Saturday, 25 June 2016

[#37] Adrienne Williams Boyrain, ‘Desire for Religion: Mary, a Murder Libel, a Jewish Friar, and Me’, Religion and Literature, 42 (2010), pp. 23-48.

Academic Entry:

A discussion of the Virgin Mary and Jewishness in the literature of medieval England with particular emphasis upon the role of gender and the way that Boyrain’s approach is informed by her personal experience.

General Entry:

In reading this article I did something that I’ve really done since I began thinking about medieval Jews: questioning how I fit into that narrative. Adrienne Boyrain points out that ‘[m]any students will volunteer their own religious convictions or lack of them as a preamble to questions or comments’ which is, for me, exceedingly tedious and irritating, and usually results in me adopting the opposite argument to them, just so that they can experience some sense of what they have subjected me to (childish, I know, but vaguely satisfying). However, at the start of this article Boyrain makes me incredibly envious, because in connecting her work to her apostasy, it gives a much stronger connection to her work. In comparison, I don’t hold any religious views, though as a result of studying medieval religion I have become more tolerant of those who do, and, like Boyrain, ‘I do what I do… because I care about it’. In my case however, my work is perpetuated by a much shallower motivation: the desire to know and, in Cecil Roth’s words, ‘[b]ecause it is fun’ (Roth: 1968-1969, p. 29). In the second section of this article Boyrain discusses something which has long baffled me when reading sources, is the Virgin Mary Jewish or Christian – apparently the answer is both. This is something which I would love to explore more and I would assume that this is explored further in Boyrain’s book Miracles of the Virgin in Medieval England but, alas, I don’t have a copy of, or access to, this so that will have to wait a good long while.

Following on from this, a discussion is provided of what a Jew is. There is a particular emphasis on the narrative of Adam of Bristol and Boyrain provides the most accurate modern summation of this text that I have ever come across ‘It is […] genuinely terrifying’, something which I wholeheartedly agree with. From a literary perspective I agree with Boyrain that there was a fear about how Christians could distinguish a Jew, but I do not think that this held true in reality beyond high political and ecclesiastical authorities. A major plus point for this section, in my opinion, is the fascinating analysis of the role that gender plays within the narrative. In the final section, Boyrain discusses a Jew called Sampson who impersonated a Friar Minor. I am glad that she singles out Robin M.’s highly ambiguous reference to this case, because I to found this tantalising, but he said nothing more on the subject and, again because of curiosity rather than a deeper link, and he regretted not saying more on this (though he was in the process of rectifying the omission and I hope to complete that). This section builds upon the discussion of the previous section in a way that I had never considered but provides an argument which I can think of several other cases (off of the top of my head) where the language might benefit from the same style of contextualisation as Boyrain employs here.

To conclude, in this article Boyrain draws together a number of different themes which are of significance to both literary and historical approaches to medieval Anglo-Jewry. I must confess that this is first time that I have read this piece, and shall have to read it a few more times to get to grips with the finer points of the argument which I have missed because of my ‘sledge hammer approach to history’ (as Robin M. called it), but I highly recommend this article, I found it to be captivating and a riveting read and I am sure that you, dear reader, will enjoy it as much as I have. Finally, Dr Boyrain is give a paper on ‘the Letters of Anglo-Jewish Women Converts, 1270-1420’ at the Leeds IMC in a couple of weeks and if you are interested by the gender themes in this article then I suggest you check out her paper (I certainly intend to!).

Work Cited:


Cecil Roth, ‘Why Anglo-Jewish History?’, Jewish Historical Society of England, 22 (1968-1969), pp. 21-29.

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