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Living Together, Living Apart: Rethinking Jewish-Christian Relations in the Middle Ages (review)

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 95, Number 3, July 2009
pp. 604-607 | 10.1353/cat.0.0434

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

According to the dust jacket, this book is to “challenge the standard conception of the Middle Ages as a time of persecution for the Jews.” In the author’s own words, “Instead of persecution and suffering, it is more important to understand how and why Jews survived in societies whose dominant theology increasingly cast them in the role of deicides” (pp. 6–7, as also the following quotations). The book intends to show “that Jews in the Early and High Middle Ages were deeply integrated into the rhythms of their local worlds.” Thus, they “could analyze, contextualize, and hope to manage the violence that did erupt.” Such skills “would help them to survive or at least to take actions that they thought would protect them.” More than that, “Jews were not singled out in medieval societies as the preferred target of violence. The level of violence against Jews—either oppressive laws, outright attacks, paranoid accusations, or expulsions—were essentially transitory and contingent events that did not fundamentally destroy the modus vivendi between most Christians and Jews of the time. The transient nature of the violence gave Jews a sense of fundamental stability and security.”

How did the author arrive at such a far-reaching thesis? Much of the road traveled is just verbal hedging—“could, might, hope, at least, essentially, not fundamentally, most,” as in the quotations above, and many more that fill the book. The evidence and scholarship to the contrary of the thesis is relentlessly downplayed, belittled, explained away, and denied. Without exception, sources are quoted solely from English translations or from secondary works, never from scholarly editions in the original language. The scholarship referred to is almost entirely in English and all of the last years, as if generations of scholars writing in German, French, Italian, Spanish, and—yes—Hebrew had nothing to contribute to such a grave problem. Throughout, the reading of sources is a literal one, as if historical scholarship had not developed over the last two hundred years sophisticated tools of source criticism.

Unencumbered by the confines of the historical craft, Elukin reads not “against the grain” but as he wishes. To present one example, on page 39, when downplaying the seriousness of the Visigothic persecutions, Elukin argues that such “actions did not reflect a pan-Visigothic consensus,” as shown by “the opposition of count Froga in Toledo to attempted forced baptisms by Bishop Aurasius.” The authority for this episode is Bernard Bachrach’s Early Medieval Jewish Policy in Western Europe (Minneapolis, 1977). Had Elukin checked Bachrach’s source, he would have found a nonevent: it begins with a short contemporary (early-seventh century) letter of excommunication directed by this bishop against a Count Froga for the latter’s alleged judaizing tendencies and derision of the Church, to which he had given voice in the presence of the elders, the whole palace, the Catholic people and also the Jews (Epistolae Merovingici et Karolini aevi, Munich, 1892, I:689–90). To this episode Julian, an otherwise unknown priest of mid-twelfth-century Toledo, appended an explanatory comment, by which the pontiff had converted to the faith by his unceasing exhortations Ioseph, Rabbi Isaac, Nephtalim and others highly placed. Levi Samuel, archisynagogus of the synagogue of Toledo, complained to Frogo, count and prefect of Toledo, who protected them against the bishop, for which the count was excommunicated (Luitprandi, subdiaconi toletani, . . . opera quae extant. R. Hieronimi de la Higuera societatis Jesu presbiteri et D. Laurenti Ramirez de Prado consiliarii regii notis illustrata, Antwerpen 1640, p. 524). The story was further enhanced by Bachrach, to read: “In Toledo, where Bishop Aurasius actually carried out forced baptisms, Froga, the count of the city, opposed him. This opposition led to violence, and the bishop’s letter excommunicating the count still survives” (Bachrach, p. 10). The earliest version has Jews solely in a passive capacity as part of the public setting. The more concrete details and active stance, including such a central component as the voluntary or involuntary baptism, are additions of the twelfth, seventeenth, and twentieth centuries. Of the four emblematic names Joseph, Isaac, Naphtali, and Levi, the two latter make their first appearance in Spain only in the eleventh...