A selection of documents relating to European Jewry during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
It may seem odd to comment on a book which covers a period that begins more than a century after the (English) Expulsion. There are, however, several very good reasons for this. First, the extracts from theological and biblical tracts in chapter one (which is the focus of this piece) are just as relevant for thirteenth century England as they are for, for example, fifteenth century Spain. Second, I really like the publisher – Manchester University Press is a publisher that I admire both academically and ethically. Third, I’ve read around a dozen of the Manchester Medieval Sources volumes in the last few weeks to gain some insight in the series, and this is the only one which relates in any significant way to the Jews. Finally, it’s my blog and I can, so there! As I said, it’s only really chapter one which I am concerned with here, though this book demonstrates European parallels to England in every chapter and I have no problems recommending the book in its entirety.
The first extracts in this chapter come from the gospels of Matthew, John and Paul (respectively). The major advantage to this is that it presents each of the major biblical comments upon the Jews side by side. As a result, their manifest differences are not only obvious, but also magnified, and while I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of the bible is not what it could be, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking about these particular entries and find them to be incredibly thought provoking. Document two is a letter which was to have major implications not only for medieval Jews but also for modern historians. It is a letter to the King of France in the 1230s and presents an attack on the Talmud. This was a trope which would be repeated in Papal diatribes across the thirteenth century and, as a consequence, remarkably few medieval copies of the Talmud survive. In the words of James Parkes ‘It is evidence of ruthless efficiency of the medieval Church that among the tens of thousands of medieval manuscripts which fill the libraries of Europe, America and Israel today there is only one complete medieval copy of the Talmud’ (Parkes: 1962, p. 73). At this point in the chapter, I move from informed reader to fascinated reader as my knowledge of what follows is extremely limited, though that does not mean that I do not find the documents extremely engaging. Documents three and four, present extracts relating ‘Inquisitions of the Jews’ and the various definitions of the ‘Jew’. I must confess that I find this second part particularly fascinating, and it’s interesting to contrast these views with English thought. The final three documents relate to conversos, a trial, and a counter-reformation attack on the Talmud. I cannot say anything on these beyond what John Edwards has said, so I won’t even try.
Finally, MUP is currently having a 50% off sale and I would recommend this, and most of (medieval history – I haven’t really read any other books that they do) books for this particular publisher. I would also suggest buying directly from the publisher – I recently purchased an MUP book from a noted online supplier, which shall remain nameless (though it shares a name with a river and a rainforest), which turned out to be a misprint but they refused to exchange it because the book had the specified number of pages – so let that be a warning.
James Parkes, A History of the Jewish People (London, 1962).