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Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe

Ephraim Shoham-Steiner

Jewish Studies, Medieval History and Literature, European History

Printed Paper Cased
Published: November 2020
ISBN: 9780814345597
Pages: 476 Size: 6x9
Published: November 2020
ISBN: 9780814348239
Pages: 476 Size: 6x9
Published: November 2020
ISBN: 9780814345603

Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe is a topic laced by prejudice on one hand and apologetics on the other. Beginning in the Middle Ages, Jews were often portrayed as criminals driven by greed. While these accusations were, for the most part, unfounded, in other cases criminal accusations against Jews were not altogether baseless. Drawing on a variety of legal, liturgical, literary, and archival sources, Ephraim Shoham-Steiner examines the reasons for the involvement in crime, the social profile of Jews who performed crimes, and the ways and mechanisms employed by the legal and communal body to deal with Jewish criminals and with crimes committed by Jews. A society’s attitude toward individuals identified as criminals—by others or themselves—can serve as a window into that society’s mores and provide insight into how transgressors understood themselves and society’s attitudes toward them.

The book is divided into three main sections. In the first section, Shoham-Steiner examines theft and crimes of a financial nature. In the second section, he discusses physical violence and murder, most importantly among Jews but also incidents when Jews attacked others and cases in which Jews asked non-Jews to commit violence against fellow Jews. In the third section, Shoham-Steiner approaches the role of women in crime and explores the gender differences, surveying the nature of the crimes involving women both as perpetrators and as victims, as well as the reaction to their involvement in criminal activities among medieval European Jews. While the study of crime and social attitudes toward criminals is firmly established in the social sciences, the history of crime and of social attitudes toward crime and criminals is relatively new, especially in the field of medieval studies and all the more so in medieval Jewish studies. Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe blazes a new path for unearthing daily life history from extremely recalcitrant sources. The intended readership goes beyond scholars and students of medieval Jewish studies, medieval European history, and crime in pre-modern society.

Ephraim Shoham-Steiner is professor of medieval Jewish history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’ersheva Israel, where he is the director of the Center for the Study of Conversion and Inter-Religious Encounters (CSOC). He is the author of On the Margins of a Minority: Leprosy, Madness, and Disability among the Jews of Medieval Europe (Wayne State University Press, 2014) and the editor of Intricate Interfaith Networks in the Middle Ages: Quotidian Jewish-Christian Contacts.

In Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe, Ephraim Shoham-Steiner has painstakingly gathered and incisively analyzed an impressive array of sources to treat the incidence and conceptualization of criminality within Jewish society from a variety of perspectives. Offering a series of suggestive comparisons along geographic, chronological, and societal lines, Shoham-Steiner has produced a strikingly new and fascinating work that will undoubtedly spawn additional discussion and reflection by students and scholars of medieval social and intellectual history.

– Ephraim Kanarfogel, E. Billi Ivry University Professor of Jewish History, Literature and Law, Yeshiva University

This is an eye-opening study of the largely neglected subject of Jewish crime and criminals in medieval Christian Europe. For too long, apologists have ignored or denied a police blotter of cases—thievery, fencing, assault, and murder, perpetrated by and on Jewish men and women in pre-modern Europe. Shoham-Steiner documents that Jews were more like their Christian neighbors than we thought possible, even while they struggled to rise above the moral chaos of the violent society in which they lived.

– Ivan G. Marcus, Frederick P. Rose Professor of Jewish History, and professor of history and of religious studies, Yale University

In this meticulously argued book, Shoham-Steiner draws on a range of religious and legal sources to explore a fascinating and almost entirely neglected topic. He reveals that alongside the rabbis and martyrs so revered in Jewish memory, medieval Jewish communities also encompassed thieves, brawlers, murderers, and wife-beaters. In illuminating these darker corners of Jewish life, Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe restores medieval Jews to their full humanity, showing them to be subject to the same passions and drives as (and sometimes conspiring with) their Christian neighbors, even as they grappled with unique challenges and restrictions.

– Sara Lipton, professor of history, State University of New York at Stony Brook

Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe is an exceptionally rich work of impeccable scholarship. With his eye on a wide range of crimes that encompassed violence, economic wrongdoings, and sexual transgressions, Ephraim Shoham-Steiner offers an important new perspective on medieval Jewish society. This erudite study of criminal activity, undertaken within the broad context of history, culture, and mentalités, combines methodological sophistication, interdisciplinary scholarship, and highly accessible writing. This work will justly appeal to a wide audience of scholars, general readers, and students.

– Jay R. Berkovitz, Distinguished Professor (Emeritus of) Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Shoham-Steiner combines scholarly sophistication with an easy-to-read and highly-engaging writing style.

– Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein, The Jewish Press

This book truly gives us a taste of how the Ashkenazic community of the Middle Ages approached crime, along with all the possible legal, socio-economical, and religious rationales for their attitudes.

– Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein, The Jewish Voice

This work of importance analyzes a subject rarely considered in the study of medieval Jewish history, eruditely considering the span of literature and archival records relevant to a wide-ranging understanding of this topic.

– S. T. Katz, CHOICE Connect

Jews and Crime serves as a window onto these complex dynamics thanks to Shoham-Steiner’s intrepid curiosity, his rootedness in medieval Jewish sources, and his incisive and insightful readings of these sources. His approach should serve as a model for scholars of the Jewish past.

– Paola Tartakoff, Journal of Jewish Studies

His objective is to uncover the way "crimes of a violent, economic and sexual nature are depicted in medieval literary works, primarily rabbinic sources, but also other medieval narratives." By doing so, he adds, he gleans information about what crimes were committed, to what extent the perpetrators knew they were beaching norms, and how the transgressors were treated by their respective communities.

– Sheldon Kirshner, Sheldon Kirshner Journal

In his fascinating new book, Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe, Shoham-Steiner notes that past historians ignored certain sources out of self-censorship and a "long tradition of apologetics." .... He includes some of these as appendices and the book is worth it alone just for these accessible translations of medieval primary sources and the extremely salty tales they tell.