Monday, February 21, 2011

13th Century France - some thoughts

The aim of the conference, as I understood it, was to begin to bridge the gap between scholars studying Jewish and Christian history in the same time and place. By juxtaposing papers on similar topics in both societies, it could be possible to find shared concepts, ideas, trends, developments and so forth.
Most of the lectures were like regular academic lectures - some better, some worse, but each basically focused inwardly. There were a few - notably, the lectures given by the organizers of the conference, and by scholars whose work often bridges the gap between the two societies (Sara Lipton, Kirsten Fudeman) - that really gave us a vision of what could be done.

An interesting aspect of the conference was that each of the four days was summed up in a round-table discussion. On the first day (from what I heard afterwards - I wasn't able to stay till the last session) the discussion was about definitions and directions. The next couple of days, the last sessions were focused on what had been said during the day, without giving all that much of a wider perspective. But by the last day, after all had been said and done, and people were already used to the round-table format, the discussion became very focused on the potential for finding commonalities and mutual influence in medieval France. It was in that context that one participants, whose consistent position has been to dismiss any influence of medieval Christian thought on Jewish communities, made the comment about the outhouses.

Some of this debate obviously depends on the kind of influence you have in mind. Christians and Jews in medieval France spoke the same language. They lived in the same cities, saw each other every day, did business of various sorts with each other. The tricky questions have to do with ideas, but even then, there are different levels. Commonalities in biblical exegesis may be coincidental. But what about popular religious developments? If Christian preachers and writers were targeting a wider audience, would rabbis have known about that and tried to do the same?

In terms of legal history, the differences between medieval Halakhah and the various systems of medieval Christian law are great. I'm still very unclear on what kinds of comparisons can be made profitably. I'm a little frustrated that the lectures I heard on that topic didn't help to clarify points that would help me understand that. But I learned a lot, met some top scholars, ate catered lunches for a week, and now I need to learn more.


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