Saturday, 30 July 2016

[#42] Rebecca Rist, Popes & Jews: 1095-1291 (Oxford, 2016).

Two pieces of housekeeping before I start:

1.       I’m doing some writing of my own so have less time to devote to writing things for this blog, so if anybody has some spare time, I’d really appreciate it if you’d like to contribute something.

2.       In an attempt to fund my research (linking on with the writing) I am selling some of my books, including some Jewish history books, on Amazon, so if you’re looking for a good read then check that out (I’ll accept reasonable offers):

Academic Entry:

A monograph length study of the Papacy, and individual Popes, and the Jews considering the relationship from a number of different theological and literal perspectives as well as by considering the Jews with other Other groups.

General Entry:

I read a lot, so when I say that this book is unquestionably the best book that I’ve read this year on medieval Jews, that should tell you how good it is. I think part of the reason that I liked this book so much is that I expected to find it nothing short of a trial by ordeal. I’ve read Edward Synan’s classic work on the subject, and much of the work on the Jews and Papacy, including the work of people like Kenneth Stow. As a consequence, I thought that this book would just be a regurgitation of old work in a nice, shiny, Oxford University Press dust jacket. This wasn’t the book that I expected though. On the contrary, it is a riveting read, which contained many revelations. I think the major reason that I liked this book so much is that despite its title, this book breaks with the convention of treating the ‘Popes’ and the ‘Jews’ as two homogeneous groups which assumes that the same attitudes prevailed for multiple centuries. The result is nothing short of a masterpiece which will quickly become THE text upon which studies of Papal-Jewish relations are considered and will form the foundations upon which a new generation of scholars work. Moreover, it is worth noting that such is the magnificence of Rebecca Rist’s book that the model would also work for kings or bishops in a local / national context as well.

                In chapter one, Rist addresses an issue that has long irritated me within the context of the historiography is how Jews perceived the Papacy (and individual Popes). Certainly, historians have focused on how the Jews were perceived by the Papacy but rarely has any thought been expended on that perception in reverse. This is followed by two stunning chapters which explore how the Papacy and individual Popes sought to protect the Jews in theory and reality, and the following chapter considers the impact of the crusades upon that relationship. Perhaps my favourite chapter, though it has stiff competition, is chapter four on the Papacy and Jewish money (though I’m slightly bias given that Jewish financial activities are the focus of my research). This chapter is written with such precision that it makes one want to weep with joy – it not only concerns the literal extractions of Jewish money but also the theoretical implications of the Papacy’s attitude to Jewish money. It is worth noting that this chapter will, however, be challenged in a book coming out next year by Julie Mell called The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender coming out next year with Palgrave Macmillan. This chapter is followed by another chapter which breaks with convention. It is fairly common to see some derivation of the phrase ‘the Papacy exercised authority over the Jews.’, but the problem with that sentence is the full stop – historians rarely think to ask why, and was that consistent? The book finishes with two incredibly astute chapters – first what happened when the Popes came into direct contact with the Jews, as opposed to imposing abstract ideas on them at ecumenical councils – and how the treatment of Jews compared with other Other groups (something which also dominates my thinking on Anglo-Jewry).

Finally, I do like to find something to criticise about a book to comment upon but this book makes that exceedingly difficult so, at the risk of clutching at straws, there is a typographical error in the bibliography where ‘Robin’ Mundill is spelled ‘Robert’. I think that in any academic history book where that is the most significant problem that I can find, then that is a massive endorsement, and I highly recommend this book to all readers. This is not least because it is rare to get a book which can be described as a tour de force, still rarer, however, is it possible to find a book where each individual chapter can also have that title applied to it!

Work Cited:

Edward Synan, The Popes and the Jews in the Middle Ages (New York, 1965).

Kennet Stow, Popes, Church and Jews in the Middle Ages: confrontation and response (Aldershot, 2007).

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