Corporal Terror: Critiques of Imperialism in the Siege of Jerusalem

By Mueller, Alex | Philological Quarterly, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Corporal Terror: Critiques of Imperialism in the Siege of Jerusalem


Mueller, Alex, Philological Quarterly


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Corporal Terror: Critiques of Imperialism in the Siege of Jerusalem
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.