Philadelphia Seminar of Christian Origins 2017-8, Meeting #1
Andrew Berns (University of South Carolina): Jews and the Land from Muslim to Christian Spain
Spain is “a land of thick darkness, as darkness itself, a land of the shadow of death, without any order for the Jews in each and every city,” a 1396 letter from Zaragosa to an immigrant to Palestine grieved. “The people who dwell in it are locusts.” The letter-writer, in stark biblical language, was reflecting on the turbulent events of 1391, a year of widespread anti-Jewish pogroms. Scholars of medieval Spanish religious and economic history have taken this bitterness seriously. But, as Andrew Berns pointed out, they have relied on stereotyped views of Jewish economic activity to do it, understanding Jewish economic activity as primarily defined by trade, at first facilitated by Muslim rule, and then shattered by the Reconquista. Berns argues that changing our approach reaps dividends. What if we focus instead on extensive documentation of Jewish farming, examining how it changed in Jewish communities under Muslim, then Christian, rule?
Beginning with medieval Spanish agriculture might seem odd for the Philadelphia Seminar of Christian Origins. Yet Berns harnessed the expanded horizons of the seminar this year to also ask a question about knowledge, a question that will poke at our discussions when they get complacent: what happens when our expectations about the interests of our historical subjects inhibit our understanding? How do we notice when this happens?
Two Hebrew sources served as guide. First, an eleventh-century land tenancy contract from Lucena, in southern Spain, found in the Cairo Genizah. Second, a twelfth-century tenancy contract from Barcelona, in a part of the Iberian Peninsula that in by the twelfth century fell under Spanish Christian rule. Straightforwardly, it seemed like the document from Muslim Spain was flexible and open-ended, even making recommendations about how the tenant should keep the land fertile for mutual benefit, in contrast to that from Christian Spain, which focused on guarantees and punishments. Berns asked two questions. First, what do we know about Jewish settlement change from Muslim to Christian Spain? Second, how did Jewish legal practices engage systems of land tenure?
These documents, irrigated by Berns’ expert commentary, flourished into sites for lively discussion of their internal logic. In the process, the scholarly expectation that agricultural and tenancy knowledge amongst medieval Spanish Jews was secondary, or in some way unimportant to Jewish lives, faded into the background. Both sources were technical, invested, sophisticated, exhibiting a primary concern for agricultural knowledge, including knowledge of land ownership. Both texts grabbed the interest of the group, which ultimately knew more about Spanish farming than we started with, and left with many—fruitfully unanswered—questions.
Those questions clustered under three subheadings. First, how “Jewish” were these legal manoeuvres? Landowning Jews were widespread—that much was clear—but it seemed that these documents lacked a specifically “Jewish” theory of landowning. Much of the legal jargon was improvised, rather than biblical or rabbinic. And while the Barcelona document used Talmudic language, both texts often seemed simply to reflect Muslim or Christian landowning norms. The point kept bubbling back to the surface: what would a culture of landowning need to look like to count as “Jewish”?
Second, how precisely were Berns’ sources to be translated? Categories like “commodity agriculture” are generic, and formulaic—and it was precisely this tendency in the documents that made them so tricky to pin down. How much did these texts draw on earlier legal concepts–or types of civil law also found in, for example, contemporary Italy or France? How formulaic were they? And how did their authority function? Was their articulation of tenancy rights a sneaky way of making interest payments? How much did they specify for the sake of clarity, and how far did they benefit one party more than another?
Third, and finally: how do we put these contracts into contact with other texts that we know, and other groups at the time? What was a tenancy document from Lucena, in southern Spain, doing in the Cairo Genizah? Why would the Barcelona document use the Talmud not Geonic Responsa? Does its use of Talmudic resources mean the Responsa are irrelevant for dealing with content of such technical texts, or that they simply do not provide a source of literary content? How far did the interpretation of these documents as differing in their stance towards ownership reflect orientalising assumptions about a sophisticated Islamicate culture and a backward European one? What other legal concepts and contexts could Berns use to further contextualize his ideas?
Berns’ talk focused on a post-ancient Spain, and Christian Origins were conspicuous only by their absence. But Berns’ talk, and the seminar discussion, enabled reflection from an unexpected angle on the PSCO theme for the year: what does it mean for us to have expertise about what ancient Jews knew (and how they knew it)? Most broadly, how do we act when we encounter apparently dry technical or legal texts? What sorts of ideas do we expect them to communicate? On the one hand, attention to detail is enough. It matters, for example, that we know how to translate these documents from the original languages. And on the other, how far does expertise get us? When do specialist terms—in this case ownership, tenancy, mortgage—trick us into thinking that they are absolute, descriptive? How do we tell when a descriptive term systematizes a pre-modern text too much? And what habits of attention can we cultivate to mitigate the risks?
Dr. Andrew Berns is assistant professor of History at the University of South Carolina, having received his PhD in history from the University of Pennsylvania. His first book, The Bible and Natural Philosophy in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) deals with natural science in scripture, lithological knowledge, intellectual networks of Jews and Christians, and the Renaissance re-reading of what was understood as ancient antiquarian knowledge.
Audio recording of the session available here: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/psco/year55/2017-10-12.shtml#recording