Flora Cassen. Marking the Jews in Renaissance Italy: Politics, Religion, and the Power of Symbols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 300 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-17543-3.
Reviewed by Cornelia Aust (Leibniz Institute of European History)
Published on H-Judaic (May, 2018)
Commissioned by Katja Vehlow (University of South Carolina)
In general perception, the yellow badge appears to be a clear and long-living marker of Jews, first initiated in Christian Europe at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and eventually revived in the modern period under the reign of Nazi Germany. In Marking the Jews in Renaissance Italy, Flora Cassen aims at drawing a more complex picture. She sets out to answer two main questions: first, who indeed was forced to wear a yellow badge or any similar marker in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy, and second, did the badge indeed make Jews recognizable who otherwise would not have been recognizable as Jews? The book, thus, more generally aims at dissecting the “dialectic of inclusion and exclusion of Jews from Italian society” (p. 3).
Cassen opens her book with an overview of Jewish distinctive signs after the Fourth Lateran Council across Europe, though unfortunately not touching on East Central Europe except for Hungary, followed by an analysis of its symbolic meaning. She then examines case studies of the Duchy of Milan, the Republic of Genoa, and the Duchy of Piedmont-Savoy and their changing application of the badge or a yellow hat to its own Jewish population or traveling Jews. In doing so, she detects several models of how different authorities approached the question; how religious, economic, and political motives shaped decisions regarding the Jewish badge or hat; and how individual Jews and Jewish communities reacted to the challenge of being marked. These models were closely related to the varied social and political structures of the three neighboring states. In chapter 2, addressing fifteenth-century Milan, Cassen shows how neither the attempts of city councils nor public religious pressure, for example, via sermons of zealous friars, could convince the dukes to force Jews to wear a badge. Here, Jews were able to successfully defend their original rights and charters (condotte) and to prevent the imposition of the badge.
In chapter 3, Cassen looks comparatively at sixteenth-century Milan, then in the process of becoming part of the Spanish Empire. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain, Jews living under Spanish rule did not have high expectations. The lower and upper strata of Milanese society were particularly interested in sartorial markers, making those sixteenth-century attempts at introducing a Jewish badge more successful than earlier ones. Only the increasingly weakened middle strata of society supported the Jews. Eventually, wealthy Jews were the only ones who had the means to buy themselves out of wearing a yellow badge, while the poor had no choice, leading to the fragmentation and increasing stratification of Jewish society. Moreover, Jewish men now had to wear a yellow hat, which was much harder to cover and hide.
Unlike the Duchy of Milan, wealthy Jews in Piedmont (chapter 4) had no possibility to buy their way out of wearing distinctive signs, and instead tried to negotiate exemptions for the entire Jewish community, though their success was limited to reaching exemptions during the time of travel. Cassen argues that this showed that the Jews of Piedmont were relatively wealthy, and formed a “cohesive and well-organized community capable of collecting money from Jews across the duchy” (p. 136). This example indicates how different the approaches to sartorial markers could be; in the Duchy of Milan, both local and foreign Jews were forced to wear discriminating marks precisely during the time of travel. However, in Piedmont, too, the application of the Jewish badge became increasingly a moneymaker for the authorities; Cassen poses that eventually, the high degree of solidarity among Piedmont Jews had an adverse effect as it turned Jews into a target for higher tax revenues. In the final years of Jewish settlement in Piedmont, the situation resembled that in Milan and the cohesion of the community disintegrated.
In the Republic of Genoa (chapter 5), the situation was different as officially, there were no Jews living there and the Jewish badge did not become a means for the authorities to acquire or yield power. Cassen discusses the lives of five individuals who lived for a shorter or longer time in the Republic of Genoa and had to deal with the attempts to impose sartorial markers onto them. The reactions of these doctors and moneylenders, among them the well-known physician and historian Joseph ha-Cohen (1496 to circa 1575), ranged from buying one’s way out or wearing the sartorial marker, to leaving instead of having to wear a yellow hat or deciding to wear provocatively luxurious yellow hats.
Along with the socioeconomic and political developments and their influence on marking Jews in the northern parts of Renaissance Italy, and away from the well-researched cities of Venice, Rome, or Florence, Cassen discusses the symbolic meaning associated with discriminating markers, based on local archival materials. She shows how Jewish moneylending was stigmatized and Jews were portrayed as sexual predators. The badge or hat then became less a means of recognition and more a means of instigating violence against Jews, especially when traveling, or promising fiscal revenues through exemptions or fines.
Cassen’s book takes us beyond a simplified interpretation of the Jewish badge as a means to make Jews recognizable. In small places, Jews were well known to their neighbors, and Jewish travelers were identified by language, while Jewish women apparently wore distinctive accessories. Rather than making Jews identifiable, the badge or hat made them prone to persecution and molestation. Marking the Jews in Renaissance Italy thus adds valuable insights to the larger story of Jewish-Christian relations in Renaissance Italy in less well-known Jewish communities through the lens of sartorial markers. Unlike other recent and stimulating works, like Irven M. Resnick’s Marks of Distinction: Christian Perceptions of Jews in the High Middle Ages (2012) or Sara Lipton’s Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography (2014), Cassen’s study is particularly interested in the social reality of distinctive signs. The book also provides a basis for thinking about discriminating signs, the motives for introducing them, and their repercussions for Jews elsewhere in Europe. It certainly speaks not only to scholars of Renaissance Italy but also to anybody interested in mechanisms of social inclusion and exclusion in medieval and early modern Jewish history, including graduate students.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Cornelia Aust. Review of Cassen, Flora, Marking the Jews in Renaissance Italy: Politics, Religion, and the Power of Symbols.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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