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Mothers and Children

Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe

Elisheva Baumgarten
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  • Book Info
    Mothers and Children
    Book Description:

    This book presents a synthetic history of the family--the most basic building block of medieval Jewish communities--in Germany and northern France during the High Middle Ages. Concentrating on the special roles of mothers and children, it also advances recent efforts to write a comparative Jewish-Christian social history.

    Elisheva Baumgarten draws on a rich trove of primary sources to give a full portrait of medieval Jewish family life during the period of childhood from birth to the beginning of formal education at age seven. Illustrating the importance of understanding Jewish practice in the context of Christian society and recognizing the shared foundations in both societies, Baumgarten's examination of Jewish and Christian practices and attitudes is explicitly comparative. Her analysis is also wideranging, covering nearly every aspect of home life and childrearing, including pregnancy, midwifery, birth and initiation rituals, nursing, sterility, infanticide, remarriage, attitudes toward mothers and fathers, gender hierarchies, divorce, widowhood, early education, and the place of children in the home, synagogue, and community.

    A richly detailed and deeply researched contribution to our understanding of the relationship between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors, Mothers and Children provides a key analysis of the history of Jewish families in medieval Ashkenaz.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4926-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    In his first letter to Héloise, Abelard draws a sharp distinction between family life and the life of the philosopher¹:

    What harmony can there be between pupils and nursemaids, desks and cradles, books or tablets and distaffs, pen or stylus and spindles? Who can concentrate on thoughts of scripture or philosophy and be able to endure babies crying, nurses soothing them with lullabies, and all the noisy coming and going of men and women about the house? Will he put up with the constant muddle and squalor that small children bring into the home?²

    The focus of this study is...

  7. Chapter One BIRTH
    (pp. 21-54)

    The Midrash’s description of the creation of the fetus was a popular one in the Middle Ages. It outlines the stages of pregnancy and birth and provides explanations of the process. But the story of parents and children begins long before men and women become fathers and mothers. This chapter will focus on the conceptual and practical aspects of birth in the medieval Jewish communities of Ashkenaz. Most research on birth has concentrated on the history of ideas on procreation, with little attention devoted to the more practical and day-to-day aspects of birth.² The most common issues concerning birth, as...

    (pp. 55-91)

    In medieval Jewish society, as in all societies, the days after birth were days of great concern for the newborn and his or her mother. Many ceremonies were performed to help the society and the family cope with this concern and to welcome the newborn into their midst. These ceremonies marked the acceptance of the baby into the community and were designed to protect it from evil spirits.¹ Jewish boys were welcomed into both their families and their community by way of the circumcision ritual that took place eight days after birth. This ritual will be the focus of this...

    (pp. 92-118)

    Although the circumcision ritual was the central birth rite celebrated in medieval Jewish society, it was not the only one. Circumcision was part of a ritual sequence that was designed both to usher the newborn into the community and to protect the baby from harm. This chapter will examine three birth ceremonies customary in the medieval Ashkenazic world: the Hollekreisch, the Wachnacht, and the Sabbath when the parturient first left her house (Shabbat Yeẓiat haYoledet). The exact details of these three ceremonies are not well known, as they are not treated as extensively as the circumcision ceremony. Indeed, they are...

    (pp. 119-153)

    In medieval Jewish society, as in all premodern societies, infancy was fraught with danger. Disease and malnutrition resulted in a high rate of infant mortality; many children did not survive the first year of their lives.¹ This chapter will focus on the care given children during infancy, and especially on breast-feeding, a practice crucial for children’s survival.²

    At the outset, a word about the sources is in order. The available sources provide only brief glimpses of the way infants were fed, bathed, and clothed. As a result of our lack of information, it is impossible to document many aspects of...

    (pp. 154-183)

    The previous chapter discussed some of the social consequences of breast-feeding and sketched an outline of the division of labor and child-care responsibilities between men and women in medieval Jewish society. The example of breast-feeding, along with other examples discussed throughout the book, demonstrates the cultural understandings of biological attributes. We saw how Jewish-Christian relations, as well as hierarchies within the family and the community, were shaped by ideology and by the constraints of everyday life in the medieval cities. When discussing Jewish women, we saw how societies’ values and needs bound women to their children and determined their responsibilities....

  12. Conclusions
    (pp. 184-190)

    In these pages, we have followed the lives of children in their early years, when they were sheltered by parental care. When the boys of medieval Ashkenaz reached the age of five, six, or seven, they took a step toward independence, as they began their schooling, accompanied by an elaborate ritual. The path followed by these boys from this point on is fairly well documented—either they chose to become scholars, or, in most cases, businessmen. The course pursued by the girls is not as well evidenced. They remained within the home with their mothers, preparing themselves for their roles...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 191-240)
    (pp. 241-242)
    (pp. 243-268)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 269-276)