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Pious and Rebellious

Jewish Women in Medieval Europe

Avraham Grossman

Publication Year: 2012

This volume, an amazing act of historical recovery and reconstruction, offers a comprehensive examination of Jewish women in Europe during the High Middle Ages (1000-1300). Avraham Grossman covers multiple aspects of women's lives in medieval Jewish society, including the image of woman, the structure of the family unit, age at marriage, position in family and society, her place in economic and religious life, her education, her role in family ceremonies, violence against women, and the position of the divorcee and the widow in society.

Grossman shows that the High Middle Ages saw a distinct improvement in the status of Jewish women in Europe relative to their status during the Talmudic period and in Muslim countries. If, during the twelfth century, rabbis applauded women as "pious and pure" because of their major role in the martyrdom of the Crusades of 1096, then by the end of the thirteenth century, rabbis complained that women were becoming bold and rebellious. Two main factors fostered this change: first, the transformation of Jewish society from agrarian to "bourgeois," with women performing an increasingly important function in the family economy; and second, the openness toward women in Christian Europe, where women were not subjected to strict limitations based upon conceptions of modesty, as was the case in Muslim countries. The heart of Grossman's book concerns the improvement of Jewish women's lot, and the efforts of secular and religious authorities to impede their new-found status.

Bringing together a variety of sources including halakhic literature, biblical and talmudic exegesis, ethical literature and philosophy, love songs, folklore and popular literature, gravestones, and drawings, Grossman's book reconstructs the hitherto unrecorded lives of Jewish women during the Middle Ages.

Published by: Brandeis University Press

Series: Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry & HBI Series on Jewish Women

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. xi-xv

This study deals with the status of the Jewish woman in Europe during the High Middle Ages (1000–1300). For certain subjects I used later sources, in some cases even from the late Middle Ages, where these helped to provide a fuller description of reality, given that customs, ceremonies, and institutions do not change easily. The discussion is conducted from a broad historical perspective, covering a wide variety of aspects of women’s situation in medieval Jewish society: the image of woman, the...

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pp. 1-7

The status of the Jewish woman in the Middle Ages was affected by three main factors: the biblical and Talmudic heritage; the situation in the non-Jewish society within which the Jews lived and functioned; and the economic status of the Jews, including the woman’s role in supporting the family. The biblical heritage is not unequivocal, and may be interpreted in different ways. Over the last generation, a number of works have been written emphasizing the feminist aspect...

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Chapter One The Image of the Woman:Partner or the “Other”?

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pp. 8-32

Women are a nation unto themselves” is more than simply a clever turn of phrase.1 Many men in medieval Jewish, Christian, or Muslim society saw woman as a different creature, inferior to themselves and having different character traits. This perspective found backing from Holy Scripture—which enjoyed great weight in the Middle Ages—from philosophy, and even from medical descriptions. This perception was an integral part of the overall view of the medieval...

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Chapter Two Age at Marriage

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pp. 33-48

TThe age at which marriage took place in medieval Jewish society bore important implications for the structure of the family unit and the woman’s status within the family. Several major questions relate directly to this issue, such as the degree of involvement of the woman in choosing her intended bridegroom, the involvement of the parents in the life of the new couple, the couple’s place of residence, their degree of economic independence, the degree of fertility of the woman, the woman’s...

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Chapter Three Engagement, Betrothal, and the Choice of a Marriage Partner

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pp. 49-67

The marriage ceremony as practiced in medieval Jewish society consisted of three stages: engagement (shiddukhin), betrothal (erusin), and the formalization of the marriage (huppah). The engagement was a kind of framework agreement made prior to the wedding, in which the parties involved agreed to the time of the wedding, where the couple would live, and the financial...

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Chapter Four Monogamy and Polygamy

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pp. 68-101

The question of the basic structure of the Jewish family unit in the Middle Ages—whether monogamous or polygamous—has been discussed more extensively in research literature than any other subject concerning the status of women at that time. Rabbenu Gershom Meor Hagolah’s ban em><(herem) imposed against taking...

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Chapter Five Feminine Modesty and Women’s Rolein Supporting the Family

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pp. 102-122

The standards of modesty expected of women, their right to leave their homes freely, and their role in supporting the family, exerted a significant influence upon the image of Jewish women both in their own eyes and in those of the surrounding society. The Talmudic heritage concerning this issue is not unequivocal.While the sages spoke extensively in praise of modesty generally and of feminine modesty...

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Chapter Six Woman as Wife and Mother and Her Economic Status

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pp. 123-153

In the following discussion, we shall examine the inner world of the woman, her interrelationships within the family, and her economic status.Her economic status was connected to and greatly affected her relationships, and hence is also directly connected to the world of the woman. As the voices of Jewish women as such were recorded only rarely during the Middle Ages, it is difficult to describe in detail their feelings toward their husbands and children and their place within...

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Chapter Seven Women’s Culture and Education

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pp. 154-173

One of the major areas of discrimination against Jewish women in the Middle Ages was that of education and culture.Many of the women were illiterate, and they were even deliberately denied the opportunity for formal study of a number of areas of “sacred studies.” The deprivation involved was not only one against the talents and potential erudition of women. As the study of Torah was one of the essential and most important values of Jewish culture, greatly extolled in all of the holy writings, women’s exemption from the obligation to perform...

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Chapter Eight The Role of Women in Religious Lifeand in Family Ceremonies

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pp. 174-197

Medieval Jewish society saw the fulfillment of the mitzvot as the highest religious value. The community was understood as a “holy congregation,” with all that implies for the public and private life. In such a society, the participation of members of the community in religious life, whether at home or in the synagogue, was of great significance.Moreover, the synagogue became the most important institution, not only for the community’s religious life, but also of...

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Chapter Nine Women’s Role in Jewish Martyrdomin Europe in the Eleventh toThirteenth Centuries

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pp. 198-211

Jewish women occupied a distinguished place in Jewish martyrology in the various European diasporas, particularly in Germany and northern France during the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. There is no other genre in the medieval Jewish world in which women occupy such an important and central place, and are portrayed in such a sympathetic and admiring manner, as in these stories.1 The authors...

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Chapter Ten Violence Toward Women

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pp. 212-230

Husbands’ violence toward their wives is discussed in both the Genizah sources and in the halakhic literature, suggesting that the practice was a common one, which weighed upon the institution of marriage. The sources indicate that it existed in various circles within society, and not only in the lowest ones.1 While the sages waged battle against it, they were only partially successful.We shall begin..

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Chapter Eleven The Divorcée and the “Rebellious Wife”

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pp. 231-252

It is a common assumption that the family unit in medieval Jewish society was strong and stable and that divorce was a rare phenomenon. However, this assumption, which even appears in research literature, is rather erroneous. Divorce was quite common, in some locales even more so than in contemporary Western society. During the course of the Middle Ages, discernable and significant changes took place regarding...

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Chapter Twelve The Widow and the “Murderous Wife”

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pp. 253-272

The number of widows in medieval Jewish society was considerable, and many of them were still quite young. This was the result of four main factors. First, the death rate in those days was relatively high, particularly as a result of plagues and natural disasters. During the course of the antisemitic violence in Ashkenaz and Spain, particularly during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries,...

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Chapter Thirteen Summary:Woman’s Status inHistorical Perspective

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pp. 273-282

In this concluding chapter, we shall examine the status of the medieval Jewish woman in a general historical perspective: In what areas was there an improvement in their situation in comparison to that found in rabbinic literature and the teachings of the Babylonian Geonim, and in what areas was there a retrenchment or “treading water.”We shall suffice with a brief overall view, as the subjects have been discussed in..


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pp. 283-306


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pp. 307-308


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pp. 309-316


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pp. 317-329

E-ISBN-13: 9781611683943
E-ISBN-10: 1611683947
Print-ISBN-13: 9781584653912

Page Count: 351
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry & HBI Series on Jewish Women