A Ready Hatred: Depictions of the Jewish Woman in Medieval Antisemitic Art and Caricature

A Ready Hatred: Depictions of the Jewish Woman in Medieval Antisemitic Art and Caricature

Abramson, Henry (Florida Atlantic University)

Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, Vol. 62. (1996)

Title page of Der Juden Erbarkeit, 1571

The structural similarities between the hatred of women and the hatred of Jews, while striking, have received little scholarly attention. Both Jews and women occupied secondary, often exploited positions in society, both were feared for their connections with the Devil and witchcraft, and both were persecuted for various transgressions of the androcentric Christian order. Jewish women, victims twice over as members of a “defective” gender within a “degenerate” people, bore the double brunt of both antisemitism and misogyny. This paper represents an initial enquiry into the conglomerate nature of this prejudice as expressed in medieval art and caricature.

The medieval mind was not entirely comfortable with the notion of Jesus’ circumcision. On the one hand, it was a well-known fact of his early childhood, and was celebrated as a holiday in the religious calendars. The sexual connotations of this ritual presented little problem, if one is to judge from other explicit depictions of Jesus’ sexuality (particularly as an infant) including one rather surprising early sixteenth century portrait of Jesus with an erection, albeit modestly covered with a cloak. Moreover, the traditional image of mother and child often portrayed Mary with a bared breast, preparing to nurse the baby Jesus. It seems rather that there were two principal grounds for Christian discomfort with Jesus’ entry into “the covenant of Abraham.” Firstly, it was a very Jewish ritual, constituting a concrete physical distinction between Christian and Jew. From a theological perspective, circumcision was a representation of all that was wrong with Judaism: carnal, not physical; of the flesh rather than spiritual, a circumcision of the foreskin rather than a “circumcision of the heart,” to use the biblical phrase. The circumcision of Jesus only served to emphasize his lowly origins through this most profane and intimately Jewish of rituals.

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