Virtuous vengeance: Anti-Judaism and Christian piety in medieval England

Maija Birenbaum, Fordham University


In the later Middle Ages, the Crusades, the Christian loss of the Holy Land, the Great Schism, and the perceived menace of the Muslim "infidel" contributed to rising cultural anxieties about divine judgment and eternal damnation. During this period, as the Church sought to strengthen its authority by redefining and promoting orthodoxy, an enormous corpus of vernacular devotional literature was produced for the education of the laity. By instructing readers to examine their individual consciences, a practice necessary to recognize and repent for sin, these works engage with anxieties about salvation while attempting to construct and control them. Many of these texts seek to guide audiences toward spiritual growth by employing the complex and contradictory figure of the Jew, an imagined construct against whom to mold both individual and communal Christian identities. Frequently within these works, the Christian God is praised for his mercy while, in an apparent contradiction, he is depicted taking vengeance on the Jews, whom medieval Christians believed to be communally and eternally responsible for the murder of Christ. Virtuous Vengeance explores such representations of divine vengeance against Jews in Anglo-Norman and Middle English devotional works composed, compiled, and circulated in England during the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, arguing that these narratives construct the figure of the Jew as a focal point upon which to project diffuse anxieties about divine punishment and eternal damnation. Chapter One examines ways in which the poem Titus and Vespasian uses affective piety to legitimize violence against Jews; Chapter Two explores Les Enfaunces Jesu Crist , which depicts the Christ child performing miraculous acts of vengeance upon his Jewish playmates; Chapter Three re-examines the alliterative poem Cleanness in the context of anti-Judaic discourse; and Chapter Four explores a shadow of anti-Judaic violence that appears, surprisingly, in the Seven Psalms, a commentary on the Penitential Psalms translated into Middle English by a laywoman, Eleanor Hull. Virtuous Vengeance points to widespread and subtle uses of what has been variously termed the "hermeneutical," "virtual," or "spectral" Jew, and suggests that a cultural narrative of anti-Judaic violence was embedded within the penitential culture of medieval England.

Subject Area

Medieval literature|British and Irish literature|Judaic studies

Recommended Citation

Birenbaum, Maija, "Virtuous vengeance: Anti-Judaism and Christian piety in medieval England" (2010). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3438476.