A Historian in Exile

In A Historian in Exile, Jeremy Cohen shows how Solomon ibn Verga's Shevet Yehudah bridges the divide between the medieval and early modern periods, reflecting a contemporary consciousness that a new order had begun to replace the old.

A Historian in Exile
Solomon ibn Verga, "Shevet Yehudah," and the Jewish-Christian Encounter

Jeremy Cohen

2016 | 256 pages | Cloth $69.95
Religion / History
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Religious Debate and Disputation
Chapter 2. Tortosa
Chapter 3. Talmud and Talmudists
Chapter 4. Anti-Jewish Libels
Chapter 5. Martyrs and Martyrdom
Chapter 6. Conversos and Conversion
Chapter 7. The Author and His Work: Purpose and Structure


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


I heard from elders who had left Spain that in a certain ship the plague broke out and the captain cast them ashore in an uninhabited place. There most of them died of hunger, while some braced themselves to walk on foot until they should find a settlement. Now one Jew among them tried to walk together with his wife and two sons, but the wife, who was not accustomed to walking, fainted and died. The man began to carry the children, until both he and his two sons also fainted out of hunger. When he awoke from his faint he found his two sons dead, and in his great distress he got up on his feet and cried: "Lord of the Universe! Although you are doing much to make me abandon my religion, know for certain that, despite the heavenly hosts, a Jew I am, and a Jew will I remain, and nothing that you have brought or will yet bring upon me will help you!" He gathered some earth and some grass, covered the boys, and went to seek an inhabited place. (p. 122)
This brief but powerful tale, appearing toward the end of Solomon ibn Verga's book Shevet Yehudah, encapsulates the life experience, the world, and the agenda of its author. Although modern scholars differ as to whether Solomon himself included this vignette in his anthology of stories or his son Joseph added it before publishing his father's work posthumously, it ultimately matters little. These few lines convey much of the spirit and message of the Ibn Vergas' popular book, both literally and metaphorically. Significantly, the narrator does not record the incident as factual on his own authority, but he relates what he has heard from the elders in the wake of their expulsion from Spain. The story lacks historical particulars. Rather, it captures the collective suffering and desperation of Iberian Jews at the end of the Middle Ages: homeless, forlorn, overwhelmed with one misery after another and deprived of security, possessions, and hope, the depth of their desolation defies comparison. Yet, despite everything, the Jew of our story does not surrender to his despair. In Job-like fashion, he celebrates his Jewish identity, looking forward to a better and more viable future, even as the relentless tribulation of his past and present weighs directly on his body and soul.

I have shared much of the last decade with Solomon ibn Verga and his stories. While we know few details about his life and absolutely nothing about his death, I have little doubt that he identified with the suffering hero of this tale. Deprived of nearly everything that mattered, he clung to his faith, a faith that found expression in the collective memories of his people's past, and he used those memories to chart a course for healing wounds and remaining afloat. His courage and his impetuousness—a willingness to voice sharp criticism of his fellow Jews and his God alike—undoubtedly contributed to the success of Shevet Yehudah among generations of readers who followed him.

Three hundred years ago, the leading Ashkenazic rabbi Jacob Emden forbade reading Shevet Yehudah on the Sabbath because its stories were too sad, but he then declared emphatically: "But during the week . . . it is an obligation [mitzvah] binding on every Jew to be fully conversant with this wonderful book, in order to remember God's kindness toward us in every generation; for we have not ceased to exist in the face of all the evil decrees that boggle the mind." Solomon ibn Verga, his son Joseph, and their afflicted hero might have measured the extent of God's kindness to his people somewhat differently. But their message rings loud in Emden's triumphant assertion: "We have not ceased to exist in the face of all the evil decrees that boggle the mind."

My own interests in interreligious polemics, blood libels, and historical writing in the Middle Ages all induced me to study Ibn Verga and his captivating book, even if they date from a period later than that on which most of my previous work has focused. Yet fascination adequately compensated for any sense of displacement that accompanied this medievalist in his foray into the sixteenth century. The blend of resilience, elusiveness, and unswerving commitment that characterizes the author of Shevet Yehudah nourished my own determination to pursue this research, and the study presented here is the result.