A Historian in Exile: Solomon Ibn Verga, "Shevet Yehudah," and the Jewish-Christian Encounter

A Historian in Exile: Solomon Ibn Verga, "Shevet Yehudah," and the Jewish-Christian Encounter

A Historian in Exile: Solomon Ibn Verga, "Shevet Yehudah," and the Jewish-Christian Encounter

A Historian in Exile: Solomon Ibn Verga, "Shevet Yehudah," and the Jewish-Christian Encounter

Synopsis

Solomon ibn Verga was one of the victims of the decrees expelling the Jews from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s, and his Shevet Yehudah ( The Scepter of Judah, ca. 1520) numbered among the most popular Hebrew books of the sixteenth century. Its title page lured readers and buyers with a promise to relate "the terrible events and calamities that afflicted the Jews while in the lands of non-Jewish peoples": blood libels, disputations, conspiracies, evil decrees, expulsions, and more.

The book itself preserves collective memories, illuminates a critical and transitional phase in Jewish history, and advances a new vision of European society and government. It reflects a world of renaissance, reformation, and global exploration but also one fraught with crisis for Christian majority and Jewish minority alike. Among the multitudes of Iberian Jewish conversos who had received Christian baptism by the end of the fifteenth century, ibn Verga experienced the destruction of Spanish-Portuguese Jewry just as the Catholic Church began to lose exclusive control over the structures of Western religious life; and he joined other Europeans in reevaluating boundaries and affiliations that shaped their identities.

In A Historian in Exile, Jeremy Cohen shows how Shevet Yehudah bridges the divide between the medieval and early modern periods, reflecting a contemporary consciousness that a new order had begun to replace the old. Ibn Verga's text engages this receding past in conversation, Cohen contends; it uses historical narrative to challenge regnant assumptions, to offer new solutions to age-old problems, to call Jews to task for bringing much of the hostility toward them upon themselves, and to chart a viable direction for a people seeking a place to call home in a radically transformed world.

Excerpt

I heard from elders who had left Spain that in a certain ship the plague
broke out and the captain cast them ashore in an uninhabited place.
There most of them died of hunger, while some braced themselves to
walk on foot until they should find a settlement. Now one Jew among
them tried to walk together with his wife and two sons, but the wife,
who was not accustomed to walking, fainted and died. the man began
to carry the children, until both he and his two sons also fainted out of
hunger. When he awoke from his faint he found his two sons dead, and
in his great distress he got up on his feet and cried: “Lord of the universe!
Although you are doing much to make me abandon my religion, know
for certain that, despite the heavenly hosts, a Jew I am, and a Jew will I
remain, and nothing that you have brought or will yet bring upon me
will help you!” He gathered some earth and some grass, covered the
boys, and went to seek an inhabited place. (p. 122)

This brief but powerful tale, appearing toward the end of Solomon ibn Verga’s book Shevet Yehudah, encapsulates the life experience, the world, and the agenda of its author. Although modern scholars differ as to whether Solomon himself included this vignette in his anthology of stories or his son Joseph added it before publishing his father’s work posthumously, it ultimately matters little. These few lines convey much of the spirit and message of the Ibn Vergas’ popular book, both literally and metaphorically. Significantly, the narrator does not record the incident as factual on his own authority, but he relates what he has heard from the elders in the wake of their expulsion from Spain. the story lacks historical particulars. Rather, it captures the collective suffering and desperation of Iberian Jews at the end of the Middle Ages: homeless, forlorn, overwhelmed with one misery after another and deprived of security, possessions, and hope, the depth of their desolation defies comparison. Yet, despite everything, the Jew of our story does not . . .

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