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  • The Jewish Other in Old English Narrative Poetry
  • Janet Thormann

Jews settled in England only after the Norman conquest. In earlier periods, Anglo-Saxon missionaries, travelers, and traders may have encountered individual Jews or Jewish communities on the continent, and Jewish traders, given their widespread presence in the Carolingian Empire and Mediterranean world, may, perhaps, have visited England. Records of Jews living in Anglo-Saxon England do not exist. Nevertheless, narrative poetry in Old English is frequently based upon Old Testament material, and Jews figure in narratives that use material from Christian legend and history as well. When the poetry dramatizes Jewish speakers and characterizes Judaism as a system of belief, its representations are dependent on textual traditions. The Anglo-Saxon encounter with Judaism is a textual encounter.

Medieval Christianity shaped and interpreted Jewish belief and Jewish history, as well as its understanding of living Jews, according to the pressures and demands of constructing its own theological and ideological systems. Because Christianity emerged out of Judaism and developed in close relation to Judaism during its early history, Judaism assumed an ancestral role in the formation of Christian identity. As a rival monotheism, and as a threatening because closely related doctrine, Judaism was a problematic precursor. The priority of Judaism to Christianity and its persistent, troubling presence to Christian thought throughout the Middle Ages is figured in a metaphorics of ghostly presence in some recent scholarship. Stephen Kruger discusses the "spectral" persistence of Judaism in medieval discourses of history, in [End Page 1] typology and allegory, and in definitions and elaborations of doctrine. According to Kruger, because Judaism and Jews were "consigned to a time other than the present and yet 'haunting' the present, disrupting its identity to itself (Kruger 1998: 18), Judaism remained integral to Christian thinking and, in particular, to identity formation: even as it is superseded by a new dispensation, "the Jewish identification that is laid aside is yet somehow necessary to the new Christian self, called forth in order to testify to the truth of that new self and thus, paradoxically, still available to that self, even still somehow a part of it" (Kruger 32). Sylvia Tomasch accounts for the "virtual Jew" in Chaucer's poetry, describing the insistence of a "medieval phantasm" of the Jew as an effect of Jewish priority: "because they first possessed the (Christian) book —from which they needed to be displaced, . . . the 'dreadful secondariness' . . . of medieval Jews was . . . a consequence of their intolerable primariness." Tomasch's term "virtual Jew," then, "stresses the integral connections between imaginary constructions and actual people, even when they exist only in a fabricated past or a phantasmatic future" (Tomasch 2001: 252). For Jeremy Cohen, "the hermeneutic Jew" (1999: 2ff) is likewise a textual product, a figure that emerges from texts resolving Christian belief and power relations and functions to manage tensions of Christian identity formation.

Even as they come from studies of late antiquity, scholasticism, and fourteenth-century English society, such terms as "virtual Jew," "spectral presence," and "hermeneutic Jew" indicate that medieval Christianity understood Jews and Judaism as and through textual productions, and, reciprocally, those productions were forms of cultural appropriation of Jewish texts. This is the case in the Anglo-Saxon period as well; as Andrew P. Scheil claims, the "understanding of Jews in Anglo-Saxon England is therefore solely a textual phenomenon, a matter of stereotypes embedded in longstanding Christian cultural traditions" (Scheil 1999: 65). Anglo-Saxons encountered and constructed Judaism within the context of contemporary cultural needs and desires.

This essay will argue that representations of Jews and Judaism in Old English narrative poetry promoted the formation of an Anglo-Saxon national cultural identity.1 From the reign of Alfred in the late [End Page 2] ninth century, when a revival of learning sponsored education, scholarship, and a chronicle history, and an "English" state apparatus was enforced, through the years until the poetic texts were recorded in about the start of the eleventh century, the expansion of West Saxon power was accompanied by the consolidation of an English national rule and culture. West Saxon military conquest of territory, the political hegemony of the West Saxon royal line over local rulers, and the alliance...


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