Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Sanctifying the Name of God: Jewish Martyrs and Jewish Memories of the First Crusade

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Sanctifying the Name of God: Jewish Martyrs and Jewish Memories of the First Crusade

Article excerpt

Sanctifying the Name of God: Jewish Martyrs and Jewish Memories of the First Crusade. By Jeremy Cohen. [Jewish Culture and Contexts.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2004. Pp. xvi, 208. $37.50.)

Over the winter and spring of 1095-6, Jewish communities in France, Bohemia, Bavaria, and especially the Rhineland were violently persecuted by bands of departing crusaders, whose prime aim seems to have been to force them to convert to Christianity. Faced by a merciless enemy and by neighbors who had now turned against them, many Jews killed their families and themselves to avoid the pollution of baptism. These terrible events are believed by most historians to constitute the first great persecution of the Jews in medieval western Europe, although it is possible that a precursor was a widespread pogrom in France in 1010. The sufferings of the Rhineland Jews in 1096 were commemorated in three Hebrew narratives, which Professor Jeremy Cohen reexamines in this beautifully written book. He is not concerned with issues which have exercised others, such as the date of the texts-he assumes they were all written in the first half of the twelfth century-or their relationship with each other. Concentrating particularly on the account attributed to Solomon bar Samson, his interest is in what the narratives tell him about the attitudes of their authors and of the milieu in which they were composed. He starts with the premises that martyrologies reveal much more about the martyrologists than about the martyrs themselves, that these martyrs had anyway violated the letter of Jewish law in killing their families and themselves, and that their memorialists were members of a traumatized society, consumed by guilt since many had survived precisely because they had submitted to baptism: a feature of the Rhineland communities was that they had been allowed to return to their faith by the Emperor Henry IV In the first part of the book Professor Cohen, who envisages the narratives having a therapeutic role for the profoundly disturbed survivors and their descendants, discusses martyrdom, and particularly suicide, in the Jewish tradition, examines critically the historiography of the events, and in a brave and at times brilliant chapter explains his methodology. …

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