Hannah Johnson (University of Pittsburgh)

44th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2009

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: Are We Serious Enough Yet? The Place of Ethics in Medieval Scholarship

What do we mean by a Historicist Ethics? Some Reflections on Jewish-Christian Relations and Other Dilemmas of (Medieval) Historiography

Figure 1. Edward Burne-Jones, The Prioress's Tale

My original title for these remarks set an ambitious agenda, promising to pull together historicist ethics, Jewish-Christian relations, and some unspecified ‘other dilemmas’ in the space of eight minutes. But my interest in medieval Jewish-Christian relations, and particularly the recent historiography on this subject, meant that I was more than a little preoccupied with the questions posed by Michael Calabrese, in an article which was one of the inspirations for this session, called “Performing the Prioress.” In it, Calabrese writes that recent politically-oriented criticism of “The Prioress’s Tale” that has focused on the Tale’s place within the dynamics of medieval anti-Judaism has styled itself as ethical, but actually performs an unwelcome presentist politics of recuperation. He argues that this ethics is an oppressive presence which coerces critics into examining only one dimension of the Tale’s literary life, and suggests that we embrace the idea of a criticism that eschews politics and aims for what he calls a disinterested historicist analysis. In responding to Calabrese’s challenging arguments—arguments which certainly merit discussion—I’d like to think through some questions that are related to those he asks, questions about what it means to engage in an ethical criticism, and whether it’s really possible to move away from politics in the study of historical persecution and power relations.

First, I’d like to reassert a useful and longstanding distinction between the open-endedness of ethics itself as a space of debate and questioning, on the one hand, and the moral realm on the other, which embraces the necessity of prescription and decision. The moral realm is where rights and wrongs are catalogued as rules, prohibitions, and commands, and it is in this deontological sense that, I believe, most of us refer casually to the ethical turn in modern criticism that tackles problems like the treatment of medieval heretics, Jews, and other outgroups. I don’t think the scholars whose work Calabrese critiques would disagree with his assessment that they are engaged in a kind of reparative—ultimately moral—work, a project of doing justice to the past and attempting to reshape troubling historical patterns that survive in some form in the present. But a reparative model is not the only way to structure an ethically-oriented inquiry, and one of the ironies of Calabrese’s critique for me is that he casts himself in an implicitly ethical position, as a scholar who does not want to answer for the historical problems at hand by involving ourselves in moral evaluations of our materials. Instead, he wants to situate himself outside of any imperative to make up for the injustices of the past. Some recent historiography of medieval Jewish life is structurally similar to the model proposed by Calabrese himself for medieval literary studies. This historiography aims to de-center questions of Christian-Jewish violence (and some of the troubling politics that go with it) in order to ask other kinds of questions about the historical matrix in which medieval European Christians and Jews encountered one another and lived their lives day to day.

I am speaking of a recent paradigm shift, from work that emphasized the dynamics of persecution and the history of European antisemitism toward what might be called an ethics of contingency that emphasizes the dialogic quality of inter-communal relations between Jews and Christians. This recent scholarship aims to capture something of the shared hostility and the mutually reinforcing structures of each community’s image of the other. Here I’m thinking of work by scholars like David Biale, Elliott Horowitz, and Israel Yuval, among others. This move is unsettling, in part because it offers us a revised view of a Jewish community capable of responding to violence and hostility with anger and hostility of its own. To imagine a Jewish people within history that is merely human rather than stoically suffering disrupts long-standing images of Jewish passivity in the face of Christian assaults (particularly in Ashkenaz). Critics argue these scholars run the risk of allowing us to forget real disparities in power between a dominant Christian majority and a Jewish minority, emphasizing instead a certain equality or even equilibrium at the level of discourse. The structure of such a scholarship is not just about the politics of medieval Jewish-Christian relations, of course, but also about trying to break free from a defensive scholarly position that implicitly works to refute antisemitic images of Jews and Jewish life. That longstanding project of defense and exoneration is very similar to what Calabrese refers to as a politics of ‘reparation’ in literary criticism of “The Prioress’s Tale.”

But refusing the framework of a reparative historicism has not allowed recent historiography to escape politics. If anything, the intense focus on shared influences between communities rather than the dynamics of persecution has opened up even more difficult paradoxes in thinking about the relations between past and present in studies of Jewish history. Despite a conscious effort to move away from the conceptual binaries of antisemite and apologist, for example, this recent scholarship has drawn fire from some quarters for disrupting cherished narratives of Jewish history. At the same time, figures like Horowitz and Yuval are among the very few medieval historians cited approvingly on openly antisemitic websites. In other words, moving away from a narrative that emphasizes the needs of memory and reparation in favor of a narrative that attempts to set such questions aside has still allowed the terms—and politics—of a binary universe of oppressor and oppressed to reassert themselves. Scholarship can still be implicated in the old dynamics of exclusion and opposition, even when scholars have decided to pursue other agendas. (For the moment I am leaving aside some other very pressing questions—about the Ariel Toaff scandal, for example, or about how the work of Israeli historians may reflect on the politics of historical writing in this field.)

What I am trying to point out is not just that everything is political, but that the politics are part of the reality in which we work, and the end of our responsibility does not lie in simply claiming that we have none, something that historians like Horowitz and Yuval understand very well. I’d like to question the idea that there is only one way of construing an ethical scholarship, or an easy way of shutting ethics out. If the past is capable of making claims on us in the present, however narrowly we might construe those claims, then we are implicated in our accounts of that past, and we bear responsibility for them. That responsibility, I believe, must finally be named ethical.