Good Dog/Bad Dog: Dogs in Medieval Religious Polemics

Good Dog/Bad Dog: Dogs in Medieval Religious Polemics

By Irven M. Resnick

Enarratio: Publications of the Medieval Association of the Midwest, Volume 18 (2013)

Four Dogs before a Doghouse;  Ms. Ludwig XV 1, fol. 50v. - Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Four Dogs before a Doghouse; Ms. Ludwig XV 1, fol. 50v. – Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Introduction: In the long history of Adversus Judaeos literature, the dog, because it was a potential source of ritual impurity in the Hebrew Bible, became one of the animals most frequently identified with the religious “Other,” the Jew. In this way, the dog became an important symbol of the religious conflict between Jews and Christians that may be traced back to Pauline New Testament literature (and to Paul’s later interpreters). Christian exegetes understood important Gospel texts—e.g., Matt. 15.26 (“It is not good to take the bread of the children and to cast it to the dogs”) and Matt. 7.6 (“Do not give what is holy to dogs…”)—to be clear references to Jews. Not only were these texts invoked to express Christian fears of Jewish aggression toward the Eucharist (“the bread”), but others as well—for example, Ps. 21.17 (“For many dogs have encompassed me, the council of the malignant has besieged me. They have dug my hands and my feet.”)—became proof-texts to condemn Jewish—but not Roman—“dogs” for the Crucifixion. Whether or not these New Testament texts represent a Christian attempt to reflect back upon Jews a canine image that Jews were themselves thought to have directed toward Gentiles, the fact remains that uses of the dog as a symbol of religious impurity would have been well known at the time, and examples abound in a variety of texts. But the history of this phenomenon, as well as the history of Jewish reactions to it, is complex, and deserving of closer examination.

Nowhere is this tendency to use the dog as a symbol of religious impurity clearer, perhaps, than in Peter the Venerable’s mid-twelfth-century anti-Jewish polemic, Against the Inveterate Obduracy of the Jews. Peter’s text is one of the first medieval Latin compositions to polemicize against the Talmud, and the Cluniac abbot opposed fiercely its “wicked teachers” who poisoned the minds of the Jews. In particular, Peter condemned a Talmudic legend according to which the Jews’ messiah has appeared “torn and gnawed to pieces by dogs” in the crypts of first-century Rome, from which he will emerge to accomplish the ingathering of the exiled Jews to the Land of Israel. Peter remarked:

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I have heard from some people that they [Talmudic sages] say that their Christ was born at the time of Vespasian and was transferred (by what art I do not know) to Rome. There he hid in crypts or subterranean caves, there he was torn and gnawed to pieces by dogs, and he endured the pain and wounds of that gnawing for Jewish sins or iniquities, and this is why it is said: “He was wounded for our iniquities; he was bruised for our sins” [Is. 53.5]. Moreover, he will live and endure these pains in the bowels of the earth until he will go forth from there, at a time determined by God, and, gathering up the Jews from all the world, he will return them anew to the first place of the land promised to them. Then all things will be fulfilled that were foretold by the prophets concerning the future felicity of the Jews, then their Christ will rule over many nations, then there will be peace without fear of any disturbance, then, they affirm, they will live in the utmost delight and with glory.

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