Representations of Jews in Late Medieval and Early Modern German Literature

By Bell, Dean Phillip | Shofar, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Representations of Jews in Late Medieval and Early Modern German Literature


Bell, Dean Phillip, Shofar


Representations of Jews in Late Medieval and Early Modern German Literature, by John D. Martin. Studies in German Jewish History 5. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2004. 254 pp. $49.95.

Incorporating recent discussions about the distinction between anti-Judaism and antisemitism and the "hermeneutic Jew," John Martin contests the almost universally negative portrayal of late medieval and early modern German representations of Jews formulated in modern scholarship. He rejects what he considers an uncritical acceptance of the idea that only decline in Jewish and Christian relations in medieval Germany is depicted in medieval German literature as well as the belief that medieval literature, especially medieval religious drama, played a large role in provoking anti-Jewish violence. In response to recent scholarship (especially the work of Natascha Bremen Edith Wenzel, and Andrew Gow), Martin asserts that "the facts of daily life in medieval Germany make it difficult to defend the thesis that such conceptions of Jews as inhuman monsters exerted an unchallenged and unquestioned influence over the minds of medieval Christians" (p. 29). He suggests instead that medieval Christians were aware of the Jewishness of their own religion and that there existed a variety of literary Jews, who were complex and ambivalent. The monstrous image of the Jew, however, was never the sole, and often not the prominent, image in the literature.

In his attempt to establish this contention, Martin examines a wide range of German literature, focusing on Passion plays, saints' legends, and fables. He notes that Jews could frequently be depicted in sympathetic light. Often Jews clearly identified in the literature were depicted not as venal or irrational creatures but as people seeking the truth about God. Even when late medieval literature cast the Jews as associated with the devil, Jews were more likely to be presented as dupes, not willing agents, of evil.

Martin argues that the emphasis on the Jewish origins of Christianity in the literature is multivalent, but that orientation does not necessarily imply a condemnation of the Jews. He asserts that the plays, for example, do not convey the message that the Christian Gospels do not offer hope to Jews or that Jews have no proper place in Christian society. What is more, the literature at times portrays a realistic depiction of Jewish polemic and rabbinic teachings about Jesus. Martin concludes that Jewish resistance to the Christian Gospels was nevertheless not seen as a symptom of an inherited race-based defect.

Martin does note that certain literary productions clearly did include more anti-Jewish animus than others and that there were occasional, and often significant, shifts in representation. He points to two developments completed in several fifteenth-century texts, namely, the shifting of blame for the Crucifixion onto all Jews and the creation of an anachronistic division between Jews and the followers of Jesus. In some cases, this shift was also evident in the dehumanization of Jews through the use of animal imagery.

Martin believes that even negative imagery needs to be properly contextualized, however. The degradation of Jews through the use of scatological humor, for example, was entirely typical of the Fastnachtspiele genre. Such contextualization, Martin argues, makes it possible to reconsider even some of the apparently most vehement anti-Jewish portrayals. In the work of Hans Folz, for example, he sees hostility toward Jews as an abstract, psychological phenomenon, not a credible, extant danger to the lives and property of Christians. Folz, Martin contends, deals with Jews differently in his varying literary pieces, and overall evinces a disputative and theological interest in the Jews.

Even in the literature that at times depicts Jews as sorcerers or magicians, some Jews, even when they remain unconverted, are depicted as righteous. …

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