The Discourse of Law and Justice in Medieval Europe
24th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday, March 27, 2004
Law and Justice in Early Yiddish Literature
Jerold C. Frakes, University of Southern California

As one might imagine, traditional texts from early Ashkenazic culture (beginning in the fourteenth century in central and eastern Europe and northern Italy) assume the underlying determinative role of the rabbinical tradition with respect to the constituent principles of law, expressed most clearly in the multiple and long-standing ‘legal’ genres of Hebrew biblical and talmudic commentary and rabbinical responsa. Nonetheless, with the growing interchange of Jewish and coterritorial non-Jewish cultures that made itself increasingly apparent in the course of the development of Ashkenazic vernacular literature in Yiddish over the course of the final centuries of the Middle Ages, the multiple legal discourse represented in Christian literary texts that were translated and adapted into Yiddish are not consistently jettisoned by Jewish adapters and simply replaced by traditional Jewish discourse. Instead, one finds both an amalgam of motifs and conceptions and thus also a hybrid legal discourse that ultimately neither satsifies the legal requirements of either Christian or Jewish society nor self-consciously proposes a new and integrated ‘Judeo-Christian’ model. Such a result is quite interesting for a number of reasons, not least that such texts differentially indicate the relative acceptability of individual Christian motifs as they intersect with the narrative demands of particular texts. The boundary-crossing genres most interesting and instructive in this regard are those of epic, both courtly and heroic. In this paper the texts examined are among the primary representatives of these genres in the early Yiddish canon: Ducus Horant, Vidvilt (King Arthur’s Court), Bovo of Antona, Pariz and Viene.

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