Bib­li­cal Women and Jew­ish Dai­ly Life in the Mid­dle Ages

January 3, 2022

In Bib­li­cal Women and Jew­ish Dai­ly Life in the Mid­dle Ages, Eli­she­va Baum­garten seeks a point of entry into the every­day exis­tence of peo­ple who did not belong to the learned elite, and who there­fore left no writ­ten records of their lives. She does so by turn­ing to the Bible as it was read, rein­ter­pret­ed, and seen by the Jews of medieval Ashke­naz. In the tellings, retellings, and illus­tra­tions of bib­li­cal sto­ries, and espe­cial­ly of those cen­tered around women, Baum­garten writes, we can find expla­na­tions and val­i­da­tions for the prac­tices that struc­tured birth, mar­riage, and death; wom­en’s inclu­sion in the litur­gy and syn­a­gogue; and the roles of women as com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers, givers of char­i­ty, and keep­ers of the household.

Each of the book’s chap­ters con­cen­trates on a sin­gle fig­ure or a clus­ter of bib­li­cal women — Eve, the Matri­archs, Deb­o­rah, Yael, Abi­gail, and Jeph­thah’s daugh­ter — to explore aspects of the domes­tic and com­mu­nal lives of North­ern French and Ger­man Jews liv­ing among Chris­tians in urban set­tings. Through­out the book more than forty vivid medieval illu­mi­na­tions, most repro­duced in col­or, help con­vey to mod­ern read­ers what medieval peo­ple could have known visu­al­ly about these bib­li­cal sto­ries. I do not claim that the gen­res I ana­lyze here — lit­er­a­ture, art, exe­ge­sis — mir­ror social prac­tice,” Baum­garten writes. Rather, my goal is to exam­ine how medieval Jew­ish engage­ment with the Bible offers a win­dow onto aspects of the dai­ly lives and cul­tur­al men­tal­ités of Ashke­naz­ic Jews in the High Mid­dle Ages.”

In a final chap­ter, Baum­garten turns to the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure of Dul­cia, a late twelfth-cen­tu­ry woman, to pon­der how our under­stand­ing of those peo­ple about whom we know rel­a­tive­ly more can be enriched by con­sid­er­ing the lives of those who have remained anony­mous. The bib­li­cal sto­ries through which Baum­garten reads con­tributed to shap­ing a world that is large­ly lost to us, and can help us, in turn, to gain access to lives of peo­ple of the past who left no writ­ten accounts of their beliefs and practices.

Discussion Questions

How can we learn about the spir­i­tu­al lives of ordi­nary Jew­ish women in medieval north­ern France and Ger­many when their words were so rarely pre­served? For Eli­she­va Baum­garten, the Bible pro­vides the key, since basic knowl­edge of bib­li­cal char­ac­ters and events was a giv­en for women and men at all lev­els of Jew­ish soci­ety. This famil­iar­i­ty enabled women to invoke bib­li­cal mod­els to explain their domes­tic and reli­gious prac­tices and to con­nect them­selves to a larg­er cos­mic nar­ra­tive. Baum­garten employs many sources, includ­ing litur­gy and poet­ry, illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts, tomb­stone epi­taphs, hand­books of cus­toms, and bib­li­cal com­men­taries, as well as com­par­isons to con­tem­po­rary Chris­t­ian doc­u­ments. Her beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed vol­ume shows how women’s bib­li­cal exper­tise linked their mar­i­tal, mater­nal, and com­mu­nal lives to Jew­ish col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. Through ref­er­ences to Eve and the matri­archs, women imbued their domes­tic and rit­u­al expe­ri­ences with mean­ings beyond the imme­di­ate moment. Sim­i­lar­ly, the fig­ure of Abi­gail came to exem­pli­fy char­i­ta­ble giv­ing and finan­cial agency, while invo­ca­tions of Deb­o­rah hon­ored women who func­tioned in the com­mu­nal domain as teach­ers and mer­chants and were also mod­est and sup­port­ive wives.