Corporal Terror: Critiques of Imperialism in the Siege of Jerusalem

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In defining the relationship between violence and justice in "The Critique of Violence," Walter Benjamin suggests that violence must be evaluated "within the sphere of means, themselves, without regard for the ends they serve." (1) As Giorgio Agamben points out, this moment in Benjamin's essay is informative for the function of sovereignty and law because it identifies violence as a "pure medium" and "a means that ... is considered independently of the ends that it pursues." (2) Benjamin and Agamben's definition of violence within a context that eliminates its justificatory value characterizes the way one late-medieval English poet represents the corporal violence inflicted on Jews in the first-century Roman siege of Jerusalem. (3) The Jewish bodies that appear in the late fourteenth-century alliterative romance, The Siege of Jerusalem, are afflicted by a kind of violence that demands attention to the violence itself, not its "necessity" within salvation history. While the christological "ends" of such violence are the supersession of the old Judaic law and the punishment of Jews for their "crime" of crucifying Christ, the Siege-poet consistently diverts attention from this purpose to critique violence as a means divorced from its end. The violated Jewish bodies possess no value or rights within the operation of Roman sovereignty over Jerusalem, and are accordingly reduced to what Agamben calls "bare life." (4) As extinguishable entities, these Jewish corpores assume a didactic power that modulates this anti-Semitic homily with a condemnation of Roman imperialism: the disciplined bodies are on display, creating a collective image that teaches its audience both the vengeance of God and the cruelty of Roman imperial siege-craft. (5)

The Siege-poet reinterprets scenes in his sources that would normally incite virulent anti-Semitism in medieval Christians, such as Christ's passion, the flaying of Caiaphas, and Jewish mother Maria's eating of her child, and transforms them into moments that exhibit the pitiable fate of the Jews and evince his disgust for the cruelty of the Roman conquerors. As the humanity of the besieged Jews grows, the newly baptized besieging Romans, Vespasian and Titus, increasingly embody the surfeit of their pagan predecessor Nero by expressing exorbitant enthusiasm about their imperial stature and exacting excessive punishment of their enemies. Vespasian and Titus face moral and corporal dilemmas that efface their Christian identities, enhance their desire for power, and reflect their moral inferiority to Jews like Josephus. The result is an unexpected redirection in the poem's object of critique from the bodies of Christ-killing Jews to those of the bullion-hungry Romans.

The Siege of Jerusalem is primarily known as a vitriolic invective against the Jews for crucifying Christ that delights in describing scenes of excessive violence. (6) Understandably, few scholars have been able to avert their gaze from the horrifying fate of the Jews in the poem to acknowledge the complex investigations of Roman imperialism that emerge through these disturbing scenes of corporal malady and dismemberment. (7) After all, few late medieval Christians would have been able to distinguish irrational prejudice against Jews from their religious doctrine, which taught that the destruction of Jerusalem was a sign of God's providence. I do not deny the presence of the anti-Semitic discourse that runs throughout the poem--its existence is indisputable. However, scholarly focus on the poem's anti-Semitism has obscured the Siege-poet's exploration of the relationship between assertions of sovereignty and corporal violence. This essay explores the way that the Siege-poet treats the bodies of the Jews and Romans as sites of anxiety-producing indeterminacy and recasts them as objects of both punishment and compassion. As I will demonstrate, when the poem's scenes of corporal violence are read as didactic in nature, it becomes clear that the graphic detail of these scenes are a manifestation of a pessimistic martial discourse that does not delight, but rather, instills a deep, emotionally overwrought ambivalence about the horrors of war and empire-building. …