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Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures
In Becoming the People of the Talmud, Talya Fishman examines ways in which circumstances of transmission have shaped the cultural meaning of Jewish traditions. Although the Talmud's preeminence in Jewish study and its determining role in Jewish practice are generally taken for granted, Fishman contends that these roles were not solidified until the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. The inscription of Talmud—which Sefardi Jews understand to have occurred quite early, and Ashkenazi Jews only later—precipitated these developments. The encounter with Oral Torah as a written corpus was transformative for both subcultures, and it shaped the roles that Talmud came to play in Jewish life.
What were the historical circumstances that led to the inscription of Oral Torah in medieval Europe? How did this body of ancient rabbinic traditions, replete with legal controversies and nonlegal material, come to be construed as a reference work and prescriptive guide to Jewish life? Connecting insights from geonica, medieval Jewish and Christian history, and orality-textuality studies, Becoming the People of the Talmud reconstructs the process of cultural transformation that occurred once medieval Jews encountered the Babylonian Talmud as a written text. According to Fishman, the ascription of greater authority to written text was accompanied by changes in reading habits, compositional predilections, classroom practices, approaches to adjudication, assessments of the past, and social hierarchies. She contends that certain medieval Jews were aware of these changes: some noted that books had replaced teachers; others protested the elevation of Talmud-centered erudition and casuistic virtuosity into standards of religious excellence, at the expense of spiritual refinement. The book concludes with a consideration of Rhineland Pietism's emergence in this context and suggests that two contemporaneous phenomena—the prominence of custom in medieval Ashkenazi culture and the novel Christian attack on Talmud—were indirectly linked to the new eminence of this written text in Jewish life.
The beer of today—brewed from malted grain and hops, manufactured by large and often multinational corporations, frequently associated with young adults, sports, and drunkenness—is largely the result of scientific and industrial developments of the nineteenth century. Modern beer, however, has little in common with the drink that carried that name through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Looking at a time when beer was often a nutritional necessity, was sometimes used as medicine, could be flavored with everything from the bark of fir trees to thyme and fresh eggs, and was consumed by men, women, and children alike, Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance presents an extraordinarily detailed history of the business, art, and governance of brewing.
During the medieval and early modern periods beer was as much a daily necessity as a source of inebriation and amusement. It was the beverage of choice of urban populations that lacked access to secure sources of potable water; a commodity of economic as well as social importance; a safe drink for daily consumption that was less expensive than wine; and a major source of tax revenue for the state. In Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Richard W. Unger has written an encompassing study of beer as both a product and an economic force in Europe.
Drawing from archives in the Low Countries and England to assemble an impressively complete history, Unger describes the transformation of the industry from small-scale production that was a basic part of housewifery to a highly regulated commercial enterprise dominated by the wealthy and overseen by government authorities. Looking at the intersecting technological, economic, cultural, and political changes that influenced the transformation of brewing over centuries, he traces how improvements in technology and in the distribution of information combined to standardize quality, showing how the process of urbanization created the concentrated markets essential for commercial production.
Weaving together the stories of prosperous businessmen, skilled brewmasters, and small producers, this impressively researched overview of the social and cultural practices that surrounded the beer industry is rich in implication for the history of the period as a whole.
The Ancien Regime of the Novel
Fiction has become nearly synonymous with literature itself, as if Homer and Dante and Pynchon were all engaged in the same basic activity. But one difficulty with this view is simply that a literature trafficking in openly invented characters is a quite recent development. Novelists before the nineteenth century ceaselessly asserted that their novels were true stories, and before that, poets routinely took their basic plots and heroes from the past. We have grown accustomed to thinking of the history of literature and the novel as a progression from the ideal to the real. Yet paradoxically, the modern triumph of realism is also the triumph of a literature that has shed all pretense to literalness.
Before Fiction: The Ancien Régime of the Novel offers a new understanding of the early history of the genre in England and France, one in which writers were not slowly discovering a type of fictionality we now take for granted but rather following a distinct set of practices and rationales. Nicholas D. Paige reinterprets Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves, Rousseau's Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, Diderot's La Religieuse, and other French texts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in light of the period's preoccupation with literal truth. Paige argues that novels like these occupied a place before fiction, a pseudofactual realm that in no way leads to modern realism. The book provides an alternate way of looking at a familiar history, and in its very idiom and methodology charts a new course for how we should study the novel and think about the evolution of cultural forms.
The Black Experience in New York City Before World War I
In the years between 1880 and 1915, New York City and its environs underwent a tremendous demographic transformation with the arrival of millions of European immigrants, native whites from the rural countryside, and people of African descent from both the American South and the Caribbean. While all groups faced challenges in their adjustment to the city, hardening racial prejudices set the black experience apart from that of other newcomers. Through encounters with each other, blacks and whites, both together and in opposition, forged the contours of race relations that would affect the city for decades to come.
Before Harlem reveals how black migrants and immigrants to New York entered a world far less welcoming than the one they had expected to find. White police officers, urban reformers, and neighbors faced off in a hostile environment that threatened black families in multiple ways. Unlike European immigrants, who typically struggled with low-paying jobs but who often saw their children move up the economic ladder, black people had limited employment opportunities that left them with almost no prospects of upward mobility. Their poverty and the vagaries of a restrictive job market forced unprecedented numbers of black women into the labor force, fundamentally affecting child-rearing practices and marital relationships.
Despite hostile conditions, black people nevertheless claimed New York City as their own. Within their neighborhoods and their churches, their night clubs and their fraternal organizations, they forged discrete ethnic, regional, and religious communities. Diverse in their backgrounds, languages, and customs, black New Yorkers cultivated connections to others similar to themselves, forming organizations, support networks, and bonds of friendship with former strangers. In doing so, Marcy S. Sacks argues, they established a dynamic world that eventually sparked the Harlem Renaissance. By the 1920s, Harlem had become both a tragedy and a triumph—undeniably a ghetto replete with problems of poverty, overcrowding, and crime, but also a refuge and a haven, a physical place whose very name became legendary.
Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245-1510
A distinct European perspective on Asia emerged in the late Middle Ages. Early reports of a homogeneous "India" of marvels and monsters gave way to accounts written by medieval travelers that indulged readers' curiosity about far-flung landscapes and cultures without exhibiting the attitudes evident in the later writings of aspiring imperialists. Mining the accounts of more than twenty Europeans who made—or claimed to have made—journeys to Mongolia, China, India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia between the mid-thirteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Kim Phillips reconstructs a medieval European vision of Asia that was by turns critical, neutral, and admiring.
In offering a cultural history of the encounter between medieval Latin Christians and the distant East, Before Orientalism reveals how Europeans' prevailing preoccupations with food and eating habits, gender roles, sexualities, civility, and the foreign body helped shape their perceptions of Asian peoples and societies. Phillips gives particular attention to the texts' known or likely audiences, the cultural settings within which they found a foothold, and the broader impact of their descriptions, while also considering the motivations of their writers. She reveals in rich detail responses from European travelers that ranged from pragmatism to wonder. Fear of military might, admiration for high standards of civic life and court culture, and even delight in foreign magnificence rarely assumed the kind of secular Eurocentric superiority that would later characterize Orientalism. Placing medieval writing on the East in the context of an emergent "Europe" whose explorers sought to learn more than to rule, Before Orientalism complicates our understanding of medieval attitudes toward the foreign.
Southern Italy in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries
Histories of medieval Europe have typically ignored southern Italy, looking south only in the Norman period. Yet Southern Italy in the ninth and tenth centuries was a complex and vibrant world that deserves to be better understood. In Before the Normans, Barbara M. Kreutz writes the first modern study in English of the land, political structures, and cultures of southern Italy in the two centuries before the Norman conquests. This was a pan-Meditteranean society, where the Roman past and Lombard-Germanic culture met Byzantine and Islamic civilization, creating a rich and unusual mix.
A History of Usury and Debt
The practice of charging interest on loans has been controversial since it was first mentioned in early recorded history. Lending is a powerful economic tool, vital to the development of society but it can also lead to disaster if left unregulated. Prohibitions against excessive interest, or usury, have been found in almost all societies since antiquity. Whether loans were made in kind or in cash, creditors often were accused of beggar-thy-neighbor exploitation when their lending terms put borrowers at risk of ruin. While the concept of usury reflects transcendent notions of fairness, its definition has varied over time and place: Roman law distinguished between simple and compound interest, the medieval church banned interest altogether, and even Adam Smith favored a ceiling on interest. But in spite of these limits, the advantages and temptations of lending prompted financial innovations from margin investing and adjustable-rate mortgages to credit cards and microlending.
In Beggar Thy Neighbor, financial historian Charles R. Geisst tracks the changing perceptions of usury and debt from the time of Cicero to the most recent financial crises. This comprehensive economic history looks at humanity's attempts to curb the abuse of debt while reaping the benefits of credit. Beggar Thy Neighbor examines the major debt revolutions of the past, demonstrating that extensive leverage and debt were behind most financial market crashes from the Renaissance to the present day. Geisst argues that usury prohibitions, as part of the natural law tradition in Western and Islamic societies, continue to play a key role in banking regulation despite modern advances in finance. From the Roman Empire to the recent Dodd-Frank financial reforms, usury ceilings still occupy a central place in notions of free markets and economic justice.
Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority
In the thirteenth century, Paris was the largest city in Western Europe, the royal capital of France, and the seat of one of Europe's most important universities. In this vibrant and cosmopolitan city, the beguines, women who wished to devote their lives to Christian ideals without taking formal vows, enjoyed a level of patronage and esteem that was uncommon among like communities elsewhere. Some Parisian beguines owned shops and played a vital role in the city's textile industry and economy. French royals and nobles financially supported the beguinages, and university clerics looked to the beguines for inspiration in their pedagogical endeavors. The Beguines of Medieval Paris examines these religious communities and their direct participation in the city's commercial, intellectual, and religious life.
Drawing on an array of sources, including sermons, religious literature, tax rolls, and royal account books, Tanya Stabler Miller contextualizes the history of Parisian beguines within a spectrum of lay religious activity and theological controversy. She examines the impact of women on the construction of medieval clerical identity, the valuation of women's voices and activities, and the surprising ways in which local networks and legal structures permitted women to continue to identify as beguines long after a church council prohibited the beguine status. Based on intensive archival research, The Beguines of Medieval Paris makes an original contribution to the history of female religiosity and labor, university politics and intellectual debates, royal piety, and the central place of Paris in the commerce and culture of medieval Europe.
A Khmer Rouge Leader and One of His Victims
In recent history, atrocities have often been committed in the name of lofty ideals. One of the most disturbing examples took place in Cambodia's Killing Fields, where tens of thousands of victims were executed and hastily disposed of by Khmer Rouge cadres. Nearly thirty years after these bloody purges, two journalists entered the jungles of Cambodia to uncover secrets still buried there.
Based on more than 1,000 hours of interviews with the top surviving Khmer Rouge leader, Nuon Chea, Behind the Killing Fields follows the journey of a man who began as a dedicated freedom fighter and wound up accused of crimes against humanity. Known as Brother Number 2, Chea was Pol Pot's top lieutenant. He is now in prison, facing prosecution in a United Nations-Cambodian tribunal for his actions during the Khmer Rouge rule, when more than two million Cambodians died. The book traces how the seeds of the Killing Fields were sown and what led one man to believe that mass killing was necessary for the greater good.
Coauthor Sambath Thet, a Khmer Rouge survivor, shares his personal perspectives on the murderous regime and how some victims have managed to rebuild their lives. The stories of Nuon Chea and Sambath Thet collide when the two meet. While Thet holds Chea responsible for the death of his parents and brother, he strives for understanding over revenge in order to reveal the forces that destroyed his homeland in the name of creating utopia.
In this age of suicide bombers and terror alerts, the world is still at a loss to comprehend the violence of zealots. Behind the Killing Fields bravely confronts this challenge in an exclusive portrait of one man's political madness and another's personal wisdom.
Conversion and Inquisition in the Crown of Aragon, 1250-1391
In 1341 in Aragon, a Jewish convert to Christianity was sentenced to death, only to be pulled from the burning stake and into a formal religious interrogation. His confession was as astonishing to his inquisitors as his brush with mortality is to us: the condemned man described a Jewish conspiracy to persuade recent converts to denounce their newfound Christian faith. His claims were corroborated by witnesses and became the catalyst for a series of trials that unfolded over the course of the next twenty months. Between Christian and Jew closely analyzes these events, which Paola Tartakoff considers paradigmatic of inquisitorial proceedings against Jews in the period. The trials also serve as the backbone of her nuanced consideration of Jewish conversion to Christianity—and the unwelcoming Christian response to Jewish conversions—during a period that is usually celebrated as a time of relative interfaith harmony.
The book lays bare the intensity of the mutual hostility between Christians and Jews in medieval Spain. Tartakoff's research reveals that the majority of Jewish converts of the period turned to baptism in order to escape personal difficulties, such as poverty, conflict with other Jews, or unhappy marriages. They often met with a chilly reception from their new Christian brethren, making it difficult to integrate into Christian society. Tartakoff explores Jewish antagonism toward Christians and Christianity by examining the aims and techniques of Jews who sought to re-Judaize apostates as well as the Jewish responses to inquisitorial prosecution during an actual investigation. Prosecutions such as the 1341 trial were understood by papal inquisitors to be in defense of Christianity against perceived Jewish attacks, although Tartakoff shows that Christian fears about Jewish hostility were often exaggerated. Drawing together the accounts of Jews, Jewish converts, and inquisitors, this cultural history offers a broad study of interfaith relations in medieval Iberia.