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Book Notes: The Golden Age of Aragonese Jewry: Community and Society in the Crown of Aragon, 1213-1327, Yom Tov Assis

David Abulafia

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Book Notes The Golden Age of Aragonese Jewry: Community and Society in the Crown of Aragon, 1213-1327, Yom Tov Assis (Littman Library, Oxford, 1997) ISBN 1-874 774_04-8. 380pp. Yom Tov Assis, a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is well known for his scholarly studies of economic and social life in the 'lands of the Crown of Aragon', those lands, including Catalonia, Aragon proper, Valencia and Majorca, which were ruled by the house of Barcelona up to the start of the fifteenth century. This area was a meeting place for different strands of Jewish culture, as the arabized culture of the Jewish elite in Castile exercised influence from the west, while the Jewries of Languedoc and Provence exercised great influence from the east (indeed, the Aragonese kings ruled over Montpellier and Perpignan, and had interests in other parts of what is now southern France). Thus, a number of Catalan Jews studied Torah in France at this period. The role of Aragonese-Catalan Jewry in the meeting of Askenaz and Sepharad is an important part of the argument of Assis' The Golden Age of Aragonese Jewry. The time span of the book is that in which the Aragonese-Catalan confederation was greatly extended, to include Sardinia and Sicily. This means that the book has to deal with the vicissitudes of a varied bunch of communities, and helps direct the author to his emphasis on the institutional structure of the Jewish communities in the Spanish and French lands of the Crown of Aragon, making extensive use of Hebrew, Latin and romance material. Certainly this book fills a gaping hole in the literature on medieval Sephardi communities. The long ascendancy of studies of Spain from a centralist Castilian viewpoint is chal? lenged, without in any way seeking to seal off the Catalan-Aragonese world from the rest of the Iberian peninsula. The drawback of Assis' approach is that it does promise rather more than it delivers. One might expect more attention to be paid to the key cultural developments, to economic changes affecting the Jews and to the increasingly bitter conflict between Jews and Christians in Cata? lonia, as demonstrated by the famous disputation of 1263 in which Nahmanides defended Judaism against the onslaughts of the converted Jew Paul the Chris? tian. The emphasis on institutional aspects means that we do learn a great deal about the complex, ambiguous relations between the self-governing communities and the Crown, and something also about popular hostility (an area where dis? cussion is forever altered by the simultaneous publication of David Nirenberg's Communities of Violence). We learn much about the appointment of judges, how the communities were regulated by their elites, what sanctions the community 329</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes could apply to uncooperative members and also something about the physical area, or Call, within which many Jewries operated. There is invaluable material on the basic services that existed to meet the religious needs of the community, from mikvaot to kosher butchers. It seems that even in prison it was possible to obtain kosher food, which is no doubt quite an improvement on the facilities available to Jews in modern prisons. But the king also manipulated kashrut, seeking to extract profitable taxes from the slaughter of animals. Here it would be helpful to compare the situation in which Muslim communities found them? selves. There are also brief but helpful discussions of topics now much favoured by historians of the period: prostitution, gambling, homosexuality. On the sub? ject of clothing, we hear how Jews did not wear a badge, but a traditional mantle. One would like to know more about this: how far it developed within the Jewish communities but was then recognized by the Crown as official Jewish garb; how far it was imposed from outside. Still, this and other questions testify to the richness of this book, securely based on a full and thoughtful reading of vast numbers of published and unpublished sources. David Abulafia</page></plain_text>