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28 June 1999

Lisa Jardine (1944 – 2015): How history can be built around fictions, not events

In a review of Miri Rubin's Gentile Tales, Lisa Jardine reminds us that the things we say about minorities matter.

By Lisa Jardine

In her important book Fiction in the Archives, the American historian Natalie Zemon Davis showed how, in 16th-century France, the stories of extenuating circumstances related by hapless individuals under sentence of death appealing to the king for a royal pardon were concocted around stereotyped incidents. To escape a murder charge the plaintiff had to produce an emotionally compelling scenario constructed out of familiar components: a quarrel in the family kitchen, a knife grabbed in “hot anger”, an accidental blow struck in the course of a domestic task. Such stories were designed to tug at the listener’s emotions and convince them of the individual’s innocence. Davis’s analysis challenged the traditional assumption that the reputable historian dealt in hard evidence and objective fact. What, she asked, was the historical status of the archival stories she had uncovered?

Now Miri Rubin gives us the other, more sinister side of this coin. If some conventional tales can help you escape a murder rap, others can rouse your neighbours to violent action against you. Never mind that there is no evidence, that the accusation reeks of superstitious impossibility. What triggers landmark events in history, Rubin explains, is often fictions that people believe, rather than incidents that actually took place. And once a tale is judged believable, what follows is certainly real enough: local minorities are persecuted, driven from their homes, tortured and killed, as happened so brutally in Kosovo.

At the end of the 13th century, for example, a vividly realistic story began to circulate in Europe. From location to location its details varied, but from telling to telling the shape of the story remained essentially the same. In a local community a dishonest Christian stole consecrated communion wafers from the church and sold them to a Jew to whom he owed money. The Jew proceeded to “test” the host – attacking it with knives, burning it, burying it in the dirt. The wafer, however, proved indestructible; the only sign of the assault was that where it had been pierced and abused, drops of blood appeared. Meanwhile the Christian realised the error of his ways, repented and confessed what had happened to the local priest. Outraged by the act of desecration, he and the locals hauled the Jew before the authorities to be tortured till he confessed his crime and eventually mutilated and put to death as a heretic.

In some versions of the story it is a sinful woman who purloins the blessed wafer; sometimes it is a converted Jew, betraying the faith that has welcomed him in. Sometimes the stolen wafer miraculously produces a vision of Christ himself, prompting the conversion of those participating in the outrage; in some versions it is a conspiracy of Jews which solicits the theft, and the outcome of the incident is a lynch-mob massacre of thousands. The point is, as Rubin explains in Gentile Tales, that it is the very familiarity of the components, the cliched nature of the tale, that gives it its currency. People believe that these things have happened in their village, under their own noses, because they have heard such stories before: they know they have already “really” happened somewhere else. Like the sensationalised stories in a Sunday newspaper, the banally predictable nature of the narrative and its outcome make it more, not less, plausible.

By 1500, stories told in northern Europe against Jews of their purloining and torturing the host had evolved and developed their own kind of ghastly narrative elegance. Like some kind of black mass, the desecration and mutilation of the holy wafers mimicked and inverted the most elaborate of contemporary eucharistic beliefs. It is unlikely that the Jewish community was even conversant with such subtleties, let alone inclined to mock and parody them. Moreover, on the eve of the Reformation, Christians themselves were abandoning the most baroque of the rituals surrounding the communion bread and wine. Still, whole communities could be goaded into an anti-Semitic frenzy on the strength of a single such tall tale, so powerful is the hold of the familiar.

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One of the many strengths of this rigorously argued book is the care with which Rubin excavates the compelling reasons why the desecration of the host stories were believed, while avoiding dignifying them with truth status herself. Thus she points out that such stories were most potent when Jewish Passover and Christian Easter fell together in the calendar: the rituals of cleansing, burning and unleavened bread of the former could appear all too closely comparable with the eucharistic rites. Increasingly elaborate and superstition-based rituals surrounding the communion wafer within the late-medieval Christian community lent themselves to fantasies of parody and inversion. With the flair of the ethnographer, Rubin taps into those perennial transpositions and transferences whereby groups of people are bonded together by invoking an alien other who arouses fear and dismay.

Rubin’s period is the Middle Ages, yet she is at pains to remind us that tales of ritual acts of disrespect and damage carried out by an alien ethnic group still provoke inter-racial violence today. The desecration of the host story is just one of those potent and enduring tales which effects the demonisation of one group by another. “All societies,” Rubin reminds us, “contain the capability to develop persecuting processes and possess the cultural resources for exclusion.”

It is our responsibility, Rubin writes in the closing pages of this powerful and moving book, on behalf of today’s minorities, to be vigilant around the mobilisation of stereotypes and stereotypical narratives. “Once violent intolerant language is about, increasingly heard, spoken with impunity, then violent action is almost sure to follow.” “Words are thus never ‘only words’,” she concludes. The historical lesson we must learn is “one of vigilance, of respect for language, of scrutiny of ritual, of alertness to the inception of narratives of exclusion, not only at their end”. Anyone who is inclined to underrate the seriousness of the name-calling in our newspapers today under the banner of broad-brushed Islamophobia should take note.

Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late-Medieval Jews by Miri Rubin was published by Yale University Press.

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