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Response to Review no. 1093

I am very happy to offer a brief response to David Biale’s generous and insightful review of my book, Feeling Persecuted: Christians, Jews and Images of Violence in the Middle Ages. Biale’s review is especially welcome to me because I’ve found his own work, on Christian and Jewish responses to blood in medieval culture, so instructive. I am very pleased that Biale has read my book so carefully, with his review pulling out what I hoped would be my main arguments.

I’d briefly like to pick up on Biale’s point that two chapters of the book, on representations and architectural copies of Calvary, in which, Biale suggests, ‘the question of violent Jews more or less vanishes’. This is a perceptive point, but one which is consonant with my book’s larger argument: in the later Middle Ages especially, Calvary became a stage-set for a range of empathic performances of suffering, suffused with an aesthetic understanding of imaginary Jews as violent agents. Yes, Biale is right that actual Jews slide out of view, but this allows someone like, say, Margery Kempe of Lynn (c.1373–c.1440), to fabricate Jews from popular religious experience, in order to cast herself as a Christ-like victim at the hands of her (not Jewish but quasi-Jewish) Norfolk persecutors. I discuss Kempe at greater length in my book (pp. 160–5). Both in terms of memory and in terms of architectural and dramatic spaces, medieval Christians made elaborate structures in order to witness Christ’s ravaged body, which, I argue, depended on an aesthetic understanding and recall of Jewish violence against this body.

I absolutely agree with Biale that my final chapter, in which I briefly consider medieval Jewish modes of ‘feeling persecuted’, might have been more detailed (and previous drafts of the book did have more material on the Toledot Yeshu and Sefer Nizzahon Vetus): but there’s a wealth of work yet to be done in this area, by better Hebrew scholars than I. This part of the book was very much intended, as Biale has taken it with his comments on folklore, psychoanalysis and Nazism, as a provocation and invitation to reconsider some of the basic assumptions we have in considering relations between Christians and Jews.