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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 313-314
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God, Humanity, and History:
The Hebrew First Crusade Narratives
God, Humanity, and History: The Hebrew First Crusade Narratives. By Robert Chazan. (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2000. Pp. xi, 270. $40.00.)
The three extant Hebrew First Crusade Narratives have for some time attracted much interest. Scholars have attempted to date the sources and work out what kind of relationship exists between them. Questions have been asked about their reliability as reports of the persecution of the Jews of the Rhineland in 1096 by the so-called Popular Crusade. The highly evocative portrayal of awesome martyrdom by these Ashkenazi Jews has in particular generated much research.
Robert Chazan, who is very well known for his many works on the Jews of medieval Europe, offers his own conclusions about the genesis of the narratives. Rather than simply working out the possible relationships between the three sources, he identifies within them five separate voices. The voices closest to the actual happenings of spring and summer, 1096, belong, according to Chazan, to the unit concerning Trier in the composite narrative ascribed to Solomon bar Simpson and to the chronicle written by an Anonymous from Mainz. These voices are especially interested in what Chazan dubs time-bound issues, i.e., in the specifics of what happened. In addition, the Mainzer Anonymous aims to give meaning to what happened within a timeless framework in order to counter Christians' claims that the calamities befalling the Jews prove Jewish iniquity in denying Christ. Two other voices belong, in Chazan's view, to the author of the unit on Cologne incorporated in the Bar Simpson compilation and the voice of the editor of that compilation, who may be Solomon bar Simpson himself, who, in turn, may even be the author of the Cologne unit. These voices express even more strongly timeless issues like the heroism of the Jewish martyrs which is expected to evoke in due course God's favorable intervention on behalf of the children of Israel in the course of history. Chazan calls the narrative usually ascribed to Eliezar bar Nathan the fifth voice. This voice is largely interested in the timeless issues of liturgical dirges, using narrative as expository material for the poetry which lies at the core of its composition. [End Page 313]
The especial interest of this book is the way Chazan uses the voices he has identified to understand the reaction of the Jews of late eleventh-century Ashkenaz to the violence they faced in 1096. The peculiar forms of martyrdom expressed by these voices reveal how aware German Jews were of the preoccupations of their Christian neighbors and how adept they were in formulating a creative response to protect their Jewish identity. Just as the Christian milites Christi were setting out to restore Jerusalem to Christ, fully prepared to become martyrs for their Lord, so the Jewish voices acclaim the Jewish martyrs as the true heroes of the Crusade, as they actively embraced martyrdom for themselves and for their children in honor of God. It is almost as if one is being invited to see the Jewish martyrs as the true milites Dei of the day. Far from proving by their deaths the truth of Christianity, their sacrificial killings make of Mainz and the other affected cities the true locus of Jerusalem. In the descriptions of active martyrdom which include horrifying tableaux of mothers and fathers ritually slaughtering their children Kiddush ha-Shem (for the sanctification of the Lord) Chazan sees paradoxically traits of the humanism of the period. For at the center of these narratives lie the deeds of flesh-and-blood men and women rather than God. God is, of course, as ubiquitous as ever, but it is humans who are self-consciously carving their own way in the belief that their actions of heroism will in time affect the outcome of history. Chazan sees a parallel of this innovative emphasis on humanity in Latin crusading sources like the Gesta Francorum.
This is a compelling...