In After the Black Death, Susan L. Einbinder uncovers Jewish responses to plague and violence in fourteenth-century Provence and Iberia, discovering a fundamental continuity in Jewish worldview and means of expression.
2018 | 240 pages | Cloth $69.95
Literature / History / Religion
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Before the Plague: Anti-Jewish Violence and the Pastoureaux
Chapter 2. Emanuel ben Joseph: Trauma and the Commemorative Lament
Chapter 3. Abraham Caslari: A Jewish Physician on the Plague
Chapter 4. Stones of Memory: The Toledo Epitaphs
Chapter 5. Bones and Poems: Perpetrators and Victims
Appendix. The Toledo Plague Epitaphs: Translations
He died of the plague in the month of Tamuz in 5109.The fourteenth century is known for its catastrophes, but among them, the Black Death still stands out for its magnitude. As a result, it has merited outsize attention in modern times. Nevertheless, as even a cursory scan of the literature reveals, studies of the second pandemic, as it is more soberly known, have been experiencing a renaissance. One of the most exciting aspects of the newer research is its collaborative, interdisciplinary nature. Geneticists and medievalists have combined their talents to establish firmly the identity of the medieval plague bacillus, now confirmed as Yersinia pestis (bubonic plague), and the route it took from Asia into the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. Among medievalists, the collaboration of historians of religion, science, technology, and institutions has produced a more accurate picture of how medieval societies responded to the devastating fevers that swept across Europe from the time Genoan sailors returning from Caffa set anchor in Sicily, and then in Marseilles. Within months, the pestilential fevers that they brought with them had spread across continental Europe, reaching Provence by the late spring of 1348 and continuing westward over the Pyrenees down to Barcelona and across the Iberian Peninsula. At the same time, we now know, a second plague vector crossed the Iberian Peninsula from the south, reaching from Mallorca to Valencia and heading north and westward. By July 1348, pestilence was devastating Aragon and Catalonia. Slowed by the aridity of higher altitudes, the onset of winter, and patterns of human and animal traffic, it reached Castile the next spring, tapering over the next year or two.
Just days before his death
He had married.
Then the voice of the bride and groom
Became a voice of weeping,
And a father is pained and pining.
God of the heavens, grant him consolation.
Restorer of souls, [grant him] progeny.
—From the epitaph of Asher ben Turiel, in Toledo
Wise and learned men asked of me that I inform them of my opinion for treating these fevers, and that I write a tractate about this. I have fulfilled their request. Let any learned man benefit from it concerning these illnesses, whether the benefit is for the present [fevers] or as a model for those to come.
—Abraham Caslari, Tractate on Pestilential and Other Types of Fevers, in Besalú
Mortality figures for the plague's impact in Europe generally hover between 30 percent and 66 percent. However, one yield of recent scholarship is the realization that the effects of the pandemic were not uniform, a view confirmed by medieval records and early local studies. The plague struck urban and rural settings differently, mountains and lowlands, sometimes rich and poor. During winter months, the insect-borne disease also mutated into pneumonic, septicemic, and gastrointestinal versions that were highly contagious, speedily transmitted, and almost always fatal. Some regions were further crippled by years of drought or rain, high or low temperatures, cattle disease and crop failure—the erratic climate conditions of what Bruce Campbell has called the "Medieval Climate Anomaly." Some regions, like Aragon, were also in the grip of political turmoil that made institutional responses to disease haphazard and ineffectual. These variable political, social, and environmental conditions all played a role in determining the character of the pandemic in a particular locale. Forensic archaeologists, demographers, and historians, with the help of new methods for extracting aDNA, have also tapped the evidence of plague burial pits and cemeteries, in order to understand the variable demographics of plague mortality; these studies suggest that bubonic plague had greater "success" among individuals already weakened by famine and malnourishment. So, too, the familiar triad of flea-rat-human has been modified considerably with evidence that many insects and mammals can transmit plague from animals to humans. Greater attention is now focused on the plague as an endemic disease, hosted more or less permanently in the ecosystem and periodically transmitted to humans. Marmots, rabbits, black as well as brown rats, and other mammals can harbor it, and lice as well as different varieties of fleas can deliver it to human hosts. At the same time, scholars are beginning to look closely at the ways later (human) plague outbreaks, which would occur at intervals of five to ten years for the next five centuries, reshaped and distorted the ways the initial outbreak was perceived by those who were unfortunate enough to encounter it in 1348. To these investigations, scholars of literature, liturgy, religion, and art have begun to make their own contributions. All these stories find sharper focus almost daily, and with them an ever richer picture of how individuals and communities responded to crisis continues to unfold.
In all this, Jewish studies has lagged behind. As a topic in Jewish social, cultural, or literary history, the Black Death has hardly been treated as an epidemiological event, scholars having focused almost exclusively on the violence against Jews that often accompanied its journey across European lands. Jews were active in mercantile and medical arenas, both of which were profoundly affected by the pandemic. Yet I know of no studies addressing the activities of Jewish merchants, middlemen, or lenders during the plague. Jewish physicians have garnered more interest, especially in the last decade and with regard to a substantial corpus of Hebrew plague tracts; but most of the primary texts are still unpublished, and much work remains to be done. With respect to anti-Jewish violence, the publications have been few but sobering. The early essay in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia is still the one that naive Googling may turn up most quickly. The authors recount the plague's arrival in Europe from the Crimea to ports in Sicily and Marseille. But the plague itself does not interest them so much as the accusations of Jewish responsibility for maliciously spreading it. The essay concludes with a grim list of Jewish communities that succumbed to violence in the wake of these accusations, a memorial litany that consists entirely of central and eastern European towns, mostly German, with representation from the Lowlands, Cracow, and Trent. A very few early studies focused on individual attacks, such as Adolphe Crémieux's study of plague-inspired violence against the Jewish communities of Toulon and Hyères, and local studies continue to appear that detail the eruption of violence in settings characterized by different degrees of earlier tension or harmony. More recent decades have also seen a trend to synthetic overviews, again mostly focused on Germany and central Europe. Joseph Shatzmiller's 1974 survey of violence against Jewish communities in Provence, František Graus's or Alfred Haverkamp's surveys of anti-Jewish attacks in Germany, David Nirenberg's measured attempt to contextualize episodes of violence in Aragon as expressions of antiroyalist resentment—all these works, to some extent, grapple with a need to establish and understand the scope of the violence while resisting essentializing explanations. Samuel Cohn's 2007 essay, auspiciously titled "The Black Death and the Burning of the Jews," returned to the familiar geography of Germany and eastern Europe. Rejecting the case for class or economic-based motives for the outbreaks, Cohn simultaneously rejected "transhistorical explanations" while invoking recurring motives of "religious hatred." The fury and sheer punch of this now-classic essay have undoubtedly given it traction despite the unease that its conclusions may engender. I have surely omitted other studies, and most surveys of medieval Jewish history include some reference to the plague as one more harbinger of persecution, expulsion, and slaughter. Anti-Jewish violence, in sum, has been the overwhelming focus of modern scholarship on Jewish experience during the Black Death.
Surprisingly, especially given the recent surge in interest and publications on the second pandemic, no study of individual and collective responses of Iberian Jews to the Black Death has yet to appear. While this book is by no means a comprehensive account, I hope that it will begin to fill a gap in the scholarly literature. As the most visible minority of the European Christian kingdoms, the Jewish men and women who lived and died in the shadow of the plague years have something to offer to more general studies of this period, as well as to studies of Jewish literature, thought, institutions, and relations with the Christian majority.
In theory, at least, the commemorative corpus in Hebrew should be rich—and not merely because of the rapacious pandemic. Anti-Jewish libels and the attacks that they precipitated were the stuff of traditional commemorative chronicles and laments and what twentieth-century anthologies excelled in finding. Nonetheless, with the exception of a handful of laments from central and eastern Europe, Jewish history books and anthologies cite almost no commemorative and contemporary writing that responds to the plague, especially from Provence and the Iberian Peninsula, the focus of this study.
Among other claims, I argue in this book that this is not because traditional forms of commemoration ceased to be meaningful in a shattering moment of crisis. Some of those traditional forms were grappling with challenges of relevance, along with competition from vernacular and extra-liturgical genres that are not the subject of this study but that surely existed alongside the Hebrew texts that I examine here. Yet the evidence of the few liturgical laments that are extant suggests that this most conventional of genres remained a viable form of expression after the pandemic, even if today it is not so easy to identify which hymns served that end. Significantly, the very ordinariness of this corpus, which continued to rely on familiar tropes, techniques, and sentiments, suggests that the Black Death, as it was experienced from its European outbreak in 1347 until its dissipation in the early 1350s, was not perceived as a truly cataclysmic event until later times. Equally important, violence was not omnipresent in Iberian settings; in Castile, it was unheard of, and in Aragon, when it did occur, sometimes it was resisted or suppressed. Familiar genres and concepts could still be enlisted to explain it; sacred and scientific narratives strained but express no sense of rupture. No enduring crisis of faith, meaning, or language characterized this moment.
This conclusion, which the following chapters reach from several angles, may seem counterintuitive, but it is sustained not only by the evidence of the texts but by the corroborating studies of social historians and historians of science. The extant commemorative literature suggests that the Black Death did not shatter the faith or worldview of the men and women who survived it, even when it did come with terrible violence. Among the Jewish texts treated here, neither liturgical laments, medical treatises, chronicles, nor epitaphs demonstrate meaningful rupture with received conventions for representing catastrophe. Amazingly, the old ways of explaining—and expressing—destruction and loss remained intact. This observation is of a piece with recent findings, whether in the form of focused studies of the 1348-50 pandemic or in comparisons of the effects between the initial and subsequent outbreaks. As the newer scholarship concurs, despite its extraordinary mortality and devastation, the Black Death did not upend a traditional way of viewing life or the cruel blows that it might deliver. While in some cases, the great mortality of the pandemic motivated technological innovations or strengthened (or weakened) labor markets and wage earners, agricultural practices, or guilds, the Black Death caused no revolutionary change in institutions of government or religion. As David Mengel has put it, the "presumed connection between high plague mortality and profound historical effects" does not hold. This book reinforces this observation and extends it to individuals, families, and communities. Arguably, the continuing return of the plague proved more unsettling to old ways of feeling and making meaning. That is a subject for future study.
Implicit in the framing of this project is a secondary question about the viability of current theoretical paradigms, particularly the ever-expanding realm occupied by theories of trauma and its literary representations, for describing medieval catastrophe. Chapter 1 addresses this question directly; but in its own way, each of the subsequent chapters returns to the question of whether the modern concept of psychological trauma, or the wealth of works on "trauma theory" or a "trauma aesthetic" have relevance for mid-fourteenth-century Jews and Christians. To the degree that the answer is no, I ask what remains useful conceptually or descriptively in the recent literature but also what the medieval context may offer those who are interested in the present-day phenomenon and theory.
This project began as a quest for Hebrew liturgical laments (qinot) that responded to the Black Death. The dearth of such texts is striking but not unique: absence also characterizes the liturgical commemoration composed in the wake of Pastoureaux violence, when a combination of local inhabitants and migratory bands of "shepherds" attacked Jewish communities in Provence and Aragon in the summer of 1320. Many of those same communities were attacked again in 1348, with the arrival of the Black Death. In a prefatory mode, Chapter 1 treats the Pastoureaux attacks, their commemorative traces, and their possible lingering effects in later decades, with a specific scrutiny of the assumptions governing current trauma theory and their applicability to medieval contexts. Two Hebrew laments and one survivor's marginal notation in a biblical codex serve as the focus for analysis. To what extent did the events that they describe endure in the memories of survivors? How did medieval Jewish institutions and authorities enlist familiar genres and themes, or harness individual anger and grief, to unify shattered survivors and communities? How did the literary records of Christian institutions likewise emphasize corporate unity over individual experiences of remorse or shame? I conclude that neither the medieval Hebrew laments nor the autobiographical inscriptions behave in ways consistent with assumptions of modern Western models. Instead, they emphasize a shock to communal over personal honor; affirm resistance and resilience over victimhood; and ratify collective tropes of suffering (and redemption) over an intrapsychic experience of pain, shock, or bereavement. Significantly, many of the same techniques, motifs, and theological perspectives recur in the two plague laments discussed in later chapters. This continuity of form and faith is one indication that the task of writing about the Black Death—hence the task of explaining and giving it meaning—did not pose insurmountable challenges to these authors. Contrary to recent emphases on an essential linkage between traumatic experience and a breakdown in language, these men were satisfied with the vocabulary and sensibility conveyed by existing idioms and forms.
Chapters 2 through 5 are dedicated to the Black Death. Although scholars can point to a handful of Hebrew laments included in the standard lachrymose anthologies of the mid-twentieth century, all but one of these examples come from central or eastern European communities. The exception, a Sephardic lament copied in fifteenth-century Calabria, refers to plague-related violence. Its author, Emanuel ben Joseph, is not otherwise known; his hymn is preserved in a collection of Sephardic qinot whose fifteenth-century copyist penned them in Sephardic script. Emanuel's lament emphasizes communal resilience, drawing on familiar techniques and themes. "Let me lament in bitterness and fasting" ("Aqonen bemarah vetzom") refers to a combined assault of sickness and violence, an absentee ruler, and the flight or expulsion of survivors, all factors that characterize Jewish experience in Aragon/Catalonia. The lament also alludes to cattle plague or slaughter, perhaps a nod to the great cattle panzootic (possibly rinderpest) associated with the middle years of the Great Famine (1315-21). Significantly, some of the other texts considered in this book also allude to forms of environmental catastrophe such as drought, famine, and bad weather. While it would be unwise to make too much of these echoes, they suggest that the disastrous climate conditions of the mid-fourteenth century and their impact on agriculture, economy, and animal and human life were not far from the minds of medieval writers when they thought about plague.
Liturgical poetry, of course, was not the only vehicle for preserving one's views on the pandemic. The elusiveness of traditional sources, particularly in the form of liturgical laments, led me to a variety of Jewish texts that shed light both on plague demographics and on the social, institutional, psychological, and spiritual impact of the pandemic on those who lived through it. One genre that emerged with the Black Death and showed continuing vitality over the years was the plague tractate, a medical composition. The physician-authors of these tractates included Christians, Muslims, and Jews, who wrote in Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, and, occasionally, Romance vernaculars. In Christian Spain and Provence, the Christian authors had been educated in the most prestigious medical schools of their day, and their Jewish counterparts were men who had mastered their curriculum from beyond the university walls and endorsed their methods and theories. In recent years, tagging the rise in interest in the plague and in the history of medieval medical knowledge and practice, the activities of Jewish physicians during the plague years have merited some attention. Like their Christian and Muslim colleagues in Provence, Aragon, and Castile, Jewish physicians treated plague patients—sometimes dying, as a result—and wrote their own plague tractates, while others translated into Hebrew some of the Christian treatises that circulated in their milieu. One prominent Jewish practitioner, Abraham Caslari, was an exile from Narbonne who had set up a flourishing practice in Besalú. Abraham had already written a work on epidemic fevers before the plague reached Catalonia in the late spring of 1348. Chapter 3 treats a new Hebrew tract, On Pestilential Fevers, that specifically responded to the extraordinary fevers of that year.
The beginning of Abraham's tractate testifies to the author's awareness of the regional extent of the pandemic, which he describes sweeping from Provence to "Catalonia, Valencia, the region of Aragon and some of Navarre and Castile." Recall that the plague crossed Spain in two converging paths, one originating in the north and coming via Perpignan over the Pyrenees, and then moving south and westward; the other via Mallorca into Valencia and moving north and west. Castile, where the plague is very poorly documented, was near the end of this double trajectory. The plague struck Castile in the summer of 1349 and lingered another year or two; if Caslari knew that the terrible pestilence had reached this kingdom, he was writing no earlier than late 1349. Yet his is one of the earliest known plague tractates. In Catalonia, it was preceded by a vernacular work by a physician in Lleida affiliated with the small medical faculty at the university there. Before succumbing to the plague himself, Jacme d'Agramont wrote a preventive regimen in the vernacular, directing his composition to the municipal officials charged with preparing the town for the epidemic.
Today, Jacme's tractate is often singled out for two reasons. First was the author's unusual division of pestilence into two equally pernicious categories of physical and moral disease. Second, Jacme thought that the plague could be artificially manufactured by people of ill will, arguing that someone might intentionally seed the waters or air with a poisonous substance that could cause an epidemic. The other well-known proponent of this view was Jacme's contemporary at the more famous University of Montpellier, Alfonso de Córdoba. Neither of these authors explicitly pointed a finger at the Jews. Nonetheless, attacks on Jewish communities accused of spreading the plague emerged precisely in their orbits. Chapter 3 looks at Abraham Caslari's tractate is to see whether he might be responding to a theoretical argument associated with anti-Jewish violence, or to the post-hoc knowledge of the brutal attacks on Jewish communities to the south and west of him.
Previously untapped sources also form the basis of Chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 turns to the medieval Jewish cemetery in Toledo, the capital of Old Castile. Now mostly lost, the Jewish tombstones of Toledo were still visible in the early sixteenth century, when a Jewish tourist transcribed nearly eighty epitaphs from the stones. In 1841, Samuel D. Luzzatto published a copy of these transcriptions made by Joseph Almanzi. Of the seventy-eight epitaphs in the collection, twenty-eight describe deaths from plague between 1349-52, twenty-five of those during 1349-50. Toledo was not a site of anti-Jewish violence, and these elegant epitaphs permit a rudimentary assessment of the impact of the plague in Toledo, particularly among its better-off residents. The mere fact that these men and women were individually buried and commemorated in verse suggests that the pandemic's effects were mitigated in this locale. Epitaphs, certainly, are not intended to be genre-breaking, either in literary or theological terms, and these are no exception, wedding a recurring series of tropes and encomia to more or less succinct details of biography. Chapter 4 argues that the continuity in style and convention between the pre- and post-plague epitaphs is further evidence that the Black Death did not cause a profound rupture in Jewish institutions or communal fabric. A secondary conclusion is that the plague epitaphs also preserve evidence of the tension that characterized the interactions of Toledo's acculturated Jewish aristocracy and its imported, Ashkenazi-born, religious elite.
In 2007, archaeologists discovered six communal graves in an exploratory survey in Tàrrega, west of Barcelona and several miles east of Lleida. Their race to analyze and identify the remains was galvanized by the interference of religious groups that ultimately succeeded in halting the excavation and reburying the human remains. Despite the obstacles, the remains were identified as the Jewish victims of a 1348 massacre described in a contemporary Hebrew chronicle; new archival and archaeological sources have permitted reconstruction of the most brutal episode of anti-Jewish violence associated with the outbreak of the Black Death. The forensic analyses of the remains are unique not only as a medium but because we may ask something about their Christian authors from the way they left their marks. Ironically, it is in the silent traces of fury and pain that the bones of Tàrrega's Jews tell two sides of a story. In this context, I am interested in engaging the insights of recent sociological and anthropological studies of intercommunal and interethnic violence to complicate the stereotypical representation of Christian perpetrators as an undifferentiated mass. This disaggregation reveals a number of distinct actors and agendas in the assault on the aljama (Jewish community).
Complexity also characterizes Tàrrega's Jewish victims, some of whom survived with the help of Christian neighbors. One survivor, Moses Nathan, was one of the wealthiest Jews in Catalonia prior to the plague; spirited to Bellpuig, he would spend the next decade or so trying to recuperate the loans, property, and capital lost in one bloody day in July. In addition to his financial interests, Moses authored a variety of writings. His Catalan and Hebrew proverbs, composed a few years before the plague, have merited some attention; and in 1354, he was among the coauthors of a pact signed by representatives of the Catalonian aljamas. In Chapter 5, I argue that Moses' lament for the great fast day of the Ninth of Av commemorates the attack on the Targarin aljama. A close reading of the text permits this study to come full circle by returning to the traditional, liturgical lament in closing. Again, the problem of generic topoi of catastrophe and the challenges that they pose for historians must be raised. On the one hand, Moses' lament demonstrates that, whatever tragedy he commemorated, he had no problem defaulting to the literary and religious tropes embraced in earlier writing: preexisting idioms "worked" to supply the meaning that he sought for himself and his readers. On the other hand, texts like Moses' also "worked" because their imagery and intertextual allusions had local resonance and relevance. Now lost to us, elements of melody and performance once enriched their ability to heighten passions of grief or anger, and then proffer consolation. Laments like this one also survived in fast-day liturgies whose familiar and solemn verses, processions, and shofar blasts nested present catastrophes in the collective memories and rhythms of a liturgically constructed past. These settings, too, might heighten local details without detaching them from familiar foundations. In the echoes of repeatable history, a lament composed for one kind of liturgical use might even be retroactively associated powerfully with a later, local event. That process of commemorative imagination is also part of this story, and meaningful whether or not the original author had this eventual misreading in mind.
The range of genres, ideas, and affect invoked in these chapters are also a reminder that the writing of the Middle Ages largely bequeaths us voices modulated by institutions and their authorities. Sometimes the institutions are religious, sometimes political or legal, sometimes medical; sometimes, they are the voices of convention and belief that constitute the invisible glue of a human community even when no law or doctrine officially prescribes them. The survival of dissident voices from the medieval past is rare, and this may be truer of Hebrew than of Latin and the European vernaculars. To write in Hebrew was already to situate oneself among sacred texts and authorities. Fragments and tantalizing references assure us that the medieval Hebrew corpus coexisted with a rich vernacular analogue. Unfortunately, vernacular authors, performers, and audiences rarely thought to write down their texts, or no one thought to save them. Recent research on a vernacular (aljamiado) fifteenth-century text that belongs to the famous danza de la muerte (danse macabre) tradition confirms that by the fifteenth century, at least, Iberian Jews had a robust investment in Romance genres circulating around them. But, as Michele Hamilton has shown, the danse itself reaches back to the experience of the plague, and its early prototypes may have been embraced by Jewish users. Hamilton has thoroughly discussed this unusual text, which I do not include here, but whose existence reminds us that vernacular expressions of mourning and commemoration supplement the Hebrew genres that interest me in this book. So, too, as stray manuscripts and the material artifacts of the Tàrrega dig confirm, fourteenth-century Jews, like their Christian neighbors, had recourse to amulets, spells, and forms of prophylaxis and healing elided by canonic religious texts. These, too, regrettably fall outside the scope of this study.
Even when it was not partnered with acts of horrific violence, the plague was certainly the kind of external event emphasized in twentieth-century definitions of trauma. Nonetheless, it turns out that the shape of that event was not even or consistent. If these studies suggest that the severity of the pandemic varied from region to region, so, too, did the way people experienced it. Like those of all grand catastrophes, its full contours may always escape us, projecting the kinds of gaps and discontinuities that trauma theorists love to find. In this case, the gaps and discontinuities may be more significant as they are reified over time. The turbulent shocks of the fifteenth century and the blows that they dealt to Jewish communities; the end of Jewish life on the Iberian Peninsula following the expulsion of 1492; the dominance of Castilian Jewish identity among post-expulsion Iberian exiles; and the lachrymose historiography favored by the early Spanish exiles themselves and reinforced by German Jewish scholars in the decades following the Holocaust: all shaped the Jewish past, highlighting details and texts that confirmed an anticipated narrative while suppressing others. Literary texts are chief among the casualties of belated simplification; they are, by definition, mediated, allusive, and often figurative representations and yet fall victim to the flat literalism that conforms them to the expectations of modern narratives of the past. This is starkly evident in the naive assumption that medieval Jewish chronicle, liturgical, or martyrological genres accurately represent the complexity of Jewish or Christian responses; the same may be said for Christian sources. This study tries to honor both the meaning of these institutionalized ways of seeing and to peek behind, around, and underneath them for glimpses of an unrulier reality.
Unlike much of my previous work on anti-Jewish violence, which has treated incidents of judicial violence, these chapters also confront experiences of collective catastrophe—plague and violence—that were largely indiscriminate in their impact. In keeping with my interest in the applicability of recent trauma models and concepts for medieval contexts, this double focus permits scrutiny of what I think is one of the weaker points of contemporary theory: the theorization of collective trauma. By collective or cultural trauma, I refer to a shocking historical event that constitutes a threat to a group's physical survival and sense of identity. Although these catastrophic events have an impact on groups as well as individuals, the theoretical literature on trauma is poorly equipped to describe collective process or distress. Beginning with Freud himself, a number of authors have tried to justify a case for collective trauma that mimics the individual phenomenon. Some of their claims are as problematic as they are sweeping, beginning with the biological analogy itself. A group of human beings does not behave like a larger version of a single individual, and a singular event will affect members of a group in different ways, both in the short and long term. The ready conflation of individual and collective trauma, moreover, reinforces "event-based" models that are already problematic and according to which trauma results inevitably upon exposure to a certain kind of terrible event. In contrast, some sociologists usefully emphasize the role of "culture carriers" or "memory makers" who shape public memory and forgetting; from this perspective, "collective trauma" (like collective memory) is largely a social construct.
The prominence of event-based trauma models is especially associated with American psychological trends and with the political, legal, and social legacy of the Vietnam War and the large numbers of veterans treated for posttraumatic stress disorders, on the one hand, and the rising feminist movement, with its interest in childhood sexual abuse, on the other. The theorization of collective trauma also owes much to early interviews and encounters with Holocaust victims, where the desire to weight external conditions over intrapsychic factors was both obvious and understandable. For similar reasons, studies of children exposed to violence, or wartime atrocities against civilian populations (including sexual violence targeting women) also emphasize exposure because they understandably do not wish to blame the victims of horrific abuse.
At the same time, psychoanalytical models are, by definition, models of individual mental perception and processing; the very concept of psychological trauma emerged from a psychoanalytic focus on individual experience and remains conceptually tethered to that language. Thus, to an exceptional degree, Western models of trauma "tend to locate the cause and onus of responsibility within the individual." Exported to other settings, the focus both on event and individual may actually have the effect of alienating victims from traditional networks of support and "impair their struggle to reconstitute a shared sense of reality, morality and dignity." These critiques are apt for medieval contexts as well, where the distinctions between self, community, and world are not identical with our own. Indeed, even the meaning of "world" in a medieval setting may conflate past, present, and future as well as sacred and profane in ways alien to educated and largely secular Western scholars. Medieval victims are, of course, safe from whatever damage our obtuseness may inflict on them. But if we want to understand their experience and their world, the casual application of modern psychoanalytic categories may not be ideal.
This is not to say that the phenomenon of mass trauma does not exist. The plague is an excellent example of an outside event that had a devastating impact on entire communities. It is harder to map its psychological effects than its sociological or economic ones, but surely they were real—and varied. I am, however, suggesting that the impact of a mass event of this sort is inadequately described by trauma theory and that the concept of collective or cultural trauma has specific historical and cultural limitations that may not reasonably apply to different contexts or times. For that purpose, other disciplines or discourses may serve us better—for instance, sociology and anthropology, which are equipped to describe institutional or otherwise authoritative voices that shape public memory—unsurprisingly, often in ways that uphold the institutions and authority that they represent. For the interplay of group identities and agendas that produce interethnic or interreligious violence, social and political theory are again more useful than psychoanalysis or psychology. I have, accordingly, relied on a variety of studies, from a variety of academic disciplines. None of them can ultimately explain why human beings do the terrible things to one another that we do, or why, despite the calamitous horrors that human beings endure, the capacity for resilience and renewal is never entirely extinguished. Perhaps these questions have no answer. But each of these disciplines can nevertheless probe a tiny piece of the puzzle and offer up its lesson. I have learned something from them all. Above all, I have learned from the voices of my texts, moving and eloquent in their very fragility, objects wrought of parchment and stone, text and bone, preserved these many years—in the words of Dayas Quinoni, a brand plucked from the fire. To spend time with the written testimony is to appreciate with humility and awe the ability of their authors to render layers of meaning and complexity in language shaped by a dialogue with the past even as it grasps for present meaning. To contemplate the language of ravaged bones is to humbly acknowledge the hand of fortune and the measure of faith that levels or preserves us all. Sadly, we have reached a historical moment where that lesson is worth pondering.