Category Archives: Research Spotlight

A ‘Geniza Street View’: On Jewish Neighborhoods and Inter-Religious Neighborliness

by Moshe Yagur

My current project examines spatial realities of Jewish life in the medieval Islamic cities of the eastern Mediterranean, mostly Egypt and greater-Syria, from the late 10th to the late 15th centuries. It is well known that Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived side by side in these cities, without a clear separation along religious lines. There was also no clear zoning of the medieval Mediterranean Islamic city to residential, commercial, industrial, and public zones. And so, Jews, Muslims and Christians lived, worked, and traded with each other in the same neighborhoods, alleys, and small courtyards, between mosques, synagogues, and churches. The aim of my current project is first to document this reality, which until today was seen as self-evident and has not received proper scholarly attention, and then to analyze these daily, individual interactions around residential areas as an arena for inter-religious encounters.

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The Former Synagogue of Rouffach (Alsace): a Prototype of Jewish Medieval Architecture

by Carla Heym

(English/Deutsch/Français)


East facade of the former synagogue with the central oculus, seen from the street. The synagogue building is the centrepiece of the medieval Jewish quarters and was usually built at the back of the housing blocks away from the streets, as can still be seen in Rouffach (Image: Heym, 2020)

Façade est de l’ancienne synagogue avec l’oculus central, vue de la rue. Le bâtiment de la synagogue est la pièce maîtresse des quartiers juifs médiévaux et était généralement construite au fond des blocs d’habitation et en retrait des rues, comme on peut encore l’observer à Rouffach. (Image : Heym, 2020)
Ostfassade der ehemaligen Synagoge mit mittigem Okulus, von der Straße gesehen. Der Synagogenbau ist das Herzstück mittelalterlicher Judenviertel und wurde meist tief im Wohnblock abseits der Straßen gebaut, wie in Rufach noch gut zu erkennen ist. (Bild: Heym, 2020)


The former synagogue of Rouffach (German: Rufach) is one of the oldest preserved Jewish buildings in Europe. Although some knowledge of the history of the Jewish community in Rouffach is available from written sources, the building itself has not been analysed except for a study by the architect and curator of historical monuments Charles (Karl) Winkler in 1906. The principal hurdle to a thorough building investigation was the fact that the building is privately owned and used as a residence. However, in 2020 the owners agreed to a one-off survey of the building. The goals of the survey were to determine clues to the building’s history and to verify the results of Winkler’s study of the building. The project was carried out as part of a master’s thesis in the field of heritage conservation at the Otto-Friedrich University in Bamberg and was supported by the regional archaeological service SRA Strasbourg and the association B’nai Brith Hirschler Strasbourg.

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The Disputation of Mallorca (1286): A Case Study in the Medieval Culture of Disputation

By Alex J. Novikoff

Ever since Christianity parted ways from Judaism, its adherents have felt the need to defend their new faith, often combining advocacy of the new religion with the urge to delegitimize Judaism as an outdated and obsolete vestige of a prior epoch. From this theological impulse was born the so-called Adversus Judaeus corpus of writings that stretches from the earliest centuries of Christianity through the end of the Middle Ages, and well beyond. The repetitive nature of this genre notwithstanding, scholars have increasingly come to recognize the many ways in which this confrontation evolved theologically, intellectually, and even socially, involving new spheres of contact and new participants in those debates. Nor was this controversy entirely one-sided, since beginning in the twelfth century Jews began to mount their own polemical response in Hebrew, a corpus that has likewise been the subject of increased and deserved attention.

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Princes and Jews in 15th Century Italy

By Pierre Savy

Influential historians such as Cecil Roth, Attilio Milano, and others noted long ago that late medieval Italian princes generally implemented more welcoming and protective policies towards the Jews than oligarchic regimes (“republics”) did–an attitude that may appear counter-intuitive, should one believe through the anachronistic lens of today that accepting religious diversity is typical of republican regimes, whereas autocratic regimes go together with intolerance. Clearly, things are far more complex.

My research, devoted to Princely policies towards the Jews in Northern Italy (1370-1520)[1], set to be published by French publisher PUF in Spring 2023, intends to focus on this issue with the intent to go beyond the simple explanation of the economic benefit of a Jewish presence that, after all, could have been equally beneficial to non-princely regimes. My hypothesis is that princely policies towards the Jews were a touchstone in the history of state-building processes, as well as central to the function and value of princely power, here investigated without drawing on theoretical literature, but from an empirical perspective. It basically consists in “thinking (politics) with the Jews” (“Is it still Jewish studies?”, one might wonder on a blog devoted to medievalJewishStudiesNow![2]): but “thinking with” does not necessarily imply conceiving of the Jews as completely passive. On the contrary, it gives the opportunity to see how Jews negotiated, informed, circumvented, and, in short, partly determined the princely policies where they lived in Northern Italy.

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Well-Poisoning Accusations Against Jews: Can we Reconstruct the Jewish Perspective?

by Tzafrir Barzilay

During the first outbreak of the Black Death, several European minority groups suffered organized arrests, investigations, and executions. The social dynamics that triggered, supported and justified this wave of persecution were propelled by one infamous allegation: that Muslims, Christian lepers, paupers, beggars, and, most notably, Jews, conspired together to poison water sources in order to spread the plague and undermine the ruling Christian elite. The accusation appears in a wide range of sources from the early fourteenth century until the end of the Middle Ages. My recently published book, Poisoned Wells: Accusation, Persecution and Minorities in Medieval Europe, 1321-1422, focuses on the accusation of well poisoning as a critical chapter in the history of the persecution of European minorities. It explains their background and origin in the thirteenth century, how they gained popularity before and during the Black Death, and why they declined in the fifteenth century. By untangling the dynamics of the waves of violence triggered by well-poisoning claims, the book proposes a new understanding of popular and formal reactions to the Black Death, and hence of the history of minorities and their marginalization in late medieval Europe.

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Karaism and the Study of Medieval Judaism

by Daniel J. Lasker

Each of us has reacted to the coronavirus pandemic in our own way. My way of coping with the restrictions on mobility and travel was to produce a book which I had felt for a long time would be useful to both the academic and the general reading public: Karaism: An Introduction to the Oldest Surviving Alternative Judaism (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization). Most people with a cursory knowledge of Jewish history are aware that there was a Jewish movement called Karaism which did not follow rabbinic Judaism, the religious choice of the majority of Jews (known in this context as Rabbanites). Beyond that, the little information about Karaism that is available is often more misinformation than historical truth; the fact that there are still Karaite communities to this day is almost completely unknown. Despite the historical importance of the Karaite movement, in the Middle Ages and beyond, and the many fine academic studies of its various aspects, until now there has been no one comprehensive introduction to Karaism as a distinct, alternative Judaism. My book is intended to fill this gap in Jewish intellectual history.

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Jewish Women’s Wills: A Premodern Collaborative Collection

by Rena N. Lauer

Jewish women in the premodern world tended to be what I call “doubly disenfranchised.” That is, being labelled female led to social and legal disabilities that left women with fewer options for overt agency over their lives. As Jews, they experienced a second layer of social, legal, and political disability, further marginalizing them. Among the many consequences of this double disenfranchisement, premodern Jewish women seem somewhat mute, a voicelessness stemming from a lack of sources that tell of female experience in women’s own voices. Scholars who aim to engage deeply with premodern gender constantly hit this apparent wall of voicelessness whenever we seek to uncover the lives, experiences, and strategies of Jewish women.

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Reconstruction of the medieval Torah shrine from Cologne

by Nadja Mertens, Tanja Potthoff, Christiane Twiehaus, Michael Wiehen

Archäologische Zone der Stadt Köln

MiQua. LVR-Jüdisches Museum im Archäologischen Quartier Köln

(English/Deutsch)

Architectural fragments of the Torah shrine made of gilded tuff (Photo: Stefan Arendt, LVR Zentrum für Medien und Bildung).

The Torah shrine of the medieval Cologne synagogue was destroyed in 1349 during the so-called plague pogrom. Today, only its foundation and a few fragments bear witness to the once impressing architecture.

The archaeologists of the city of Cologne found a good dozen fragments of gilded tuff in the fire debris of the pogrom, which can be linked to the medieval Torah shrine: Tracery, pinnacles, a finial and leaf tips of capitals or crockets. Some of them clearly show that they have been exposed to fire. The pieces can be combined to form a Gothic architecture probably with a pediment and lateral pinnacles. Particularly striking are the relief fragments of two crowns, also gilded, which probably decorated the gable.

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Two new resources for medieval Anglo-Jewish history

by Rory MacLellan

A new research project at Historic Royal Palaces undertaken by Dr Rory MacLellan helps shed light on the Jewish history of the Tower of London and the Jewish community in the medieval City of London. The Tower was a central feature of the Jewish story in medieval London. The castle’s Constable acted as both persecutor and protector of the local Jewry, sheltering them during anti-Jewish riots, but also imprisoning and taxing them. This dual role led to Jews being given a wall of the Tower to help defend from siege in 1267, yet eleven years later, at least 600 Jews, probably including some of the same people, were held prisoner there on charges of coin-clipping. At the same time, Jewish tax-money was helping to build the outer walls of their prison, including what would later become the infamous Traitors’ Gate. Hundreds of Jewish lives were touched by the shadow of the Tower in the two centuries of the medieval English Jewry’s existence. This project explores this aspect of the history of England’s most famous medieval site through the creation of two resources for researchers of medieval Jewish history: a catalogue and a dataset, both now freely available on the HRP website via https://www.hrp.org.uk/about-us/research/the-jewish-history-of-the-medieval-tower-of-london/#gs.oxmg73.

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Follow the Numbers: Documenting Medieval Hebrew Mathematics

by Roy Wagner

ETH Zürich
Dep. of Humanities, Social and Pol.Sc.
roy.wagner@gess.ethz.ch

Medieval mathematics was a field spanning a wide range of knowledge from commercial calculations to high theory and from the practical and recreational to the philosophical and mystical. In the Mediterranean area, it was a cross-cultural endeavor, circulating in oral and written forms in Arabic, Latin and vernacular languages. The migration of Jews across different language environments in the Middle Ages gave rise to a substantial corpus of Hebrew mathematics, which included some original contributions and served as a link between Islamicate and Christian-European knowledge communities.

The Mispar (literally, number, https://mispar.ethz.ch/wiki/Main_Page) project emerged from Naomi Aradi’s PhD dissertation on medieval Hebrew arithmetic. During her PhD, Naomi performed an almost unimaginable feat: she transcribed the corpus of an entire mathematical culture – practically all that survives of medieval Hebrew arithmetic (ca. 40 treatises, ca. 2000 manuscript pages). This, combined with some innovative digital tools, allows us to ask new questions about mathematics as a field of knowledge and as a culture.

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