Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image and Identity

28th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies

Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 29-30, 2008

Chaviva Levin, Constructing Memories of Martyrdom: Portrayals of Martyrdom in the Hebrew Narratives of the First and Second Crusade

In this paper I compare the portrayals of the Jewish response of martyrdom to Crusader attacks in the Hebrew Narratives of the First Crusade and in Ephraim of Bonn’s Sefer Zekhira and consider why they differ.  Attacks against Rhineland Jewish communities took place during both the First and Second Crusade, and, in both instances, martyrdom featured as a Jewish response.  The Hebrew narrative accounts of these two episodes, however, differ significantly in their depictions of Jewish martyrdom.  The (better known) First Crusade Narratives valorize Jewish martyrdom and highlight Rhineland Jewry’s response of activist martyrdom in 1096. By contrast, Ephraim of Bonn’s Hebrew Second Crusade Narrative minimizes the portrayal of Jewish martyrdom while emphasizing successful strategies for Jewish survival. 

These disparate renderings of martyrdom bring to the fore the issue of the interplay between medieval narrative accounts of the past, the events they depict, and the contemporaneous needs of the author and his audience.  While these differences are to some degree shaped by the dissimilar outcomes of the anti-Jewish attacks of 1096 and 1146, I suggest that they are more significantly conditioned by the particular agendas and needs of the authors of the earlier and later narratives.  In my reading, the central goal of Ephraim of Bonn’s Sefer Zekhira is to provide effective models for Jewish survival for his audience to emulate.  Martyrdom, refracted through this lens, becomes a failure rather than an ideal.  My argument that the authors of the Hebrew Crusade Narratives construct their depictions of martyrdom to conform to the larger aims of their respective works challenges the regnant perception of a monolithic medieval Ashkenazic (Northern European Jewish) attitude toward martyrdom and contends that the construction of Jewish memories of Crusade is more complex than has heretofore been acknowledged.

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