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Intellectual history

Believing in Witches and Demons

By Jan Machielsen

How do we assess whether a claim is worthy of belief? What does it mean to treat it with scepticism? Do we reject it outright as a fiction or lie? Or do we simply refuse to act while we wait for further confirmation? After all, as the French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) observed, ‘it is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.’ Montaigne was writing about witch-burnings, but the question as to whether to act on witchcraft belief was, for him, as much a matter of temperament—a question of trusting one’s beliefs—as it was about reasoned argument. When he was given the opportunity to interview a group of convicted witches while traveling through Germany, he was not convinced, deciding the women needed hellebore instead of hemlock—that is, they were mentally ill, rather than deserving of death. And yet, Montaigne’s witchcraft scepticism was not certain knowledge of a falsehood. It was not knowing. Witches might well exist—Montaigne did not know, and if they did, it might not even matter.

Michael Pacher, The Devil holding up the Book of Vices to St. Augustine (1483)

We do not typically think about the early modern witch-hunt in this way. We tend to see witchcraft almost as axiomatically false, as a falsehood which will wilt away when exposed to reason. US Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis used witches in that sense in a famous 1927 free speech case: ‘men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.’ Witchcraft, unfortunately, did not die because more and better speech was available. Indeed, as Thomas Waters has shown in a marvellous recent study, witchcraft was nothing if not free-speech-resistant. Yet the concepts and categories—credulity, superstition, bigotry—meant to contain the irrational have been equally persistent. Credulous folk and bigoted inquisitors believe in superstitions, and those superstitious beliefs demonstrate their credulity and/or bigotry. Do not prod this further. Whatever the cost, witchcraft belief can never be reasonable.

Inevitably, it was nineteenth-century historians keen to banish witchcraft into the past who transformed it into an eschatological battle between reason and superstition, between science and (a perversion of) religion. Andrew Dickson White and his student George Lincoln Burr co-opted witchcraft in their A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896) as one more battleground between reactionaries and ‘the thinking, open-minded, devoted men … who are evidently thinking the future thought of the world.’ This reduced the early modern witch-hunt into a conflict between ‘bigots and pedants’ and their heroic opponents, who risked their lives for ‘some poor mad or foolish or hysterical creature.’ This struggle for reason, in which White and Burr were still very much engaged, was very much the preserve of men alone. White’s principal reason for supporting women’s education at Cornell, the university he co-founded in 1865, was to ‘smooth the way for any noble thinkers who are to march through the future’—by ‘increas[ing] the number of women who, by an education which has caught something from manly methods, are prevented from … throwing themselves hysterically across their pathway.’

The early modern witch-hunt has served many moral purposes since then—noble yet doomed peasant revolt, Wiccan holocaust, or feminist ‘gynocide’—but the structures sustaining such readings have long collapsed. Witch-hunting was, for the most part, not an organized affair, instigated by elites. Instead, it was the product of daily interactions between villagers who did not get along. Nor was the witch-hunt particularly severe. With most estimates ranging between 40 and 50, 000 victims—across a continent and multiple centuries—it is easy to list a number of recent environmental catastrophes that cost as many lives in weeks, days, even seconds. The persistence of these moral readings tells us more about our own time than it does about the early modern period.

Jan Luyken, Two Bamberg Girls taken to Their Execution Site (1685)

Now, even the containment field of irrationality no longer appears to be holding. This may also reflect the present, when truth claims seem to have lost their value and the world’s most powerful figure proclaims himself to be the victim of a witch-hunt. In that sense, to study the historiography of witchcraft really is to study ourselves. Yet the demise of irrationality has been a long time coming. In a seminal book in 1997, Stuart Clark taught us that witchcraft belief, far from the preserve of a fringe group of demonologists, was embedded in larger modes of political, religious, and—indeed—scientific thought. Yet the question he was effectively pointing to, and with which we opened, is only more recently being answered: what did it mean to believe, or not believe, in witches? Precisely because it appears to us as almost axiomatically false, the early modern witch-hunt invites us to think about what it means to believe in anything

Historians of early modern demonology have mostly stopped dividing authors into (irrational) believers and (rational) sceptics. As Montaigne has shown, belief can take on many forms. It may be cautious acceptance, or indistinguishable from certain knowledge. It can be highly reasoned, or entirely unthinking. It can also be entirely passive—part of a wider subscription package. Certainly, many eighteenth-century elite thinkers, most notably the founder of methodism John Wesley, treated witchcraft in this way: as proof of the existence of the spirit world but without any expectation to ever meet a witch. Witchcraft belief could be partial and caveated, or it could be extreme. The heterodox political thinker Jean Bodin believed that the devil could even break the laws of nature (because God would permit him), while King James VI of Scotland was virtually alone among the major demonologists to support the ducking or swimming of witches. Belief could be sustained, or discredited, by direct experience with witches and their bodies, which could be tortured and examined for a devil’s mark. Or it could be textual, founded on a wide range of biblical, patristic, and classical texts whose authority was incontrovertible. Nor was belief founded on fear alone. For those ensconced in the safe comfort of their study, tales of witchcraft delighted and entertained as much as any horror story today. And partly because of different and shifting emotional registers, belief in witchcraft could also change over time. Scepticism yielded to belief, and vice versa.

Seen from the angle of what it meant to believe—and why, how much, and when—the entire field of early modern demonology looks very different. It no longer resembles a battlefield between two opposing camps, nor can it sustain an opposition between irrationality and reason, between false belief and knowledge of falsehood. The science of demons is much messier and hence, for historians, much more interesting. It consisted of many conflicts and disagreements, both major and minor. Could witches transform into mice and thus enter homes through key holes? The Lorraine judge Nicolas Remy said yes, the Flemish-Spanish Jesuit Martin Delrio said no. Witchcraft also looked very different from different vantage points and at different points of time. One ardent Catholic, the Jesuit Juan Maldonado living in Paris in the run-up to the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, could see Protestantism and witchcraft as the devil’s twin attacks. Like any good brothel-keeper, the devil transformed beautiful courtesans (heretics) into procurers (witches) when they lost their physical appeal. Writing twenty years later in the midst of the Trier ‘super-hunt’, the Dutch Catholic priest Cornelius Loos considered witchcraft belief to be diabolical in origin, making the witch-hunters the devil’s true human allies. Yet Loos was not, as White and Burr once supposed, a harbinger of enlightenment, as they saw themselves. A religious exile from the Dutch Republic, he repeatedly called for a universal crusade against all Protestants.

Unshackled from moral straitjackets and the concepts that defined them, the early modern witch-hunt can actually teach us a great deal. On the level of human interactions, it shows us how forced daily interactions can foster resentment. (A colleague once suggested I write a book about witch-hunting as office politics.) It reveals the processes by which we demonize those with whom we disagree. At the level of belief, following in Montaigne’s footsteps, it should make us question why we believe what we believe, and how we know what we think we know. Most importantly, the early modern witch-hunt, when studied properly, teaches us that we are, when push comes to shove, not very different from those who came before us. And that is perhaps the most sobering thought of all.

Jan Machielsen is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at Cardiff University. He is the author of Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2015), and the editor of The Science of Demons: Early Modern Authors Facing Witchcraft and the Devil, published by Routledge on April 13, 2020. 

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Companion Piece Think Piece

A German Olive Tree in Barcelona: Textual Truths and Religious Consequences

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

This post is a companion piece to Spencer’s article in volume 80, number 1 of JHI, “Hagiography by the Book: Bibliomancy and Early Modern Cultures of Compilation in Francisco Zumel’s De vitis patrum (1588).”

He slept, and was transported. There seemed to be an olive tree of spectacular size rooted in a spacious hall, beneath which he saw himself walk, and sit down from time to time. What is more, certain solemn and noble men approached him, who said they had been sent by a great king to aid him, lest any uproot the tree beneath which he sat. Now other men came towards them, bearing axes and shovels; in the greatest haste, they attempted to uproot and unearth the beautiful tree. And yet, as they were making the attempt, the more they tried to destroy this lovely olive tree, they more they became stuck in the thickest and hardiest roots. Indeed, just then innumerable, splendid sprigs emerged from the surviving roots, filling the entire hall. (Zumel 65–66)

“He” is Saint Peter Nolasco, the thirteenth-century founder of the Mercedarians, a Catholic religious order dedicated to ransoming captive Christians. The text comes from De vitis patrum (1588), a life of the saint composed by the Mercedarian theologian Francisco Zumel and the subject of my article in JHI. I show that De vitis patrum incorporates text from nine other saint’s lives, and argue that Zumel chose these sources by opening a hagiography collection at random—that is, bibliomancy. The article explores the implications of Zumel’s divinatory method of composition for early modern authorship; here I want to highlight the consequences for the Mercedarians.

The vision of the olive tree, symbolizing Nolasco’s task to defend the Church, is easily the most striking and most substantial importation among Zumel’s appropriations. The episode comes from a 1054 life of the Benedictine reformer and bishop Saint Godehard of Hildesheim (960–1038), penned by the latter’s disciple Wolfhere. The theme itself is likely indebted to Psalm 52:8, whose speaker declares, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God” (NRSV).

No extant medieval source refers to Nolasco having such a vision, but after De vitis patrum this scene, and the olive tree or branch, became staples of Mercedarian literary and visual culture (see García Gutiérrez), beginning with the campaign for papal recognition of Nolasco’s sainthood. 1588 saw the end of a 65-year drought in papal canonizations; drought was followed by flood, as Tridentine Catholicism embraced the cult of the saints as a weapon against the Protestants. When, in the 1620s, influential Mercedarians began to agitate on behalf of their founder, their timing was impeccable. This high tide of canonizations was particularly favorable to religious founders, such as Frances of Rome (canonized 1608), Teresa of Ávila (1622), and Ignatius Loyola (1622) (Burke 48–62). In 1628, Nolasco joined their number, by decree of Pope Urban VIII.

In 1956, the Mercedarian scholar P. J. M. Delgado Varela discovered a visual component to the canonization campaign, a set of engravings designed by Jusepe Martínez and executed by Johann Friedrich Greuter (see Barrera). These images, depicting Nolasco’s life and legend, are largely inspired either by De vitis patrum or by later Mercedarian authors who in turn relied upon Zumel. (Other artists employed by the Mercedarians were referred to De vitis patrum for historical material [Olson-Rudenko 71]). Mártinez understandably seized upon the dramatic episode of the olive tree.

tree
Johann Friedrich Greuter and Jusepe Martínez, Vida de San Pedro Nolasco (1627), image 5 (Image credit: Biblioteca Digital Hispánica, Biblioteca Nacional de España).

This memorable image, capturing the saint mid-strike beneath the instantly recognizable foliage of the olive tree, not only as an illustration of Nolasco’s divine vocation but also as a demonstration of his iconographic potential as a saint-to-be.

The engravings were not the only visual arguments for Nolasco’s sainthood. The same year, the Mercedarian Alonso Rémon published Discursos elógicos y apologéticos (1627), narrating Nolasco’s life in the recherché medium of a book of emblems (erudite, symbolic juxtapositions of texts and images).

remon
Alonso Remón, Discursos elógicos y apologéticos (1627), 26r.

Remón’s sixth emblem concerns the vision of the olive tree. The Latin lemma (heading) reads, “Sicut ad pullum Aquila” (“Like the eagle to the chick”). The image is an eagle holding up a chick to the rays of the sun. Two sets of verses caption the construction: the first quatrain, in Latin, runs,

Just as (held up to the sun’s shining beams)
She proves the newborn birds by Jove’s hook;
Thus the Virgin proved you, Nolasco:
She was your sun, you will be the bird.

The second, Spanish set of verses are as follows:

Meditating upon the passion
With extreme care and woe,
He was shown an olive tree,
Budding with copious fruit,
And several men who were
Cutting away at the beautiful trunk.
And he was to defend it.
Now let all who can prove
That the eagle is Mary,
The neck of the mystical body.

Once again, the vision guarantees the divine impetus of the order’s foundation, this time following Zumel in invoking the Virgin Mary. On this score, Remón’s view was shared by a contemporary of considerably greater talents and renown: the terrifyingly prolific playwright Lope de Vega.

LopedeVega.jpg
Lope de Vega

Lope de Vega, one of the leading lights of Spain’s literary golden age, revolutionized Spanish theater. Though best remembered today for his moral dramas, such as The Dog in the Manger (1618) and Fuenteovejuna (1619), he was no less energetic as an author of plays and poetry on religious themes. One such sacred drama was La vida de San Pedro Nolasco, premiered before the royal family in 1629 and published in 1635, the year of the playwright’s death. The play relies heavily on the standard Mercedarian narrative of Nolasco’s life, which is to say on Zumel and his imitators.

 

Trees begin to emerge in La vida well before Nolasco’s vision. In the first act, personifications of Spain and France take the stage to quarrel over the saint’s glory. Spain insists, “the order and the way of life that awaits Peter Nolasco, you shall soon see founded in me, as it is spread through you. A tree transplanted from where it is born to some other place” (I.402–07). France retorts, “It seems an ungrateful thing to give the fruit to some other land, for it is owed to the place it was born” (I.408–10). Spain, however, wins out with the reply, “The tree owes more to the water than to the earth, for it is heaven that sustains and irrigates it. And so, since heaven wishes to sustain it in me, do not resist its intentions” (I.411–13).

Having established Spain’s God-given prerogative, Lope de Vega can turn to the iconic moment itself. Toward the end of the first act, Nolasco recounts his dream to Pierres, a servant and comedic foil invented for La vida:

Things are different with me since I was shown a noble olive tree above a carpet of a field, so verdant in its twigs and branches that it seemed a blessing for Spain, such as the Prophet-King paints. But against it with headstrong ferocity came several frenzied men, who tore at its shoots. The heavens themselves, taking pity upon the echoing cries of the sundered branches, begged the world for aid. […] With all this I cannot rest, hoping that heaven will instruct me in something I know not, encoded within this olive tree. (I.640–55, 660–63)

A certain dramatic irony obtains, for the audience knows what the baffled Nolasco does not: he is presently to become a saint. Pierres hazards a rather crass interpretation: “Perhaps that olive tree is the sheaves of Joseph, and a day will come when your kin shall reverence you” (I.667–70). Nolasco does not even bother to respond to this (an indication that the audience may do likewise). Instead, Pierres falls asleep—onstage—while the saint begins to pray for insight.

Wondrous Virgin, the olive tree whose flowers give the oil that gives us life, immaculate dawn, who, clothed in the sun, covers heaven and earth with splendor. […] What olive tree is this, which they seek to abuse, which calls me to its aid with the tongues of leaves, while the world falls silent? (I.700–03, 708–10)

At this point, dea ex machina intervenes, in form of the Virgin herself, “upon a throne of angels drawing back a cloud.” The Mother of God supplies the correct gloss:

I am the olive tree of the field: you are the one who must take the branches of a heavenly militia for my defense. With my name and my favor, create an order, garbed in white for my unspotted purity. Imitate my son Jesus’s title of redeemer in rescuing the Christians held captive by the barbarians. This is what the savage men and the olive tree signify.  (I.718–31)

This revelation colors the rest of the play, as Lope de Vega continues to weave references to the vision into the text. In the second act, Pierres describes joining the order as “having taken these branches” (II.99–100), while in the third he mentions Nolasco’s continued visions of different trees, including olives (III.20). These reprises reactivate the audience’s association between the dream, the Virgin Mary, and Nolasco’s divine mission.

My aim in tracing the olive tree’s German roots is not to play the iconoclast; far be it from me to stand in judgment upon sincere piety. And I have no doubt that Zumel wrote in the sincerest piety—he turned to bibliomancy precisely in order to let God’s providence, not his own judgment, guide the narrative of Nolasco’s life. That decision had far-reaching artistic, literary, and devotional consequences, integral to the foundation story of an order that last year celebrated its octocentenary, and counts some eight hundred friars spread across five continents. Nolasco’s spiritual children continue his defense of the olive tree.

Categories
Intellectual history

Introduction: Special Forum on Christianity and Human Rights

By Udi Greenberg (Dartmouth College) and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins (Yale University)

We are delighted to bring you the Introduction to the Special Forum on Christianity and Human Rights that appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, by kind permission of the Journal, the University of Pennsylvania Press, and Project MUSE. You can find the Project MUSE page for this introduction here, and the entirety of volume 79, number 3 here.

The intellectual roots of human rights have been a source of much debate, but Christianity’s role in shaping the language of universal equality has been especially controversial. Historians agree that prominent Catholic philosophers, such as Jacques Maritain, were crucial in crafting and popularizing theories of rights, and that Protestant activists, such as American Protestant Frederick Nolde, were instrumental in drafting the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the lessons that scholars draw from this genealogy are diverse. For some, such as John Nurser, history reveals Christianity as the crucial engine of the modern era’s most celebrated concept. Christians may have engaged in countless brutalities over the centuries, but the Gospel’s universal aspirations also helped bolster peaceful endeavors. Others, such as Samuel Moyn and Joan Scott, have instead claimed that the marriage of Christianity and rights reflect how deeply the language of universal equality preserved traditional hierarchies. Human rights and religious freedom, they claim, were forged by Christian Western Europeans, and were meant to combat Marxists, feminists, Muslims, and anti-colonial activists. In this provocative narrative, the concept of rights was never an equalizing force. Rather, it helped—and still helps today—sustain political, gender, and social inequalities.

This recent debate has centered on the nature of rights, but the essays assembled in this forum seek to push the discussion in a new direction. The authors explore Christian engagement with the idea of rights to better understand the scope and evolution of Christian thought over the last two centuries. Indeed, if the project of mapping human rights’ origins and ascendancy may be now reaching its conclusion, scholars still have much to say on Christianity’s seminal role in shaping modern politics, ideologies, and culture. Having long stood on the margins of modern intellectual history, thinkers who self-identified foremost as Christian—theologians, philosophers, and social theorists—have received growing attention. Protestants and Catholics alike developed comprehensive visions of economic, social, and sexual relations, and repeatedly sought to explain the Gospel’s message regarding varied topics such as Judaism, racial tensions, marriage, and international politics. These projects—which often defied the secular categories of left and right—enjoyed considerable influence, especially in Europe and North America where Christianity remained dominant. They often resonated well beyond theological seminaries and churches, inspiring state laws and policies in a variety of regimes, in colonial, democratic, fascist, or authoritarian settings. Rights often figured prominently in these efforts, as thinkers sought to explain who has what rights and under what conditions. The concept of rights therefore provides a crucial window to an expansive and ongoing intellectual effort.

What is more, exploring the ways in which Christian thinkers grappled with rights helps chart the dramatic shifts that characterized Christianity in the modern era. While the nature and meaning of Christianity had never been stable and was always contested, the centuries that followed the French Revolution brought a new kind of turmoil. Protestants and Catholics confronted a proliferation of ideological projects rooted in non-religious and even atheist assumptions, such as utilitarian morality, racial science, and socialist revolution. For many Christians, secularism’s assumed corrosive impact necessitated a recalibration of Christian life. Many came to believe that if the Gospel were to triumph, the churches would have to rethink their approach to state institutions, foster new alliances with other Christian denominations, and even treat other religious groups (such as Jews or Confucians) as legitimate. Debating the scope and nature of rights stood at the heart of these efforts. Tracing the trajectories of these disputes helps shed light on the complex redrawing of Christianity’s content and borders.

The following essays uncover diverse Christian reflections on rights, from their first sustained appearance in the late eighteenth century until their zenith in the mid-twentieth century. They examine how a panoply of thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic, largely Catholic but also Protestant, utilized rights to rethink Christianity. Taken together, they offer new ways of understanding the transformations of Christian thought in one of its most dynamic and fascinating periods.

Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College. He is currently writing a book titled Religious Pluralism in the Age of Violence: Catholics and Protestants from Animosity to Peace, 1879-1970.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He is currently writing a book for Columbia University Press titled, The Neoconservative Moment in France: Raymond Aron and the United States
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Think Piece

The First of Nisan, The Forgotten Jewish New Year, Part II

By guest contributor Joel S. Davidi

In my last post on the history of the first of Nisan as a Jewish new year I discussed the history of this now mostly forgotten holiday into the tenth century. Until this point, this festival was celebrated among the Jews of Eretz Israel as well as their satellite communities across the Middle East (including a small “Palestinian-rite” contingent in Iraq itself). Over the next one hundred years, however, the celebration of the first of Nisan became the domain of only a very small minority of Jews. In a large measure, this was due to the long standing disagreements between the two great centers of Jewish learning at the time, Eretz Israel and Babylonia/ Iraq.   

All in all, the competition between Babylonia and Eretz Israel ended in a decisive Babylonian victory. This was due to several factors not least of which is the fact that Babylonian Jewry experienced much more stability under Sassanian and later Islamic rule while its Eretz Israel counterpart was constantly experiencing persecution and uprooting. The final death knell for Minhag Eretz Yisrael was delivered in July of 1099 when an army of Crusaders broke through the walls of Jerusalem and massacred the city’s Jewish inhabitants, its Babylonian-rite,  Palestinian-rite communities and Karaite communities. With the destruction of its center began the decline and eventual disappearance of many unique Eretz Israel customs. It is only due to the discovery of the Cairo Genizah that scholars have become aware of many of those long-lost traditions and customs. At this time Babylonia’s prominence began to decline as the Sephardic communities of the Iberian Peninsula and the Ashkenazic communities of France and Germany were increasingly on the ascendancy. Both of these communities, however, maintained the Babylonian rite. (As Israel Ta Shma points out in his book on early Ashkenazic prayer, both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic rites have Eretz Israel elements. These are more evident in the Ashkenazi rite, probably due to the ties between the proto Ashkenazim and the Palestinian academy Academy in Byzantine Palestine.)

The latest evidence the celebration of the first of Nisan comes to us from the 13th century and it would seem that even by this time it was all but stamped out by those who were determined to establish the primacy of the Babylonian school. This period coincides with the increased activism of Rabbi Abraham Maimonides, the son of Moses Maimonides, the great Spanish codifier of Jewish law. Rabbi Abraham, who championed standardization based on his father’s codification, exerted great pressure against the Synagogue of the Palestinians in Fustat, Old Cairo to bring their ritual into line with Babylonian standards. He was for the most part successful but, as we have already seen, this unique  custom was retained (albeit in diminished form) among Egyptian Jews to this very day.

In an April 20, 1906 article for the English  Jewish Chronicle, Herbert Loewe provides an eyewitness account of an Al-Tawhid ceremony in the fashionable Abbasiya neighborhood of Cairo. Two years later, a more detailed description was recorded by the Chief Rabbi of Egypt, Refael Aharon ben Shimon in his book Nehar Misrayim (p. 65-6).

I reproduce it here (courtesy of Hebrewbooks.org):

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 10.47.56 PM

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 10.49.56 PM

After extolling this “beautiful custom”, ben Shimon laments how the custom had become so weakened and how so many had become lax in keeping it. He states that this was largely due to the fact that the city had experienced such large scale expansion and many members of the Jewish community had relocated to the suburbs. He concludes on an optimistic note with the hope that the custom will experience a renaissance in the near future.

Two other North African Jewish communities that I know of retain more pared-down versions of the celebration of the first of Nisan. In the communities of Tunisia and Libya, the ceremony is referred to as bsisa (and also maluhia). Bsisa is also the name given to a special dish that is prepared for this day which is made of wheat and barley flour mixed with olive oil, fruits and spices. Several prayers for the new year are recited whereupon the celebrants exchange new year greetings with each other. Many of these prayers contain similar themes to the Egyptian-Jewish Tahwid prayers I discussed in part I of this article. (For example: “Shower down upon us from your bounty and we shall give it over to others. That we shall never experience want– and may this year be better than the previous year.”) As in the Egyptian community, however, the new year aspect of the celebration is not especially stressed. As the eminent historian and expert on North African Jewry Nahum Slouschz points out in an article in Davar (April 7, 1944), “It is impossible not to see in these customs the footprints of an ancient rosh hashanah which was abandoned with the passage of time because of the tediousness of the Passover holiday and in favor of the holiness of the traditional [Tishrei] Rosh Hashana.”

(For more on the roots and contemporary practice of bsisa and maluhia see here, here, here, and here. For videos of the bsisa/ maluhia ceremony see here, here, and here.)

Although the observance of the First of Nissan is no longer as prominent as it once was in rabbinic Judaism, the two most prominent non-rabbinic Jewish communities, the Karaites and the Samaritans, have maintained the holiday into recent times. The Cairo Genizah contains leaves from a Karaite prayer book containing a service for the first of Nisan. This custom eventually fell out of the Karaite textual record as Karaite traditions fell in line with Rabbanite ones over the later middle ages. In his monumental study of the now extinct European Karaite community, historian Mikhail Kizilov discusses how Eastern-European Karaites underwent a gradual process of “dejudaidization” and “turkification” in the 1910s-20s. This was largely due to the work of their spiritual and political head, Seraya Shapshal, who, aware of growing  Anti-Semitism in Europe, was determined to present his flock as genetically unrelated to the Jews (claiming instead that they were descendants of Turkic and Mongol tribes). He likewise sought to recast Karaism as a syncretistic Jewish-Christian-Muslim-pagan creed. Among the reforms instituted by Shapshal was the changing of the Karaite calendar. Although the Karaites of old began the calendar year on Nisan, as per Exodus, they had long assimilated the Rabbinic custom of beginning the year in Tishrei. Shapshal sought to avoid a lining up of the Karaite and Rabbanite new years which is why he switched the Karaite new year to March-April, thereby ironically reverting back to the ancient Karaite custom. This particular reform never took off and the community continued to celebrate the new in year in Tishrei. Even the official Karaite calendars printed that date (which like the Rabbanites they called “Rosh Hashana”). Currently, Karaites do not actually celebrate this day or recite any special liturgy, however they do nominally recognize this day as Rosh Hashanah and they will exchange new year tidings.

Samaritans preserve the most extensive observance of this day. According to the Samaritan elder and scholar Benyamim Sedaka, the Samaritans celebrate the evening of the first day of the first Month – The Month of Aviv – as the actual Hebrew New Year. They engage in extended prayers on the day followed by festive family gatherings. They likewise bless one another with the traditional new year greeting “Shana Tova” and begin the observance, as the followers of the Palestinian rite once did, on the Sabbath preceding the day. The entire liturgy for the holiday is found in A. E. Cowley’s “The Samaritan Liturgy.” The fact that the Samaritans, who have functioned as a distinct religious community from Jews since at least the second century BCE, observe this tradition is the greatest indicator of its antiquity. The antiquity of this custom is also suggested by the fact that the springtime new year is likewise celebrated by many other ethnic communities from the Middle East including the Persians and Kurds (who call it Nowruz) and also, much closer to Jews linguistically and culturally, the Arameans and Chaldeans/Assyrians who call their New Year Kha (Or Khada) B’nissan (the first of Nissan) .

סידור_אר._ישראל
Siddur Eretz Yisrael, published by Machon Shiloh

Minhag Eretz Israel is now effectively extinct. Today, however, there is a small community of predominantly Ashkenazic Jews in Israel who seek to reconstruct this rite. Using the work of scholars who have labored to piece the Palestinian rite together based on the Cairo Genizah, this community endeavors to put it back into practical usage. Among many other customs, they celebrate the First of Nisan. The flagship institution of this movement is called Machon Shiloh and its founder and leader is an Australian-Israeli Rabbi named David bar Hayyim. In correspondence with me, Yoel Keren, a member of Machon Shilo, stated that his community observes the festival in the manner prescribed by the Geniza fragments. On the eve of the first of Nissan, the community waits outside to sight the new moon, then recites the kiddush prayer and finally sits down to a festive meal. The community has also recently published a prayer book called Siddur Eretz Yisrael, which is based on the ancient rite. You can listen to some prayers recited in this rite here, here, and here.

For an interesting interview with Rabbi Bar-Hayyim about the rite and its contemporary usage see here.

 

Appendix to Part I

Since publishing my original post about the first of Nissan’s history as a Jewish holiday a few other sources have come to light about the history of the day’s significance. Here are a few of the earliest sources that mention the day as a holiday (my thanks to Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein for bringing some of these to my attention).

The earliest of these comes from the  book of Ezekiel (45:18-19):

Thus saith the Lord GOD: In the first month, in the first day of the month, thou shalt take a young bullock without blemish; and thou shalt purify the sanctuary.

Ezekiel contains numerous laws and festivals that are not found in the Pentateuch. Many interpret these as being meant for a future (third) Temple. Ezekiel does not explicitly describe the first of Nissan as a celebration of the new year per se but this description is nonetheless the earliest evidence of the day having special significance.

We find a similar reference in the Temple Scroll (11Q19) of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Temple Scroll describes the ideal Temple of the Qumran sectarians. The Festival of the first day of the first month (Nissan) is one of three additional extra-biblical festivals that are mentioned in this work:

On the first day of the [first] month [the months (of the
year) shall start; it shall be the first month] of the year [for you. You shall
do no] work. [You shall offer a he-goat for a sin-offering.] It shall be
offered by itself to expiate [for you. You shall offer a holocaust: a
bullock], a ram, [seven yearli]ng ram lambs [without blemish] …
[ad]di[tional to the bu]r[nt-offering for the new moon, and a grain-
offering of three tenths of fine flour mixed with oil], half a hin [for each
bullock, and wi]ne for a drink-offering, [half a hin, a soothing odour to
YHWH, and two] tenths of fine flour mixed [with oil, one third of a hin.
You shall offer wine for a drink-offering,] one th[ird] of a hin for the ram,
[an offering by fire, of soothing odour to YHWH; and one tenth of fine
flour], a grain-offerin[g mixed with a quarter of a hinol oil. You shall
offer wine for a drink-offering, a quarter of a hin] for each [ram] …
lambs and for the he-g[oat] .

Temple_Scroll
Portion of the Temple Scroll

Joel S. Davidi is an independent ethnographer and historian. His research focuses on Eastern and Sephardic Jewry and the Karaite communities of Crimea, Egypt, California and Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming book Exiles of Sepharad That Are In Ashkenaz, which explores the Iberian Diaspora in Eastern Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He blogs on Jewish history at toldotyisrael.wordpress.com.

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Think Piece

How the Nineteenth Century Misplaced the Samaritans

by guest contributor Matthew Chalmers

“Are the Samaritans worth a volume of 360 pages?” Thus pondered an anonymous reviewer of James A. Montgomery’s The Samaritans: The Earliest Jewish Sect (1907).  Today, specialists in Samaritan Studies are still arguing that they deserve broader attention—most recently in Reinhard Pummer’s 2016 survey of Samaritan history. Despite the low profile of Samaritans when compared to “world religions” like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, they are an intriguing case: a Torah-observant group tracing their origins, like Jews and Christians, to ancient Israel, but worshiping God on Mount Gerizim near Biblical Shechem rather than in Jerusalem. Travelling back in time we see that our gloomy anonymous reviewer stood at the end of another arc in European scholarship, at the beginning of which Samaritans had provoked curiosity from an antiquarian as prestigious as Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609).

London Polyglot, 1657 f. 228-229_Credit_Fisher Rare Books Library

How did Samaritans go from being sought after by some of the most influential early modern intellectuals to being the afterthought of an early twentieth-century scholar? The answer tells us something about how ideas gain and lose academic worth. What does it mean for a scholarly project to be valued—and how can change in that valuation reveal or occlude possibilities for writing history with our archives? To answer that question it is instructive to begin by looking to what intrigued scholars about Samaritans in the early modern period.

Portrait of Josephus Justus Scaliger, by Jan Cornelisz, 1608_Credit_WikiCommons

In 1581, the famous Dutch antiquarian Joseph Scaliger confronted a problem of chronology. He knew, like the medieval and late antique chronographers before him, that the genealogies in the Samaritan Pentateuch’s version of Genesis reported the chronology of the biblical patriarchs  differently from the Masoretic text used by Jews. He also grew intrigued by Samaritan Hebrew’s preservation of characters more similar to the ancient Hebrew alphabet—the alphabet he thought they shared with the Phoenicians—rather than the square script of contemporary Jews. What if the remaining Samaritan communities preserved undiscovered manuscripts capable of upending the standard view of ancient Israel, just as their chronology sometimes contradicted that of ancient Jews?

Scaliger asked his contact Claude Dupuy to write to their friend Gian Vincenzo Pinelli to ask his Jewish contact in Constantinople to acquire a Samaritan calendar. When the Samaritans responded, sending him a calendar, he reached out directly to their communities in Cairo and Shechem. Unfortunately for Scaliger, the answers were lost in the wreck of the ship carrying them back to France, the St. Victor, and he died before their recovery. Fortunately for posterity, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637), an antiquarian based near Marseilles, the home port of the St. Victor, managed to recover the responses. They contained—to Peiresc at least—a treasure-trove of information and curiosities. He then spent substantial time and attention trying to obtain Samaritan manuscripts. Subsequent generations of scholars shared his interest (as Peter Miller has explored).

Peiresc and Scaliger’s search for Samaritan secrets is partly explained by how post-Reformation battles between Christian scholars incentivised control over the biblical past and spurred debate about its variant versions. Mastery of Bible manuscripts served as a primary qualification of expertise within these scholarly contests. The Samaritan Pentateuch, as Scaliger had noticed, sometimes agreed with the Greek version of those five books over against the Masoretic text, and sometimes contradicted both. A Catholic scholar such as Jean Morin (1591-1659) could thus argue that the Samaritan Pentateuch proved Protestant appeals to a pure Hebrew original were a basic mistake. Moreover, emphasizing the skills of manuscript study permitted well-connected scholars to emphasize mastery over the Bible with their superior access to the manuscripts perceived to embody the history of a text. The Samaritan Pentateuch, for this reason, found itself incorporated into two Polyglots (Paris 1628-45; London 1657). These prestigious and expensive collaborative projects printed multiple versions of the biblical text side-by-side, thus displaying the expertise of the editors while also undermining the appeal to any one ancient version (tacit: the Hebrew). For more than a century, then, the Samaritans—whilst never gaining the degree of attention granted to the great ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Israel—mattered.   

How, then, did Samaritans go from this relative prominence to almost total neglect at the turn of the twentieth century? As Arnaldo Momigliano has demonstrated, antiquarianism, and its fractal approach to the historical past, never really went away. Nor did the attachment of scholarship to Christian goals. But the world of learning had been reconfigured. Research into Samaritans, for instance, calls for some expertise in Hebrew and Arabic as well as the languages of Mediterranean antiquity. This antiquarian combination jarred with the philological segmenting of the nineteenth-century university (except for German Jewish scholars who, as Susannah Heschel has tracked in her research on Abraham Geiger, were increasingly excluded by anti-Judaism).

In the nineteenth and twentieth century, moreover, antiquarianism proved no match for political, national, and racial logic in incentivizing the selection of material for study. During the global expansion of European power, “religion” came to function in what David Chidester has called an “empire of religions.” Scholarly approaches framed religious history vis-à-vis tension between universal “civilization” and “the primitive” as a means to formulate universally applicable difference between European Christians and non-Europeans, between proper Christians and deviant Christians, or between European Christians, Jews, and Arabs. In turn, such intellectual practices encouraged methods best able to order taxonomies of knowledge according to progress towards a universal prototype embodied in an imagined “modern” or “Christian” Europe. The Samaritans, a small group which most commentators expected to disappear, whose historical appearances are intermittent enough to resist smooth narrativization, made too small a splash in a research space dominated by universals with all-encompassing scope.

Even the biblical basis for Samaritan prominence that drove the interest of scholars like Morin fell on hard times. Wilhelm Gesenius, one of the primary contributors to Semitic language pedagogy, had little patience for the potential priority of the Samaritan Pentateuch. His 1815 De Pentateuchi Samaritani origine, indole et auctoritate commentatio philologico-critica demonstrated to the satisfaction of most Bible scholars that the potential of the Samaritan text to witness an earlier version of the Hebrew Bible was a pipe dream. Similarly, his grammar—first published in 1813 but used even today as a pedagogical touchstone—dismisses Samaritans as a minor subset of north-west Semites, characterized by ethnic and linguistic mixture. In the first decades of the twentieth century scholars like Paul Kahle and Moses Gaster attempted to rehabilitate the Samaritan Pentateuch as worthy of scholars’ time. But it was too little to retain Samaritans within the Biblical Studies mainstream.

The publication of Samaritan texts continued, but contemporary scholars increasingly criticized those publications as amateurish. Thus, Samaritan literature fell prey to a double attack: on the one hand, published in editions slated for their poor quality, plagiarism, and lack of professional attention; on the other, attacked by academics whose choice of research topics had judged Samaritan Hebrew too insignificant to receive more expert attention. A savage review in the 1902 Journal of Near Eastern Studies of an enthusiast’s attempt to provide a Samaritan grammar embodied both ways of thinking. “Our universities do not maintain professorial chairs for Samaritan,” the author wrote, “and not one of the many widely advertised series of world-literature extracts contains a single citation from Samaritan literature. The world has judged rightly. There is nothing in this literature to tempt anything higher than an antiquarian…”.

Samaritan priest with Torah scrolls_Credit_thesamaritanupdate.com

Since this early twentieth-century nadir, Samaritans have seen much more attention. The Societe d’Études Samaritains was founded in 1989, and has met semi-regularly ever since. Although much of the scholarship published in the burgeoning field of Samaritan Studies is in Hebrew or German, we now have a comparative critical edition of the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Masoretic text (reviewed here by Emanuel Tov) in English. Stefan Schorch, Abraham Tal, and others have worked hard to make core Samaritan documents accessible to European scholars (especially in De Gruyter’s Studia Samaritana series). An ongoing project at the University of Manchester currently headed by Katharina Keim examines Moses Gaster, whose archive includes hundreds of letters that he composed in Samaritan Hebrew. My own research examines the representation of Samaritans in Late Antiquity, modifying our histories of the period as one of religious polarization and using the Samaritans to render visible the selectivity of modern historians.  

So, what do we learn from this about how ideas gain or lose value over time? Samaritan Studies remains a very small field disconnected from disciplines with which it could share closer links such as Biblical Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Jewish Studies, Religious Studies, History. From the vantage point of Samaritan Studies we can perceive particularly sharply how the spectre of the nineteenth-century professionalization, nationalization, and universalization of academic research haunts contemporary frames of reference. In particular, we can see the power of habit in pre-selecting our areas of academic research, the questions we ask, and the sources that we use to answer them and how much the manufacturing of history relies on such habits of selectivity even with respect to a group who share much of the past of Christianity and Judaism. By noting such habits and looking past them, we can begin to fray the edges of the stories we have learned to tell—and render them more able to surprise us.

Matt Chalmers is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on the manufacture of identities through control of the past, and his dissertation explores often overlooked representations of Samaritans in late antique Christian and Jewish sources. He tweets with occasionally alarming regularity from @Matt_J_Chalmers.

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Think Piece

The Protestant Origins of the French Republican Revolution? The Case of Edgar Quinet

by guest contributor Bryan A. Banks

In his 1865 La Révolution, Edgar Quinet addressed the question: Why did the republican experiments of 1792 and 1848 seem to turn to terror, empire, and tyranny? “The French, having been unable to accept the advantages of the religious revolution of the sixteenth century, were eventually led to deny them … and from there, how many false views did they end up embracing.” (158) Caught between political “absolute domination” of this world and the Catholic Church’s “spiritual absolutism” over the next, any republican experiment in Catholic France was doomed to fail in Quinet’s mind.

Edgar Quinet

Edgar Quinet by Louis Bochard, 1870

Quinet looked towards the Netherlands, England, and the United States to see the benefits of Protestantism. These states benefitted from their revolutions (the Golden Age following the creation of the Dutch Republic in 1649, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the American Revolution), because they had learned from Protestantism the value of liberty of conscience. In France, the people remained in servitude — whether it be to the bishopric, to a Bonaparte, or to a Bourbon.

Such remarks should not be surprising given that Quinet spent the majority of his republican political life deriding Catholic Church. Born from Calvinist stock at the turn of the century in 1803, Quinet attempted to make a name for himself in the world of letters during the Restoration period. He found his voice and message through his early attempts at philosophical poetry and political essays, but eventually he turned to the history of religion. In his early writing, Quinet began to conceive of a republican religion opposed to the domestic conservatism of the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy, similar to that of his colleague, friend, and collaborator, Jules Michelet. In 1838, Quinet took up the appointed position as professor of the history of literature at Lyons. Four years later, he moved to the Collège de France, where he began to write a history of the French Revolution. In the early 1840s, the Catholic Church sought to gain greater control over the university system. Quinet and Michelet entered into a polemical debate with the Jesuits and Ultramontanists on this issue. The Collège de France in 1846 dismissed Quinet for his attacks against the Roman Catholic Church and his open espousal of republicanism.

Later, Quinet participated in the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy during the Revolution of 1848, only to go into exile in Belgium and Switzerland following Louis Napoleon’s coup and the subsequent establishment of the Second French Empire. So given his historical context, it should not be surprising to find Quinet reflecting on the “failures” of the republican revolutionary tradition. Only later in his life, after the fall of the Empire and the establishment of the French Third Republic, did Quinet return to the country and resume his professorship at the Collège de France.

Quinet’s link between the emancipatory individualism of the Reformation and the outbreak of republican revolution needs to be understood in its transtemporal tradition. At the beginning of the century, the connection between the Reformed faith and the republican revolution were prevalent. In his 1800 travelogue, the German Johann Georg Heinzmann remarked:

The French counter-revolutionaries say that the Protestants are the cause of the Revolution and that they degraded the clergy and disseminated free ideas, which are those of foreigners, not the French … The republican French value Protestants and give them credit for the first victory of light over dark. The true revolutionary … is a friend of the Protestants.(158, 172-3)

Heinzmann’s observation reflected both the persistent confessional divisions in revolutionary France as well as a much larger debate over religious predilections for political expression. Counter-revolutionaries, as Heinzmann noted, imagined a seditious Protestant plot to bring down the Old Regime and replace it with a republic, but this idea was not new to the nineteenth century.

Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the French bishop and theologian, along with the controversialists that stoked the fires of Louis XIV’s Revocation of the Edict of Nantes at the end of the seventeenth century, too had drawn a direct correlation between the regeneration of the Christian conscience espoused by the Reformed and the “seeds of liberty” that would spring republicanism. In 1689, the Catholic conspiratorial theorist Antoine Varillas published a tract entitled Histoire des revolutions arrivées dans l’Europe en matiere de Religion. The Reformation became a violent revolution hellbent on abolishing the monarchy and establishing a republic.

This connection between Calvinism and republicanism was fostered in part by certain Huguenots in exile like Pierre Jurieu who spread arguments for popular sovereignty based on Scripture. Understanding the political ramifications of these statements led fellow refugees like Pierre Bayle to denounce republican formulations as fomentations. Despite the efforts of many Huguenots in the diaspora to thwart republican sentiment, many philosophers of the Enlightenment furthered reified such a religio-political-cultural connection. Inspired by Montesquieu’s L’Ésprit des lois, the Calvinist La Beaumelle summarized this link as: “The Protestant religion is better suited to a republic because its fundamental principles are directly linked to the republican form of government. An enlightened faith is in perfect harmony with the spirit of independence and liberty.”(29)

The Reformed republican mythos was a persistent political narrative in the French imagination before, during, and after the revolutionary tumult, which installed the first French Republic. Yet this genealogy of the republican-Protestant connection emphasizes a common discursive field that pervaded the early modern and modern periods. Catholic monarchists, Protestant anti-monarchists flirting with republicanism, Huguenot skeptics, French natural philosophers, and nineteenth-century avowed republicans all employed such a connection to celebrate or condemn the religious link to the political — all recognizing such a connection as causal and not constructed from deeper socio-economic drivers. More importantly, this connection valorized the individual as best served by republicanism and best suited to foster a Republic. Following the second of two “failed” republican experiments, thinkers like Quinet, dredged up over two centuries of the French social imaginary to rebuke Catholicism as totalitarian in favor of the republican Reformed.

Bryan A. Banks is Assistant Professor of History at SUNY Adirondack and co-editor of the blog Age of Revolutions. His current research focuses on Huguenot refugees during the long eighteenth century. You can follow him on Twitter @Bryan_A_Banks.