A Jewish Renaissance in Fifteenth-Century Spain

A Jewish Renaissance in
Fifteenth-Century Spain
By Mark D. Meyerson

Princeton University Press – £32.95

If ever a book warranted praise for meticulous research, having traipsed many a road of infinite painstaking, poignant, particularity, then this more than commendable offering by Mark D. Meyerson is surely it.

A Jewish Renaissance in Fifteenth-Century Spain is a piece of work, which reminds the reader and perhaps society at large, of the degree to which history repeals, reveals and eventually repeats itself. That much of history’s trajectory gets conveniently sidetracked and ostracized to such a degree that the blame game reigns supreme, is of course, neither here nor there.

What truly matters is the here and now; or in the case of this dense yet highly readable book, the there and then.

As the author writes in the Introduction (‘’Yet for a historian intent on recovering the Jews of medieval Morvedre from oblivion, the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter do resound with Jewish voices – or at least they can be made to do so through careful archival reconstruction and a healthy dose of imagination’’) might it be said, that this book’s factual analysis alone, really is quite something.

Assiduously reconstructed from inquisition archives in Madrid and the Aragonese royal annals in Barcelona – not to mention a variety of municipal and ecclesiastical chronicles in Valencia – A Jewish Renaissance in Fifteenth- Century Spain has to be the most detailed and comprehensive account (to date), of any Jewish community within that of Mediterranean Spain. It significantly revises the conventional view that Jewish participation in medieval Spain, prior to the expulsion of 1492, was one of dire despair and decline.

Focusing on the town of Morvedre in the kingdom of Valencia, the author substantiates how and why said Jewish community revived and eventually flourished – following the aftermath of 1391’s vile violence.

At the outset of Chapter Three, ‘Wine, Money, and Mobility,’ Meyerson writes: ‘’Comprising roughly one-quarter of Morvedre’s total population, they were an important, nearly indispensable component of its economic and social fabric. The Jews enjoyed a level of influence unseen in the town since the late thirteenth century […]. Although Jews were not conspicuous authority figures like some of their thirteenth-century forebears, their community’s demographic weight and economic clout were impressive.’’

Needless to say, the tonality of the language, lends itself to that of a cohesive modernity and understanding. In fact it does so, to such a degree that Meyerson could be well writing about current day Israel or another such fluidic demography; as the author continues: ‘’The Jews of Morvedre had perforce adjusted to the new economic, social and legal realities brought about by the violence of 1391 and subsequent royal policies […]. When necessary, they could privilege one activity over another or abandon a particular activity altogether. Economic diversification was a means of success as well as survival.’’

The last line: ‘’Economic diversification was a means of success as well as survival,’’ could just as easily have been written in last week’s edition of The Economist as it has in relation to the Jews of Morvedre – six hundred years ago.
So whether by default or design, Meyerson illustrates that just as economics traverses time, so too does the justification and the means by which it is placed and (mis)understood within the social polemics of history and sociology.

As the author of Medieval Frontier History in New Catalonia, Lawrence J. McCrank writes: ‘’this well-written book not only represents a solid contribution to medieval Iberian history and Jewish history, but also speaks to modern pluralistic society […]. Times have changed, things are different, this was the past. But then comes the nagging question: Is this really so? Or are Spain’s early modern problems of seeking social cohesion despite social diversity with us still?’’

This more than authoritative book might not bequeath all the right answers, but it most certainly asks all the right questions.

David Marx


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