Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. II, Nos. 1-2 / Spring-Summer 1998
Devils, Women, And Jews

Joan Young Gregg,
Devils, Women, and Jews: Reflections of the Other in Medieval Sermon Stories
Albany:  State University of New York Press, 1997,
275 pp. ISBN 0-7914-3418-4.

The author writes that contemporary misogyny and anti-Semitism have their roots in the demonization of women and Jews in medieval Christendom.  In church art and mass preaching, the construct of the devil as an outcast from heaven and the source of all evil was linked both to the conception as women as sensual and malicious figures betraying man’s soul on its journey to salvation and to the notion of Jews as treacherous dissidents in the Christian landscape.  These stereotypes, widely disseminated over three hundred years, persist today.

The exemplum, or cautionary story, incorporated into preacher’s manuals and popular homilies, was an important mode of religious teaching for clerical and lay folk alike.  Sermon narratives entertained all classes of medieval society while dispensing theological and cultural instruction.  The author compares their effect to that Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 40s, or television today.  All are media which effectively refined and disseminated cultural (and other) stereotypes.

In this book, the medieval sermon story is, for the first time, made accessible in modern English, providing an invaluable primary resource for medievalists, anthropologists, psychologists, folklorists, and student’s of women’s studies and Judaica.  It is in this last capacity that the book is of interest vis-a-vis Jewish art and the depiction of Jews in Christian art.

Many of these sermon stories articulate common notions about Jews which were frequently translated into images – either through reduction to iconic form, or through more elaborate narrative representations.  The author does not emphasis the connection between spoken (or here, written) word and art, but the relationship will be clear to any one who has pondered the curious images of Jews produced in so many medieval manuscript illuminations, panel paintings and church reliefs.  To mention only a few – the cathedral facades of Puy (France) and Messina (Sicily) (A Jewish Boy is Saved from a Furnace.

It is also fascinating how many of the tales hinge on the relationship of Jews to images – either carved or painted. Repeatedly, Jews either encounter miraculous images or are punished by them.  This is an area the author leaves untouched, but surely reflects (or is a cause) of strong medieval rabbinic pronouncements against imagery and enforcement of the Second Commandment.  Perhaps Jews, too, took these as cautionary tales. Just for the iconography, it is convenient and useful to have assembled here twenty stories which present Jews in different (but always unflattering) situations.  Gregg’s succinct analysis of these stories is illuminating and refreshing, and the way she relate the different narratives about the devil, women and Jews is quite convincing.  Alas, reading this book, and then reading the daily paper, makes us realize how powerful the imagery of the Middle Ages remains.

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