Category Archives: Research Spotlight

Migration of Jews in the Late Middle Ages. The example of Erfurt

By Maike Lämmerhirt, University of Erfurt

(English/Deutsch)

The DFG-funded project “Migration of Jews in the Late Middle Ages. The example of Erfurt” at the University of Erfurt will run until the end of 2024. The project focuses on Jewish families in Erfurt and their lives and changes of residence in the period from 1354 to 1453.

Erfurt, the economic and ecclesiastical center of Thuringia, was home to the oldest Jewish community in the region. The heyday of Jewish life in Thuringia only began after the pogrom wave of 1349. For the period before 1349, the sources regarding migration movements only allow the places of origin of Jewish families in Erfurt to be determined. In contrast, numerous sources have survived from the decades following the re-establishment of the Jewish community in 1354, in which some families are visible over several generations. Some of them can also be traced to earlier or later places of residence. Although the city of Erfurt was subject to the Archbishop of Mainz, the Erfurt city council acted increasingly independently, proving itself to be a mediator between the archbishop and the Jewish community and even a political actor that made its own decisions regarding the Jews in the city. In 1453, for example, it was the council that withdrew protection from the Jews and enforced this against the archbishop.

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The formation of trusting relationships between merchants in Mallorca and Barcelona 1240-1350.

by Annabel Hancock, St John’s College, Oxford

Through my research on Catalan and Mallorcan traders in the medieval Mediterranean, I seek to explore the ways in which identity, trust, and community both in the past, and now, shape human lives. I ask what it means to be a part of a group, what it means to make agreements with others, and how interactions with others change the ways we understand our own identity. The medieval world, far from the parochial backwater it is often seen to be, was filled with movement and connections. Traders from Barcelona corresponded with people and exchanged objects from England to the Middle East to China. These interactions involved cooperation between different communities, different languages, and different cultural understandings of the world.  

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Sociohistorical Realism in Juive, a Conversion Miracle in the Fourteenth-Century Vie des pères

by Karen Casey Casebier, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

“Juive,” La Vie des pères, Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, MS 5204, fol. 150v (source: gallica.bnf.fr/ BnF). The Virgin Mary appears to a Jewish woman during childbirth.

Although my background is in Old French literature, and the devotional works, miracle tales and saints’ lives that I study rarely concern themselves with issues pertinent to medieval Jewish studies, I was naturally intrigued to find a conversion miracle in which a Jewish woman becomes a Christian saint. More importantly, I began to consider how this miracle of the Virgin Mary might shed light on the relationship of Jews and Christians in medieval society, since they often shared the same communities and cultures, even if they did not share the same religious values.

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The Medieval Anglo-Jewish Women (MAJW) Project

Adrienne Williams Boyarin (University of Victoria) discusses her new project which seeks to make the lives of medieval England’s Jews accessible.

Cultural and biographical study of Anglo-Jewish women is difficult. Scarcity of women’s voices, gendered divides in literacy and religious practice, marriages, name changes — all can make medieval women difficult to find let alone assess, and this is of course true across religious lines. As Charlotte Newman Goldy has put it, “Even Christian women’s lives most often need to be examined in aggregate, and that can obscure both the humanity of their stories and their variations.”[i] Further, all scholarship on medieval Anglo-Jewish women must cope with a primary methodological problem that scholarship on Anglo-Jewish men does not necessitate: the vast majority of the evidence for Jewish women in England comes from Latin legal and financial records. There are many thousands of Latin records of many hundreds of Jewish women in medieval England—dispersed through the Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, Close Rolls, Patent Rolls, Liberate Rolls, Fine Rolls, Tower of London receipts, endless writs, and more—but all are filtered through an oppressive (Christian) bureaucracy. At the same time, these records provide historically verifiable information; they allow us to see English Jewish women whom we could not otherwise see, and they allow us to reconstruct some (fragmentary) part of their lives. But can we tell Jewish stories with this material?

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ToRoll: Materialized Holiness

Torah scrolls as a codicological, theological, and sociological phenomenon of Jewish scribal culture in the Diaspora

ToRoll: Materialized Holiness is a collaborative research project examining the production of Torah scrolls as an extraordinary codicological, theological, and sociological phenomenon of Jewish scribal culture. Exploring Torah scrolls, special letters and decorative traditions (tagin and otiyyot meshunnot), scribal literature from Jewish antiquity until the 19th century, as well as contemporary notions of scribal tradition, ToRoll: Materialized Holiness is a 4-year project supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Researchand based at the Freie Universität Berlin. This project combines Jewish Studies research with Digital Humanities, Material and Social Sciences and looks at the meaning and significance of Torah scrolls from an interdisciplinary perspective.

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The Conversion of Synagogues in Late Medieval Iberia – Putting Theory into Practice

by Franziska Kleybolte, University of Münster

(English/Deutsch)

Although Muslim spaces were objects of frequent confiscation and conversion in 13th century Iberia, the conversion of synagogues was, with a few exceptions, by that time only theoretical. With the conquest of Sevilla in 1248, however, king Ferdinand III allowed the local Jewish community to convert three mosques into synagogues. The transfer of those synagogues is an exception;[1] still, it fits into the discernible political strategy of the time which supported Jewish communities during the Christian campaigns of war against the Muslim territories.[2] This changed by the end of the 14th century, when the Christian conquest of the Peninsula had been completed for the most part: clerics explicitly called for the destruction and transformation of the synagogues in the persecutions of 1391–92, and the laws of Ayllón (1412) created a legal basis that encouraged and evoked these transformations. Meanwhile, the Disputation of Tortosa (1413–14) once again provided theological fuel for the persecution and conversion of Jews and the attack on their places of worship. All of that is reflected in the conversion of 42 synagogues that I have found as part of my research. I argue that this makes the period a turning point not only in the attitudes towards Iberian Jews, but also towards their synagogues.

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Appealing to the Senses: Finding Artistic Expression through Medieval Jewish Studies

by Avery Gosfield and Neta Bodner

“Ritual Echoes”, filmed from May 9-11 2022 and recently published on YouTube, is the result of the 2022 ShUM (Hebrew acronym for Speyer, Worms, and Mainz in the Rhineland) cities Artistic Residency program. The project features artistic reconstructions of 12th and 13th century piyyutim (Hebrew liturgical poems) as well as songs dedicated to joyous occasions. The idea to perform medieval music and poetry within the mikve (the Jewish ritual bath) and the ruins of the women’s synagogue at Speyer came from conversations in pre-covid Oxford between Avery Gosfield, specialist in medieval and Renaissance music, and Neta Bodner, Lecturer and art historian at the Open University of Israel working on medieval mikvaot. The idea of enlivening the Speyer mikve with a performance of medieval music and poetry came in answer to a call for ‘artists in residence’ in the ShUM cities (which soon thereafter were granted UNESCO World Heritage Status) which, with Neta’s help, Avery applied for and received.

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The Religious Poetry of El‘azar ha-Bavli Baghdad, 13th Century

Wout van Bekkum, Groningen

In 2007 I published an edition of the Dīwān of the Baghdadi poet and paytan, El‘azar ha-Bavli, on the basis of two larger manuscripts. The first of these, containing 67 folios, is in New York and catalogued as EN Adler No. 881 and was edited by Hayyim Brody in 1935. The second, with 51 leaves, is in St. Petersburg and is catalogued as Firkovicz Heb, IIA, 210.1, This manuscript was used by Jacob Mann in his renowned Texts and Studies, Volume One, in 1931. The latter is the better example of the two, but the two of them supplement each other, offering us a fair idea of El‘azar’s productivity. Their study is important for our reconstruction of Jewish poetry in the East, especially in Baghdad during the first half of the thirteenth century, shortly before the invasion of the Mongols in 1258.

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Toward a Comparative (and Connected) History of Expulsion

Rowan Dorin, Stanford University

Thanks to the many decades of work by many wonderful scholars, we know a great deal about the recurring expulsions of Jews that scar the history of late medieval Europe. Several monographs have been devoted to the circumstances and aftermaths of particular expulsions, while other fine studies have explored the dynamics of the successive expulsions within the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. Historians studying the Jewish diaspora have meticulously retraced the pathways of exile and the destinations of refugees, while specialists in literature and liturgy—here I’m thinking especially of the work of Susan Einbinder—have movingly evoked the impact of these forced dislocations on the shared rituals and cultural life of Europe’s Jewish communities.

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The Emergence of the Passover Haggadah as a Book Genre

Katrin Kogman-Appel, University of Münster

Most readers of this blog know what the haggadah is: a small book, oftentimes illustrated or at least decorated, kept in Jewish households in numerous copies, which contains the liturgy to be recited during the Passover seder. Nowadays, every participant will hold one of these books during the annual evening ritual. Those who do not know Hebrew will have a copy that includes the text in transliteration together with a translation. The Hebrew word haggadah (הגדה) means an act of telling. At some point, the term began to be used to refer to a more or less standardized text to be recited during the ceremony, but it was only in the early modern period that the word “haggadah” began to mean a book, an object.

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