In Communities of Violence, David Nirenberg sets out to redefine the roles of violence and persecution in medieval societies and to reinvent the way the topic of persecution is approached by scholars. He adamantly disagrees with those historians who seek to trace a developing persecuting mentality that begins in the Middle Ages and points to modern persecutions and atrocities like the Holocaust. This misguided approach, popular among prior historians, focuses on a quest for the origin of persecution in the Middle Ages and seeks to create a narrative of European intolerance that suggests a continuity across centuries and nations. Such an approach ignores local contexts and individuals, focusing instead on “universal” stereotypes and collective, continuous structures. Nirenberg, however, asserts that structures and meanings of violence and persecution change over time. He thus rejects the theory of the medieval creation of a static persecutory discourse that was focused on creating the “Other.” Instead, he offers a framework for violence that demands that it be viewed within cultural, social, religious, and political contexts, and in the process shows how violence was often the result of deliberate calculation, not irrational mob action. This call for awareness of specific contexts is well-founded; other approaches, like RI Moore’s, for example, that deal broadly with persecution lose sight of the individual motives that could cause violence and persecution, and over-simplify the roles that these forces can play within society. Moore also dismisses the idea of irrational mass action, placing the development of persecution firmly within a political (and often clerical) framework. Nirenberg develops his thesis by addressing, in turn, cataclysmic and systemic forms of violence and their functions within 14th century medieval society.
Unlike earlier works on persecution, Nirenberg’s approach is extremely localized; he studies the issue of violence through a narrow lens pointed at France and the Crown of Aragon in the 14th century. He first examines two dramatic occurrences of “cataclysmic” violence: the Shepherd’s Crusade of 1320, in which groups of peasants violently attacked Jews, offering conversion or death, and the so-called “Cowherds’ Crusade” the following year which began with attacks against lepers (accusing them of well-poisoning) and eventually encompassed Jews and Muslims as well. While both France and Aragon experienced forms of these events, Nirenberg uses a variety of local records to show the very different outcomes on either side of the Pyrenees. Nirenberg asserts that in France the shepherds, while committing violence against Jews, were actually engaging in an act of rebellion against the crown by using violence against the Jews as a semi-legitimizing cover for their true displeasure with the king. Likewise, the 1321 claims of leper conspiracy, and subsequent attacks on lepers were truly usurpations of royal judicial prerogative and the event became a debate over local and royal jurisdiction. In Spain (it is anachronistic to use the term “Spain” here, but it is the simplest to indicate the geography), however, the violent movements were much less bloody and while (as in France) they retained political motives, those motives were ultimately used by the crown to negotiate power, jurisdiction, and finances. We see in Aragon, then, a control by the Crown that we do not see in France, where rebellion against the king was a motivating factor in the violent episodes. Nirenberg thus illustrates that though “the form and vocabulary of stereotypes about and accusations against minorities may seem very similar across time and geographic space, their function and effect are closely dependent on social context and conflict.” Clearly, local meanings of stereotypes and minority functions are critical to the understanding of persecutory events.
Of equal importance to correctly interpreting these moments of cataclysmic violence, however, is the acknowledgement of systemic violence. According to Nirenberg, during the long moments in between cataclysmic violence, violence was “quotidian, strategic, controlled, and stabilizing.” As evidence, Nirenberg uses a series of case studies garnered from Spanish archives,which examine the attitudes and legislation towards inter-religious sexual contact, Jewish-Muslim competition in fiscal, economic and civic realms, and Christian acts of “sacred violence” against Jews. In all three, Nirenberg portrays a everyday discourse of persecution and accusation that is a structural part of society. In his chapter on violence and sex, for example, Nirenberg explores the role of the Christian female body in establishing and protecting social boundaries. One of his more fascinating discussions involves the role of prostitutes, who performed a necessary function and whose bodies, in particular, represented possible entry points for outsiders into the hub of the Christian community.
Perhaps the most brilliant of Nirenberg’s explorations, however, is that of ritualized violence. Nirenberg examines the recurring pattern of Holy Week riots, in which Christians (often young clerics) attacked the Jewish quarters of towns. Nirenberg notes that such riots were commonplace, and suggests that they were, in fact, a ritualized form of violence in which actual injury was rare and often accidental. Indeed, the most violent acts during these ritualized moments were directed not at the Jews, but as the Christian guards protecting the Jews. These guards represented the ruler, thus reaffirming Nirenberg’s earlier thesis of persecutions of Jews as cloaked aggression against the king. Nirenberg also notes that the Christian aggressors typically attacked walls, not people, and proposes that Holy Week violence thus served to denote and reinforce boundaries. Overall, then, the very ordinariness of these types of violence (ritualized riots and the very common persecutory accusations made for economic and political purposes) make the explosions of violence – the cataclysmic – abnormal, and thus unsuited for attempts to chart them as evidence of a growing persecutory society. Rather, these moments represent points where that ever-present tension was used for political and economic purposes in a way that tipped the balance. The acceptance of this existence of central and systemic violence also demands a new acknowledgement that the belief in convivencia (peaceful and idyllic coexistence among Jews, Christians and Muslims in Iberia) is naïve and incomplete. While co-existence did exist, it was, in fact, dependent upon violence and persecutory discourse.
Overall, Nirenberg presents exciting work, not only in his solid social histories, but also in his forays into cultural history. Often, however, these explorations raise as many questions as they answer. To start, Nirenberg fails to define his constructs of violence and persecution, allowing for great ambiguity. For example, were false accusations of miscegenation directed by various groups at various others (sometimes both parties being “minority” parties) violent, persecutory, or both? Both his chapter on sexual violence and his chapter on violence among minorities also beg for further exploration. For instance, Nirenberg raises fascinating theories about prostitutes’ bodies, but he essentially skirts the gender issue, failing to mark differences in the roles and discourse of violence as they were used by and against the different genders. Perhaps more problematic, however, Nirenberg also, by means of omission, discounts fear as a motivating force for persecution or violence in many of his examples. An important exception is his chapter on sexual boundaries and prostitution, where fear of miscegenation represented fear of community corruption or “outsider” infiltration. While political motivations were undoubtedly present, a discourse on emotion seems necessary for a more complete understanding of how persecution functions, particularly given his specific and individualized focus.
Despite these questions, Nirenberg masterfully pushes the boundaries on how academia views medieval violence. Perhaps most seductive is his implicit questioning of the conception of violence as persecution. As violence is ritualized and relieved of its dangerous outcomes, it can be seen as a liminal moment; where in the course of a religious “rite” typical social rules are overturned, for the purpose of ultimately reaffirming hierarchical structures. To take Nirenberg’s argument further down Victor Turner’s path, moments of “out-of-hand” violence could then be interpreted as moments when the communitas became so strong that it became a serious threat during an otherwise routine ritual. The role of violence in creating structure, its “stabilizing function within society,” then raises further issues. The formation of basic societal structure would presumably only be considered persecution by an anarchist. Thus, ritualized violence, and institutionalized uses of accusation for understood legal and economic ends, almost cease to be persecutory. But can violence against a marginal group by a dominant group be anything other than persecutory? Obviously, this dialogue can be continued.