on 31 January 2003
In the complex and highly-charged debate that is the origins of persecution in the Middle Ages, Nirenberg's contribution is a useful and timely one. Broadly speaking, his thesis is a counter to the long view of Moore _et al_; what interests Nirenberg is the specific, the day-to-day functioning of violence towards minorities in its social and political context. It is for this reason that he focuses mainly on particular incidents and localities - although certainly not at the expense of broadening his picture where necessary.
His method is essentially a comparative one, contrasting particular events in France and Aragon in order to demonstrate the infinite variety and flexibility of medieval attitudes towards minorities. This use of case studies enables Nirenberg to explore his targets in much greater depth than would be possible in a generalised study, and this is, in many ways, his point: a focus on context, not unified theory.
This is an excellent counterpoint to the vast quantity of material on medieval persecution, with an intriguing (if uncomfortable) conclusion: that day-to-day violence in fact had a systemic, stabilising function in medieval societies - particularly multi-cultural ones such as Aragon.
on 1 February 2008
Nirenberg explores the medieval world of religious communities, always focusing on particular places and people. He finds a checkered pattern of close or explosive relations, not so unlike our modern somewhat paranoid times. The studies of communities in medieval Spain with their unstable mixtures of Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities are particularly fascinating. The long periods of mutually helpful relations are punctuated with episodes of inflammatory fear. Nirenberg shows that where popular superstition ran rampant, the religious leaders often denounced it. But these leaders were partly responsible for teaching people to blame their troubles on unbelievers. And by the late 1200s, the context of holy war was percolating into every corner of Christendom, affecting relations between cultural groups from the Balkans to Spain. Prussia launched a northern crusade against non-Catholic Slavs. France exterminated its Cathar heretics, suppressed the order of Templars, and repeatedly expelled its Jews. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 ruled that people of different religions must wear specific clothes to mark them as enemies in enemy uniform. The intent was to draw a social and sexual wall between Christians, Jews and Muslims. To block friendship and love from crossing that wall, the customs of Tortosa (in Spain) warned,
"If Jewish or Muslim males are found lying with a Christian woman, the Jew or Muslim should be drawn and quartered and the Christian woman should be burned, in such a manner that they should die. And this accusation can be brought by any inhabitant of the town without penalty...". (p. 132.)
All told, these studies of real people in real places offer insight we need now.
--author of Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story