Saturday, 23 April 2016

[#19] Kathy Lavezzo, ‘Shifting geographies of antisemitism: Mapping Jew and Christian in Thomas of Monmouth’s Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich’ in Keith D. Lilley (ed.), Mapping Medieval Geographies: Geographical Encounters in the Latin West and Beyond (Cambridge, 2013), pp. 250-270.

Whenever I see a new piece of scholarship produced on William of Norwich, I get this inexplicable urge to bang my head thrice upon my desk in the hope that when that ordeal has been completed I will realise that I imagined it. Experience has taught me that such pieces usually adopt a reductionist approach which focuses upon Books 1 (in which Thomas of Monmouth recounts the abduction, murder and discovery of William’s body) and Book 2 (where Thomas of Monmouth provides the ‘evidence’ for his narrative) and they don’t usually do anything particularly innovative. However, despite my reservations I had high hopes (or at least higher hopes than usual) for this piece given that some excellent work has been done by scholars on the urban history of thirteenth-century Anglo-Jewry (e.g. Meyer: 2009, pp. 31-55) but the nature of the extant source material has made historians reluctant to do the same for the twelfth-century, and I have long thought that one possible remedy to this is Thomas of Monmouth’s Life and Passion of William of Norwich. Sadly, the essay itself does not seem to have been written for the title given that there is no concerted effort to integrate the Life into the piece. Indeed, if I were to submit a piece like this as a postgraduate essay then I’d (rightly) expect to be ripped to shreds by the marker for not focusing on the source that I’d explicitly singled out.

            It should be noted at the outset that I come at this review from a historical rather than a literary background. By and large, this isn’t as much of a problem as it could be given that I think that literature is just as valid a source as governmental records. However, for me, in addition to the theoretical framework that Lavezzo places the narrative within, I think that more literal readings can be just as beneficial – something which is not attempted within this piece. In her article Lavezzo attemps to demonstrate that there were Jewish and Christian spaces in twelfth-century Norwich. I have to say that the former aspect wasn’t particularly well executed due to the lack of the reference to the Life but to be brutally honest, I couldn’t use the Life to support this thesis, not least because of the scale of cross cultural interactions which are evident in the narrative (lest we forget that William’s work had taken him into the Jewry so often that his uncle had had to forbid it) or the basis of urban history more generally. The second aim of the article is again, wide of the mark, and I think, in the light of recent developments, perhaps a more literal reading of these sections would have been similarly beneficial and as a result of that Lavezzo would have reached a radically different conclusion.

            To be fair to Lavezzo, she is unlucky in the fact that shortly after her article was published, a new edition of Thomas of Monmouth’s text and a monograph (Rose: 2015) considering it in renewed detail. However, despite that I find this a really disappointing piece. In her discussion of the city of Norwich, Lavezzo makes absolutely no attempt to discuss how the post-Conquest changes to the city (which were considerable) impacted upon Thomas of Monmouth’s writing, nor does she engage with the work of Simon Yarrow who has convincingly demonstrated that the political and economic landscape of Norwich by the middle of the twelfth-century (Yarrow: 2006, pp. 122-168). Moreover, Lavezzo assumes that the Jews who came to inhabit Norwich by 1144 would have been unwelcome and resented. However, this is to overlook the fact that Norwich was a major (national and international) mercantile centre at this point and as such the populous would have been much more accustomed to all manner of ‘aliens’ than their rural brethren. Equally, Book 2 of the Life tells us that remarkably few people believed the allegations levied against the Jews: surely if the situation was that bad then they would have been attacked and rejected by the burghers of Norwich – they were not.

So, to conclude the concept behind this article is good, the execution is not. That is not to say that this is a bad piece of writing. On the contrary it is a perfectly decent piece of scholarship, but ultimately, that’s all it is: decent. That is small step from saying that it is mediocre and surely academic writing should do more, or we might as well call it a day, and retire to the pub.

Work Cited:

Meyer, Hannah, ‘Female moneylending and wet-nursing in Jewish-Christian relations in thirteenth-century England’ (Cambridge, unpublished PhD diss., 2009).

Rose, E. M., The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe (Oxford, 2015).

Thomas of Monmouth, The Life and Passion of William of Norwich, ed. Miri Rubin (London, 2014).

Yarrow, Simon, Saints and Their Communities: Miracle Stories in Twelfth-Century England (London, 2006).

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