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  • Discourses of Judaizing and Judaism in Medieval Spain
  • David Nirenberg

How did discourses of “Judaizing” and “Judaism” become dominant ones in the Iberian Peninsula? We cannot answer such a question simply by pointing to the presence of non-Christians or their crypto-derivatives in the Iberian world, for the power and utility of thinking about Iberia in terms of Judaism (or Islam) need bear no direct relation to the living presence of representatives from those religions. One way to make this obvious point is simply to recall that the discourse of Judaism was often used in countries that had not seen a real Jew for centuries. When a Catholic preacher in Augsburg complained in 1551 that “the King of England, his council and kingdom had all become Jews”, he was not referring to “real” Judaism –there were no Jews living in England in the sixteenth century– but to Edward VI’s embrace of the Lutheran Reform.1 “Judaism” stood for all sorts of things, including Protestantism (for Catholics) and Catholicism (for Protestants). [End Page 207]

“Judaism” was also a term of criticism used by members of the same community against each other. Open any volume of late medieval or early modern sermons and you will likely find some practice or other denounced as Judaizing, money-lending being only the most famous (others include failure to take vengeance, collecting taxes, paying taxes, wearing spectacles, reading Aristotle, writing on paper). In order to explain these worries we cannot think only in terms of a religion we call Judaism, or of living people we call Jews, but need to think also of abstract qualities –“Jewish-ness”, “Christian-ness”– that are not limited to the adherents of the religion from which they are imagined to derive. On the contrary, they are often the product of one group’s thinking about another: a Christian’s notion of Jewish-ness, for example, may have more to do with Christian habits of thought about Judaism (what we somewhat reductively call stereotypes) as it does with Judaism itself. Moreover these qualities can attach to the adherents of any religion, and seem to threaten the integrity of that adherence. It is precisely this portability and this peril that made them such powerful tools for thinking about the world.

These tools were at work in all of the religious communities of the Iberian world. I can imagine an essay on Jewish and Christian fears of the “Muslim-ness” they felt to be encoded in the Arabic language and poetic practices by which they were so attracted; or one on Muslim and Jewish fears of a contagious “Christian-ness” inherent in allegorical techniques of scriptural interpretation. My subject, however, is Christian worries about “Jewishness”, and my goal is to demonstrate why and how these worries became so fundamental to Iberian Christian thinking about and representations of the world. But Iberian Christians did not invent their ideas about Jewishness out of whole cloth: a long history of Christian culture shaped the ways in which they could find difference meaningful and put it to work. So I will begin with a crude sketch of some of the roles played by “Jewishness” in foundational Christian thinking about the difficulties and dangers inherent in the condition of being human in this world. Then, more fully, I will show these dangers of Jewishness being put to work in three registers of Iberian culture that on the face of it had very little to do with living Jews: namely [End Page 208] poetry, painting, and politics.

We must begin with the earliest Christian writings, the epistles of St. Paul. “The Letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3.6): this apparent antinomy between letter and spirit is only one of the many that pepper the Pauline texts. “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8.6). “Now we are fully freed from the law, dead to that in which we lay captive. We can thus serve in the new being of the Spirit and not the old one of the letter” (Rom. 7.5–6). In Galatians, an Epistle entirely...


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pp. 207-233
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