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Preface IN his essay “The Politics of Culture: Ethnicity and Nationalism,” Anthony D. Smith makes the following remark: “But, in fact, many ethnie, usually of the demotic (‘vertical’) variety, have survived for long periods under foreign rule, notably as ‘pariah castes,’ like the Jews in Medieval Europe” (Smith, 1994: 715).1 Smith is referring to the common notion that medieval European Jewry lived under constant legal and religious restrictions and suffered persecutions at the hands of the Christian population. It was Max Weber who first used the term “pariah” with reference to Jews and Judaism in a scientific argument, but his use of the term “castes” in this context did not go unopposed (Momogliano, SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Spring 2003) An Ultimate Pariah? Jewish Social Attitudes toward Jewish Lepers in Medieval Western Europe* EPHRAIM SHOHAM-STEINER * This paper is based on a lecture delivered at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds in July 2002. The lecture was based on a portion of the author’s doctoral dissertation, “Social Attitudes towards Marginal Individuals in Jewish Medieval European Society,” which was submitted to the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, in spring 2002. I wish to thank my advisers, Professors Avraham Grossman of the Department of Jewish History and Michael Heyd of the History Department in the Hebrew University, as well as Professor Yisrael Yuval of the Jewish History Department, for reading the paper and commenting on it. It is a pleasant obligation to thank the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture for its generous aid received while I was engaged in the research discussed in this essay. 1980). Social historians of the Jewish people insisted that the model of the Indian or West African caste system was inappropriate and misleading when used to describe Jewish-Gentile relationships in general, and the Judeo-Christian relationship in particular. Baptism in theory obliterated Jewish confessional identity and this of course ruled out the similarity to a rigid caste system . However, if we modify the term slightly and speak of a “pariah minority,” we may use it without its initial connotations. I believe that we can employ this formulation, at least as a working definition, for our discussion. A “pariah minority” is an ethnic or racial group that shares a language and a culture. Its members are the objects of persecution and are viewed by the dominant population as less then fully human—as dirty, inferior, or impure. Likewise, members of a “pariah minority” are marginalized by those in power and are considered beneath or outside the law. Medieval European Jewry closely fits this pattern.2 It is also interesting to note how well this definition describes not only Jews, but also lepers in medieval Christian Europe, who were thought of and treated in a strikingly similar manner. Indeed, social historians have already suggested that medieval European Christian society should be seen as a “persecuting society,” where both Jews and lepers were regarded in similar terms and treated accordingly (Moore, 1987; Richards, 1990). This similarity between lepers and Jews raises the question of what perhaps appears to be the “ultimate pariah,” namely, the leprous Jew. To the best of my knowledge, besides two footnotes in a book on Jewish history in thirteenth-century Germany,3 the plight of Jewish lepers has yet to be investigated by Jewish historians or medievalists (or Jewish social historians of the medieval period in particular) (Shoham-Steiner, 2002) . The importance of studying the Jewish lepers of this period and attitudes toward them from within the Jewish community and from without, emerges with particular reference to two related issues: 1) Jewish social and reli238 SOCIAL RESEARCH gious intragroup self-image; and 2) the delicate and fragile relationship between Jews and Christians in medieval Europe. The medieval Jewish community’s internal attitudes toward its own lepers offer a new and unique angle from which to consider social phenomena such as “collective-inner reflection” and “othering ” as they appear inside the culture of a “pariah minority.” Placing this analysis against the backdrop of the relationships between Jewish Christian societies in the period exposes the sensitivity within a marginalized group to its own image in the eyes of the marginalizing majority. To begin...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 237-268
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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