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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Das Zeitalter des Geheimnisses: Juden, Christen und die Ökonomie des Geheimen (1400-1800), by Daniel Jütte.  Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011.  420 pp. €54.95.


In this revised dissertation, Daniel Jütte provides an impressive study of an emerging theme that allows him to explore a broad range of intriguing and important issues in the history of early modern Jewry and early modern society more generally. Focusing on the meaning, function, and dissemination of what he terms the economy of secrets, Jütte offers well-crafted insights into Jewish economic and cultural history at the same time that he provides new conceptual frameworks for understanding interactions between Jews and Christians. Jütte’s theme is particularly significant as Jews were often seen to possess and utilize secrets (endowing them with perceived negative qualities as well as a certain degree of power). Indeed, the early modern concern with Judaizing, the phenomenon of crypto-Judaism, and the perception by early modern Christians that Hebrew was a secret language—one that made Kabbalah and other Jewish intellectual and practical systems appear simultaneously foreign and magical—fit well into the conceptual structure outlined by Jütte.

              Jütte pays particular attention to early modern economics, politics, and technology, allowing him to engage more traditional themes such as state formation, the court, and growing interest in arcane knowledge, as well as more recently developed topics such as early modern categories of knowledge, communication, and the development of the concept of the “public.” The volume includes a rigorous review of scholarship on the theme of secrecy and evinces a deep familiarity with an impressive array of studies and themes in early modern history.

              Jütte places the notion of secrecy in its philosophical and theological context, but he is careful to maintain focus on the practical implications of secrecy (with attention to the economic and political uses of secrets). In reviewing the various facets of secrecy in early modern society, Jütte quite naturally begins with an overview of alchemy, an activity that occupied Christians as well as Jews. Here Jütte covers the basic ground by reviewing some of the central figures that have been discussed in the secondary literature. He next turns to medical arcana, examining various salves and cosmetics and, more menacingly, accusations of Jews concocting poisons for a variety of purposes. Jütte also gives ample space to discussions of cryptography, espionage and the procurement of information, as well as the development of and traffic in technology (for both civil and military purposes). In the latter category he presents an intriguing range of Jewish personalities involved with weapons and other military technology. Jews, like other early modern people, were also involved in what appear to us today to be more fanciful engagement, speculating and trafficking in magical potions and products. Logically, Jütte next turns to Jewish involvement with and perceived mastery of magical arts and sorcery, the quintessential secrets. In discussing the economic dimension of the arcane, Jütte profitably examines the world of the political court, paying particular attention to alchemy and the related activities of metallurgy and currency production as well as financial reform in the nascent states.

              In his extensive fifth chapter, which covers some 140 pages, Jütte turns to the little-studied but intriguing figure of Abramo Colorni (1544–1599), fashioned to some extent by himself and his contemporaries as a professor of secrets (legitimated for some by his Jewish background). Jütte reconstructs an extensive biography, reviewing along the way Colorni’s intellectual development and migrations before serving as an engineer at the court in Ferrara. Known particularly for his work on weapons, Colorni was a mechanical expert with technical know-how, and for Jütte a classical representative of an individual expert in the economy of secrets. He reflects for Jütte the fine lines separating science and magic, astrology and palmistry, mathematics and mysticism, and practice and theory in the early modern world. Colorni was familiar with Christian theology, and his own work was received far beyond the Mantua court, in many other European courts and contexts. Jütte provides a particularly lengthy and useful analysis of the eclectic court of Rudolph II in Prague, including Colorni’s activities and the role of other Jews. While we do not know if Colorni introduced his arts into the Jewish community, Jütte asserts that similar concerns abounded within Judaism of the time, especially in the form of Kabbalah and magic. Highlighting the practical and political implications of Colorni’s work, Jütte discusses at some length his cryptography and code-breaking skills, as well as his knowledge of explosives (developed in part through his alchemical work), which Jütte again masterfully contextualizes. At times, as Jütte notes, the involvement of Jews in knowledge with military implications could lead to accusations that Jews served as spies, divulging secrets to the Ottomans.

              For Jütte, the early modern period was characterized in some significant ways as the age of secrets—in the areas of arcane and magical knowledge as much as in the areas of political intrigue and scientific development. Everyday life was infused with engagement or interaction with secrecy—in communication, economics, politics, and even religion and spirituality. The position of Jews and Judaism in this discourse, as a result, could be quite central, allowing Jews to participate in and contribute to broader cultural developments. The theme allows Jütte to mine an impressive array of studies and topics that cross the traditional separation of Judaism and Christianity and popular and learned societies. Jütte’s study helps to deepen our knowledge of Jewish society and Jewish interactions with the larger world, at the same time that it reinforces scholarly trends that present early modern science as complex and dynamic, question the nature of early modern knowledge (public and secret; creation and dissemination), and increasingly challenge more traditional boundaries between spheres of life and existence such as economics, religion, politics, and science. In the end, this outstanding and in many ways path-breaking work is a remarkable example of careful and detailed engagement with a wide range of scholarship and creative and careful attention to both familiar and little-discussed sources. As such, it will be a valuable resource for scholars in many fields, and it helps to further the study of early modern Jewish history, early modern science, and the culture of the early modern world.

Dean Phillip Bell

Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies