Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Time of the Wandering Jew in the Chronica Majora and the De Brailes Hours

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Time of the Wandering Jew in the Chronica Majora and the De Brailes Hours

Article excerpt

Facti sunt eis tamquam lapides ad milliaria: viatoribus ambulantibus aliquid ostenderunt, sed ipsi stolidi atque immobiles remanserunt.

They became, as it were, milestones to these strangers; they indicated the path to the travelers but they remained motionless and immovable. (1)

THE LEGEND OF THE WANDERING JEW tells of a man who insulted Jesus during the Passion, refusing him rest, and mockingly urging him to hurry to his death. Jesus, the legend goes, turned to him and said, "I will go, but you will remain until I return." Through this encounter the man is converted to Christianity, but he is nevertheless doomed to linger on earth, awaiting the Second Coming and acting both as a living witness of the time of the Passion and as a sign of future redemption. Because of his endless wanderings, he came to be known in English as "the Wandering Jew."

Scholars have often, and rightly, interpreted the Wandering Jews unending displacement as symbolic of the Jewish diaspora. Less attention has been paid to his strange temporality, a dimension of the legend that is more readily apparent in one of his names among German speakers--der ewige Jude--the eternal Jew. (2) In this essay I will explore how the temporal dimension of the Wandering Jew curse reflects Christian denial of Jewish coevalness and the tripartite nature of medieval anti-Jewish temporality, which viewed Jews of the past, present, and future in terms of their relation to Christian history.

Medieval Christians honored the Old Testament Jews of the past as Christian precursors and acknowledged that in the future a "remnant" of Jews was needed for the End Times. Contemporary Jews were, in contrast, represented as stubborn resistors to the progress of Christian spiritual history who should be tolerated primarily in order to preserve them for their prophesied eschatological role. Jews, then, played valued roles in the Christian past and future, but not in the Christian present. The Wandering Jew's endless punishment reflects the uncomfortable spiritual stasis to which medieval Christians relegated their Jewish contemporaries. One of several paradoxes of the Wandering Jew legend--that he remains cursed despite conversion--reflects this anti-Jewish temporality. The Wandering Jew embodies the denial of Jewish coevalness, presenting a Jew who is alive in the present, but never truly of it. Spiritually mired in a pre-Christian past, this Jew is preserved in a kind of spiritual stasis awaiting a prophesied Christian future. (3)


In this essay I will explore how this perceived Jewish spiritual stasis is visualized in the two earliest extant images of the Wandering Jew, both from thirteenth-century England. (4) These images appear in Matthew Paris's Chronica Majora [Figure 1] and the De Brailes Hours [Figure 2]. (5 )In the Chronica, Jewish immobility seems to represent an imaginative overcoming of Jewish messianism through a fantasy about Christ depriving a Jew of any such temporal control. In the De Brailes Hours, Jewish stasis acts as a foil to the quotidian devotional progress of pious Christians. In both texts, the Wandering Jew speaks to investments in Christian temporal mobility that inform the Christian anti-Jewish tradition. As with so many aspects of the Wandering Jew myth, this temporality serves, as Galit Hasan-Rokem puts it, as a "refraction" of Christian identity. (6)

Both chronicles and books of hours are explicitly concerned with the passage of time. I will discuss the relevance of the forms of the texts in which these two early images appear to their respective visualizations of the legend. Matthew Paris, writing in a state of heightened apocalyptic expectation, provides in his chronicle a moral framework for global events stretching from Creation to the End of Days. For him, the Wandering Jew is a miracle of the faith and a sign of the End Times, one of several such signs bound up with his representation of Jews and Judaism. …

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