Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

Medieval Jews and the Christian Past

Jewish Historical Consciousness in Spain and Southern France
Ram Ben-Shalom
Translated from Hebrew by Chaya Naor

Ram Ben-Shalom offers a detailed analysis of the extent of Jews' exposure to the history of those with whom they lived, and of how they expressed their historical consciousness in encountering them in different contexts. He shows that the Jews in these southern European lands experienced a relatively open society that was sensitive to and knowledgeable about voices from other cultures, and that this had significant consequences for shaping Jewish historical consciousness.

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The historical consciousness of medieval Jewry has engendered lively debate in the scholarly world. The focus in this book is on the historical consciousness of the Jews of Spain and southern France in the late Middle Ages, and specifically on their perceptions of Christianity and Christian history and culture. Ram Ben-Shalom offers a detailed analysis of the extent of Jews' exposure to the history of those with whom they lived, and of how they expressed their historical consciousness in encountering them in different contexts. He shows that the Jews in these southern European lands experienced a relatively open society that was sensitive to and knowledgeable about voices from other cultures, and that this had significant consequences for shaping Jewish historical consciousness.

Five historical subjects receive special attention. What did Jews know of the significance of Rome; of Jesus and the early days of Christianity; of Church history; and of the history of the Iberian monarchies? By reviewing Jewish knowledge in each of these areas, Ben-Shalom demonstrates that despite the negative stereotypes of Jews and Jewry prevalent in Christian literature and despite increasing Jewish familiarity with that literature, Jews were less influenced by Christian thought and theology than by their interactions with Christian society at the local level, and there was no single stereotype that dominated Jewish thought. In numerous instances, in fact, the strict division between the cultures as separate and independent systems seems to have dissolved.

Ram Ben-Shalom contributes to medieval Jewish intellectual history on several levels. First, he demonstrates that in Spain and Southern France, Jews of the later Middle Ages evinced a genuine interest in history, including the history of non-Jews, and that in some cases they were deeply familiar with Christian and sometimes classical historiography. He provides a comprehensive survey of the multiple contexts in which historiographical material was embedded and the many uses to which it was put. In sum, his work enriches our understanding of medieval historiography, polemic, Jewish-Christian relations writ large, the breadth of interests characterizing Provencal and Spanish Jewish communities, and more.

This fascinating and learned study will appeal not only to scholars of Jewish studies and of medieval history and literature, but also to those interested in Christian history and historiography and in the long saga of Jewish-Christian relations.

 

About the author

Ram Ben-Shalom is Senior Lecturer in the history of the Jewish people at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and has served as head of the Department of History, Philosophy, and Judaic Studies at the Open University of Israel. He has been a visiting scholar at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Humboldt University of Berlin. He has published widely on medieval European Jewish history and is a specialist in the Jewish–Christian discourse of the Middle Ages. The Hebrew edition of the present volume, published in 2006, was awarded the Samuel Toledano Prize for its contribution to understanding the Sephardi part in its Christian context. He is the co-editor of The Past and Beyond: Studies in History and Philosophy (also published in Hebrew in 2006). His The Jews of Provence: Renaissance in the Shadow of the Church (Hebrew) is forthcoming, and his current projects include an edition of the letters of a Jewish scribe in Aragon and a study of Isaac Nathan of Arles.