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Communities of Violence

Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages

David Nirenberg
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 312
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24hrnc
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  • Book Info
    Communities of Violence
    Book Description:

    In the wake of modern genocide, we tend to think of violence against minorities as a sign of intolerance, or, even worse, a prelude to extermination. Violence in the Middle Ages, however, functioned differently, according to David Nirenberg. In this provocative book, he focuses on specific attacks against minorities in fourteenth-century France and the Crown of Aragon (Aragon, Catalonia, and Valencia). He argues that these attacks--ranging from massacres to verbal assaults against Jews, Muslims, lepers, and prostitutes--were often perpetrated not by irrational masses laboring under inherited ideologies and prejudices, but by groups that manipulated and reshaped the available discourses on minorities. Nirenberg shows that their use of violence expressed complex beliefs about topics as diverse as divine history, kinship, sex, money, and disease, and that their actions were frequently contested by competing groups within their own society.

    Nirenberg's readings of archival and literary sources demonstrates how violence set the terms and limits of coexistence for medieval minorities. The particular and contingent nature of this coexistence is underscored by the book's juxtapositions--some systematic (for example, that of the Crown of Aragon with France, Jew with Muslim, medieval with modern), and some suggestive (such as African ritual rebellion with Catalan riots). Throughout, the book questions the applicability of dichotomies like tolerance versus intolerance to the Middle Ages, and suggests the limitations of those analyses that look for the origins of modern European persecutory violence in the medieval past.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2194-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. ix-2)
  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 3-17)

    THE TRUTH of the dictum that the present shapes the past is nowhere more evident than in the effects of World War II on historical writing about European minorities.¹ Before that war and its attendant horrors, Jewish history was by and large outside the mainstream of the historical profession, written by Jews and ignored by others (as in some ways it still is).² When mainstream historians did touch upon the history of Jews and other minorities, it was as part of confessional history. Protestants especially wrote about medieval violence and intolerance toward minorities (heretics, Moriscos, Jews, lepers, witches) in order...

  6. Chapter 1 THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
    (pp. 18-40)

    IN MODERN TEXTS the words “fourteenth century” are often accompanied by others such as “calamitous” and “crisis.” To demographers at least, this must surely be the bleakest of medieval centuries. The previous three hundred years had been expansive ones during which European plows conquered new territories, agricultural productivity increased, trade recovered, and the population grew. By 1300, however, with little fertile earth left to find, agricultural yields (always appallingly low by modem standards) began to fall. A civilization that in the previous century had effortlessly raised new cities, new cathedrals, new governments, came to weigh more and more heavily on...

  7. PART ONE: CATACLYSMIC VIOLENCE:: FRANCE AND THE CROWN OF ARAGON

    • Chapter 2 FRANCE, SOURCE OF THE TROUBLES: SHEPHERDS’ CRUSADE AND LEPERS’ PLOT (1320, 1321)
      (pp. 43-68)

      WHEN ARGUING for the irrational, even hysterical nature of acts of violence against minorities, medievalists often invoke both the Shepherds’ Crusade of 1320, which attacked Jews, and the attacks on lepers and Jews of the following year. These are held up as examples of a “tradition of emotional and irrational action by the inarticulate … masses,” and as evidence for the increasing virulence of persecutory fantasies in the fourteenth century.¹ The danger here is that words such as “irrational” suppress analysis. If violence against minorities is without reason, then there is no need to study the contexts within which the...

    • Chapter 3 CRUSADE AND MASSACRE IN ARAGON (1320)
      (pp. 69-92)

      THUS WROTE the only chronicler in the Crown of Aragon to note the crusaders’ entry into the kingdom and their massacre of Jews in the tiny village of Montclus. Mascaró appears loquacious next to a Catalan chronicle entry that mentions neither the massacre at Montclus nor the responsibility of the shepherds: “In the year mcccxx there was the death of the Jews of Toulouse.”¹ It is a silence that deepens over time. The great sixteenth-century historian Jeronimo Zurita found space in his massive history of Aragon for shocked indignation that the Jews of Barcelona had dared to insult some retainers...

    • Chapter 4 LEPERS, JEWS, MUSLIMS, AND POISON IN THE CROWN (1321)
      (pp. 93-124)

      IN FRANCE, I suggested earlier, the accusations of 1321 against Jews, lepers, and Muslims, drawn from an ancient hoard of stereotypes as they may have been, were used in novel ways to resist evolving royal power and to further jurisdictional conflicts. Within a French context, this strategic adaptation and adoption of vocabularies of hatred is easily overlooked both because the magnitude of the violence numbs analysis and because we lack the volume of archival evidence necessary to demonstrate how these accusations worked in practice, how their usefulness was negotiated case by case. Herein lies the value of the Aragonese comparison....

  8. PART TWO: SYSTEMIC VIOLENCE:: POWER, SEX, AND RELIGION

    • Chapter 5 SEX AND VIOLENCE BETWEEN MAJORITY AND MINORITY
      (pp. 127-165)

      THE PREVIOUS CHAPTERS emphasize the relationship between the collective and the local, between stereotype and strategy, within episodes of large-scale violence. Such episodes have come to memorialize for historians the fragility of minority existence, but they tell us only part of the story of how religious difference generated violence. To address this latter question, we must lower our gaze from the thunderbolts of mass violence to the sparks generated by friction between groups, and specifically to the threat of violence arising from the everyday transgression of “religious boundaries” by individuals (through conversion, blasphemy, interfaith sexuality, commensality, dress, topography). This background...

    • Chapter 6 MINORITIES CONFRONT EACH OTHER: VIOLENCE BETWEEN MUSLIMS AND JEWS
      (pp. 166-199)

      THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER moved from a set of anxieties arising at a particular religious boundary to the strategic deployment of these anxieties in a competitive world: a move from structure to context, so to speak. But we can also take the opposite tack and ask how particular and contingent historical situations encourage the emergence of intolerant religious discourses and give them strength. Such a vast question is best answered by example, in this case that of Muslim-Jewish relations in the Christian Crown of Aragon. Though some have found in the “horizontal” relationship between minority communities materialist conflict and violence undistorted...

    • Chapter 7 THE TWO FACES OF SACRED VIOLENCE
      (pp. 200-230)

      SO WROTE the Muslim polemicist Ahmad ibn Idris al-Qarāfī (d. 1285).¹ For the Egyptian al-Qarāfī this annual event, the attacking of Jews during Holy Week, was emblematic of the intolerant depravity of European Christians, and he used it (pace his Iberian coreligionists) to draw an unfavorable comparison of Christian violence against minorities with Muslim tolerance.

      Critics today might disagree about the overtly polemical comparative element of al-Qarāfī’s claim,² but his reading of Holy Week attacks as emblematic of intolerance is in line with that of the most up-to-date historians. In those few moments when Easter riots surface from the footnotes...

    • Epilogue THE BLACK DEATH AND BEYOND
      (pp. 231-250)

      BOTH PARTS of this book share as a goal the narrowing of the distance between “abnormal” and “normal,” between cataclysmic violence and the everyday functional violence of a relatively stable society. Part One achieves this through its insistence on the location and contextualization of episodes of collective violence within political, economic, and cultural frameworks; Part Two by its emphasis on the systemic production of everyday violence between religious groups and the stabilizing function of that violence within society. Thus far, however, the relations between these two approaches remain implicit, with some difficulties unresolved. Part Two, for example, has to this...

  9. BIBLIOGRAPHY OF WORKS CITED
    (pp. 251-280)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 281-302)