Looking for lost hope in the 1275 Statute of the Jewry

A record of an inexpert surprise.

The 1275 English Statute of the Jewry vainly offered England’s Jews a new opportunity. I quote from the 1810 translation of the law, reprinted with explanatory glosses in Adrienne Williams-Boyarin’s translation of the Siege of Jerusalem, :

And the King granteth unto them that they may gain their living by lawful Merchandise and their Labour; and that they may have Intercourse with Christians, in order to carry on lawful Trade by selling and buying. But that no Christian, for this Cause or any other, shall dwell among them. And the King willeth that they shall not by reason of their Merchandise be put to Lot or Scot [“subject to Municipal Taxation”], nor in Taxes with the Men of the Cities or Boroughs where they abide; for that they are taxable to the King as his Bondmen, and to no other but the King.

Moreover, the King granteth unto them that they may buy Houses and Curtilages [“Lands and buildings attached to houses”], in the Cities and Boroughs where they abide, so that they hold them in chief of the King; saving unto the Lords of the Fee their services due and accustomed. And that they may take and buy Farms or Land for the Term of Ten Years or less….and that they may be able to gain their living in the World, if they have not the Means of Trading, or cannot Labour; and this License to take Lans to farm shall endure to them only for Fifteen Years from this Time forwards. (qtd from Boyarin 177; her glosses)

Given the nastiness of the thirteenth century, I’d hazard that by 1275, England’s Jews were too devastated by repeated confiscations and acts of Judicial murder to thrive, even with these opportunities extended. And certainly what the 1275 Statute offers isn’t any great shakes: Jews are still a class apart, still the king’s special subjects, and therefore certain to continue bear the brunt of any anti-royal resentment and certain to continue to suffer as the king tries to appease his subjects. But in a England in which Jews had been confined to financial jobs (largely, as I understand, as pawnbrokers) and compelled to function as a medium for the King to extract taxes indirectly from his subjects, it’s astonishing to see Jews offered the chance to become farmers, merchants, and perhaps even artisans, to work like England’s Christians: rather, compelled to take the chance, since the law forbids Jews “henceforth…[from] lend[ing] any Thing at Usury” (174). It’s even more fascinating to imagine the conversations that led to the writing of this law (perhaps this work has already been done). Of course, the Statute didn’t take: England expelled its Jews in 1290 — but I imagine an alternate history in which the Christians allowed them to stay on, provided them the means to get started on a new way of life, and to integrate (if the law relaxed somewhat) without conversion. It’s a fantasy of a past that might have been better, and a recognition that if the past could have gone differently, so can our future. Historical inevitability shakes a bit.

omitAnother odd bit of history here: I went looking for the law online. I found a copy of the Statutes of the Realm on archive.org, as expected, although the 1870 rather than 1810 edition. I looked around 1275, where the law should be, and found….nothing. Why? Because the law was repealed in 1846, between 1810 and 1870.  Further information is available here, from the Jewish Encyclopedia:

1846.—9 & 10 Vic., cap. 59. An Act to relieve Her Majesty’s subjects from certain penalties and disabilities with regard to their religious opinions. (Sec. 2. Jews are to be subject to the same laws as Protestant dissenters with regard to their schools, places of religious worship, education, and charitable purposes, and the property held therewith.)

This means, then, that the 1810 Statutes isn’t just a collection of olde tyme laws but rather a living document, with real laws, stretching from what my students (and maybe you) think of as hoariest antiquity into the time, say, of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843).

News to me, anyway.

For more, or if you want to leave me a comment, see this twitter conversation.

Captain Adorno: The Winter Moralia

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a live-action Hollywoodized adaptation of Minima Moralia. You’ll remember MM for its discovery of fascism in every aspect of the postwar liberal state. In running for the bus; in the discovery of Mammoths; in advertisements for toothpaste; in the mania for holiday snapshots; in, more obviously, standing in line and in the “teachers leave that kid alone” violence of the schoolroom:

From the domestic servants and governesses tormenting upper-class children to show them what life is like, by way of the teachers from Westerwald extirpating in them, along with the use of foreign words [elsewhere: “German words of foreign derivation are the Jews of language”], all joy in language, and then the officials and employees leaving them to stand in queues, the non-commissioned officers treading on them, there is a straight line to Gestapo torturers and the bureaucrats of the gas-chambers.

Or in Human Resources or in “networking,” in the business or conference-going sense:

For the so-called man of affairs with interests to pursue, plans to realize, the people he comes into contact with are metamorphosed automatically into friends or enemies….This way of reacting…the pattern of all administration and “personnel policy,” tends of its own accord, and in advance of any education of the political will or commitment to exclusive programs, towards Fascism.

Adorno’s genius is to replace the Jew with the Fascist. For anti-Semites, Jews are the secret contagion infesting the people. The anti-Semite believes that if only the Jews could be extirpated, then the people, capitalism, the culture, etc., would thrive. As a result, he turns up Jewishness wherever he looks, not because it’s “really” there, but because nothing ever works perfectly. If, for the anti-Semite, the fault is Jews, and if fault is actually universal, then Jews are everywhere, and the task of extirpation and paranoia can never stop.

Adorno swaps in the fascist for the anti-semitic fantasy of the Jew, although–by contrast!–with just cause: the fascist praise of masculine hardness, of purity, of submitting to historical (and by extension racial or genetic) necessity, of having a good head for business, all these have real, nasty effects that really do permeate and structure all dominant society. Still, Adorno, for better or worse, replicates the same paranoiac intensity cultivated by the anti-Semite. Frankfurt style cultural critique needs to believe in the secret.

The Captain America sequel (hencefore CATWS), which I watched on the plane a couple days ago on the way back from Iceland, does the same thing. Or, since I was reading Minima Moralia as the plane climbed, that’s how I saw it.

Like most modern Action films, CATWS discovers that the “call is coming from inside the house”: the enemy is within the organization, or perhaps it’s the organization itself. See the Bourne movies, or Mission Impossible, or Iron Man. So, when CATWS’s directors present the film as a modernized version of a 70s political thriller, even going so far as to use Three Days of the Condor’s Robert Redford, CATWS is really just another witness that the 70s political thriller is the modern narrative, but purged of that genre’s pessimism. Because its hero lives, the modern thriller holds out an apocalyptic hope that the inner contagion can be cured, but without any fundamental revision of the system.

Needless to say, this is a liberal rather than revolutionary fantasy.

hail-hydra-bert-and-ernieCATWS’s key difference from other modern thrillers, though, is that its inner villains are Nazis. Specifically, they’re agents of Hydra, an offshoot of the Nazis whose superior technology and sneakiness helped them survive the war, with a bit of help from the US’s real-life “Operation Paperclip.” Unlike the Nazis, Hydra is sly. No Nuremberg rallies for them. No big salute. They’re whisperers, leaning in close across the decades to sneak a “hail Hydra” into their allies’ ears.

Arnim Zola, the brain of Hydra, copied his brain into an analogue computer in the early 70s. When he’s confronted in a secret camp in New Jersey (of course?), stashed (of course) in an abandoned US military training camp, he explains that all world chaos since WWII can be blamed on Hydra. Images flash across the screen, recalling the great psychological screening scene of The Parallax View (for more from me on that, see here). Hydra’s aim? To sow enough chaos that the people will accept fascism. They’re now on the verge of using everyone’s data – bank records, Facebook posts, Instagrams, school records – to identify fascism’s current and future opponents, and then to kill them, quickly, by the millions, to inaugurate a New World Order, now without any possible opponents. Of course, it’s up to Captain America to stop them.

And he does, saving capitalism and the American way by eliminating its secret contagion.  The Black Widow uploads all of SHIELD and Hydra’s secrets to the internet (“it’s trending!” she exults), including her own nasty past as KGB assassin, eliminating the privacy through which the secret fascists operate. We’re now in a world without secrets, or nearly so. In the film’s last few minutes, Nick Fury and the Black Widow sneak back into the extrajudicial shadows, SHIELD’s former agents go to work for the FBI and CIA, and, especially, as we see in the credits teaser, Hydra persists. We’re back at the beginning, then, still in the hope that things might work, still in the liberal realpolitik certainty that contagion continues and that it can be cured only through the deployment of the liberal order’s own autoimmune secret contagion, here called the “super hero.”

The only way out of this loop might be for Captain America to shrug his shoulders, look at the camera, tell us “shit is fucked up and shit,” and, you know, continue saving people, but without any certainty that what he’s doing is right.


On Brennisteinsalda, Landmannalaugar, Iceland

Pause near the top of Brennisteinsalda

The Middle English Disputation between a Christian and a Jew: Materiality, or not.

Eric Corriel at Lumen 2014

Cross posted to In the Middle, where you can comment; or find us on Facebook.

Because the field’s so crowded, I’m reluctant to call the “Disputisoun bytwene a cristenmon and a jew” [Disputation between a Christian and a Jew, hereafter DCJ] one of the stranger Middle English poems; but it is a particularly weird one. Here’s a recent summary:

[DCJ tells] how an English and a Jewish theologian disputed in vain at Paris. The Christian argues the Virgin Birth and the redemption through Christ’s crucifixion and the Jew favors a God who has no son. In order to convince the Christian the Jew suggests he will prove the power of his religion by showing the Christian a vision of Christ on the cross. They travel to the Otherworld where the Christian proves the vision of the crucifixion to be a false one by confronting it with a consecrated host. The Jew admits the errors of his ways and converts to Christianity. At this point the Christian is identified as Sir Walter of Berwick, who was made a penitentiary by the pope.

Among these otherworld encounters are Arthur and his Round Table (!), a dinner with nuns, squires, and the recital of romances, and, finally, what turns out to be a fake crucifixion (a crucifiction?). [For another summary, see my comment to this 2008 blog post]

Luuk Houwen, whose summary I quote above, offers us one of the only articles on the DCJ, and, so far as I know, the only one published this century. I’m convinced by his argument, which is essentially an identification of its genre: the poem’s not a romance, but a religious vision, developed from one of the many exempla designed to prove the sanctity of the Eucharistic Host.

Houwen, however, doesn’t do much with the Jewishness of the disputant, and probably for good reason: Thomas of Cantimpré’s exemplum, a likely source, features a contest between a heretic and a Christian; in another analog, from a Life of St Wolfram, it’s pagans and a not-quite-yet Christian. The DCJ adds Arthur, the Nuns, and the other elements of what we might call a specifically British otherworld. But, apart from calling its figure of unbelief a Jew, it doesn’t explicitly add anything to the tradition that’s clearly about the Christian engagement with Judaism.

Still,some other differences from the analogs demand our attention. There’s the Jew’s similarity to Chaucer’s Clerk of Orleans, in the Franklin’s Tale, who similarly conjures up a chivalric entertainments:

he shewed hym, er he wente to sopeer,
Forestes, parkes ful of wilde deer;
Ther saugh he hertes with hir hornes hye,
The gretteste that evere were seyn with ye.
He saugh of hem an hondred slayn with houndes,
And somme with arwes blede of bittre woundes.
He saugh, whan voyded were thise wilde deer,
Thise fauconers upon a fair ryver,
That with hir haukes han the heron slayn.
tho saugh he knyghtes justyng in a playn;
And after this he dide hym swich plesaunce
That he hym shewed his lady on a daunce,
On which hymself he daunced, as hym thoughte.
And whan this maister that this magyk wroughte
Saugh it was tyme, he clapte his handes two,
And farewel! al oure revel was ago,
And yet remoeved they nevere out of the hous.

That’s certainly a connection worth developing, perhaps having to do with the relationship between preachers, sorcerers, and storytellers; here, though, I’ll just suggest that we put the poem in conversation with the medieval relationship between Jews and materiality, specifically, the way that medieval Christianity tended to insult Jews by associating them with materiality. For Christians, Jews were excessively literal, concerned only with brute facts and not with spiritual truths, stone-hearted, driven by instinct rather than choice, with bodies that were excessively corporeal: stinky, prone to bloody fluxes and–in the Siege of Jerusalem among others–dismemberment (see Steven Kruger’s The Spectral Jew and Suzanne Conklin Akbari’s Idols in the East).One of the goals of the new materialisms is, or should be, to drain the material insult of its force by, at once, recognizing the presumptively human/Christian/whatever as material too and the material as more agential or, at least, less foundational (“the ground of our discussion is” etc). More wobbly on the material side, less free on the human/etc side, with a serious reassessment of what we mean when we use the word “agency.” Things like that.

That’s important, but it’s harder to implement in this case. What’s strange in the DCJ is that the Jew isn’t obviously associated with materiality, but with illusion; it’s the Christian who wields the material object, the consecrated Host, that — like the clap of the Orleans’ Clerk–bursts the illusion apart, returning us to the world of dark, solid matter:

Whon he was schewed to the siht,
He barst þe Buyldynge so briht.
Bote was derk as the niht,
Heore sonne and heore mone.

If we just take the Jew as being made to stand in for the general unbeliever, that’s not a problem, except, of course, for the general fact of its prejudice. But if we take the Jew seriously as a Jew in a Christian poem then we need to work harder.

Host desecration stories with Jewish desecrators, like the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, which Houwen cites, or several exempla in British Library, Royal 18.B.23, feature a kind of profane belief in the material sanctity of the Host. The Jews obtain a Host, by theft or purchase or deception, and then mistreat it until the Host reveals its truth. A sample, since BL Royal 18.B.23 isn’t online. A Jew bets a Christian 20 pounds that his dog would eat a consecrated Host. The Christian accepts the bet, and then, by pretending to be sick, tricks a priest into slipping him the goods. When he extracts the uneaten Host from under his tongue and delivers it to the Jew, here’s what happens:

Þan [the Jew] toke þe Hoste, þat was in þe purs, and cast it a-fore þe dogge. And a-noon þe dogge fled and wold haue renne owte of þe hous. Þan þe Iewe cached hym a3eyn and chereshed hym, and euermore he drewe a-bake. Þan þe Iewe saw þat he wold not for no cherishynge take itt, þan he bette hym. And anone þe dogge fell downe on all iiij knees and did as he couthe reuerence to þe Sacramente. Þan þe Iewe was wode wrouthe and toke a staffe and bette þe dogge, and toke þe dogge in is armes and put hym þer-to. And þe dogge felte þat he wold haue mad hym to haue eten itt. And sothely he stirte vp to is þrote and voried hym.

Þan anoon þe Cristen man ranne to þe preeste þe wiche þat houseled hym, and told hym how it was and of þe dogge, suche an vnresonable beeste, how þat he did is dewe reuerence to Goddes bodie in þe forme of brede.

So be þis meracle þou may be stered to beleue þer-on in þat, þat an vnresonable beeste do dud, þat neuer had techynge of holychurche. (130)

This isn’t at all what happens in DCJ. Its Jew doesn’t have any particular belief either way in the Host. He doesn’t want to do things to it to prove that it’s mere material. He’s even, before its reveal, indifferent to it. Rather — and this proposal is probably where I’ll open discussion the next time I teach it — the Jew in the DCJ champions visible immateriality, and the Christian invisible materiality. The DCJ isn’t so much a dispute between materiality and its other (whether this is spirit, choice, free interpretation, immortal stability, &c) as it is between the falseness of visible things and the true materiality of invisible things. On the other side of (false) vision, we haven’t arrived exactly at the realm of spirit, but at the one, true materiality of the Real Presence.

The trick, which I’ll leave to my students, and to you, is to make this frankly rather dull reading more interesting.

[for more on/in the Vernon Manuscript, see here; and for a full TOC, here]

Race and the Medieval Language of Class

Cross posted to In the Middle. If you want to comment, do so over there, or comment at fb if you want more instant gratification.

Among the topics of David Nirenberg‘s Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today (U of Chicago, 2014) is the development of ideas–or, perhaps better, practices–of race and racism in 14th and especially 15th-century Iberia. He writes:

The period after 1449 saw an explosion of treatises that drew upon sciences as diverse as medicine, metallurgy, animal breeding, etcetera, in order to provide Israel with a natural history capable of explaining why the attributes of its children were unchangeable by God (via baptism) or king (through ennoblement). Within a generation or two, the Iberian body politic had produced a thick hedge of inquisition and genealogy in order to protect itself from penetration by the “Jewish race” and its cultural attributes. (139)

Nirenberg argues that the forced mass conversion of Jews in the late fourteenth century lead to this explosion of racism, as this influx of Jewish converts “raised, for the first time, systemic doubt about who was a Christian and who was a Jew” (149). Iberian Christians, who had defined themselves for centuries as “not Jewish,” suddenly lost a key support to their identities; but not only Christians (182, for example). During this panicked period, Nirenberg finds a host of writers in this period, both Christian and Jewish, worrying over this issue, writing passages like the following:

if a person is of pure blood and has a noble lineage, he will give birth to a son like himself, and he who is ugly and stained [of blood?] will give birth to a son who is similar to him, for gold will give birth to gold and silver will give birth to silver and copper to copper, and if you find some rare instances that from lesser people sprang out greater ones, nevertheless in most cases what I have said is correct, and as you know, a science is not built on exceptions. (280 n56)

That’s Rabbi Shem Tov ben Joseph ibn Shem Tov in the 1480s, here sounding identical to the Christian Alfonso Martínez de Toledo in 1438, certain that “the son of an ass must bray” (Nirenberg’s paraphrase, 138). In this period, Christians and Jews both wrote in defense of a fundamental belief in natural hierarchies. They both worried about the flux of Christian and Jewish identities. And they both sought to find some new way to assure themselves of some fundamental difference in identity. That said, whatever these similarities, the most weaponized use of these beliefs, of course, was by self-identified Christians against Jews and those they identified as Jews.

_MG_3494 copy cropped for page smaller


Now, Nirenberg sees this naturalized language of hierarchy as a key moment in the emergence of modern racism. I’m convinced by his data, but, having often taught chivalric literature and, for that matter, Chaucer, I hear in this naturalization not so much race as class.

So far as I can determine, that word, in its meaning as “social class,” appears not once in Neighboring Faiths. Neither do the medieval variants I might expect, for example, “order” or “ordo.” I’m not saying this to wish Nirenberg had written another book, nor to grouse at the one he did write: his book is enormously important and will deserve every accolade it receives. Still I’ll suggest here a point Nirenberg either ignored or, more likely, chose not to discuss: that in Iberia in the 1430s, the old language of medieval class was ported over to describe or even establish a fundamental and ineradicable Christian/Jewish difference. That is, the long history of medieval naturalized class provides one–not all, but one–of the foundations of modern racism.

The key point: some of the key ideas of race and racism–that social difference is bodily, fixed, hierarchical, and heritable–appear in this old language of class.

This idea, what my tweet cheekily dubs “brilliant,” may have already appeared in print elsewhere. It may even have appeared brilliantly in print already. I can’t know for sure, as I’m only now getting up to speed on the medieval history of race, racism, and ethnicity, or whatever you think it should be called; but I don’t think this point shows up in the now classic Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies special issue on “Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages.” It might show up in Cord Whitaker’s upcoming special issue of postmedieval, “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages.” I haven’t yet looked at The Origins of Racism in the West (Cambridge UP, 2009; paperback (!) 2013), on its way to me right now. It might well have appeared in some form in Jeffrey Cohen’s many pieces about race (for example, here, here, and here). It’s probably appeared in some form in some of the vast number of works on the history of race and racism that I haven’t read it. I’m sure of it. All this is to say that I don’t expect I’m being original here, but I do believe–I hope more modestly–that I’m offering Nirenberg or his readers a helpful supplement.

Some examples follow:

  • Yvain‘s Wild Herdsman, this big forest peasant, who “resambloit mor” (286; resembled a Moor), so evoking the animalistic Moors of chivalric narrative, such as those of the Chanson de Roland: those of Ociant, who “braient e henissent” (bray and whinny; 3526); those of Arguille, who “si cume chen i glatissent” (yelp like dogs; 3527); and those of Micenes, who are “seient ensement cume porc” (hairy just like pigs; 3523).
  • The political prophecy of John Ergome or Erghome, which records a belief that Edward II’s inept reign can be blamed on his true peasant background, for, as the story goes, when a pig mauled Edward in his cradle, his nurse swapped out the royal infant for the unmauled son of an auriga (a groom or swineherd), who, as a “false prince,” naturally governed the realm poorly (in fact, in the 1360s, Peter the Cruel‘s rivals spread the rumor that he was also such a “cuckoo” (Nirenberg 101), albeit with a Jewish rather than peasant substitution).
  • The chivalric romance Octavian, whose “recurring fascination with capital, class mutability, and the possibility of absolute value” (63) Jeffrey writes about in Medieval Identity Machines. In Octavian, a lost, chivalric child, raised by merchants and rechristened Florent (like a modern kid aspirationally named ‘Dollar’), recurrently frustrates his parents by showing his true, chivalric value, for example, by trading a couple oxen for a falcon, and by haggling a horse trader up to ensure he pays full price for a glorious, white steed.
  • And, finally, of course, there’s Chaucer’s Arcite (like Boccaccio’s Arcita), who, in the Knight’s Tale, returns from his Theban exile to Athens and rises “naturally” from his disguise as a lowly manual laborer to end up as Theseus’s squire.
  • Further afield, there’s the Old Norse Rígsthula, whose account of the origins of slaves, farmers (Carls!), and warrior earls, may be one of the earlier versions of these ideas of naturalized class (written down c. 1350, it shows Irish influence, as ríg comes from the Old Irish word for “king”; Andy Orchard 337).

By looking at this language of naturalized class as a root of modern racism we help free our investigations from duplicating, more or less accidentally, modern racism’s tendency to naturalize race. To be sure, skin color and “national” origin–the twin pillars of modern racial thinking–were often marked and linked by medieval thinkers; for example, they took from the ancients the notion that the sun in the warmer regions “burnt” the skin, making it darker. They sometimes even hierarchized this belief, by arguing that this same heat enervated those unfortunate enough to live in whatever part of the globe the medievals thought especially warm (for changing climatic notions, see Suzanne Conklin’s Akbari’s Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450, praised by Jeffrey here).

But if we want to get get a sense of why racial thinking is so often hierarchized, we might look at the old medieval language of naturalized class. By no means am I arguing that class trumps race. Rather, I’m attempting to find a medieval language of difference that is far more resistant to flux and conversion than what may be the usual culprits in attempts to find the roots of racism, namely, medieval climatic theory or conceptions of religious difference. Medieval climatic theory sometimes admitted that people who lived in one climate would change if they moved to another; medieval Christian belief in conversion generally (but not always) thought that converts to Christianity became true Christians.

Medieval defenses of social class, by contrast, argued that class was fixed, lodged in the body, and heritable. We might have the roots of racism right here. And if we look here, we’ll find why racism is so often powered by anti-animal humanist beliefs. We’ll find too that racial thinking is culture all the way down, regardless of its “biological,” genealogical pretensions, because none of us now, I hope, believe that class is anything but a social position. And, especially, by looking at this language of naturalized class, we’ll mark how racial thinking is used to naturalize nasty hierarchical differences within already existing human groups, a point I’m cribbing from one of Barbara Jeanne Fields’ classic articles.  If we start with this medieval language of naturalized class, we might better realize how the language of race is overwhelmingly not about the people over there, but about the people right here and social injustices right here rather than some wholly mythological history of significant difference.

F for Fake

F is For Failure is this post’s preferred title, but it’s already been taken, a mere couple hundred times. It’s also unfair. The film succeeds, like this:

As Finnegans Wake was for Joyce, F for Fake was for Welles a playful repository of public history intertwined with private in-jokes as well as duplicitous meanings, an elaborate blend of sense and nonsense that carries us along regardless of what’s actually being said. For someone whose public and private identities became so separate that they wound up operating routinely in separate households and sometimes on separate continents, exposure and concealment sometimes figured as reverse sides of the same coin, and Welles’s desire to hide inside his own text here becomes a special kind of narcissism.

It succeeds like this, which is to say, it succeeds in its own way, but it might have been something far more subversive. The editorial playfulness, the reflections on authenticity and fraudulence, the market, surveillance and sex, and the entanglement of all these in the hidden figure of capital (played here by Howard Hughes), all that couldn’t have been more prescient of postmodernism. All of what I remember about Mark Leyner is here, in this film.

But that 1990s postmodernism is done with, and good riddance. Were someone to make this film, now, I’d like F for Fake to be a far more serious enemy of culture. Let my filmmakers clear out the girl-watching opening and the whole invented sequence at the end with Picasso–both the invention of Oja Kodar (herself presciently engaged in postmodern feminism)–and be interested in the right subject. Let it remember that our Hungarian art forger,  Elmyr de Hory (born Elemér Albert Hoffmann), was gay and Jewish, definitely imprisoned for both by the Nazis, and that his parents may or may not have survived the Holocaust. And, making his way through America and Europe, imprisoned for a time in Franco’s Spain, de Hory gets by, his forged “new” paintings by the great prewar European artists–Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani–finding their way into collections worldwide.

J for Gay.

The believer in authenticity will always be victimized by those who just don’t care. And who better to be the enemy of authenticity than a gay European Jew, the last lover (maybe?) of a great white Minnesotan giant with the improbable name of Mark Forgy? Who would make a better enemy to Europe’s dream of itself, to its Great Named Men of Modernism, to its Iberian dream of Gothic Purity, to its dream of Christian Virility, who better than this fraud out of Central Europe? Who better than this true fraud who never signed his forgeries?

T for Troll.

All this is may be getting us back into the territory of Lee Edelman: good. The Nazis thought Jews were an infestation, a drain on the nation and its masculine order, the enemies of its authenticity and future. And along comes de Hory, it almost seems, to willingly step into that role, but, and this is of paramount importance, to use that charge against them. If we read de Hory correctly, we have to know, of course, that there’s no there there, that the Nazi dream of lost authenticity is, like any dream of authenticity, a fraud.

But this doesn’t get us back to postmodernism, because there is another authenticity, practiced by de Hory, who’s so much better than a Troll.

F for Fan.

de Hory’s perfect imitation of European Culture witnesses to his perfect knowledge, acquired and practiced not through credentials, not through “natural” right, not through knowing the right people or being the right people, but through style and love. This is the authenticity not of the name but of the fan, the only authenticity that matters, and the enemy, in its pleasure, its serious delight, of all “natural” pretensions to heritage.

For more from me on fandom, see here.

Sovereignty, Biopolitics, the Forest, and the King’s Jews: Sketch for a Research Program

Tony Lewis from Whitney Biennial


What the title says. Over the past couple days, I’ve been reading David Nirenberg’s forthcoming Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, whose fourth chapter makes an old point with atypical neatness:

Medieval kings had expanded their sovereignty (in part) by assigning the Jews to a status outside normative law and claiming exceptional power to decide their fate. Sovereign power was thus (in part) performed through the protection of those who had denied God’s sovereignty, his ‘enemies’ and ‘killers.’

Nirenberg argues that kings would later demonstrate their sovereign power not by protecting but by murdering and expelling Jews: the sovereign exception, as we know, can go both ways, towards “mercy” or towards the full, arbitrary exercise of the Law, nothing at its core but the king’s whimsy. If not in practice, at least in sovereign fantasy.

Nirenberg brilliantly connects this medieval sovereignty to famous passages in Schmitt and Benjamin (“Sovereign is he who decides the exception” and “The Prince, upon whom the decision over the exception rests, discovers in the best of situations that a decision is impossible for him”) and from thence to the “miracle” in Schmitt and Benjamin, and, as expected, to the redemptive rereading of the political miracle in Agamben, Žižek, and Santner. Almost needless to say, Nirenberg isn’t on board with the miracle in any form, neither in Schmitt’s sovereign version nor the post-Sovereign versions of B, A, Ž, and S.

More about that much later (like, later this year). What strikes me now is the relation of Nirenberg’s point to one I’m making in an article, “Biopolitics in the Forest,” that will appear in Randy Schiff and Joey Taylor’s Politics of Ecology anthology. You’ve had the chance, often, to see preliminary bits: here, here, here, and here (and even this post from 2006). The article’s key argument is that the sovereign exception and biopolitics each sprang up simultaneously in the 12th-century English forest. Biopolitics is not a paradigmatic modern form of governmentality that follows long after sovereignity, but rather coincides with sovereign claims; also coincident with those claims is the way that bodies “naturally” resist biopolitics, a point I’m developing from Cary Wolfe. As Wolfe argues, and me with him, agency and objecthood, the problem of the possibility of “conscious resistance,” and other humanist, rationalist concerns start to fall away once we start to think about bodily forces in biopolitics. Thinking like that makes way for thinking about animals in the political community, Wolfe’s main point, but it also makes room for thinking more fluidly about dominated humans. Like, for example, the Jews of thirteenth-century England.

Here’s how it goes in the article itself:

Husbandry is the scandalous foundation of a biopolitical analysis that has tended to be committed, more or less explicitly, to defending human particularity by trying to keep humans from being treated “like animals.” Foucault observes that “Unlike discipline, which is addressed to bodies, the new nondisciplinary power [of biopolitics] is applied not to man-as-body but to the living man, to man-as-living-being; ultimately, if you like, to man-as-species” and that in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we witness the “development of a medicine whose main function will not be public hygiene, with institutions to coordinate medical care, centralize power, and normalize knowledge.” Esposito writes that in modern biopolitics “life enters into power relations not only on the side of its critical thresholds or its pathological exceptions, but in all its extension, articulation, and duration,” and calls this a “new rationality centered on the question of life.” The obvious modernist and humanist biases of these observations ought to be contested. When Foucault states that “man is to population what the subject of right was to the sovereign,” or Esposito explains that biopolitics aims not only at “obedience but also at the welfare of the governed,” their analysis might have gone even further had they said that biopolitics treats humans like livestock, or, more particularly, like the sovereign’s livestock, which is to say, like venison.

I stand by that argument. But Nirenberg reminds me of something that I missed, which is another 12th/13th-century English (for example) development of both sovereignty and biopolitics. The king called the Jews his Jews, and (so?) they were the victims when the King’s subjects rebelled (for example, in the 1260s, against Henry III, and also especially in York in 1190, committed when Richard I was–as was his habit–overseas). Also note this antisemitic 13th-century cartoon, where Isaac of Norwich is represented wearing Henry III’s crown (and read the post itself, while avoiding its comments). That’s sovereignty, and a set of standard resistances to sovereignty.1

But there’s also biopolitics. Strikingly, a lot of regulation about the Jews in England, first from the church and then from the crown, tries to manage what might be called biological relations between Christians and Jews. The 1219 statutes of William of Blois, Bishop of Worchester, for example, forbid Christians from serving Jews as nurses (see also here). Other statutes, echoing Lateran IV.68, explain that Jews should wear a badge to prevent sexual mixing between Christians and Jews [the same statutes, better edited here, 121, have “quoniam in partibus istis sic inter christianos et iudeos confusio inolevit ut fere nulla differentia discernatur, propter quod nonunquam continigit quod christiani iudeis mulieribus commiscentur”]. That’s the church. But then January 1253 Statute of the Jews gives a secular reaffirmation of these and other points. In regards to the Jews, English sovereignty and biopower had now combined.2

Putting aside the question of whether the conciliar decrees were enforced, and the related point of whether the laws were simply mechanical repetitions of older laws (like these or these), we might observe that the laws themselves witness to the fact that bodies are a place for sovereignty to expand its area of concern. Bodies must be managed, not just by violence, but also by nurturing, to maintain the health of populations and to prevent contagion. Bland points like these of course take on a sinister aspect when we remember that we’re talking about relations between a dominant Christian majority and a dependent Jewish minority. We know that concern for the health of the body politic or the corpus christianorum could just as well be murderous to those marked as not belonging. It might even turn against members of the community, accused, for example, of “judaizing.” That’s the model of biopolitics as the extension of sovereignty, and it’s what we find especially in Roberto Esposito.

Simple points like these will reshape my considerations of sovereignty and biopolitics in 12th and 13th-century England. The baronial killing of Jews is analogous, mutatis mutandis (!), to poaching the king’s deer: that’s resistance to sovereignty. The insistence that Christians not eat food rejected by Jews, and that Jews not nurse Christian children and vice versa may be analogous to the necessity of royal management of cervid populations in hunting preserves. That’s biopolitics.

And, as with the cervids, we’ll probably find that bodies, even under sovereign control, act independently. Here’s Cary Wolfe, from Before the Law:

the power of Foucault’s analysis is to demonsrate just how unstable and mobile the lines are between political subject and political object–indeed to demonstrate how that entire vocabulary must give way to a new, more nuanced reconceptualization of political effectivity. And equally important is that Foucault’s introduction of “life into history”–of the body in the broadest sense of the political equation–does not lead directly and always already to an abjection for which the most predictable tropes of animalization become the vehicle.

Bodies will do what they have to do. This isn’t a matter of agency, nor a matter of complete exposure, nor a matter simply of suffering or of being “reduced” to animal, bare life. This isn’t the lachrymose biopolitics of Agamben and Esposito, whose only escape is some kind of messianic break. Rather, this is an array of forces, in which subjects do suffer but in which they also inevitably resist, regardless of whether they want to or not.

We know Jews and Christians mixed in medieval England (for example). They probably did eat and drink together from time to time, again, just because a body, infant or adult, has to eat. Since that bodily need can’t be stopped, since it will find its own solutions, independent of biopolitical control, things will inevitably go awry. Note this: thirteenth-century English laws that compelled Christians to refuse meat that the Jews had themselves rejected ended up requiring Christians, in effect, to keep kosher, and this during some of the worst persecutions of Jews in England’s history. The imperative, then, is to follow up on points like these to find moments where bodily control in an antisemitic biopolitical regime behaved, well, oddly, to trouble our sedimented, humanist notions of agency, political control, and “active” rebellion.

One last irony, as a repulsive epilogue: the ritual murder charge — dating from the mid 12th century and probably originating with an English monk — often accused Jews of anthropophagy. The Jews, supposed to want to kidnap and torment Christian children to enact their contempt for Christ, were often supposed to want to eat them too. See especially the “Adam of Bristol” story, where Samuel, the murder’s chief architect, promises, “I will rotate him” so that “this body of the God of the Christians will be roasted by the fire just like a fat chicken” [“ego regirabo”; “assabitur corpus dei christianorum, iuxta ignem sicut gallina crassa”].3

Now, of course, this charge could not be a more obvious example of psychoanalytic projection, since the Christians were the “real” anthropophages; they, not the Jews, ate their god.

And sometimes Christians ate their own martyrs. In the late eighteenth century, Dean Kaye and Sir Joseph Banks opened the tomb of young Hugh of Lincoln, murdered by Jews, as the (false!) story goes, stuffed in a well, and then retrieved to be buried as a martyr. Inside the tomb, they found a child’s body wrapped “in a leaden cere cloth, in a kind of pickle (which Sir Joseph is said to have tasted), but whether so perfect as to show the marks of crucifixion we are not told.”

Which Sir Joseph is said to have tasted. Bodies go awry.

Meanwhile, during the period of Hugh’s supposed murder, the English Christians were, in fact, dumping the bodies of Jews, including children, in wells, no doubt poisoning their own drinking water. And so the rebellion against sovereignty leads us, also, to biopolitical failure.

1 Robert C. Stacey “Anti-Semitism and the Medieval English State,” in J. R. Maddicott and D. M. Palliser, eds, The Medieval State: Essays Presented to James Campbell (London, 2000): 171-72 [163-77]

2 John Edwards, “The Church and the Jews in Medieval England,” in The Jews in Medieval Britain, ed. Patricia Skinner (Boydell & Brewer, 2003), 91 [85-96]; See also J. A. Watt, “The English Episcopate, the State and the Jews: the Evidence of the Thirteenth-Century Conciliar Decrees,” in Thirteenth Century England II. ed. P. R. Coss and S. D. Lloyd. Proceedings of the Newcastle Upon Tyne Conference 1987. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell P, 1988, 137-147

3 Christoph Cluse, “‘Fabula Ineptissima’: Die Ritualmordlegende um Adam von Bristol nach der Handschrift London, British Library, Harley 957” Aschkenas 5 (1995): 293-330

Withdrawing the Grain


When I teach the Prioress’s Tale, as I did twice last semester, I have typically liked asking the students “who kills the Little Clergeon?” Most give the obvious answer, what we might as well call the correct one: “the Jews,” or “a Jewish professional murderer,” while others, when sufficiently prodded, blame the monk who plucks the grain from under the little boy’s tongue.

Who’s the murderer, then? And who makes a martyr? The boy miraculously keeps singing, despite being nearly decapitated, but only until he tells the monk where to find the kill switch. Having killed, the monk goes catatonic, falling as if bound to the floor. And now we in the classroom have something else to talk about. We can keep on about the Antisemitism of the Prioress, or Chaucer, or medieval Christian Culture. But now we can also talk about how stories of martyrs demand a victim, and how the love of sacrifice needs its deaths. And so on.

Now, though, I’m newly sympathetic to the monk. As a reminder, here’s the conversation, beginning with the undead boy (a translation into Modern English here if you need it):

“Wherefore [because of that grain] I synge, and synge moot certeyn,

In honour of that blisful Mayden free

Til fro my tonge of taken is the greyn;

And after that thus seyde she to me:

‘My litel child, now wol I fecche thee,

Whan that the greyn is fro thy tonge ytake.

Be nat agast; I wol thee nat forsake.'”

This hooly monk, this abbot, hym meene I

His tonge out caughte, and took awey the greyn,

And he yaf up the goost ful softely.

And whan this abbot hadde this wonder seyn,

His salte teeries trikled doun as reyn,

And gruf he fil al plat upon the grounde,

And stille he lay as he had been ybounde.

The monk’s newly captured my sympathy, now, because I’ve made a similar decision, twice, with both of my parents. I was close to my mother (died in 2001) and not so close to my father (died early November, this year), but in both cases I was given and took the monk’s choice.

That’s far from unique. Most Americans die in hospitals now, many of them only through some decision to let them be allowed to die. In both cases, my parents were unconscious when they finally died: my mother in a coma, my father on morphine. Any decision was made with what was, at best, their literally tacit approval. But it was a decision, made by us more than by them. They did not die on their own.

My father consulted with his children when we decided to withdraw care for my mother (meanwhile, in a cruelty more than a little reminiscent of the Prioress’s Tale, I was told that we were “tying God’s hands” by letting my mother die). My father’s own father suffered a terrible stroke a year before he finally died, but was dragged back into life, not happily. Sometime in his last year, he told my father, “you should have let me die.” Probably with that in mind, but also all too aware of his own suffering, my father made it clear enough that he would be willing to be allowed to go when things got bad enough. We knew how to end things, and we suspected, at least, that they wanted things to end. But we could have kept it all going if we wanted to keep it going. The decision finally had to be ours, not theirs.

It’s odd and maybe stupid to find my own experience in Chaucer’s ugliest tale. It’s not as though either of my parents died as a martyr to Antisemitism. But having twice been a parricide, of a sort, like so many others, as so many of us are likely to be, I can’t help but feel with the monk, suffering a choice imposed on me, faced with a suffering that is my duty and curse to end, in pity. In pity, but also  “ybounde” to the fact of a death that will never come, and never stop, until we too must withdraw the grain.