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Feeling Persecuted: Christians, Jews and Images of Violence in the Middle Ages (review)

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 362-365 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0046

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At the beginning of Feeling Persecuted: Christians, Jews and Images of Violence in the Middle Ages, Anthony Bale briefly invokes the Grimm brothers’ story, “The Boy Who Had to Learn Fear,” to suggest that fear is, in part, a performance and “pain rethought as its aesthetic assumption” (9). His book proceeds to examine, with extraordinary scholarly dexterity, all manner of material culture from the eleventh through the fifteenth centuries—including manuscript illuminations, sculptures, building structures, paintings, literary texts—to consider how objects displaying violence by Jews against Christians succeeded in occasioning performances of horror and fear. In fact, Bale’s brilliance resides in his ability to look across multiple kinds of medieval media from England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Low Countries to investigate how these apparatuses were able to engender particular kinds of affective responses, enabling empowered Christians to feel themselves the victims of persecution by Jews, a largely disempowered—often displaced—minority.

Regarding “the book” as a recreational object that could “touch, impress, hurt or wound the reader or viewer” (19), Bale focuses, in his opening chapter, on an illustration from the fourteenth-century Luttrell Psalter, one of the most beautifully illuminated manuscripts of its time. Beneath the directive, “ne timueris,” “do not be afraid,” the Luttrell manuscript reveals a picture of Jesus, nearly naked and bound to a column, beaten by two Jews. Bale acknowledges that although medieval Jews were typically marginalized, with such depictions medieval Christians imagined themselves spiritually strong but physically weak, easy victims of this predatory, brutal minority culture. He writes, “[T]here is a clear difference between ‘actual’ power (which medieval Christians almost universally had over Jews) and that which is imagined (in which Christians valorized weakness and martyrdom and represented themselves as under attack from Jews and others)” (24). But what interests him about this picture, and what continues to interest him throughout the remainder of his study of violence, is not so much its political or even social implications. Rather, it is the aesthetic reception that Bale finds of consequence, how medieval Christians would have appreciated “[a] fixed point of purity in a moving sea of cruelty, the superlative beauty and innocence of Christ . . . contrasted with the Jews’ foulness” (14). He is interested in the interrelationship between texts and audience, in the various ways reading texts of all varieties allows audience members to nurture miseries they have never endured, even—as with Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale—to believe themselves imitatively suffering torments of victims that may never have been victimized.

As he pursues this argument, Bale considers the affective influence of images of the Virgin Mary enduring the agony of her son’s Crucifixion, morbid medieval lullabies, blood libel narratives, and injunctions against swearing oaths like a Jew—all teaching the medieval Christian to relish and nurture pain, fear, and suffering. He offers up a brief “history of ugliness,” commenting on how representations of the Jewish profile function as a kind of shorthand in medieval art and literature to suggest “the tainted or heretic Jewish soul” (65). Such images are particularly damning in medieval depictions of the Passion, where tormentors, among them the sponge-bearer at the Crucifixion who offers Jesus false relief in the form of a vinegar-soaked sponge, are readily identifiable as Jews, marked by their excessive corporeality, their rounded foreheads, slanting noses, and, in the case of Judas Iscariot, red—possibly blood-soaked—hair. Bale considers the many versions—across a number of different media—of the story of Jephonius, a Jew who, at the Funeral of the Virgin, dares to touch Mary’s bier and is rewarded for his impudence with either a withered hand, a severed hand, or having his hand(s) become stuck to the conveyance. This story, part of a long tradition fantasizing Jewish hostility to the Virgin Mary, is repeated in art and literature—including the N-Town mystery cycle’s “Funeral of the Virgin” play. It calls upon its audience to see themselves as part of a Christianity continuously threatened by Jewish persecution, even as that audience believes the Virgin is gloriously assumed into heaven while those who torment her deservedly suffer here on earth.

In perhaps his most...



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