Writing History on the Medieval Blood Libel – By Susan Einbinder

Susan Einbinder on Hannah R. Johnson’s Blood Libel: The Ritual Murder Accusation at the Limit of Jewish History

Hannah R. Johnson, Blood Libel: The Ritual Murder Accusation at the Limit of Jewish History, University of Michigan Press, 2012, 164pp., $70.00
Hannah R. Johnson, Blood Libel: The Ritual Murder Accusation at the Limit of Jewish History, University of Michigan Press, 2012, 164pp., $70.00

In spite of its title, the subject of Hannah Johnson’s recent monograph is not really the blood libel — the age-old charge of ritual murder according to which particular Jews (standing in for Jews in general) required the blood of Christian children (most often boys, standing in for Jesus in general) for the fulfillment of Passover rituals such as the baking of matzah. While pagan charges that early Christians engaged in ritual cannibalism are ancient and often cited as the origins of such beliefs, the blood libel as it emerged in medieval Europe is a twelfth-century invention and a Christian charge leveled against Jews. The first fully articulated record of such a charge comes from England in 1144, although there may have been earlier instances. By the late thirteenth century, the standard narrative had acquired several variations such as ritual crucifixion or host desecration.

Johnson is more interested in recent historiography of the medieval blood libel, which she analyzes as historians’ psychological and political projections of current affairs onto the medieval past. Like the Holocaust, the blood libel represents a “limit event” — something incomprehensible to those who did not witness it and open to multiple, also highly contested, reconstructions. Moreover, historians studying these limit events often experience transference, a confusion of past and present events. Comparisons between historiographical accounts, then, are fraught with difficulty. Johnson turns to Hayden White, a historian whose works have treated problems of historical representation and narrative. Following White, Johnson argues that one can choose between rival accounts by their relative “cognitive responsibility” to the historical evidence. Recognizing that it is possible for a scholar’s ideological positions to influence how she narrates an event, Johnson begins with an autobiographical narrative explaining her own complicated relationship to Jewish history, contemporary Jews, Jewishness and Israel, and then focuses on three contemporary historians, one North American and two Israelis who have spent considerable time in Europe and the United States, who also study the blood libel.

Johnson’s study begins with Thomas of Monmouth’s account of the death of young Hugh of Lincoln, allegedly killed by local Jews; as the earliest full narrative of a blood libel accusation, this case has been treated as foundational in a number of accounts. Blood libel has typically been viewed through a “juridicial” lens, a legal paradigm of guilt versus innocence that Johnson claims has corralled scholarly treatments of the subject. This legalistic binary creates a loophole of indeterminacy according to which what really happened can never be known. This loophole is at the heart of the book’s argument. And it is problematic. As David Berger, a renowned scholar of medieval Jewish-Christian relations, has observed, “one can concede uncertainty about what generated a specific incident — and one can also point to morally problematic Jewish behavior — without doubting that Jews did not commit ritual murder.” Johnson also thinks it unlikely that a Jew would commit ritual murder. Nonetheless, claims of indeterminacy fuel the remainder of her analysis, as do analogies to Holocaust denial, and later to competing Zionist versus Palestinian claims. If this seems confusing, it is. In the one case, Johnson equates a claim that an accusation asserting the reality of something that never occurred (the ritual murder) with an accusation asserting the non-reality of something that did (the Holocaust). In the other, Zionist historiography is described as retaining “cognitive responsibility to the evidence,” a claim contested in any number of recent and serious historical works, while Palestinian claims are conflated with those of anti-Semites.

Johnson is drawn to the space of “ethical indeterminacy” — again, not the indeterminacy itself, but what different scholars have made of it. Following the chapter on Thomas of Monmouth are three chapters dedicated respectively to Gavin Langmuir, Israel Yuval, and Ariel Toaff. Chapter 2 treats Langmuir, whose philosophy of rational empiricism Johnson reads as blaming medieval Christians for refusing to see the illogicality of their beliefs. Johnson explains Langmuir as a product of his personal experiences fighting in Europe during World War II and his marriage to a Holocaust survivor. In other words, Langmuir’s ethical refusal to blame medieval Jews for actions that resulted in libel accusations not only judges medieval Christians as 100% guilty; it also closes off any possibility that “something” happened to precipitate the libel and that this “something” is lost to us now, i.e., “indeterminate.” She is careful not to reduce the man to his biography, but that is more or less the effect. Nonetheless, anyone who has read Langmuir’s historical essays is also aware that irrational belief often plays a subsidiary role to very rational networks and motives. Johnson focuses instead on Langmuir’s insistence that the libel is a “chimerical” belief; Langmuir’s flat rejection of the loophole of indeterminacy proves that his moralizing discourse has closed off the option that something really happened to justify the libel. Johnson will return in subsequent chapters to this problem of “the horizon of the loophole” (my favorite of her mixed metaphors).

Israel Yuval is an improvement over Langmuir as an “exemplar … of the turn toward contingency and implication in Jewish Studies.” Implication, for Johnson, is preferable to blame. Johnson correctly recognizes that Yuval’s emphasis on the polemical aspects of medieval Jewish writing recasts an older, lachrymose emplotment of medieval Jewish experience by highlighting the assertive, even aggressive, iconography of Jewish liturgical and paraliturgical texts. There is of course a great distance to be traversed between a liturgical text in Hebrew and the actual lives of Ashkenaz Jews (Yuval’s subject), who were hardly empowered to act upon literary tropes of messianic vengeance. She does acknowledge that there is a problem in Yuval’s assertion of symmetry between (Jewish) fantasy and (Christian) action but defers to Yuval’s explanation that it is nonetheless important to explore the common language of Jewish and Christian belief.

Perhaps because Yuval treats continental history and not England, Johnson is handicapped by her lack of familiarity with Yuval’s primary and secondary sources. She spends some time discussing Yuval’s treatment of an 1171 incident in Blois, in northern France (actually in the county of Champagne, whose rulers were headstrong vassals to the French king, Louis IX). The Blois episode has been extensively treated by a number of scholars, including myself.  As even medieval Jewish chronicles noted, its significance lies first in the fact that it was the first known incident in which a secular ruler defaulted on his responsibility to protect his Jews and instead sent them to the stake. The Blois incident has also attracted attention because of the number of victims — 32 or 33 — and their gender (over half were women, as was the Jewish moneylender resented by the countess and local nobles. In fact, the Blois libel is not really a libel, as it produces no corpse; the charge that a Jew has dumped a child’s body in the Loire triggers no search for a body or any claims of ritual abuse. Johnson notes that Yuval cannot cite any evidence that Christians knew of Jewish martyrological or eschatological traditions. Indeed, she senses the inherent contradiction in Yuval’s case for the symmetrical opposition of Jewish and Christian symbolic claims, which she attributes in part to his reliance on psychoanalytic language to hypothesize a subconscious borrowing of cultural motifs. As she notes, subconscious activity cannot also be consciously polemical.

But Johnson is not really interested in the historical plausibility of his argument so much as its form; she claims that Yuval’s use of psychoanalytic categories is evidence of transference that in turn exposes the scholar’s true concern, namely the oppositional self-definition of Israelis and Palestinians. A long excursus on post-Zionist history permits Johnson to triangulate Yuval’s work with the post-Zionist debate. Yuval shares with his Israeli colleagues Elliot Horowitz and David Malkiel a “structural concern with post-Zionist analyses,” which favors oppositional identity formation. Johnson admits that Yuval has never defined himself or his work in this context — nor in fact has any of these men. In one of the most bizarre segments of this book, she then discusses the case of Muhammad al-Dura, the twelve-year-old Palestinian boy whose shooting death in 2000 was recorded by a journalist. The boy and his father were caught in the crossfire of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian protesters; the assumption of Israeli responsibility for the child’s death was subsequently contested by Israel, which attributed the fatal bullets to a Palestinian shooter. In Johnson’s reading, this story becomes a new iteration of the blood libel, with the indeterminacy surrounding the child’s death equated to the indeterminacy surrounding the death of, say, William of Norwich. She concludes that we must acknowledge mutual rage en route to mutual understanding, counsel I doubt she would have offered to the Jews of Norwich, or the few Jewish survivors in Blois. The al-Dura family will hopefully not read this book.

Johnson takes Ariel Toaff’s controversial Pasque di sangue to represent the tipping point where ideologically driven views of the past overwhelm disciplinary standards. Toaff, whose earlier work on Umbrian medieval and early modern Jewish communities achieved much acclaim, published Pasque di sangue in 2007. Revisiting the Trent libel of the mid-fifteenth century (beautifully handled by Ronnie Hsia), Toaff focused on the inquisitorial trial records, featuring Jewish confessions under torture, to suggest that a network of Ashkenazic immigrants in Trent may have dabbled in medical and ritual uses of blood. The resulting uproar led to the book’s recall, Toaff’s excommunication from the Milanese Jewish community where his rabbinic father was a local hero, and to his expulsion from Bar Ilan University in Israel. Johnson traces the back and forth of Toaff’s defenders and attackers, suggesting that Toaff’s defenders are either “Arabs” or Palestinian apologists who believe in the blood libel and the Palestinian cause. Toaff himself is explained as having exploited that familiar “loophole on the horizon” to castigate Ashkenazic fundamentalists responsible for the corruption of Israeli society and its ongoing conflict with its Palestinian and Arab neighbors. Thus, like Langmuir and Yuval, he is essentially an allegorist in disguise, using the Middle Ages as the stage for a morality play that is ultimately concerned with contemporary events.

I have omitted a lot of the theoretical discussion Johnson brings to these chapters, which draws on writings of Hayden White, Paul Ricoeur, Judith Butler, and Gillian Rose. It is not really integral to the central argument as I understand it. And the argument is the problem.

Each of us is a product of personal and political forces that have played a role in making us who we are, just as they have shaped and continue to shape the questions we ask of the past and the ways we go about answering them. This is not great wisdom, although it is surely something a sentient person reflects upon, a category that includes a few scholars. It is not altogether a bad thing if medievalists remember they are embedded in a larger world, shaped by the ethical and existential questions of a specific moment as well as those that come with being human. As a group, I think contemporary scholars are not as blind to these factors as Johnson suggests. Johnson seems to think that by describing her own autobiographical journey, she is immune to claims that she too might approach her subject matter with personal urgency. And yet, if anything, that is the crying confusion that clings to this peculiar historiographical venture. It is a confusion that echoes through the theoretical jargon and tangled prose, the strange metaphors and scary analogies, the insistence on indeterminacy at the bottom of a phantasmagorical well.

But I am not going to psychoanalyze Hannah Johnson or her book, not just because it’s impolite and I am not a psychoanalyst, but because a review asks different questions. Does this book have an argument? Yes: the language used to discuss the blood libel has forced historical treatments into a moralizing continuum that at one extreme suppresses the possibility of indeterminacy and at the other unleashes timeless forces of anti-Semitism. Is this book clear and lucidly argued? I think not. Is it a good argument? I think less so. And that’s a pity, because throughout this work, Johnson proves she can read very well. She should have spent more time on actual blood libels and less on analyzing the motives of other medievalists. Should we all worry a little more about why we write the things we write? Absolutely. But this does not make us all allegorists or slaves to transference, any more than it makes us novelists. Would we rather be allegorists, analysands, or novelists? Ah, there’s a question for another setting.

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