- Marks of Distinction: Christian Perceptions of Jews in the High Middle Ages by Irven M. Resnick
Irven Resnick’s study of medieval Christian perceptions of Jews based on the then-developing “science” of physiognomy offers an intriguing contribution to the history of Western Christian antisemitism. For historians and theologians, Resnick’s book provides a rich resource on two levels. First, the detailed exploration into medieval antisemitism makes available extensive primary-source material from a host of Church leaders, natural scientists, and theologians—the fifty-two-page (!) bibliography alone makes the volume an important tool for researchers. Second, Resnick’s smooth narrative and extensive translation of sources gives non-specialists access to the material. In sum, this book is a useful resource not only for medievalists, but also for a broader audience interested in the long history of antisemitism.
Resnick’s overriding theme is the much-debated relationship between modern, racism-based antisemitism and religiously-based expressions of Jew-hatred dominant during the Middle Ages. Noting the engagement of historians of the medieval period in discussions about the emergence of antisemitism as a historical phenomenon, the author takes aim at Gavin Langmuir’s definition of antisemitism as a “false irrational conception of the Jew” (p. 4). Distinguishing between “anti-Judaism” and “antisemitism,” Langmuir claimed that the former carried a degree of empirical support from Scripture and the actual living circumstances of contemporary Jews, while the latter, manifesting itself in accusations such as ritual murder and well poisoning, lacked empirical support and thus was “irrational” (p. 4). Other scholars before Resnick have challenged Langmuir, for instance for utilizing modern standards of evidence to define “irrational.” Resnick enters the fray by arguing that medieval culture indeed offered empirical evidence to support accusations against the Jews; not only from the Bible and Church Fathers, but also drawing on the authority of developing scientific rationalist modes of reasoning. His working premise is that “what appears to us today to be lacking empirical or rational support may have appeared well established under medieval canons of evidence” (p. 7). Resnick makes the case that, despite the absence of a fully-developed concept of race later employed by modern antisemites, there emerged in the Middle Ages a sense of Jewish difference “not rooted only in religious belief and practices, but in the physical nature or biology of Jews themselves” (p. 12). Theology, medicine, and natural knowledge converged into “physiognomy,” rooted in the observation of the body and claiming that physical appearance revealed the [End Page 109] secrets of the soul. As a result, a feature of modern antisemitism often posited to distinguish it from early, religious anti-Judaism—the impossibility of escaping Jewish identity even through conversion—appeared during the Middle Ages, when physical distinguishing features were also attributed to Jews.
According to Resnick, medieval physiognomy maintained that the human “complexion,” or make-up, was formed by the four basic elements—air, fire, earth, and water—interacting in the human body with the qualities of moisture, heat, dryness, and cold. Bodily types combining hot and dry (choleric), hot and moist (sanguine), cold and moist (phlegmatic), and cold and dry (melancholic) had to be in balance with the four humors: blood, red or yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile. Imbalance affected spiritual and physical character, with interior imbalances manifested in exterior deformities. This understanding seemed to substantiate theologians’ conviction that a defective body evidenced a defective soul.
Resnick details the qualities and accompanying physical attributes of each “complexion,” and explains why humoral “theory” posited “sanguineous” as the superior complexion of humanity prior to Adam’s fall. Though original sin corrupted the human body, baptism restored the capacity to achieve this ideal balance. However, when Resnick tells us that within this system Jews were identified with the lowest level of the hierarchy of humors, “melancholic,” it is obvious where he is taking us. We learn that as medieval physiognomy gained currency, the theologically-tinged “science” of Jewish complexion offered the authority for...