The Jewish Christian Middle Ages


Sometime in the early 80s, Barney Frank was suffering

during one of those interminable end-of-year round-the-clock sessions when junior Members were often dragooned into presiding in the wee hours. During a tedious speech by Republican Rep. Marjorie Holt on school prayer, Holt referred to America as “a Christian nation.” Frank interrupted her to observe: “If this is a Christian nation, why does some poor Jew have to get up in the middle of the night to preside over the House of Representatives?”

In his chapter on Derrida in The Premodern Condition, Bruce Holsinger describes at length the “interventionist medievalism” (120) of the Radical Orthodoxy group, in particular, Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. As Holsinger explains, Pickstock “aims at a wholesale dismantling of Derrida’s critique of Western logocentrism through a ‘recasting of the premodern’ against what she sees as its pernicious recruitment by deconstruction” (121). After Writing presents a pretty easy target for a medievalist, at least so far as Holsinger summarizes it. This is despite Pickstock’s erudition in Western philosophical traditions, in fact despite her insistence that the deconstructive critique of language inadequately accounts for the bodily presence necessary to produce language (a point I know I find attractive, even as I find the implied prediscursive body-as-presence argument suspicious). For Holsinger, Pickstock’s work presents an easy target because she mourns the loss of the “liturgical civilization [that] existed in its purest form in the Western Middle Ages and achieved its most coherent expression as the liturgy of the Roman Rite” (125) and because she longs for something she calls “genuine liturgy” (qtd 127) to restore “real language” (qtd 127). Far from being a medieval artifact, the ideal(ized) liturgy from which Pickstock quotes dates from the Counter-Reformation, a period of intense religious longing, nostalgia, and reaction against Protestantism, and now, I suppose, recuperated for much the same purposes to inveigh against a secular “nihilistic” philosophy that suspects all promises of presence.

What leapt out at me, I suspect wholly uncharitably, was the Jewishness of two of Pickstock’s bêtes noires, Lévinas and Derrida. Keeping this in mind renders Pickstock’s “commitment to credal Christianity…to deploy this recovered vision systematically to criticise modern society” (qtd 119) a bit pernicious, at least to my eyes, right now. Heavy charges, but I suspect the deployment of “medieval Christianity” to critique a modern society that, in contradistinction to most late medieval dominant societies, is not systematically trying to extirpate or convert Jews. This is not to say that a secular state is necessarily better at preventing systematic extirpation. Lord knows it isn’t. But neither anti-Judaism nor anti-Semitism are necessary features of post-religious states, which cannot be said for medieval Christianity.

The problem here is in part one of imagining the Middle Ages by default as a Christian Middle Ages, of forgetting, for example, that Hebrew numbered among the languages of textual production in twelfth- and thirteenth-century England, and of forgetting peculiar moments like the one I’m about to describe. Medieval Christians (clumsy placeholder) preferred Jews to be abject, as Jewish misery was a sign of Christianity’s triumph. Keep that in mind when you read this:

In this year [1273], eight days before the Feast of Saint John the Baptist [24 June], because the Mayor was then absent on his journey to the King in the parts beyond the sea, the Sheriffs, together with certain discreet men of the City, appeared before the Council of his lordship the King at Westminster; whereupon, the members of the Council, before certain Jews there present, questioned them, thus saying–‘It is notorious that the Jews kill with their own hands all beasts and fowls, whose flesh they eat. But some beasts they consider of their law, and some not; the flesh of those which are of their law they eat, and not the flesh of others. What then do the Jews do with the flesh of those which are not of their law? Is it lawful for the Christians to buy and eat it?’ To which answer was made by the citizens, that if any Christian should buy any such flesh of a Jew, he would be immediately expelled; and that if he should be convicted thereof by the Sheriffs of the City or by any other person, he would lose such flesh, and it would be given to the lepers, or to the dogs, to eat; in addition to which, he would be heavily amerced by the Sheriffs.–‘But if it seems to you that this punishment is too light a one, let your discreetness make provision that such Christians shall be visited with a more severe punishment.’ Whereupon, the members of the King’s Council said–‘We will not have such persons visited with any more severe punishment, without his lordship the King; seeing that this matter concerns the Jews, who belong to his lordship the King. But we do strictly command you, in virtue of the fealty in which you are bound unto his lordship the King, that you cause this custom throughout the City rigidly to be observed.’ (Henry Thomas Riley, trans. Chronicles of the Mayor and Sheriffs of London, A.D. 1188-1274 and The French Chronicle of London, A.D. 1259-1343. London: Tübner and Co., 1863, 176-7)

Since I can’t imagine that they killed pigs, certainly the Jews did not kill “all beasts and fowls.” If we may judge by similar laws on the Continent, what the law references are the clean beasts judged by the Jews to be unsuitable because of some taint discovered during slaughter. The Jews would sell these carcasses (cows and sheep presumably) or portions of carcasses to Christians, whose religious alimentary qualms tended to be focused more around pleasure than around pollution. Everyone was happy: the Jews didn’t have to throw away useless meat, and savvy Christians bypassed their “own” butchers to get meat at a discount. “Discreet men of the City” (no doubt Christian butchers who wanted to secure a monopoly) aimed to put a stop to this practice. Whatever the mercenary reasons were, the public logic likely ran as follows: because Jews must be thought abject, Christians cannot be seen to eat something that the Jews had rejected as repulsive. It’d be like eating something a leper had spurned! Yet in their rejection, Christians are also rejecting what the Jews reject. This is what fascinates me, and what trips up Pickstock’s Middle Ages and the “Christian” Middle Ages more generally. Christians end up, after a fashion, keeping kosher, and doing so amidst some of the worst persecutions of Jews in England’s history. I need hardly say it, but what marvelous irony!

(image above: “The Mikveh, or ritual bath dug up on Milk Street close to St Paul’s Cathedral. Courtesy of the Museum of London Archeology Service,” from here. Also see JJC’s post on Jewish Architecture in England and, below, on the second-oldest synagogue in the Western World.)


It’s more than a master/slave dialectic. There seems to be a way that 13th-century English persecutions ended up Judaizing the persecutors and Christianizing the victims. There’s more where that came from, when I can get to it. There are several things I’d like to exploit further in this line for this future project:

a) the peculiar form the badge took in England. It strikes me that compelling Jews to wear a cloth representation of the Tablets of the Law would further hybridize Christians and Jews if the Tablets represented the Decalogue in the 13th century as they do now;

b) the Cursor Mundi, which moves the distinctively “Jewish” laws to God’s words to Noah after the Flood while editing its account of the Mosaic Law so it includes only those laws followed by Christians. Since the Noachide laws are the laws for everyone and the Mosaic laws are, for the most part, the laws for the Jews, there’s something peculiar going on here;

c) Richard of Devizes’ fascinating Chronicle. By troping the pogroms of 1189-90 as a “Holocaust” (a rare word in medieval Latin so far as I can tell), there’s a sense in which Christians have become creatures of the Law. Also, by eating (and “expelling”) Jews, Christians appear every bit as anthropophagous as the Jews of Lincoln would be in Richard’s peculiar ritual murder story;

d) following on that, and looking ahead to several 14th-century texts, there’s the popularity of the apocryphal story of the young Jesus turning Jewish children into pigs. Jews don’t eat pigs because they’re not anthropophagous (at least, not against their own; but see Adam of Bristol, etc.), whereas Christians, who want to feel themselves, and especially their children, threatened by Jews, enthusiastically consume animals they consider to be descended from Jewish children (JJC saw a version of this argument in Leeds);

e) compelling Jews to follow Christian holidays and fast days (Jews should not be seen eating meat on Fridays and they should exhibit solemnity during Christian processions).


Butler, Edelman, Sedgwick, Goldberg are all Jews who argue for a messianic openness to an unanticipatable or unforegraspable future (117). (Michael O’Rourke)

Benjamin too, right?

That’s a lovely, hopeful piece from O’Rourke, a nice counterpart to this, which is a better representative of how I normally think. I do wonder, however, about identifying certain textual and/or ethical approaches as particularly Jewish. I can see the value of doing this–discovering that “Western” philosophy derives from a group often thought irredeemably non-Western, placeless, discovering that something so present, so oriented to the future, derives from a group that for so long was thought anachronism incarnate–but I want to resist compartmentalizing any approach along ethnic/cultural lines (the “Gallic” mindset that led to continental philosophy vs. the clarity of mind that characterizes English philosophy).


The origins of this post, by the way, are in my efforts to designate what it is I study. It’s usual to see book titles in our field end with “…in medieval literature” or “…in the Middle Ages” or “…in medieval Europe.” But given the content of these books, there’s clearly a silent “Christian” that perhaps should be expressed, since, after all, they’ve often left out–we might even say “erased”–Jews (and, if we get out of Northern Europe, Muslims too perhaps). On the one hand, I number among those scholars who study the “Christian” middle Ages. I’m not considering Jewish approaches to animals in the Middle Ages at all, not yet, and even when I do turn my attention to this, I’ll be hampered by the fact that I don’t read Hebrew. On the other hand, I don’t want to reify Christian Europe as separate from non-Christian Europe, which is what I’d do if I wanted to acknowledge the Christian content of my study by saying I do “the Christian Middle Ages.” There’s intermingling (see above). With all that in mind, how do I designate my field of study? More to come on this later perhaps.

But the thing to keep in mind that however liminal Jews are to dominant cultures in the Middle Ages, they’re still centrally present (even if only “spectrally,” see the Kruger JJC cites above) because Christians rely upon their difference from Jews in order to define themselves as Christian. They’re the abjected other, and so necessarily present (master/slave dynamic). But it’s more complicated than that, since Xians and Jews get so mixed up in each other’s business–including each other’s intellectual business (see Jewish uses of non-Jewish literary genres, like the Jewish Alexander romance; note that the Xian exegetical explosion of the 12th century would have been impossible without conversations with rabbis)–that there are ways in which each group becomes indistinguishable on just the grounds that they imagine themselves most different. … I’d be careful, though, with identifying anything as the bastardized remnants of pre-Christian paganisms: I tend to see a lot of medieval Christianities as pretty shockingly unChristian from a modern perspective. In other words, it’s a great deal more expansive than we often give it credit for: e.g., the pilgrim badges in the shape of genitalia. – See more at: