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Response to Review no. 105

It is a pleasure to respond to so generous and engaged a review as that offered recently by Professor John Klier. His succinct and penetrating summary of the book has also allowed me to appreciate more clearly those problems which require further investigation. Two particularly come to mind. First, the transformation of late medieval tales in the course of the Reformations. Secondly, the patterns of development in eastern Europe to which tens of thousands of Jewish were migrating following expulsions from imperial cities and regions.

We now are well aware that the Protestant world was never truly `disenchanted’. But it remains true that, in the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, whole regions of Europe came to relate to sacramental action and to the role of external signs of piety and grace, in new ways. In response, reformed Catholic practice, what Eamon Duffy has called `traditional’ religion, was also being rethought and re-presented. How did these transformations come to effect the image of the Jew? For several centuries the Jew had marked the border between purity and pollution, grace-laden sacramental inclusion, and the rejection of grace and its gifts. If the Jew captured `every-doubter’, `every-transgressor’ of an elaborate sacramental world, how was he recast in a world purporting to reject many of the trappings of that order? Gentile Tales shows that the host desecration tale was elaborate, powerful and very much alive in early sixteenth century German lands. But it also suggests that if stories about Jews are `good to think with’ about the later Middle Ages, they are probably as useful for thinking of the cultures which emerged from the re-formations of the sixteenth and seventeenth century.

The second area which could be explored with great benefit, and act as a bridge to John Klier’s own historical work, is to trace `gentile tales’ into central Europe. These were the regions which came to possess the most dense population of Jews which, into the twentieth century, experienced the most ambiguous, and frequently agonistic, relationship with the Christian community. In the centuries in which it seems that the ritual murder or host desecration accusation all but disappeared west of the Rhine, they were still told, deployed and remade with as much life and deadly creativity as were once found in fourteenth or fifteenth century Franconia or the Low Countries. European history must engage straightforwardly with the variety of its regions but also with the transmission and transfer of its endowments. In Gentiles Tales I noted the move eastward of the tales from Austria to Bohemia and to Silesia, and with related shifts in state response and the operation of law and justice in these different regions. But there is more to be done. For example, the role of eucharistic miracle tales in the dynastic fantasies of the Habsburgs, in Lithuanian folk-tale. What we may find might not be an eastern European pathology leading on to the pogroms and annihilation – such continuities are for the most part suspect and a-historical – but rather a possible way in which the incorporation of the anti-Jewish tale was a marker of integration into western European culture. It signified the advance of friars, the meeting of scholars, the spread of western European literature (histories, sermons, religious tale) in translation. The question of the origins of gentile tales is complex; that of historical responsibility for their making and re-telling even more so.