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Vernacular Voices: Language and Identity in Medieval French Jewish Communities, by Kirsten A. Fudeman.  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.  254 pp.  $59.95.


Recent books on the history of medieval Europe have paid increasing attention to non-Christian elements of society in an attempt to move away from a christo-centric interpretation of the Latin Middle Ages and to move towards a subtler understanding of the many different components which forged medieval culture. At the same time students of medieval Jewish history are increasingly realizing the importance of interpreting their material within the full context of the history of the lands in which medieval Jews found themselves. Kirsten Fudeman’s book is an excellent example of these new trends. Combining her expertise in medieval French literature and linguistics with her knowledge of medieval Hebrew, she has produced a work which brings to life the Jewish men, women, and children of northern France (Zarfat) as they communicated with each other, interacted with their Christian neighbors and negotiated their interests with the Christian lords under whose jurisdiction they fell.

              Fudeman examines the French used by medieval Jews in Zarfat in order to find out what it can teach us about the ways Jews thought about themselves and their environment in the twelfth to early fourteenth centuries. In the Introduction and Chapter One she explores the languages medieval French Jews used: Hebrew and Aramaic for learned and religious purposes; French for daily oral communication amongst themselves and with Christians. In Fudeman’s terminology Hebrew was their father tongue, French their mother tongue. Women had far less access to Hebrew than men.  Eschewing emotive judgments on the quality of Jewish versions of vernacular languages which have bedevilled the historiography of Yiddish, Fudeman avoids terms like Judeo-French. Very sensibly, Fudeman prefers the concept of a flexible Jewish register in spoken French which was adapted according to circumstance. With fellow Jews Jews could use Hebrew words for specifically Jewish terms; with Christians they would obviously have to adapt their vocabulary to be understood. Interesting is the linguistic evidence that Jewish use of French followed the same regional variations as Christian French. In Chapter Two Fudeman offers a close reading of the rich material concerning the massacre of around thirty Jews in Blois on a trumped up ritual murder charge in 1171. This material is in Hebrew, but it clearly describes, assesses and interprets conversations which took place in the vernacular between the Jews of Blois, between Jews of different communities, between Jews and Christian lords, including King Louis VII, and between Christians themselves. Here one sees clearly how Fudeman’s linguistic expertise encourages a fresh approach to texts which have been studied so thoroughly by other scholars. Fudeman carefully decodes the interweaving biblical models later redactors of the material incorporated to uncover subtle variations of speech which were determined by place and circumstance. Particularly interesting is how she explores the voices of men and women and the arenas in which they were heard. Pucellina with her close connections to Count Theobald played an essential role in the drama; Countess Alix with her strong anti-Jewish feelings was influential through her position as the wife of Theobald. But the arena of these women was private, not public. This is not to say this made them any less influential, but as Fudeman suggests it did make their role more transient, if only because it was through male manipulation of language that the texts describing the events were handed down to posterity. It seems that Jewish women in Zarfat did not possess good enough Hebrew to author scholarly or literary texts. Fudeman thinks they were, in fact, more at a disadvantage than their Christian counterparts in this respect. We lack Jewish examples in France to match the writings of women such as Marie de France and Heloise, just to name two of the most famous.

              The following two chapters are more technical. Chapter Three analyzes the extant examples of Hebraico-French, i.e,. French written in Hebrew characters. These texts are listed in Appendix One. Fudeman argues that Hebraico-French was invariably wedded to its Hebrew context; it was used in Hebrew MSS largely in an ancillary role, for example for explanatory material, and often placed in inferior positions in those MSS by later scribes, i.e., in the margins or on folios where there happened to be blanks or at the end of the MS. Hebrew always remained the superior language. The topics covered in Hebraico-French were usually linked to Hebrew too. Many of the extant snippets offer explanations of Hebrew or Aramaic terms in educational or liturgical contexts. This, in turn, provides the proof that French was the spoken language of medieval French Jews. Fudeman makes the interesting observation that for all their use of the vernacular, Jews did not develop their own fully fledged strand of medieval French literature. Fudeman does not think there was enough of a Jewish reading public to stimulate Jewish vernacular texts to emancipate themselves from their Hebrew context. Perhaps the fact that there was more widespread literacy among Jewish males than Christian ones preserved the dominance of Hebrew literary texts or, what was perhaps more important, there was less need to create a specific Jewish vernacular literature when Jews could access Christian vernacular texts. That some Jews did just that is clear from the two wedding songs which Fudeman analyzes in Chapter Four. These texts are bilingual with French and Hebrew combining to make the songs intelligible to the women and children who heard them performed as well the men with their assorted tlineeducational backgrounds. The most educated would have savored biblical allusions mixing in with tropes from courtly literature. Even the least educated would have sensed the humor of many sexual innuendos encouraging the groom to make the most of his wedding night. Remarkable is how these songs show that Jews saw themselves in much the same light as their Christian neighbors: their grooms were courtly heroes seeking to prove their sexual prowess, their brides courtly beauties of virtues, seeking to please their new husbands. Or to put it differently, courtly tropes were adapted by excising what in Christian literature was the sine qua non of being courtly: Christian. This is in sharp contrast to Christian sources in which Jews were often portrayed as evil, serving as literary foils for the good characteristics to which Christians were supposed to aspire.

              Fudeman has produced an excellent book which examines the complex relationship between the written and spoken word, analyzes the different modes of communication used by men and women, and explores the ambiguous relations between Christians and Jews in medieval northern France. It will be tremendously useful to scholars and students of general and Jewish history, literature, and linguistics. I shall certainly recommend it to my own students.

Anna Sapir Abulafia

Lucy Cavendish College