Big Love in the Middle Ages: Adjudicating Jewish Bigamy in Venetian Crete’s Secular Court
By Rena Lauer
Given at Oregon State University on May 20, 2014
Over the course of the European Middle Ages, the rejection of bigamy became a defining characteristic of Christian identity. Jewish law, in contrast, technically allowed bigamy, though the Jewish communities of Europe generally frowned on the practice. What happened when Catholic doctrine, secular law, and minority religious difference met in that crucible of cultural decision making: the courtroom?
This talk looks at one such meeting point. In late medieval Crete, the Venetian colonial government promised its Jewish subjects that, when they came to litigate in the secular court, they would be judged according to their own marriage law. By focusing on one trial in which Catholic judges were asked to decipher Jewish bigamy law—and ended up mandating that the bigamous marriage continue—this talk explores the strange implications of legal pluralism and religious accommodation in a medieval colonial context.