Jewish- Christian Relations 10. 24. 11 Evolving Tensions: The Effects of Heightened Animosity Between Jews and Christians The Chronicle of Le Mans depicts events that took place in the French town of Le Mans toward the late 10th century. The document tells primarily of the evil acts of Sehok ben Esther Israeli, a former Jew who has converted to Christianity, and how he strove against the Jewish community in Le Mans.
By examining this text, we can glimpse the beginnings of Jewish animosity toward converts; the events of the text purportedly took place in 992 CE, which, if true, situate the text in the beginning of Christian missionizing efforts and the glorification of martyrdom that Jews took on in place of converting. However, the text also shows reflections of 13th-century tensions between Jews and Christians. For example, the text alludes to how the Jewish were seen as having knowingly killed Christ, a Christian viewpoint that gained prevalence in the late medieval ages.
The Chronicle of Le Mans therefore not only depicts the Jewish-Christian tensions of the 10th century, but also how tensions evolved and heightened into the 13th century. By examining The Chronicle of Le Mans, we can observe the path leading to the state of Jewish animosity toward converts in the 13th century. Before examining how the document depicts converts to Christianity, we must first establish Sehok ben Esther Israeli’s status as a convert as well as the negative association that results from this status.
In The Chronicle of Le Mans, Sehok’s conversion is made clear in the text when it states, “This Sehok left the Lord’s Torah and the law and statues which He had commanded His servant Moses. Instead he served the Gentiles’ god, the idols of the Christians, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. ” The text goes on to damn Sehok’s conversion, declaring, “He was more fully evil than anyone before him. ”1 Clearly, the authors of the text looked down upon Sehok’s newfound religious convictions. Sehok’s evil nature against Jews is further established when he leads the Count of Le Mans to suspect the Jews are conspiring against him.
This later leads to anti-Jewish violence, where the Christian mob declares, “The time has come to destroy all the Jews and to remove them totally from the land,” because the Jews have supposedly desecrated the image of God. Sehok’s status as a convert is also evident in his name as he is described as the “son of” Esther Israeli. This name therefore links Sehok to the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, in which Esther, the Jewish Queen of Persia, prevents the genocide of the Jewish people by the King’s conniving prime minister, Haman.
By making Sehok the son of Esther, a prominent Jewish figure, it is clear that Sehok was originally a Jew. However, “Sehok” in Hebrew means “laughter” and can also be pronounced as “Shahuk,” meaning “pulverized” or “blotted out. ” Therefore, Sehok has left Judaism and is now something to be “pulverized,” a stain to be forgotten. Sehok is “evil” and “wicked,” preying on the Jews who “had pity upon him and supported him as is their custom, in whatever town he visited. ”1 Sehok’s conversion seems inextricably linked with his new status as a Christian.
The relationship between The Chronicle of Le Mans and the Book of Esther also establishes a relationship between Haman and Sehok. Haman tries to trick King Ahasue’rus into believing that all the Jews ought to be killed by saying, “Their laws are diverse of all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them. ” Esther manages to prevent Haman’s trickery from succeeding, but in The Chronicle of Le Mans, the Jews are not so lucky. Similarly to Haman, Sehok attempts the destruction of the Jewish community of Le Mans by convincing the Count that the Jews had desecrated the image of God.
Sehok placed a wax figure, described with an appearance similar to that of the crucified Christ—“Its hands were on its thighs; there were nails between its knees; and its feet were cut off. ”—within the synagogue and led the Count to find it. Though the Jews were cleared of charges, the Christians had grown too angry and decided they must “utterly destroy them from the land, leaving them neither root nor branch. ” Therefore, the linking of Sehok, a convert, to Haman, a historically evil figure in Jewish texts, clearly establishes the animosity Jew held toward converts.
This attitude toward Sehok, a representation of converts, is not surprising considering the historical situation surrounding The Chronicle of Le Mans. The events in the text are purported to have taken place in 992 CE, which is not long before the First Crusade of 1095 began gaining momentum. During the First Crusade, Christians sought to forcibly convert Jews, killing any that refused. During this time, Jewish glorification of martyrdom over conversion became prevalent. In Soloman bar Samson, there is a chilling account of how Jews in Mainz reacted to crusaders.
Instead of converting, the Jews chose to die instead, saying, “Happy is anyone who is killed or slaughtered, who dies for the unity of His name so that he is ready to enter the World to come. ” Though the events of Le Mans took place earlier than those of Mainz, it is not unthinkable that this attitude of martyrdom was developed over time from a simple aversion to converting. Jews and Christians had become distinctly separate groups in society, with Jews living in isolated communities in Christian establishments.
This is evident in The Chronicle of Le Mans, when the text clearly says that Sehok “went forth to towns with Jewish communities. ” Though some Jews were given some legal advantages—such as those of Speyer—many were disadvantaged, unable to build their own synagogues. This barrier between the Jews and Christians most likely contributed to the seeming disgust a Jew would express at the thought of converting. However, The Chronicle of Le Mans is not merely a representation of Jewish attitudes toward converts in the 10th century.
Rather, it also serves as an important reflection of 13th century tensions, shedding light on how Jewish-Christian relations have evolved over the course of time. Careful examination of the text reveals ideas distinct to the late medieval ages. For example, one of the first allusions to the 13th century appears when describing Sehok’s conversion to Christianity: “Instead he [Sehok] served the Gentiles’ god, the idols of the Christians, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. ” The most important component is the description of the “Gentiles’ god” as unable to see, hear, eat, or smell.
This seems to be a Jewish reappropriation of Christian symbolism. Toward the late medieval ages, Christians began depicting Judaism as “Synagoga,” a woman who has lost her crown, broken her staff, and, most importantly, been blinded. This symbol of Judaism can be seen on structures such as the Notre Dame, built in the 13th century, and the Strasbourg Cathedral of the 12th century. However, Judaism as a queen who has lost her power and who can’t “see the true light of God” has been transformed in The Chronicle of Le Mans. Instead of the Jews being blinded, it now seems that the Christians are the ones who cannot see.
The Jews have taken this disparaging symbol of Judaism and turned it around on the Christians. This symbolism shows that from the 10th century to the 13th century, Christians gained further power in the world, overshadowing Jews. The suppression of Jews gained momentum in the 10th century, and became such an overwhelming force that even the Jews had acknowledged the symbolism of Synagoga by the 13th century. Another allusion to the 13th century appears through Sehok’s attempted depiction of Jews as knowing killers of Christ.
Sehok had placed a desecrated statue of Christ in the synagogue, which led the Count to believe in the evilness of the Jews. This allegation of Jews as “defiling God” reflects the 13th century animosity Jews had to face. Prior to the 13th century, Jews were considered “Christ Killers,” but it was believed they did not “know that Jesus was their savior and their God when they pressed for his death. ” However, toward the latter half of the century, there was an increasing belief among Christians that Jew “willfully chose to kill his savior and his God. This belief came about as a result of Christian interest in the Talmud. The realization that Jews had “forsaken the religion of the Bible, replacing it with a religion of the Talmud that God had never ordained”10 showed that Jews were not, in fact, blind to God. Instead, they “knew very well who Jesus was, but they refused to believe in him and crucified him. ”10 As a result, Christian attitudes toward Jews drastically changed. Jews were labeled as murderers, blamed for the death of children such as Werner of Oberwesel in 1287.
The accusations hurled against the Jews of Le Mans seem to reflect the attacks Jews came under in the 13th century. In The Chronicle of Le Mans, the Jewish people defend themselves from those allegations, declaring, “Let our lord not say such a thing. We swear that this evil deed was not our doing. Behold this evil man has sought in his malice to destroy us. ” In a similar manner, Jews of the 13th century also had to declare their innocence. In public disputations, converts such as Nicholas Donin attacked Judaism. Jews were accused of host desecration, and general evil acts.
Judaism was being picked apart by the very people who used to be a part of it. Therefore, by examining the depiction of Jews in The Chronicle of Le Mans, we can see a clear reflection of 13th century tensions between Jews and Christians, as well as the animosity held toward converts. The Chronicle of Le Mans serves as a lens into Jewish-Christian relations of both the 10th century and 13th century. It also, most notably, establishes the poor image of converts in Jewish eyes. By examining the text, it becomes clear that the beginnings of Jewish uppression in the 10th century only strengthened as time went on; the strains of 13th century suffering are reflected in the text. The Chronicle of Le Mans therefore shows simultaneously offers a glimpse into the beginning of a movement and the path it carved two centuries later.
Works Cited Cohen, Jeremy. Christ Killers: The Jews and the Passion from the Bible to the Big Screen. Oxford, 2007. The Chronicle of Le Mans The Holy Bible: King James Version. New York: American Bible Society, 2000. Marcus, Jacob R. The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book 315-1791 with an Introduction and Updated Bibliographies by Marc Saperstein.
New York: Hebrew Union College, 2000. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Le Mans, 300. [ 2 ]. Esther 3:8. [ 3 ]. Le Mans, 298. [ 4 ]. Le Mans, 300. [ 5 ]. Jacob R. Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book 315-1791 with an Introduction and Updated Bibliographies by Marc Saperstein (New York: Hebrew Union College), 125-126. [ 6 ]. Le Mans, 296. [ 7 ]. Le Mans, 296. [ 8 ]. Jeremy Cohen, Christ Killers: The Jews and the Passion from the Bible to the Big Screen (Oxford), 73. [ 9 ]. Cohen, Christ Killers, 89. [ 10 ]. Le Mans, 298.