Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

I’m in Paris this week to participate in a conference on the Archaeology of Judaism in France and Europe, sponsored jointly by the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme and the Institut National de Recerches Archeologiques Préventatives (INRAP).

More and more excavations are being conducted throughout Europe, probing the buried remains of their medieval Jewish Quarters– and examining the traces of everyday life in simple houses and shops– not only in monumental religious structures like synagogues and ritual baths.

This has enormous potential of providing new information about the Jews of Medieval Europe (Christendom’s most familiar and despised Other) and to see just how impermeable or porous were the cultural boundaries between Christians and Jews.  For just as archaeology revolutionized our understanding of the early Israelites, it can do the same with medieval European Jews. 

What were their paths of migration?  How did they make their livings?  What trade links did they establish?  Were they a genetically coherent group or a European-subculture that adopted the trappings of a venerable religion and linked itself to its social networks?  Did their diet and lifeways remain unswervingly faithful to Mosaic law?  Was there an evolution of communal characteristics?  What did it mean to be a Jew in 11th century Rhineland, 13th century Languedoc, or 14th century Andalusia? 

The written sources and conventional histories all have answers to these questions.  But archaeology offers a perspective that highlights what people actually did rather than what their elites and religious leaders (later?) said they did.  Maybe the potsherds, animal bones, coins, tools, and graffiti excavated in medieval Jewish sites from across Europe have a different story to tell…

Simply to interpret the archaeological finds by what we already know or are told by the texts is nothing more than circular reasoning and circular interpretation.  Let’s see what the archaeological finds say.

More about this in the coming days.

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