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  • Jewish History in a New Key
  • Natalie Zemon Davis

Elliott horowitz first entered my life with his characteristic brilliance and brio at the 1980 meeting of the Association of Jewish Studies. Mark Cohen, Theodore Rabb, and I were presenting our Princeton course on the Jews in Early Modern Europe, into which we had introduced topics from the new social history within a comparative European perspective. A distinguished elder scholar from Jerusalem rose from the audience to state that the course disfigured Jewish history and, eyeing me, that the field did not need contributions from outsiders. Whereupon a student from the Yale doctoral program came forward and defended our course as the wave of the future. Elliott Horowitz saved the day for us, as many of the younger listeners took copies of our syllabus.

Over the decades since then, Elliott Horowitz helped shape that future through his pioneering contributions to Jewish history and historiography and, thereby, to European history more generally. Often in correspondence with each other, we shared several thematic interests: youth as a stage of life; rituals that mark the end of life; the social dimension of liturgical piety; gender styles (male styles, in Elliott's case); and the character of religious violence and its relation to the carnivalesque.1 I want [End Page 353] here to comment on this last theme, since it was an enduring concern for Elliott, inspiring some of his most important publications, and also nourished by his political observations after his move to Israel in 1982.

Elliott focused not on the much-studied subject of violence against Jews but rather on the violent response, or lack thereof, of male Jews against the Christians. In the past, these topics had been either an embarrassment to the Jewish community or preferably kept a secret. Jewish historians would better busy themselves with refuting false allegations of ritual murder. For some in the twentieth century, full Jewish masculinity and its military expression were achieved only in fighting for the establishment of the state of Israel and serving in its army.2

With his astonishing scholarly range, Elliott gave a full and sometimes acerbic account of the historiography on Jewish violence, and then opened up his own path. Using observations from the sixteenth-century Spanish exile Solomon Ibn Verga, the seventeenth-century English traveler Thomas Coryate, and others, he brought to light the early modern image of the "faint-hearted Jew," of Jews who ran away rather than facing up to attackers, even when they outnumbered the latter. Some Christians went further: Jewish men were effeminate and even menstruated. Meanwhile Simone Luzzato, writing from the Venetian Ghetto in 1638, used the image of a people with "a weak spirit" to assure European rulers they had nothing to fear from their Jewish subjects.3

Elliott then told the contrasting story of Jews attacking or insulting Christian holy objects, especially profaning the "abomination" of the cross during the period following Holy Week and/or near the time of Passover or later at Shavuot. In tenth-century Ashkelon, Jews and Muslims burned down a church and wrought other havoc in anti-Christian riots. Episodes in the next centuries in Germany, France, Italy, and England were orchestrated by individual actors, as in 1268, when an Oxford Jew seized a cross being carried in procession and trampled on it. The Jews' sentiments were not solely contempt and hostility, so Elliott suggests. If Jewish men sometimes urinated on the cross, they were sometimes also fascinated by it, a desire that led one Herman-Judah of Cologne to become a Christian himself.4 [End Page 354]

Elliott's remarkable pages offer us new ways to reflect on perceptions of religious violence among sixteenth-century Christians in Europe, for there are both contrasts and similarities. Neither Protestants nor Catholics saw the males among their religious enemies as "faint-hearted" or effeminate: on the contrary, they were depicted as brazen and harsh. Protestants derided the "celibate" Catholic clerics for their concubines. French Catholics portrayed the early Calvinist conventicles as sexual orgies. As for the Muslim Ottoman Turks, though their men might be stereotyped in Christian polemic as "infected with sodomy," they were still seen as ferocious in...


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