Digging for Jews

The conference at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du judaïsme in Paris that I mentioned in my last blog post was at least as interesting to me for the questions it begged as for the information it supplied.  That it was a success by the terms that its organizers hoped for, there is no doubt.  This gathering of historians and (mostly) archaeologists from France, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, and the Ukraine was another important step in placing archaeology of medieval Jewish communities in the mainstream of European archaeology     

That is much more of an achievement than many would think.  It’s not only that the Jews have been vilified as Europe’s most familiar and easily attackable Other, it’s that European medieval culture has simultaneously been romanticized, idealized, and homogenized.  Despite the work of a few social historians, the public impression of European medieval history—particularly material culture—has been all about suits of armor, reliquaries, cathedrals, castles, and tapestries.     

That is certainly what the European public gets in its menu of museums and heritage sites.  And if it weren’t for the enormous expansion in the last twenty-five years or so of urban archaeology (read: emergency salvage archaeology at building sites and infrastructure projects in the rebuilt and expanding cities across Europe), there would probably not even be such an advance in the knowledge and teaching of the European medieval “common people’s” everyday pottery, diet, and trade.     

But today—despite the look-down-your-nose-at-those-ditchdiggers disdain of the staunchly elitist, conservative curators and art historians toward archaeologists—enormous strides have been made in understanding the material evidence of medieval society in recent years.  INRAP in France and urban archaeology offices across Europe have dug where they had to, not where they might have wanted, and so they have discovered things they were not looking for.     

Subterranean stepped pool excavated by INRAP archaeologists in Montpellier in southern France


It’s almost like a kind of mikve-mania or synagogue syndrome; all over France and in a few places in Germany there is a sudden wealth of archaeological traces of Jewish habitation that were never recognized or acknowledged before.  In France and Spain, particularly, the archaeologists (the overwhelming majority of whom are not Jews and usually have very little familiarity with Jewish culture), sent out to work in places with ancient names like rue aux juifs or el juderia, are now more and more finding themselves discovering things that are identified as “Jewish” and becoming fascinated by Jewish archaeology.     

As I mentioned in my last post, I get a little nervous when archaeologists start illustrating a traditional narrative rather than challenging or at least testing it.  In this case the narrative is the unchanging “otherness” and rigidly orthodox behavior of Jews—ironically testified to by the opinions (and often protests) about ongoing archaeology by hardline, fundamentalist Jewish religious groups.  This is certainly true when it comes to the excavation of medieval cemeteries, and no less in their religiously authoritative identification of ancient synagogues, study houses, and mikves or ritual baths.     

Yes, the Jews were omnipresent in medieval European society, but is the ongoing archaeology really telling us anything new?  Instead of mapping and documenting the Jews’ supposed religious tracks across Europe—or submitting to the political pressure by rabbinical authorities top stop the digging—could there be another purpose to the expanding field of Jewish archaeology?     

Anyone interested in the historical image of the Jews in Europe should take a look at Alan Steinweis’s fascinating 2006 book Studying the Jew:  Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany  where he documents how German scholars twisted ancient and medieval references to Jews and Jewish communities to “scientifically” validate the central presumption behind the Final Solution.      

That presumption (or certainty) was that Jews were biologically and racially incapable of productive integration into European (read: Aryan) society.  They were always a definitively alien presence, whose continued existence there undermined the cultural coherence and cultural health of their hosts.      

Steinweis describes how more than a few of the “scientifically” anti-Semitic German historians were absolved of their sins by their academic colleagues in the de-nazification rituals of the 1950s and went on to have prominent careers in Jewish and medieval studies.  The result is that even shorn of the political backing and aktionplan of the National Socialist Party, the stereotype of the Jew in medieval cities remained alive and well.     

At least archaeologically.  For while Jewish historians from the time of Salo Baron to Ivan Marcus have stressed the interaction and symbiosis of Jews with their various European surroundings, Israeli and Jewish archaeologists have shown virtually no interest in the supposedly unremittingly dark and dismal centuries of diaspora—preferring to concentrate on the evolution of ancient Israelite and Jewish material culture in the Land of Israel.     

And so the Jews of medieval Europe remain golem-like ciphers in the archaeological record, identified by a bizarre combination of modern rabbinical opinion and anti-Semitic stereotypes.  How much more we could learn if it were NOT taken for granted that: 1.) medieval Jews across Europe unhesitatingly followed modern ultra-orthodox practice, or 2.) that they remained culturally distinct and separate from those around them.     

The myth of the eternal Jew is as dangerous when it arises from an archaeological report as from an anti-semitic screed.  I certainly do not fault the hardworking archaeologists whose interest in a diverse and multi-cultural European past (and future?) led them to devote their time, interest, and personal passion to publicly presenting their finds.     

The Find from Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, now on display in the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme


And it’s not that there haven’t been some amazing discoveries.  The highlight of the conference for me at least was the presentation of archaeologist Mylène Lert of a find from the village of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux in southeastern France.  In a crumbling multistory building identified with the “Tower of the Jews” mentioned in late medieval records, the local archaeological team recovered an astoundingly well preserved limestone wall cupboard, dated stylistically to the mid 15th century.  It is ornamented on its top with the well-known “Jews’ hat” of the Middle Ages, inscribed with a Hebrew Inscription, and arguably the earliest known, conscious use of a Star of David as a Jewish symbol.  It still bears its original wooden doors.     

If any archaeological artifact can confidently be identified as an ancient Holy Ark (inside or outside the Land of Israel), this is certainly one.  But neither modern rabbis nor conventional wisdom can really tell us what rituals were performed before it, whether men and women were separated in its presence, what scrolls or other objects were contained within it, and whether the direct, lineal descendants of its users in that small French village in the late Middle Ages, identify themselves as Jews today.


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