Dean Philip Bell. Sacred Communities: Jewish and Christian Identities in Fifteenth-Century Germany. Boston and Leiden: Brill, 2001. xii + 301. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-391-04102-8.
Reviewed by Stephen G. Burnett (Department of Classics and Religious Studies/Department of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Published on H-German (October, 2003)
The theme of community has long been a focus for research in both early modern European history and in Jewish history, but the two academic discussions have generally taken place in isolation. German Jewish historians have tended to focus their attention upon the Jewish experience, mainly using sources produced by Jews themselves such as chronicles and legal writings of various kinds, while most other early modern European historians, when they have discussed Jews and Jewish experience at all, have treated them as a marginal group of little importance. The one theme that the two academic conversations have had in common has been Jewish-Christian relations, usually focused upon anti-Semitism. Dean Bell in his incisive new book has juxtaposed these two disciplinary discussions and forced them into a very fruitful conversation that sheds a good deal of light upon the experience of both Jew and Christian in late medieval German cities. He does this by analyzing the changing understanding that Christians and Jews had of the idea of "community."
Bell divides his analysis of "community" in late medieval Germany into three parts, discussing changes in Christian notions of community, then the Jewish understanding of community, and finally comparing each to notions of community in the radical reformation (for Christians) and in late medieval Spain (for Jews). In the first chapter Bell discusses current social historical definitions of community for late medieval communities, and offers his own refinement by elaborating upon Bordieu's notion of "habitus," which he explains as a "socially constituted system of cognitive and motivating structures, as well as the socially structured situation in which the agents' interests are defined" (p. 27). The habitus that Bell goes on to describe includes the kinds of economic, political and social transformations that late medieval cities were experiencing. In the next three chapters he treats at length the question of sacralization of the cities. In Chapter Two Bell discusses shifts in Christian theology over the course of the Middle Ages from an emphasis upon the differences between Old and New Testament religious experience to a greater continuity. The new theological stress upon continuity in turn encouraged church leaders and preachers to place greater emphasis upon the ideal of an earthly Christian community united by a common faith and obedience to divine law rather than united through common rituals. These new theological ideas, Bell argues, were absorbed and manifested in "secular" discussions of community as expressed in legal codes and city chronicles, which he discusses in the third chapter. The locus of the sacred shifted from a separate sphere and social order (the clergy) to the community itself. This new conception of community spurred the development of both anti-clericalism and, more consequentially for Bell's theme, new forms of anti-Judaism. In Chapter Four Bell describes a shift in the rhetoric of anti-Jewish polemics during the fifteenth century from stock theological elements (Jews are historical/contemporary enemies of the faith) to those alleging that Jews were enemies of the "community" and their presence was detrimental to the "common good." Bell concludes that within late medieval urban literature a new sense of communal identity emerges "woven together with religious and moral sensibilities, which increasingly tended to view the urban commune as a sacred entity and frequently allowed little room for Jews to remain a part of it" (p. 125).
The second part of the book will be especially interesting to many readers of H-German, since Bell offers his analysis of changes in Jewish communities themselves, based primarily upon Hebrew language source materials. Bell discusses in turn the development of Jewish communities and settlements in late medieval Germany as physical entities (Chapter Five), as conceptual entities in Jewish legal literature of the time (Chapter Six), and as the setting for conflicts among Jews (Chapter Seven). In Chapter Eight Bell directly addresses the problem of "Jewish and Christian Relations" in late medieval Germany. The fundamental shift that took place in the late medieval German Jewish community was from urban-based to regional communities incorporating both town and village Jews. However, as Bell repeatedly points out, this shift had deep roots in the earlier Middle Ages, since Jews had always had reasons to form associations of various kinds with other Jews living both in other towns and in the countryside. These associations included family ties, shared ritual observance (especially where less than ten Jewish males lived and therefore had no prayer quorum), business ties, and shared institutions such as regional hospitals and cemeteries or the jurisdiction of a rabbinical court. Moreover, Jewish students traditionally traveled to other places to study in yeshivas led by famous scholars. While German Jews were resident in particular places, they regularly had associations with other communities so in some sense Jewish identity always involved a broader geographical component than German Christian identity did (p. 151).
Having established the legal and practical structure of Jewish communities in late medieval Germany, Bell then provides telling insights into how some of the same developments which affected Christian communities--such as a trend toward oligarchy, domination by lay community leaders, and divisions within communities between the very wealthy and the poor, as well as a weakening of the authority of religious authorities--are reflected in Jewish community life. The increasingly strained political and economic circumstances of these communities were reflected in battles over who could grant the right to reside in a town and how community taxes were assessed, as well as over questions of leadership and social status. The sources for much of this information are collections of responsa (legal opinions) written by prominent fifteenth century rabbis such as Rabbi Jacob Weil and Rabbi Jacob Molin (pp. 18-19).
Following Jacob Katz, Bell argues that in Jewish-Christian relations each side had an effect upon the other (p. 7), even when Jews were a tiny minority as they were in late medieval Germany. Some of the most interesting and revealing passages in this book involve the kinds of identities that Christians constructed for Jews (chapter 4) and those, which Jews constructed of Christians (chapter 8). Quite apart from stereotypes and constructed identities, however, German Christians and Jews clearly interacted in a far greater number of ways than is usually reflected in standard literature, engaging in business (including employing each other on occasion), pursuing leisure time activities together (including gambling and drinking together), and even exchanging gifts (pp. 207-208). Moreover, Jews engaged in a wider variety of economic pursuits than is usually acknowledged in the historical literature, allowing for a far greater number of encounters between Jew and Christian than might be expected (pp. 259-260).
In his final chapter Bell draws comparisons between the Reformation-era radicals and notions of community in the late Middle Ages on the one hand, and the experience of late medieval Spanish Jewry with that of German Jewry. The discussion of Spanish Jewry is particularly interesting, as there are rather more parallels between their experience and those of German Jews than might be expected: stratification within the community, an increasing number of converts, and similarities in the kinds of anti-Jewish agitation.
Bell states in his introduction that he seeks to "recontextualize the world of Jewish and Christian relations by focusing on both Jewish and Christian interaction as well as Jewish and Christian forms of communal organization and identity" (p. 1). I think that he has succeeded. His parallel analyses of developments in the majority Christian community and in the minority Jewish community are effective ways to compare the effects of the great transformations of the late Middle Ages upon each community in isolation, and also to illustrate their effects upon both Jewish and Christian identity and Jewish-Christian relations.
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Stephen G. Burnett. Review of Bell, Dean Philip, Sacred Communities: Jewish and Christian Identities in Fifteenth-Century Germany.
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.