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Reviewed by:
  • Sacred Communities: Jewish and Christian Identities in Fifteenth-Century Germany
  • Miriam Bodian
Sacred Communities: Jewish and Christian Identities in Fifteenth-Century Germany, by Dean Phillip Bell. Boston and Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2001. 301 pp. $79.20.

This book sets out “to recontextualize the world of Jewish and Christian relations [in fifteenth-century Germany] by focusing on ... Jewish and Christian interaction as well as Jewish and Christian forms of communal organization and identity” (p. 1). The author, Dean Phillip Bell, concurs with R. Po-chia Hsia’s conclusion that recent scholarship on Jews and medieval Germany falls into two general categories: a) works on internal Jewish communal development, making use of Hebrew and other Jewish sources, and b) works on anti-Judaism, making use of German and Latin sources. He suggests that a serious analysis of Christians and Jews in late medieval Germany must combine both approaches. And it must do so, he argues, taking into account the full [End Page 164] range of changing theological conceptions, on the one hand, and changing social, political, and economic conditions, on the other.

This would be a truly daunting task for any scholar. One can certainly admire Bell’s heroic attempt to carry it out. But the book has serious weaknesses. First and foremost is the lack of a clear methodology. The book purports to “focus on” a dizzying array of issues and questions. It skips with bewildering swiftness from one topic to another—from musings on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, for example, to statistics about medieval town foundations (pp. 27–29). And it presents opinions of other scholars on a multitude of subjects, without integrating them into an overarching picture.

Bell does not deal with the entire orbit of the German-speaking lands, as the title might suggest, but rather with “south and central German urban areas” (p. 2). To be sure, dealing even with this more circumscribed area entails enormous difficulties, given the “vastly divergent and individual developments within the various cities of Germany,” in the author’s own words (p. 34). But instead of confronting these difficulties, the author offers a brief politico-legal history of Augsburg (pp. 34–5), with the hope that this will at least “help to contextualize the main themes to be pursued in this book.” Such evasions add to the reader’s sense of being left stranded.

In his treatment of church and community (Chapter Two), Bell relies heavily on other scholars, as well as on English and German translations of key Latin works. He argues that there is a correlation between late medieval theological shifts (e.g., in the Christian view of sacred law), and social and political developments in the German cities (as manifested, among other things, in changing behavior toward the Jews). In particular, he argues that a new “priesthood” of Christian burghers defined itself around a concept of moral rather than sacramental law; and that as the political community became increasingly defined as an exclusive community of Christian burghers, Jews (as well as clerics) were pushed outside its boundaries. This conclusion appears to be the central argument of the book. It implies a criticism, or at least a modification, of the position of those who have argued the primary role of the clergy (particularly the mendicant orders) in producing radical late medieval antisemitism. More clearly, it challenges the view that late medieval antisemitism was primarily a vehicle to express political and social discontent.

In Chapter Three, Bell takes up an examination of language and the conceptualization of community—an important topic. But the chapter meanders aimlessly, and while hinting that a study of terminology might indicate the conceptual exclusion of the Jews from commune (gemein), is largely inconclusive. (Incidentally, in this chapter on language, the issue of vernacular language differences between Jews and Christians is nowhere mentioned.) Bell seems to borrow a conclusion from the previous chapter, namely that “the new emphasis on morality over sacrament . . . reveals changes in the conception of community that made it difficult for Jews to remain” (p. 97). Chapter Four elaborates on the same theme, adducing expressions of late medieval anti-Judaism as [End Page 165] evidence that, in the fifteenth...

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