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Christians, Jews & Images of Violence in the Middle Ages

By Miri Rubin | Posted 22nd March 2011, 16:57
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Feeling Persecuted

Feeling Persecuted
Christians, Jews and Images of Violence in the Middle Ages
Anthony Bale
* * *  * *
Reaktion
254pp £29
ISBN 978 1861 897619

In The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms 1350-1500 (2006) Anthony Bale traced representations of the Jew in images and in narratives of late medieval England, long after the expulsion of the Jewish community in 1290. He showed there how central was the Jew to several longstanding discussions about justice and governance, and increasingly to devotional ideas and practices. No contemplation of the Crucifixion in late medieval England was complete without the inclusion of Jews: baying, demanding blood; no scene of Mary’s compassion at the foot of the Cross, without knowledge that it was Jews who had caused this pain.

Following these concerns and exploring a much wider world of images Anthony Bale has written another innovative and challenging book. He poses the question which others have asked of medieval genres such as the sagas and martyrologies: to what purpose the violence? How did readers and audiences experience it?

Bale examines above all the representations of the Crucifixion. This scene was sparsely populated – usually just Mary and the Evangelist John either side of the cross – in the early medieval centuries, but from the 13th century on it became a stage for the hectic unfolding of a narrative in which the Jews came to play an increasingly animated part. Bale explores the stages of the Passion story as they became elaborate and pitiful. He inspects them in many genres, above all in English materials: statues, altarpieces, stained glass and parchment rolls. He shows throughout the ubiquity of the Jew as torturer, disrupter of Christian ritual, derider of Christ and his mother.

Yet this ubiquity is not to be confused with a uniform or obvious projection of cruel intent in evildoing. For the context within which such imagery was inserted often elicited from the viewer not just hate-filled vengefulness, but compassion. Such images of the suffering Christ – and the texts related to them – sought to make the Christian ‘feel persecuted’. The sentiments could lead to acts of penance, to identification with Christ through meditation and, on occasion, also to hate-acts against the Jews. Bale encourages the reader towards subtle contextualising of the use of images: some were placed in churches to be viewed as part of a group, some were linked to the unfolding of liturgy, some to meditation in a monastic cell; others were embedded in a book intimately held during prayer and others still were folded up and used as amulets.

Above all Feeling Persecuted  – a beautifully produced book – reinforces the understanding, which several recent studies have manifested, of the centrality of the Jew to the devotional experiences and religious understandings of medieval Europeans. It leads the reader towards a new appreciation of late medieval religious culture, while forcing the as yet unanswered question: how did it feel to be a Jew among Christian neighbours whose emotional worlds were regularly enriched by images of suffering for which the Jews were blamed?


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