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  • Giovanni of Capestrano's Anti-Judaism Within a Franciscan Context:An Evaluation Based On Recent Scholarship
  • Bert Roest (bio)

Since at least the later nineteenth century, scholars have discussed the ways in which the Observant Franciscan Giovanni of Capestrano dealt with Jews and Judaism in his writings and in his preaching rallies. Not surprisingly, the scholarly positions to a large extent have reflected the particular Sitz im Leben of the protagonists. On the one hand, Franciscan historians and other Catholic scholars who admired Capestrano's evangelical zeal have tended to downplay his anti-Judaism or have presented it as a legitimate, albeit somewhat lamentable, aspect of his fight against the socio-economic and religious ills of his times. On the other hand, many scholars of Judaism and the history of anti-Semitism have found him to be a rather relentless persecutor of Jews, and hold him responsible for a number of atrocities, including the destruction of synagogues and the trial and execution by torture of a large number of Jews in and around Wrocław (Breslau) in 1453. Within the latter group, the main divergence of opinion has centered on the question as to whether from a proper historical point of view it makes sense to issue condemnations and to use the term 'Antisemitism' to evaluate Giovanni's words and deeds within their fifteenth-century context. Comparable differences in scholarly perspectives can be observed with regard to a number of Giovanni of Capestrano's Observant colleagues and disciples.1 [End Page 117]

This convoluted scholarly binary has never completely disappeared. Moreover, at least since the 1982 publication of Jeremy Cohen's The Friars and the Jews, a parallel front has emerged with regard to Franciscan preaching, writing, and anti-Judaic agitation during the thirteenth and the fourteenth century.2 The negative review of Cohen's study by the Capuchin scholar Maurice Sheenan, then Assistant Director of the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University, is indicative of the ambivalence with which religious scholars with an existential stake in their history have reacted to studies that present the mendicant orders in an unflattering light. Traces of this ambivalence are still visible in the valuable volume Friars and Jews in the Middle Ages and Renaissance from 2004. The introduction to that volume alludes to Cohen's central thesis in a rather euphemistic manner,3 and none of the articles deal directly with the central issues of anti-Judaic mendicant preaching from the early thirteenth century onwards.4 Within Franciscan scholarship in particular, the tendency to stay away from the most glaring problematic anti-Judaic aspects of medieval mendicant pastoral care is aggravated by enduring claims about the essential peaceful nature of Franciscan mission. These claims, which received their classic formulation by Randolph Daniel and [End Page 118] are still being repeated,5 make it difficult to deal with the many medieval Franciscan anti-Judaic sermons and treatises as genuine products of Franciscan friars.

Mere condemnation of Franciscan anti-Judaism, and that of Giovanni of Capestrano and his Observant colleagues in particular, is not very helpful, and from a historiographical point of view not very satisfying. Once we forego unscholarly assumptions concerning the exceptional nature of Franciscan peacefulness it becomes easier to accept that, from early on, Franciscan friars promoted dominant prejudices of medieval Christianity with regard to the Jews. Moreover, it becomes apparent that, on average, they had no qualms about perpetuating or distributing these prejudices in writings and homiletic encounters. The important role Jeremy Cohen ascribed to the friars as disseminators of virulent anti-Judaic stereotypes is probably correct. However, this seems primarily due to the dominance of the friars in the schools after ca. 1230, the efficacy of mendicant preaching, and to the omnipresence of mendicant friars in late medieval society, rather than to an atypical mendicant or a particularly Franciscan hatred for the Jews that exceeded that of other homiletic practitioners during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.6

Due to their presence in the schools, the Franciscans were involved with the formation of late-medieval theological opinion. This gradually became more damaging to the acceptance of a Jewish presence within Christian society, particularly in the context of the Talmud disputations...


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