- Poetry and History
For some time, scholars have recognized the singular value of seliḥot and kinot [penitential poems and laments] composed in the wake of various persecutions for investigating the circumstances of those persecutions. . . . It is a known fact that truly historical works do not abound in the Hebrew literature of the Middle Ages and that a special importance therefore attaches to those piyyutim [liturgical poems] that convey to us details of events and deeds. Even if we do not intend merely to amass general facts and numbers, it is precisely the smallest details that are incomparably important: a line is joined with a line, and from the totality emerges a living and colorful picture of the deed as it was. Of course, one must know how to read such laments, for the poets occasionally garbed their descriptions in obscure expressions, full of riddles, or alluded to an important fact only through the use of a fitting verse from Scripture.1
With these prefatory remarks to his 1939 publication of "Laments on Persecutions in the Land of Israel, Africa, Spain, Ashkenaz, and France," Ḥayyim Schirmann highlighted a central conundrum in the study of Hebrew martyrological poetry. Commemorating events that are often otherwise inadequately documented, these poems have been mined for historical information. But the historian in search of hard evidence disregards the unique literary features of these texts at his or her peril: the stylized and heavily allusive language of these poems defies a literalist reading and demands a sensitivity not only to its scriptural underpinnings, but also to associated exegetical traditions. Schirmann himself, though a champion and connoisseur of medieval Hebrew poetry as literature, was not immune to the pull of historical reconstruction:
I believe that the time has come to pay special attention to this literature, which possesses such a strikingly Jewish character . . . to penetrate [End Page 386] the interior world of the poets and to describe their creations from a literary standpoint. . . . But on this occasion I do not intend to stray from the beaten path: I have gathered and selected seliḥot not for their literary value, but for the historical facts that they contain.2
Accordingly, he prefaced each of his texts—many published for the first time from manuscript sources—with a summary of the "facts" he had excavated. Thus, "Adabberah betsar ruḥi," a poem commemorating the persecution and martyrdom of the Jews of Mainz in 1096, yields the following sort of information:
The assailants come from various towns in the vicinity, armed with swords and arrows; the Jews consecrate a fast, pray morning and evening in the synagogue, petitioning their Creator to save them from the danger. The foes gather near the gate of the bishop's house, to which most of the community has fled, but the Jews display courage, and even their small children respond with one voice, Shema' Yisra'el. Young men attempt to ward off the attackers, but the enemy has the upper hand, and the Jews cannot hold their own. Those remaining inside the house continue their fast and supplications and watch the murder of their brethren. Then begins the mass suicide and slaughter, in which parents sacrifice their own children before killing themselves. The corpses of the martyrs are left in the streets, even after thieves have stripped them of their clothes.3
Remarkably, Schirmann fashioned a continuous narrative on the basis of thirty-four verses of penitential poetry. In this particular instance, the events he sought to reconstruct were not unfamiliar: three medieval Hebrew prose chronicles recount the gruesome massacres and celebrate the heroic martyrdom of the Rhineland Jewish communities, which in 1096 fell victim to crusader mobs on their way to the Holy Land.4 Schirmann's chosen format did not allow him to elaborate on the significance of the poem's intertextually resonant language and imagery or its uniquely Ashkenazic martyrological ideals, all of which might have been discussed in relation to the other poetic eulogies from the periods of the First and Second [End Page 387] Crusades...