- Jews in the Early Modern English Imagination:A Scattered Nation by Eva Johanna Holmberg
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Jews were viewed by the English as outsiders, a group that was to be feared, despised, or pitied. Eva Holmberg's new book, Jews in the Early Modern English Imagination: A Scattered Nation, explores the ways in which early modern English people imagined the Jews. Unlike previous studies, which have relied on English plays as their main sources, Holmberg prefers to focus on English (and translated) travel writings and tracts. This allows her to demonstrate how English people in England were given access to the Jewish world through the travels of their countrymen. She does not focus on just the positive or negative interpretations but, instead, prefers to investigate the entire spectrum of English understandings of the Jews. Although Holmberg constantly reminds the reader that the English viewed Jewish people as being punished for their failure to accept Christ, she goes beyond this simple interpretation and leaves the reader with an impression of the many varied English attitudes.
Holmberg begins by locating the Jews both geographically and topographically. She establishes that Jews were viewed as a 'wandering nation', one that could be found in all corners of the globe (except England). [End Page 251] Despite their supposedly nomadic nature, Jews were depicted in travel writings as city-dwellers. Through mapping the early modern city, Holmberg is able to show how the Jews' geographical position related to their culturally established position as a marginalized group. Holmberg focuses on early modern depictions of the Jewish home, the Ghetto, and the Synagogue. After examining a number of English travel writings, Holmberg argues that the Ghetto was portrayed as both a space for the containment of Jews but, also, as a safe space for them. Similarly, she shows how the Jewish home was viewed as a 'fort'. Her examination of depictions of Synagogues shows them, not surprisingly, as centres of Jewish life. However, Holmberg argues that these buildings were seen as vessels for showcasing Jewish life and customs rather than as bastions of anti-Christian sentiment. In this way, Holmberg suggests that English travellers did not simply dismiss or abhor Jewish communities but showed an active interest in their daily lives and activities. One wonders, however, what the Jews thought of these English people who seemed so fascinated by them.
This English interest in Jewish life is explored further in the next chapter, which focuses on English responses to Jewish religious customs. Holmberg begins by suggesting that English writers simplified the many different facets of Jewish religion and presented a homogeneous interpretation to their readers. She then returns to her discussion of the Synagogue (a place often visited by English travellers) and presents it not just as a marker of a Jewish presence but, also, as a place of spectacle rather than a house of worship. In imagining the Jews, Holmberg argues that the English viewed them as actors upon a stage. She analyses a number of travel texts that portray Jewish rituals as overwhelming ceremonies that involved shouting, gesturing, jumping, dancing, elaborate costumes, and huge crowds. She also discusses circumcision and suggests that it too was described as a performance. Holmberg also argues that the performative or ceremonial nature of these practices, allowed English writers to make sense of confusing Jewish rituals by comparing them to more familiar ideas of Catholic practice. In this way, Holmberg demonstrates how English authors used their own experiences of the world to make sense of Jewish customs and practices.
In the final chapter, Holmberg moves away from describing the external world of the Jews and turns to the more intimate descriptions of their bodies and souls. After examining contemporary travel writings, Holmberg concludes that there was a surprising lack of uniformity in English descriptions of the Jewish body. She also disagrees with previous scholarship and argues that English people were less concerned with the idea of the Jews as a poisonous, polluted...