Miriamne Ara Krummel

The Medieval Postcolonial Jew, In and Out of Time

University of Michigan Press, 2022

267 pages


Reviewed by Nina Gary

In a complete departure from medieval studies’s attempts to grapple with medieval Jews existing in a liminal space, Miriamne Ara Krummel’s 2022 book The Medieval Postcolonial Jew, In and Out of Time is abundant in performance of temporal revolution. Dividing the pre-modern world into temporalities of people and place (Jewish temporality, Christian temporality, and Roman temporality, most notably), Krummel brings into question the proliferation and survival of ‘annus domini’ as the standard metric of temporality in our ‘common era.’ We need only ask “What year is it?” to confirm what Krummel lays out nearly for us, that is, the power of ‘annus domini’ rests in its violent, suppressive, and, most crucially, colonizing roots. 

As the title suggests, Krummel’s attention rests on the temporal space inhabited by medieval Jews, whether fictive or real, and the multiple literary, military, and governmental attempts to force Christian temporality in all its glory onto the already-diminishing medieval Jewish populace. These attempts to wipe Christendom clean of Jewish temporality come from an early Christian insecurity about how to distinguish Easter as a holiday temporarily distant from Pesach when, in reality, the two are inextricably linked through the temporality expressed in the Gospels. Though Krummel is not the first Jewish studies scholar to write on the inevitable temporal connection between Easter and Pesach, her use of this early Christian anxiety only furthers the argument that power, dominance, and control are what have driven the proliferation of ‘annus domini’ and Christian temporality from late antiquity all the way to our own time. 

Divided into five chapters, The Medieval Postcolonial Jew utilizes clusters of primary sources as guides, effectively allowing us to track between genres the temporalities forced upon medieval Jews. 

In Chapter One, she leads us into the dark, dirty, and embellishing world of the medieval chronicle, using the 1096 Hebrew crusading chronicle Mainz Anonymous and the 1144 Latin hagiography The Life and Passion of William of Norwich to illustrate the corporeal focus of violence against and involving Jews and the subsequent temporal mixing of biblical past and present. The death that wholly encompasses these chronicles—one a story of a crusading massacre and the other a tale of blood libel—proves more important than the life within them. “Their deaths advocate for a salvific future time intertwined with maintaining national attachments to calendar, culture, and community—possibly the real sacred temporality,” Krummel writes, setting up for the chapters that follow the crucial idea that imposing temporalities is a community survival mechanism.  

In Chapters Two and Three, “An (Un)Common Era” and “Taking Jews Out and Putting Them Back In” respectively, Krummel necessitates the insertion of Jewish temporality into medieval Christian texts to both bring the two groups together under one ‘annus domini’ (i.e., that “the Jew, Judaism, Jewishness, and Jewish time inescapably reside within all that comprises annus domini.”) and to cast Jews out of created Christian temporalities of the page and stage. Using texts from the Vernon Manuscript in the former and the York Mystery Plays in the latter, Krummel’s primary texts are distinctly fictive in their representation of Jewish temporality. The monstrous Jews in the Vernon Manuscript prove the validity of Christian temporality (medievalists of all persuasions argue that the Jews partaking in blood libel mirror the Jews who killed Christ) and are, thus, useful in bringing the peoples together under one temporality. In the York Mystery Plays, however, Krummel argues that it is the writing out of Jewish temporality that creates a powerful tool of temporal fiction—as if Jewish temporality has no bearing on Christian time whatsoever. Krummel’s argument that fictive Jews are both written into and out of Christian temporality neutralizes itself, though, when we reach the end of Chapter Three, sending us into the last half of the book, with potentially the same conclusions that we may have reached at the end of Chapter One. 

As Krummel’s last two chapters shift into the late medieval period, covering topics of literary imitation and temporal influence, she reminds us of the long history of temporal suppression; that is, Christian temporality suppressing Jewish temporality that began way before the medieval period. Chapter Four, titled A Time of Many Layers, covers the famed Middle English epic The Siege of Jerusalem, a medieval Christian rewriting of Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum about the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the powerful suppressant that it serves over the Jewish temporality written into Josephus’s first century text. Essentially, the temporally Jewish parts of Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum are erased and recast as Christian temporality in Siege—though, to Krummel’s credit as a credible theorist, this hardly comes as a surprise to the reader. Ending her book with Chapter Five, titled “Repressing a Perpetually Resurfacing Temporality,” Krummel takes on fifteenth century Chaucer “fan culture” and all its imitative forms, particularly as it relates to the famous Prioress’s Tale. Once again establishing Christian temporality as a community builder, Krummel finds early English nation building in four fifteenth-century manuscripts (all featuring the same general iteration of The Prioress’s Tale). “That urge to create one temporal voice spills over into the postcolonial desire to erase and refashion things outside Christian time,” she writes, as she brings together (towards the end of her book) the final set of ideas that medieval Christians saw their temporality as a unifying force for good, and that the suppression of the temporal Other was for the survival of Christendom as a place temporally distinct from its true Jewish temporal predecessors. 

The Medieval Postcolonial Jew throws us into a temporally fickle and suppressive landscape, though isn’t that what it is to be a medievalist? Instead of leading us through to the Promised Land of clarified temporal bliss, Krummel drops us off back in Egypt, left alone to pick up the pieces of our modern temporality that she has just efficiently shattered for us. One cannot read this book without feeling a twinge of guilt for calling the present year 2023 and not 5783—and while it can be tempting to replace Jewish temporality and Christian temporality with simply ‘Jewish’ and ‘Christian,’ Krummel gives us good reason not to do so.