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“His blood be on us and on our children”: Medieval Theology and the Demise of Jewish Somatic Inferiority in Early Modern England

  • M. Lindsay Kaplan

Abstract

Theology inflects and promotes the importance of blood across a range of discourses in the culture of medieval Europe.1 Among them arises an association of blood with human difference in religious and medical texts that distinguishes male Jewish bodies less in terms of blood lineage, as is the case in the later Iberian context, than in terms of a hereditary bleeding disease. Christian exegetical writings of the thirteenth century represent contemporary Jews as punished with a periodic bleeding resulting from their ancestors’ alleged role in the crucifixion. The biblical prooftexts of Matthew 27:25, “His blood be on us and on our children,” and the mark of Cain (Genesis 4:15) confirm the idea of a hereditary cursed disability.2 This theological concept migrates into “scientific” and medical discourses of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, where it is explained as hemorrhoidal or menstrual bleeding. The expanded interest in this idea coincides with contemporary efforts to translate the spiritual doctrine of Jewish inferiority into the social and legal spheres of medieval Europe. The Church’s frustration at the failure to implement and enforce such a hierarchy contributes to the construction of a cursed, bleeding Jewish body that attempts to render the subjection of the Jews in “real,” material terms.

Keywords

Menstrual Bleeding Fourteenth Century Early Modern Period Theological Concept Divine Origin 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    For example, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).Google Scholar
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  3. 3.
    Caesarius of Heisterbach, The Dialogue on Miracles, trans. H. von E. Scott and C. C. Swinton Bland, 2 vols (London: Routledge, 1929), 2.23:102.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Quoted in Peter Biller, “A ‘scientific’ View of Jews from Paris around 1300,” Micrologus 9 (2001), 158, trans. mine.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Quoted in Willis Johnson, “The Myth of Jewish Male Menses,” Journal of Medieval History 24 (1998), 281.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 8.
    Most of the contemporary scholars who write on Jewish bleeding assume that theology influences this new medical knowledge: see Irven Resnick, “Medieval Roots of the Myth of Jewish Male Menses,” Harvard Theological Review 252 (2000), 241–63. Peter Biller initially concurred with this assumption in his essay “Views of Jews from Paris around 1300: Christian or ‘Scientific’?,” in Christianity and Judaism: Studies in Church History 29, ed. Diana Wood (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992), 196. While he argues in a later essay that this belief is “scientific” and free from theological influence, Biller suggests that Jacques de Vitry’s account of Jewish bleeding, which cites Matthew 27.25, Psalm 77.66, and refers to Cain’s murder of Abel, probably influenced Albert’s non-theological account. “‘Scientific’ View,” 143, 153, 158. Johnson states that a “literalization of an exegetical motif” occurs when the idea of Jewish bleeding developed in Christian discourse engenders the “fact” of Jewish bodily difference in medical texts. “Myth,” 286.Google Scholar
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    Albert the Great, Questions Concerning Aristotle’s On Animals, trans. Irven Resnick and Kenneth F. Kitchell, Jr (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 310.Google Scholar
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    While the main text was probably composed by a student of Albert’s in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, the date of the commentary is probably later and its country of origin unknown. Helen Rodnite Lemay, Women’s Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 1–2.Google Scholar
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  15. 40.
    Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 95–6. Grayzel provides the texts of 29 laws requiring Jews to wear the badge. See also the discussion of the badge in Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 88.Google Scholar
  16. 41.
    Geraldine Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages II: Locations of Medieval Race,” Literature Compass 8 (2011), 280.Google Scholar
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    There may be more; I found these on the Early English Books On-Line database. There is an additional English translation of the text published in Edinburgh in 1595; it appears identical to the 1597 London version. The early modern Latin edition (1583) is not identical to the text of a medieval manuscript available in a modern edition, but the two versions are very close, and concur on all the relevant points. See Pseudo-Aristotle, Problemata varia anatomica after University of Bologna MS 1165 (2327), ed. L. R. Lind, University of Kansas Publications Humanistic Studies 38 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Publications, 1968).Google Scholar
  19. 45.
    James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 38.Google Scholar
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    David S. Katz, “Shylock’s Gender: Jewish Male Menstruation in Early Modern England,” Review of English Studies, n.s. 50 (1999), 441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Janet Adelman, Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in the Merchant of Venice (University of Chicago Press, 2008), 193, n. 94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 53.
    In fact, she acknowledges that in The Problemes’ “final mix of dietary, social, and psychological causes for the Jews’ subjection to this disease, Jewish blood turns out to look very much like Christian blood—in fact to look specifically like Antonio’s blood.” Adelman, Blood Relations, 126. Adelman contends that Shylock paraphrases Matthew 27 in crying out “My deeds upon my head!” during the trial scene (4.1.201) and argues that this brings the theological justification of Jewish bleeding, and the blood libel to which it is sometimes attached, into the play to prove the Jew’s blood difference. Adelman, Blood Relations, 127; William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice: Texts and Contexts, ed. M. Lindsay Kaplan (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002). However, Shylock makes no mention of Christian blood anywhere in the play; his bond is for a pound of flesh, not blood.Google Scholar
  23. 54.
    Neither does it appear in Heinrich Kormann’s Opera curiosa, which he cites in the margin. See Heinrich Kormann, Opera curiosa, in tractatus 6 distributa (1694), 128–9. Korman also relies on “Cantipratanus” for his information.Google Scholar
  24. 55.
    Thomas Calvert, The blessed Jew of Marocco …; to which are annexed a diatriba of the Jews sins … (1648), 20.Google Scholar
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    Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia epidemica, or, Enquiries into very many received tenents and commonly presumed truths (1646), 201.Google Scholar

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© M. Lindsay Kaplan 2014

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