Barbarians and Jews

Jews and Judaism in the Early Medieval West

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Yitzhak Hen, Thomas F.X. Noble
  • Turnhot, Belgium: 
    Brepols Publishers
    , December
     350 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his brief, yet incisive, introduction to this volume of essays, Yitzhak Hen explains how the positivist approach of Bernhard Blumenkrantz (1913-1989) in his classic book Juifs et chrétiens dans le monde occidental, 430-1096 (Peeters, 1960) and the generation of scholars influenced by it has resulted in the neglect of the study of Jewish history in the early medieval west. To be fair, there were relatively few Jewish communities in the post-Roman kingdoms and the sources left behind by Jews are vanishingly rare and difficult to contextualize. Even so, there is no doubt that the Jewish people, their scriptures, and their history simultaneously haunted and informed the imagination of early medieval Christians. While the dearth of primary sources makes it impossible to write a definitive history of Judaism in the Merovingian and Carolingian periods, it is nonetheless worthwhile, Hen argues, to interrogate anew the administrative, legal, narrative, and polemical texts written by Christians about Jews, to examine how their generally hostile construction of Jewish identity changed over time, and to explore what the tensions and anxieties expressed in these texts reveal about Christian encounters with real Jews. To this end, for Barbarians and Jews: Jews and Judaism in the Early Medieval West, Hen and his co-editor Thomas F. X. Noble have assembled a team of leading scholars, who offer the most thorough and up-to-date survey of the sources for Jewish history and the Christian formulation of Jewish identity in western Europe between the 5th and 8th centuries.     

After an introductory essay by Walter Pohl on the enduring influence of models of ethnicity found in the Hebrew Scriptures on the formation of identities in the post-Roman world, the first half of the volume takes the reader on a grand tour of the barbarian kingdoms, including Vandal Africa (Jonathan P. Conant), Visigothic Spain (Wolfram Drews), southern Italy (Giancarlo Lacerenza), Ostrogothic Italy (Yitzhak Hen and Gerda Heydemann), and Merovingian Gaul (Yaniv Fox). In each of these articles, the authors struggle valiantly against the “daunting scarcity of sources” (69) to reconstruct the fullest possible context for the thin tissue of evidence of Jews living under barbarian rule, as well as for the more abundant texts expressing Christian attitudes toward Jews penned by contemporary prelates. Here and there, these authors offer tantalizing glimpses of the otherwise lost world of early medieval Judaism, like the epitaphs on Jewish graves in Gothic Campania (78); but for the most part they are “at the mercy of Christian authors” (30).

The second half of the volume offers articles on Carolingian Europe and Byzantium. Johannes Heil argues that the shrillness of the anti-Jewish polemics of Agobard of Lyons and his follower Amolo stands at odds with the pragmatism that most Carolingian leaders and legislators employed in their interactions with Jews. Indeed, as Piet Hoogeveen shows, Abbot Hrabanus Maurus of Fulda did not hesitate to draw information from the Antiquities of Flavius Josephus (37-c. 100 CE) and an anonymous Latin biblical commentary probably written by a contemporary Jewish convert to Christianity when he composed his own commentary on 1 and 2 Samuel. In fact, the works of Josephus, both the Antiquities and the Jewish War, were essential sources for the history of the Jews among early medieval readers. Rosamond McKitterick and Graeme Ward illustrate the influence of this 1st-century Jewish historian on the works of Bede and Frechulf of Lisieux. Noble closes the volume by calling attention to the profusion of anti-Jewish polemic produced in 7th-century Byzantium and the place of images in this literature. He argues that the age-old opposition to religious images among Jews made them easy strawmen in imaginary debates about the value of icons. This allowed disputing Christians to transfer the blame for this disagreement onto the Jewish communities in their midst.

Several essays in the collection take a thematic approach to the Christian construction of imaginary Jews. In articles by Stefan Esders and Ora Limor, storytelling emerges as an important medium for the dissemination of ideas and stereotypes about the Jewish people around the rim of the early medieval Mediterranean, whether in the form of prophecies about the rise of Islam or anecdotes about Jews encountered by Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Rob Meens’ article on the Jews in Christian penitential literature is among the most fully realized pieces in the collection, in part because it is not constrained by geographical or temporal parameters. He deftly explains the absence of any reference to Jews in the Irish penitentials and ably demonstrates the slow accretion of anti-Jewish sentiments as these texts spread throughout northern Europe in the Carolingian period.

On the whole, this is an important and useful collection of articles that concentrates heavily, out of necessity, on the history of the Jews as Christians imagined them in early medieval Europe. The production value of the volume is very high.  There is a serviceable index, and the cover image of the Israelites in the desert from the Stuttgart Psalter is vivid. Some of the papers show their age, however, no doubt because they originated at a 2009 conference. The absence of any mention of Shane Bjornlie’s work on Cassiodorus is particularly striking. The lack of a bibliography is also lamentable. However, these small omissions should not detract the reader from the wealth of information offered by the contributors to this volume. Hen and Noble have curated a wide-ranging and learned collection, which should be the first port of call for every scholar interested in the defining role played by the Jews, their scriptures, and their history in the imagination of early medieval Christians.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott G. Bruce teaches Medieval History at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Yitzhak Hen is Professor of Late Antique and Early Medieval History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Director of the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS).

Thomas F.X. Noble is Andrew V. Tackes Professor Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame.


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