For Women, Middle Ages Might Have Been Golden


By Miriam Shaviv

Published February 11, 2005, issue of February 11, 2005.
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Eight hundred years ago, thousands of Jewish Egyptian women refused to immerse in the ritual bath. Only Maimonides’s threat that they would lose their Ketubah money quelled the orchestrated rebellion, years after it began. A century later in Ashkenaz (Christian Europe), rabbis were astonished by the large number of Jewish women who refused to have marital relations with their husbands, asking instead to be proclaimed “rebellious wives” and divorced.

“Between the lines,” writes Avraham Grossman in a new book titled “Pious and Rebellious,” “echoes the voice of powerful women, very different from the ideal of the submissive and shy figure depicted by thinkers during the Middle Ages and the early modern period.”

Indeed, the voice of these women is faint; there is not even one book written by Jewish women from the early medieval period. Two Israeli studies come to shed some light. Grossman’s book, an abridged version of his 2001 Hebrew best seller, “Hasidot U-mordot,” is a survey of Jewish women’s lives in Ashkenaz between 1000 and 1300. He concludes that these women enjoyed a significant improvement in their status compared with the talmudic era, and with Muslim countries. Elisheva Baumgarten’s “Mothers and Children” focuses on Jewish rituals of childbirth and child rearing in the same area and period. Though the books are extremely different, they both very effectively place Jewish women’s roles within the wider contexts of Christian society and changing economic circumstances, and they offer colorful, often surprising pictures of these women’s lives.

Grossman begins by surveying women’s low standing in medieval Jewish thought. Many Jewish philosophers held that women were lightheaded and weak, associated with sorcery and easily seduced, and this inevitably affected women’s image in the community. Women were also married off as young as 12. As a result, they often gave birth before they were ready emotionally, had their education curtailed and perhaps also suffered violence, particularly by older husbands who treated their wives as if they were children.

And yet, the women were not powerless. Grossman describes how a series of rulings concerning marriage and divorce transformed their personal status. Around 1000 CE, Rabbenu Gershom issued a prohibition against polygamy. While second wives were virtually unknown in Ashkenaz, the prohibition stopped businessmen traveling from Ashkenaz to the Muslim world from taking second wives and from abandoning their first ones, and stopped men returning home after years abroad from abandoning their second wife in the Muslim world.

At the same time, Rabbenu Gershom instituted a ban prohibiting a woman from being divorced against her will. And already in effect, from the early Middle Ages, was the “edict of the rebellious wife,” which effectively allowed a woman to initiate divorce and even to force it on her husband.

The combination “created a far-reaching transformation,” Grossman explains. “For the first time in the history of the Jewish people, the woman had the upper hand in this important area. In practice, the woman could divorce her husband against his will without losing her economic rights, while he could not take similar measures against her.”

These options were taken up frequently; Grossman estimates the rate of divorce in 13th-century Germany to have been higher than 20%.

Women also advanced economically. In Ashkenaz, daughters were allowed to inherit from their parents and husbands and, in case of divorce, to take away property they had brought to the marriage.

Ashkenazic women were involved in business and finance, and could help support their families, particularly when their husbands were away on commercial trips. The result was increased power in their relationship with their spouse and within their family.

In the religious sphere, too, the rabbis tried to relax a ban on women learning Torah, and the women struggled to be allowed to perform time-bound, positive laws from which they were legally exempt.

“Various outstanding sages, including Rashi’s own teachers,” Grossman writes, “already recognised this right in the second half of the eleventh century. This was not a purely religious matter, as it also entailed a clear recognition of women’s place in society.”

In the High Middle Ages, Jewish women acted as sandak, holding the child during circumcision ceremonies. They were sometimes included in the Zimmun, inviting Grace After Meals, and occasionally acted as circumcisers and ritual slaughterers. The most powerful illustration of the women’s spiritual strength comes in a moving chapter about their leading role in encouraging martyrdom during the crusades and other pogroms. Multiple sources credit them with resisting conversion even at the price of sacrificing their own children, and with preferring to remain chained wives, or agunot, rather than converting with their weaker husbands.

Grossman attributes the advances to two main factors. Most important was the Jewish community’s transformation from an agrarian society to an urban, bourgeois one. As women became more powerful economically, their status improved; when economic circumstances soured in the 14th century, so did women’s fortunes. Second, he credits the surrounding Christian society’s relative openness toward women, which granted them freedoms unknown in Muslim lands of the time and facilitated their personal development.

It is this last point that is picked up by Baumgarten, who argues that Jewish family life in medieval Europe is best understood in the context of Christian society. She touches on almost every aspect of early childhood — including nursing, child-rearing practices, early education, infanticide, the place of children in society and attitudes toward infertility — but focuses specifically on birth rituals.

Best known, of course, is circumcision; but less known is that in medieval times, it was part of a sequence of ceremonies. One was Hollekreisch, in which the baby was given a secular name on the Sabbath on which the mother first left her house following delivery. The baby was lifted from its cradle, and those present shouted three times, ‘Holle, Holle, what will this baby be named?”

Another was Wachnacht, in which a meal was held in the home of the newborn the night before circumcision, by the mother’s bedside. Finally, there was the elaborate “Shabbat Yetziat Hayoledet,” or the “Sabbath of the Birth-giver.” In this ritual, after a four-week lying-in period, the mother walked to the synagogue with her friends Saturday morning, dressed in Sabbath clothes covered with shrouds. If the baby was a boy, the woman gave the synagogue the embroidered wimpel, the cloth diaper from the circumcision ceremony, and then took off her scarf and shrouds and returned home for a meal with her friends.

Baumgarten makes a strong case that each of these rituals was drawn, in large part, from Christian equivalents or influences. She is at her best when she also analyzes them for the insight they give into the place of women in society. She links the evolution of women’s role as sandek during circumcision, for example, to tensions regarding the couple’s marriage agreement, and to a backlash against women’s adoption of ritual practices in which they were not obligated to partake. And though the Sabbath of the Birth-giver was seen by males as connected to impurity, Baumgarten raises the possibility that it was seen by females, both Christian and Jewish, as an empowering collective ritual in which they affirmed their femininity.

Both books suffer from some flaws. Grossman compares Ashkenaz to the Muslim world, the Christian world, Italy, France and England in a haphazard way, confusing the reader, while Baumgarten spends too much time explaining the merits of her methodology and not enough clearly articulating her theses. Nevertheless, these studies are thoroughly absorbing in every detail, and give an important voice to women whose voices have become almost completely muted over time, even though in their own age they were heard louder and clearer than ever before.

Miriam Shaviv is the former literary editor of The Jerusalem Post.

* * *

Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe

By Avraham Grossman

Brandeis University Press, 329 pages, $29.95.

* * *

Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe

By Elisheva Baumgarten

Princeton University Press, 320 pages, $39.50.

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