Medieval Christian (Dis)identifications: Muslims and Jews in Guibert of Nogent

Medieval Christian (Dis)identifications: Muslims and Jews in Guibert of Nogent

By Steven F. Kruger

Cultural Frictions: Medieval Studies in Postmodern Contexts Conference Proceedings (1995)


Crucial to the self-definition of medieval Latin Christianity was its disidentification from a variety of religious and racial “others,” Jews and Muslims prominent among these. Standing in simultaneous proximity to and distance from Western European Christianity, Judaism and Islam occupied positions that guaranteed them a particular kind of ideological significance within the processes of Christian self- definition. This was true of their geographical positioning, with Islam standing largely outside European Christianity but “occupying” Jerusalem and violating European borders in such a way as to create a vivid belief in its dangerous proximity, and with an even more proximate Judaism, largely internal to Europe, inspiring the desire to negate proximity, either through an encapsulation of Jewish communitites or an excision of them from the body of Christianity.

Medieval Christian understandings of the historical relations of the three religions also emphasize the dangerous proximity of Christianity’s “others.” Of course, the histories of Judaism and Christianity are genetically linked. Yet, from the Christian perspective, the great historical rupture of Christ’s incarnation, along with the Jews’ rejection of the “truth” of that event, made necessary an intense disavowal of Jewish connections. Those Jews who did not choose to follow Christ’s lead violently absented themselves from salvific history; their rejection of Christ became the emblem of an obstinate refusal to see the “truth,” the very antithesis of Christian belief. This historical relation is exactly reversed in at least one major medieval understanding of the relation of Islam to Christianity: instead of a new “truth” that fulfills and replaces an incomplete understanding of “truth,” as in Christianity’s narrative of its own birth from Judaism, Islam is depicted as a monstrous birth out of Christianity, a “heretical” fall from revelation.  The rejection of Christian doctrine by both Islam and Judaism, by supposed “descendent” as well as “ancestor,” holds special power because it is in each case understood to arise from a position of intimate (genetic) relation. Not just independent religious traditions that, from a Christian perspective, have “misunderstood” metaphysics, Judaism and Islam plot out two courses of spiritual understanding closely linked to the Christian, and thus, in the logic described by Jonathan Dollimore as the “paradoxical perverse,” liable to be demonized in an especially anxious and hostile manner.

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