Tuesday, 12 April 2016

[#11] Gavin I. Langmuir, ‘At the Frontiers of Faith’ in Anna Sapir Abulafia (ed.), Religious Violence Between Christians and Jews: Medieval Roots, Modern Perspectives (Basingstoke, 2002), pp. 138-156.

I should probably provide this review with something of a preamble, given that the text that is under consideration here has nothing to do with medieval Anglo-Jewry specifically, though there are two very good reasons for considering it here – please pick which one you want to justify the reading of this piece.

1.    Academic Reason: This article contains conclusions which are pertinent to England given its theoretical nature and makes some important points which I would like to address.

2.      Non-Academic Reason: It’s my blog and I can review it if I want to (please insert childish noise / gesture of your choice)!

At the risk of sounding like a corny (American) situation comedy, my comments in this piece are presented under the guidance of the phrase ‘honesty is the best policy’. While I acknowledge Langmuir’s immense contribution to the field of medieval Anglo-Jewish history, I tend to take issue with his work, and the work of other scholars working on Christian-Jewish relations in medieval England, including Anna Sapir Abulafia who is currently the most established scholar working on the topic. As the essays of Langmuir demonstrate, which have largely been collated into two volumes (one of the exceptions is the one under review here), he was primarily concerned with demonstrating that there were increasing levels of anti-Semitism in thirteenth-century England (incidentally I also have serious misgivings with the use of the word anti-Semitism in a medieval context, but that shall wait for another day) (Langmuir: 1990; 1996). I have two problems with this. First, searching for anti-Semitism in medieval Christendom is sort of like searching for needles in a needle production factory. Of course it’s present, and of course there were times when it could be found in higher concentrations, let’s acknowledge that and move on! Second, this approach favours those occasions upon which tensions flared up rather than the bulk of the Jewish experience and this tends to assume that B. L. Abraham’s statement, that it is rarely possible ‘to realise what a medieval English Jew was in the moments when he was not lending money, making payments to the king’s exchequer, or being plundered and massacred’, (Abrahams: 1894-1894, p. 79 – emphasis mine) is correct – an assumption which contradicts every historiographical instinct that I have. However, just because I operate from a different historiographical starting point to Langmuir that does not mean that I don’t find many aspects of this article which I agree with or find thought provoking and, rant over, I shall now consider some of these points.

            Langmuir makes three important points at the outset of this article. First, despite the fact that most of Christian Europe is often labelled as Christendom, to assume uniformity of religion throughout Christian territories is erroneous (I often wonder whether this tendency has been exacerbated in the age of the European Union). Second, that despite the fact Christians and Jews believed in the same ‘one, true God’, it would be better to see them as ‘polymonotheistic’ religions (I’m not sure if that is oxymoronic or brilliance on the part of Langmuir) because the traditions in which the two viewed their God were very different. Third, Langmuir’s distinction between frontiers: domestically, where Christians and non-Christians came into direct contact; on the boarders between Christian states; and those non-Christian territories which bordered Christendom. For me, this is an important distinction to make because, as Langmuir demonstrates, it speaks to the nature of the violence which could transpire in those areas. However, Langmuir also argues that violence which was specifically motivated by religion can only really be seen from the mid-eleventh-century, after the growth in the power of the papacy which could wield the blade of Christendom against outsiders. That being said, Langmuir convincing concludes that even this sword wielding was short lived and by the end of the thirteenth-century, religiously motivated violence against non-Christians was to become largely confined to being associated with the blood libel accusations (I don’t see the need to differentiate between the ritual murder accusation which I see as part of this allegation) – something which was condemned by the secular authorities, though never rejected by the papacy which Langmuir sees as complicit approval.

            To conclude, given the rant with which I commenced this review you might not be surprised to discover that I find this to be a highly problematic essay. However, I would not go so far as throwing the baby out with the bath water by saying that I disagree with every facet of this paper. On the contrary, as I’ve highlighted, I find a number of the points raised here to be interesting and convincing. I also think that this review, better than any review I’ve completed thus far, demonstrates why you, dear reader (and particularly non-academic readers), should take what I say with a pinch of salt. My comments are informed by my views and as such may differ radically from your perception of them: texts that I like, you may dislike and vice versa. As a result, you should treat these (often rambling) entries as nothing more than an entry point and I would urge each of you to read as many of these pieces as possible (if you struggle to get hold of anything, then drop me a line and I might be able to help).

Work Cited:

Abrahams, B. L., ‘The Condition of the Jews at the Time of their Expulsion in 1290’, Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, 2 (1894-1895), pp. 76-105.

Langmuir, Gavin I., History, Relgion, and Antisemitism (Berkley, 1990).

Langmuir, Gavin I., Toward A Definition Of Antisemitism (Berkley, 1990, rpt. 1996).

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