Wayward Women: Representations of Mobile Jewish Businesswomen in Medieval Northern Europe
By Alana Lord
Master’s Thesis, University of Florida, 2010
Abstract: Because most of the Jewish population in medieval Northern France and Germany were located within widely dispersed Christian towns and villages, rabbinic texts played a large role in providing spiritual and cultural direction for Jews. These texts sought not only to provide a correct interpretation of the Oral Law, but also attempted to reinforce a sense of commonality and a Jewish identity. Knowing that members of the Jewish community frequently relied on these texts for guidance, rabbinic scholars often tried to present ideas and lessons in representations applicable to daily life. These depictions emulated various aspects of daily life including religious practices, personal relationships, business, education, and interactions between Jews and Christians.
This thesis focuses on representations of Jewish female economic travel, which were frequently depicted even though traditional Rabbinic Judaism dictated travel as a distinctly male activity. The conviction that men exclusively participated in economic mobility is primarily the result of biblical texts and cultural traditions that emphasized the home as the proper location for women. Women were characterized as sensual, emotional, irrational, and weak, not independent, mobile businesswomen.
Consequently, it is significant how rabbinic scholars and secular authority utilized the representation of female economic mobility within responsa, ethical wills, moralizing narratives, and Christian records. Using ten diverse representations of Jewish female mobility dated between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, I contend that these depictions were meant to convey comprehensive messages to members of the Jewish community or to connote an experience that affected the Jewish population. Examined separately, each representation speaks to the various ideas, norms, lessons, and experiences not only of the author of the representations, but also of the Jewish community as a whole.