37th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies: Part 2

Our coverage of the 37th Annual Conference continues! Read on for more.

The second half of the conference began with the second panel session focusing on Jews and Christians. Sarit Kattan Gribetz (Fordham) began the panel with her paper, “Jewish-Christian Polemics and the Challenges of Studying Them.” Gribetz presented that in Origen, John Chrysostom, and other Christian sources polemic against Jews was tied to specific times of the year and their concurrent festivals and celebrations.  During times beyond these festivals and seasons of celebration, specific polemic targeting certain practices would lose its impact, or would be devoid of its context. The same is true for Jewish polemic. Gribetz presented that, in the Toledot Yeshu, the defeat and execution of Yeshu is intentionally paralleled with the festival of Purim, a time of the year celebrating the defeat and execution of Haman. Gribetz noted the numerous parallels between the narrative of Yeshu’s defeat and that of Haman’s, one of which is the refusal of the trees to be used to hang the offenders. Purim, a time of remembering God granting victory to His people against their enemies who sought their total destruction, was a time of particular anti-Christian sentiment, and, by its association with the Toledot Yeshu, a time meant to look forward to the day when this newest enemy would be defeated in like kind. Just as Christian polemics were bound to certain times of the year to maximize their effectiveness, so too were Jewish polemics timed according to the festivals of the year to capitalize on seasonal sentiments. This allows us to come closer to understanding how Jews and Christians could be friendly neighbors and business partners one day and hostile the next.

The second speaker was Samantha Zacher (Cornell), who presented her paper, “Anglo-Saxon Maccabees: Political Theology in Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints.”  While Ælfric seems to have been generally averse to armed conflict, leading many to cast him as a pacifist now, he saw the Viking incursions as necessitating an armed response. Presenting the Anglo-Saxons as the new Maccabees in a struggle against the Viking’s new Antiochus, Ælfric described the Maccabees as the only figures from the Old Testament who exemplified the spirit of faith ushered into the world by Christ. The Maccabees broke the letter of the Law in order to act in accordance with the spirit of the Law, so Ælfric believed, making their faith of a purer kind for its not relying upon strictures and decrees. Accordingly, Zacher believes, Ælfric saw an armed resistance against the Vikings as keeping with the spirit of Christ’s peace, even if it did require bloodying swords.

The final roundtable of the conference focused on the broad and often misunderstood concept of popular religion. Popular religion is often not considered a part of the history of religious institutions or of famous movements. Indeed, popular religion, both in academia and beyond, is often presented as preserving some of the pagan beliefs of pre-Christian Europe, causing us to isolate it as a distinct, if amorphous, entity from orthodox or institutionalized practices. Louisa Burnham (Middlebury College) began the roundtable with a description of the place popular religion holds in modern scholarship and beyond. Burnham put forward that, looking at inquisitorial records, one can see a difference in practices between communities and individuals that were recognized at the time, but noted that these differences should not be taken as creating a definite distinction between “popular” and “educated” practices. Rather, these differences present us with varying “flavours” of Christian devotion. Merrill Kaplan (Ohio State) presented popular religion in an Old Norse context as essentially being the comparison of folk tales and stores. Saying that “people have always been clever,” Kaplan related that people hear stores and recognize them as stories for their having heard the same tale in a different place or in a different form. Popular religion, then, in Old Norse accounts is more a comparison of stories and a debate over their truth value. This can be done by the educated, or by the uneducated but reasonably well-traveled lay person.

Richard Kieckhefer (Northwestern) then spoke of popular religion in broader terms, seeking, as he put it, to “problematize the problemitization” of religion begun with Peter Brown and John Van Engen. Kieckhefer presented the difference between popular and elite culture to generally be not one of religion, but of expectation. Popular religion was cluttered with local traditions and stories, which often ran contrary to the reforming intentions of the clergy who usually came from outside the local community. This difference in expectation is defined by the local Christians’ tolerance for their own clutter and the reforming clergy’s intolerance for that same clutter to which they had no personal attachment. The last speaker of the conference, Ittai Weinryb (Bard Graduate Center), presented an art historical approach to questions of popular religion. Weinryb discussed votive offerings, and, in particular, iron oxen that were offered to St. Leonard, the devotional focus of the so-called “Iron Cult.” St. Leonard, a saint associated with prisoners, did not have terribly many relics that could be displayed, prompting the giving of votive offerings that could be used to physically denote Leonard’s presence in a particular church or place. Broken chains and shackles could be found hung on the walls of the church dedicated to him, given by those who had been miraculously freed of their bonds. Iron oxen would be donated to petition the saint for his continuing protection over the animals so many relied upon for their survival. These oxen were not given in gratitude for saved animals, but out of devotion and thanks for the protection assumed to already be granted to them. They reflected enduring faith, not a specific prayer answered.

The Center would like to thank the speakers for their excellent contributions in this celebration of Traditio and the effects of tradition on daily life. We would also like to thank the organizers and all those whose donations made this conference possible.