Sacred Communities: Jewish and Christian Identities in Fifteenth-Century Germany, by Dean Phillip Bell

By Bodian, Miriam | Shofar, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Sacred Communities: Jewish and Christian Identities in Fifteenth-Century Germany, by Dean Phillip Bell


Bodian, Miriam, Shofar


Boston and Leiden: Brill Academic Publisher, 2001. 301 pp. $79.20.

This book sets out "to recontextualize the world of Jewish and Christian relations [in fifteenth-century Germany] by focusing on...Jewish and Christian interaction as well as Jewish and Christian forms of communal organization and identity" (p. 1). The author, Dean Phillip Bell, concurs with R. Po-chia Hsia's conclusion that recent scholarship on Jews and medieval Germany falls into two general categories: a) works on internal Jewish communal development, making use of Hebrew and other Jewish sources, and b) works on anti-Judaism, making use of German and Latin sources. He suggests that a serious analysis of Christians and Jews in late medieval Germany must combine both approaches. And it must do so, he argues, taking into account the full range of changing theological conceptions, on the one hand, and changing social, political, and economic conditions, on the other.

This would be a truly daunting task for any scholar. One can certainly admire Bell's heroic attempt to carry it out. But the book has serious weaknesses. First and foremost is the lack of a clear methodology. The book purports to "focus on" a dizzying array of issues and questions. It skips with bewildering swiftness from one topic to another -- from musings on Pierre Bourdieu's concept of habitus, for example, to statistics about medieval town foundations (pp. 27-29). And it presents opinions of other scholars on a multitude of subjects, without integrating them into an overarching picture.

Bell does not deal with the entire orbit of the German-speaking lands, as the title might suggest, but rather with "south and central German urban areas" (p. 2). To be sure, dealing even with this more circumscribed area entails enormous difficulties, given the "vastly divergent and individual developments within the various cities of Germany," in the author's own words (p. 34). But instead of confronting these difficulties, the author offers a brief politico-legal history of Augsburg (pp. 34-5), with the hope that this will at least "help to contextualize the main themes to be pursued in this book." Such evasions add to the reader's sense of being left stranded.

In his treatment of church and community (Chapter Two), Bell relies heavily on other scholars, as well as on English and German translations of key Latin works. He argues that there is a correlation between late medieval theological shifts (e.g., in the Christian view of sacred law), and social and political developments in the German cities (as manifested, among other things, in changing behavior toward the Jews). In particular, he argues that a new "priesthood" of Christian burghers deemed itself around a concept of moral rather than sacramental law; and that as the political community became increasingly deemed as an exclusive community of Christian burghers, Jews (as well as clerics) were pushed outside its boundaries. …

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