By David Nirenberg
The American Historical Review Vol.107:4 (2002)
Introduction: Sex has become an increasingly popular topic among historians. Whether because of changing methodologies (social history, the anthropological and the postcolonial turns, gender and queer theory) or the shifting desires of popular audiences, scholars are finding more meaning in the sexual interaction of their subjects than ever before. Some interactions, of course, are more interesting than others. Above all, historians seek sex that destabilizes categories and violates taboos. There is no doubt that the approach has been fruitful. The historiographies of colonial Latin America, of British, French, and German imperialism, and especially of race relations in the United States have all been enriched by studies too numerous to footnote, studies that explore sexual fears in order to understand how societies imagine their boundaries.
But sex has its dangers as well. The first of these is its universality, and the near universality of the many prohibitions that attend it. It is perhaps because so many societies have defined themselves through such similar strictures on sexuality that anthropologists and not historians were the first to explore their mysteries. Insofar as the sexual metaphors and rules through which societies describe themselves are widely dispersed in space and time, they seem a clumsy barometer for the transformations with which historians are often occupied. A second danger is closely related: we moderns tend to project backward our world-weary certainties, making sex pregnant with anachronism. Thus, for example, our experience of sex as the site at which nature and culture meet to produce “race” is often elevated to a general rule. Rarely do we let ourselves be moved to wonder by the scandals of a distant age.
The pages that follow confront these dangers. They explore the power of ancient and enduring sexual metaphors across a period of rapid change in the way Christians living in the medieval Iberian Peninsula thought about religious classification. From the late eleventh century to the end of the fifteenth, significant populations of Jews and Muslims lived under Christian domination in the lands we now call Spain. Their coexistence was not easy, for each of the three religious communities felt at risk, both physically and spiritually, from the others. That coexistence can best be described as a punctuated equilibrium: long periods of constant but functional conflict separated by episodes of widespread violence. Sex was one of the primary languages through which that conflict was articulated, and we will follow its inflection from the late thirteenth century, through the massacres and mass conversions of tens of thousands of Jews that took place across the Iberian Peninsula in 1391 and into the fifteenth century. Our fulcrum, 1391, is an important date in Jewish and Spanish history. From a Jewish point of view, it was a cataclysmic year that witnessed the greatest loss of Jewish souls in the Middle Ages and (in retrospect) marked the beginning of the end for Spanish Jewry. It would become a cataclysm of a different sort for Christians as well, the origins of a crisis of classification (“Who is a Jew?”) that has seemed to many Spanish historians a “principal cause of the decadence of the Peninsula.” The crisis will be less familiar to most readers than those that accompanied, for example, the emancipation of African Americans in the U.S. South, the emancipation of Jews in modern Europe, or colonialism’s (de)stabilization of racial categories. It was, however, every bit as sharp and every bit as productive. In fact, one of its products, according to some historians, was the birth of racism itself, specifically of racial anti-Semitism. But we will not begin with that position. Let us instead approach the subject of sex with an adolescent innocence, in the hope that we might yet be surprised by the past.