- Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France
Jews in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Northern France were a community in crisis, subject to escalating ecclesiastical and secular hostility. In her important book, Beautiful Death, Susan Einbinder analyzes the liturgical poetry that became the dominant medium to commemorate the victims of this onslaught against Jews and Jewish life and to interpret their suffering. She argues that the symbolic representations of martyrdom in these poems provided an idealized model of how Jews should live as well as a prescriptive vision of death in the face of persecution and conversionary inducements. Einbinder demonstrates, too, that these literary works drew on contemporary non-Jewish models as well as Jewish sources, an indication that, "Even when they might seem most to be at odds with it, medieval Jews were woven securely into the fabric of the institutional, intellectual, and social tapestry of Christian-dominated Europe" (p. 4).
Einbinder's groundbreaking work introduces the reader to a large corpus of several hundred liturgical laments and penitential hymns; with the exception of one Old French elegy for the martyrs of Troyes (1288), all the poems are in Hebrew. This poetry has not been much studied, perhaps because it was believed to lack the aesthetic excellence of Hebrew poetry from medieval Spain. However, in her detailed analyses Einbinder reveals the complex literary layers of many of these works that functioned both as richly allusive texts for students of the Tosafist schools of northern France and Ashkenaz and as enacted performances depicting faith and "models of faith" for wider audiences in particular liturgical contexts. She also argues that Jewish martyrological poems are important historical sources that constitute an evolving form of cultural resistance against intense pressures on French Jews to convert, efforts that were particularly directed at adolescent males and young men.
Einbinder's book consists of an introductory chapter followed by five studies of literary documents connected with a particular historical event. The focus of her second chapter is the Blois incident of 1171, when thirty-two Jewish men and women were burned at the stake as a result of a ritual murder accusation. As she notes, this was the first time in medieval Jewish memory that a secular ruler charged with their protection prosecuted his Jews and condemned them to death. Einbinder discusses the eight surviving Hebrew poems recording this tragedy, noting that all were written by men trained as Tosafist scholars and that all incorporated the motif that at least some of the martyrs of Blois were impervious to flame. This image of the scholar-rabbi as the idealized martyr who triumphed over fire would have a long life in both popular imagination and esoteric texts.
A 1242 lament for the Talmud, written by Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg when he was twenty years old, is the topic of the third chapter. Meir b. Baruch witnessed the public burning of Talmud texts in Paris, a catastrophe set in motion by Nicholas Donin, a convert from Judaism. During the thirteenth century, Einbinder argues, the Tosafist [End Page 134] movement countered successful Christian conversionary efforts among young Jewish scholars with poetic representations of willing martyrs, prepared to forfeit learning, piety, and good family to sanctify the divine name. At the same time, the martyrs in these poems reviled Christianity in graphic, even vulgar terms, intended to make a strong impression on adolescent minds. Meir's lament shares in these tendencies and also demonstrates the variety of literary influences to which a young scholar of his time was exposed. According to Einbinder's analysis, his poem alludes to the poetry of Judah HaLevi, shows knowledge of Christian Crusade poetry dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and draws, as well, on earlier Hebrew liturgical poetry mourning desecrations of sacred texts by fire, much of it related to the Maimunist controversy of the 1230s.
In her fourth chapter, Einbinder shows how a martyrological poem by a certain Benjamin the Scribe can illuminate an obscure historical event, in this case the 1276 imprisonment and martyrdom...