‘Nothing in Our Histories’: A Postcolonial Perspective on Twelfth-Century Christian Hebraism

‘Nothing in Our Histories’: A Postcolonial Perspective on Twelfth-Century Christian Hebraism

By Deborah L. Goodwin

Medieval Encounters,  Vol.15:1 (2009 )

Abstract: This essay examines how twelfth-century Christian Hebraism, as an aspect of biblical exegesis, contributed to producing Christian knowledge of the Jewish Other. It argues that Christian Hebraism was symptomatic of strategies central to the formation of Christian identity, a process to which Jews were essential not only as foils, but as collaborators. An alternative approach to Christian Hebraism, its contributions to a volatile Christian identity, and its status as both a cause and an effect of changing relations between Jews and Christians in the period, is demonstrated by the application of postcolonial discourse analysis to the psalms commentary by Herbert of Bosham.

Introduction: Th is essay considers some of the historiographical issues involved in addressing the question of “what went wrong?” in the twelfth century between northern Europe’s Christians and Jews. Various historians and theologians have argued that the twelfth century ushered in new ideas, motives, and/or practices that led to increased hostility manifested by Christians toward Jews. Clearly the question “what went wrong?” assumes that something did go wrong, and that it is possible to locate its causes. But these postulates, however often asserted, are difficult to establish or verify; the evidence from the period is ambiguous. David Berger rightly described the twelfth century as “elusive”, noting that

[i]n the twelfth century, the Second Crusade swept through the Rhineland, the ritual murder accusation was born, and yet the Jewish community continued to function in a hostile but relatively stable environment. From a cultural perspective, the period was one of dazzling achievement. Even the acute contemporary observer would not have seen a people poised on the edge of a precipice.

Still, many scholars have pointed to the changed status of Northern Europe’s Jews in the thirteenth century as evidence of a process of deterioration that began in the previous one: Jews were increasingly subjected to violent attacks, to capricious treatment by secular rulers, to restricted access to trades or property, to codes aimed at distinguishing them from their Christian neighbors, and to intensified theological disputations that led to the burning of the Talmud. How can the conflicting evidence of the twelfth century best be understood? Th is essay situates the narrative of medieval Christian interaction with Jews and Judaism against a broader discussion of Christian identity, a discourse that superficially seems to proceed on the basis of Self vs. Other, Christian versus Jew. But, as Berger reminds us, other evidence militates against these simplistic binaries. I have focused on Herbert of Bosham, a Christian exegete whose work provides the basis for a more complex interpretation, in an exercise that in turn demonstrates the utility of applying postcolonial discourse analysis to medieval exegesis. The result is an alternative to earlier methods of framing the question, “what went wrong?” and evaluating its possible resolutions.

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