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5 - William of Malmesbury and the Jews

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 August 2018

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Summary

Jews held a special fascination for William of Malmesbury, judging from their presence in his collection of Marian miracles (MBVM). Of the fifty-one tales he included in his collection, six feature Jews as major characters; a seventh mentions them in passing. They are the group of non-Christians that appear most often in the Miracula, far more so than Muslims. They also feature with much greater frequency in William's work than in those from which he drew, namely the collections attributed to Dominic of Evesham and Anselm of Bury St Edmunds.

What distinguishes William's collection is not only the prominence of Jews in his stories, but also the ways in which they are depicted. Compared to his known sources, William generally exaggerated claims of Jewish antagonism, depicting Jews as especially staunch enemies of Mary and her followers: Jews blaspheme against Christ and the saints, desecrate icons and images, terrorise Christians and cheat their way to financial and political gain. William was a pioneer in making the Jews the villains of the Marian miracles, a role they came increasingly to inhabit in later collections. Such negative sentiments about Jews pervade his other works as well. His liturgical commentary, the Abbreviatio Amalarii and his exegetical Commentary on Lamentations, both feature an emphatically anti-Jewish gloss. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that more than one scholar has remarked on his ‘rabid anti-Semitism’.

To help us understand the underlying reasons why William should paint such an antagonistic picture of Jews in his corpus, this study will explore his portrayal of Jews specifically in the Marian miracles. William was a consummate historian who filled his stories with historical detail. His tendency to use his works of history to criticise the political and ecclesiastical orders raises the possibility that he framed his Marian stories to comment on the world around him. The exaggerated images of magic-practising, money-lending and corrupt Jews could therefore be read as statements about William's views on contemporary scientific learning, economics and social policy, and some of his remarks in the stories certainly point in this direction. Reducing the legends to social commentary is nevertheless risky, for they had an important place in devotional culture, both featuring in and helping to justify the performance of Marian devotion.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

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