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Mary and the Jews in Anglo-Norman Monastic Culture

Mary and the Jews in Anglo-Norman Monastic Culture

By Kati Ihnat

PhD Dissertation, Queen Mary, University of London, 2011

Abstract: Anglo-Norman England saw the development of two parallel and related phenomena: the growth of the cult of the Virgin Mary and increasing engagement with ideas about Jews and Judaism. This thesis looks at the ways in which Benedictine monks contributed to the fashioning of images of Jews in sources related to the Marian cult in the post-Conquest period, 1066-1154. Approaching monastic culture from an interdisciplinary perspective, it examines materials as diverse as sermons, liturgy, theological treatises, and art and architecture for the evolution of the Marian cult after the arrival of the Normans, tracing the reform of liturgical practices that spurred considerable innovation in the cult’s development. It explores these same sources for images of Jews, and finds that Jews were at the centre of reflection on Mary in theological and apocryphal traditions dating back to early Christianity, with Jews acting as prototypical doubters of Mary’s sanctity and virginity. Taken up with renewed interest in Anglo-Norman England, theological consideration of Mary’s place in the Christian narrative was complemented by the first compilation of collections of her miracles, part of an impulse to record the lives and miracles of saints in post-Conquest England. As a fundamental yet little explored element of the Marian cult, the miracles showcase liturgical practices worthy of reward, and contrast her devotees with Jews, portrayed as sacrilegious, blaspheming and violent. Through miracle, sermon, liturgy and theology, English monasteries at the turn of the twelfth century helped to construct images of Jews connected with the burdgeoning cult of the Virgin that had a lasting and pervasive legacy.

Introduction: In Matthew Paris’ Chronica Majora we find an entry for the year 1250 that concerns a curious court case. A Jewish man from Berkhamsted named Abraham acquired a statue of the Virgin enthroned, with the Christ child on her lap, a Sedes Sapientiae carved and painted like so many others found at this time all over Europe. He proceeded to throw it into his latrine, and emptied his bowels on it day and night, forcing his wife, Floria, to do the same. When she came to regret what she had done, and removed the image to clean it, her husband in his rage suffocated and killed her. After Abraham’s arrest, Earl Richard of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III, put in a word to save him from the gallows, and so the anecdote found its way into Matthew’s description of the turbulent years of rebellion and political tension in mid-thirteenth century England. There is a kernel of truth to the story. It seems that Abraham really did exist, and that he had been accused of corruption and killing his wife. Jewish usury was in fact Matthew’s main complaint, the subject of the section in which the anecdote about Abraham is embedded. But the crime imputed to Abraham in the Chronica is at root one of sacrilege; the Jew’s hatred of the Virgin is cited as the underlying reason for his violent act. It was this Marian element that made Matthew select the account from among so many others, which, he claims, also clearly showed ‘their evil’ (eorum…malitia). Clearly, the Marian subtext meant something to him, a prominent feature of a story about Jewish cruelty and bloodshed.

Click here to read this article from Queen Mary, University of London

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