By Cait Stevenson
Jews have come to play an oddly sober role in the standard story of the Middle Ages. Jewish men are intellectuals, philosophers, physicians—and the self-erasing middlemen between Muslim and Christian culture, never mind their own.
Excluded from formal education, Jewish women only appear in the other half of the tale: victims along with their husbands and sons of the gathering forces of violent anti-Judaism. The most “exciting” medieval Jew who sometimes gets a mention, the Berber warrior-queen known as al-Kahina or Dahya, not only appears exclusively in Islamic sources but also did not actually exist. Court and community scholars absolutely played crucial roles in Jewish society as leaders in their own day and written authorities for future generations. So it’s no surprise that Spanish rabbi Bahya ben Asher (1255-1340) was proud to claim medieval Jewish identity as “servants of kings, not servants of men”: advisors and scholars, not laborers and foot soldiers.
But the common portrayal of scholars and victims, important as both are, risks viewing medieval Jews as a subordinate segment of Christian society—not a thriving community that comprised part of a larger medieval society. Where are the scholars and victims when Jewish and Christian women in Ashkenaz (northern France and the Rhineland) traded dresses with each to expand their wardrobe options? Where are the scholars and victims when the most famous medieval book of all first gains its iconic 1001st Night in an Egyptian Jewish manuscript?
Therefore, let’s look at where else we find Jews in the Middle Ages. Let’s look at the French women sneaking their post-menstruation ritual cleansing bath a few days early and then another one on schedule. Let’s look at what a fifteenth-century Italian woman named Miriam wrote in the closing of one manuscript she copied:
Let the reader not hold against me any faults that may be found, for I am a woman and I am nursing a child.
That’s not even a classic humility topos—that’s a woman admitting the distractions of being a breastfeeding mother!
In light of the stereotypical role of Jews in modern histories of the Middle Ages, however, one of the most surprising places to encounter Jewish people in medieval sources is just what Bahya ben Asher would have preferred to forget: in the heart of battle.
When Elena Lourie described medieval Iberia and really all of Europe as a “society organized for war,” any problems with that characterization rested on the question of organization, not the ubiquity of war. It’s true that Jews were often barred from traditional military service by custom, if not outright by law. But men and women alike shared the obligation of all members of medieval society to defend their homes in times of attack.
Thus, we find everyday Jews owning arms and evidently training in their use. When the Jewish community of Mainz heard of the massacres visited upon Worms and Speyer by the Christian knights of the attempted First Crusade (1096), Solomon bar Simson reported that “they donned their armor and their weapons of war…they armed themselves in the inner court of the bishop” who had offered his residence as a fortress for a last stand against slaughter. In 1197, Toledo’s Jews not only defended city walls during the siege but left its relative safety to confront Almohads on the battlefield. And when Castile conquered modern-day Andalusia in the 1260s, the usual (for Iberia) land grants to local Jews identified them as ballasteros—archers.
And just like Christians had their John Hawkwoods and Charles Martels, individual Jews stand out in military history. Eleventh-century Granadan Samuel HaNagrid did happen to be both a scholar and an advisor, but his elegant Hebrew poetry was frequently battlefield poetry: he served for an extended time as the top general in Granada’s army. And then there is Abrahim the Mercenary, who was part of a company of Andalusi Muslim jenets – in service to the Christian king of Aragon.
Professional military service attracted a few Jewish men. But as hard as Bahya ben Asher and comrades tried to push for a collective identity of Jews as educated and professional, aloof from the sex and violence of medieval society, the culture of warfare and knighthood, chivalry and romance, lured in Jews at all levels of society as deftly as it did Christians. For all that England expelled its Jewish residents in 1290 and Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval refers to “the wicked Jews, who should be killed like dogs,” medieval Jews devoured stories of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.
Today, the most famous piece of Jewish Arthuriana is probably the Melekh Artus from 1279, a Hebrew translation of an Italian adaptation of the Vulgate cycle. The fragment that survives combines two disjointed episodes. First, Uther Pendragon feuds with the duke of Tintagel, steals his wife, and fathers Arthur. The narrative picks up in the next generation of heroes with the doomed (here, to incompletion) romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. The Melekh Artus shows the broad appeal of Arthuriana to Jews—they didn’t just invent their own knight-heroes; they loved the whole story.
In the fifteenth century, meanwhile, the Middle High German romance Wigalois became the Yiddish Widiwilt (a very Princess Bride pun on “as you wish”). Although Robert Warnock notes that Widiwilt’s literary qualities are somewhat questionable, the story proved to be a runaway bestseller for over three centuries. This somewhat fairy tale-esque story of Gawain’s son ends with a much stronger focus on love and marriage than its German source—two qualities that permeate one of the most fascinating original works of medieval Jewish literature, The Story of Maskil and Peninah.
Written by Jacob ben Elezar in the early thirteenth century—right around the time the Grail legend was sharpening in focus and integrating with the rise and fall of King Arthur—Maskil and Peninah has it all. A veritable love shack whose name innuendously translates as, “Dwelling of Delight”? You got it. Evil barbarian giants with clear overtones of proto-racism against Africans? Sure thing! An exotic East filled with jewels and tambourines and passionate love? Wouldn’t miss it.
But most important, what ben Elezar’s skillful rhyming prose has, is Jewishness. The story could almost be a Christian romance of the knight who wins the Moorish princess’s heart and baptism. But hero Maskil comes from the mythical, religion-less Kingdom of Beauty, and Peninah’s Arab heritage is a marker of exoticism and mystery rather than a plot device. Only in a Jewish romance would the hero’s education be as or more valuable than his looks, and his merits rather than parentage the key in his ascent to political power. Yes, Maskil and evil Cushan fight with lances until their lances break, and then with bows and arrows until their bows are worn to dust, and then with swords and shields until the shields splinter, and finally with fists until they are so covered in blood and dirt that they can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. But in between, they fight most and best with poetry.
The medieval Jewish love of romance and chivalry, beauty and violence, shouldn’t be a surprise. These stories were products of and for people enmeshed in a broader medieval society to which they contributed actively—as storytellers, yes, but also as professional and ad-hoc soldiers. At the same time, medieval Jews cultivated their own communities and self-identity as Jews in an increasingly hostile world. Jewish romances like Widiwilt and Maskil and Peninah bear delightful witness to both the medievalness and the specialness of medieval Jewish life.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: The Rothschild Miscellany, commissioned by Moses ben Yekuthiel Hakohen in 1479.