primary sources, adding his own insightful commentary. He is particularly attuned to the role played by Christian converts from Judaism in the spread of anti-Jewish polemic. Various of his expositions, not least of the association between Jews and lepers or of the meanings attached to circumcision in both Christian and Jewish exegesis, are not only original but definitive. If there is a certain lack of architectural focus to this book, by the end readers should be in no doubt that Resnick himself inclines to Gavin Langmuir’s theoretical model, outlined in the opening few pages, that racial antisemitism was a medieval, not merely a modern, impulse. As Resnick demonstrates in case after case, many of the themes common to later “racist” stereotyping of Jews (insatiable libido combined with feminine cowardice, polluted blood satisfied only by the sacrifice of Christian innocence, the foetor Judaicus revealing the insincerity of most Christian converts from Judaism) emerged from premodern ideas of Jewish otherness. In so rich a synthesis, there are inevitably lapses in point of detail. Resnick’s bibliography is vast, multilingual, and a scholarly monument in its own right. It nonetheless omits a number of significant studies, for example, by Sophia Menache (on Matthew Paris and the Jewish-Mongol “plot” of 1241), Zefira Rokéah (on Jewish coin-clipping), or by Colum Hourihane on medieval ideas of the Jewishness of Pontius Pilate. Resnick is not always secure in his handling of evidence, for example, that derived from English chancery rolls or from chroniclers such as “Ralph of Hoveden” (p. 253, recte Roger of Howden). More generally, there is a risk, as in all studies of mentalités, of allowing a shower of disparate information, gathered from across two millennia, to coalesce into something misleadingly systematic. For all of the individual themes that Resnick rehearses, drawing on evidence that extends from Tacitus to the world of the Völkischer Beobachter, no single premodern authority can be claimed to have perceived Jews or Jewishness with quite the coherence that Resnick allows. All stereotypes are themselves the product of deeper human neuroses. Hence Norman Cohn’s demonstration that the early-modern witch craze was inspired by “inner demons” that had already caused the persecution of early Christians, Jews, and heretics. Resnick’s masterly exposition of the links between medieval perceptions of Jews and lepers serves as a warning that to study any particular minority in isolation risks the creation of an academic subdiscipline artificially set apart from the scholarly main.

This is a book of generous profusion. It should be...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0708
Print ISSN
0008-8080
Pages
pp. 782-783
Launched on MUSE
2013-11-28
Open Access
No
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