Continuing LI’s Menckenish ecumenicalism (now there’s a phrase, and that’s the only defense I can make of it), on this Good Friday we have searched out some article that can warm our somewhat tepid belief. We found one in the Winter Issue of Common Knowledge: The Presence of Objects by Caroline Walker Bynum – link here to Bynum’s President’s Address to the AHA. The article begins with a small but startling artifact found cemented in the wall of a church in Sternberg, Germany. It is a block of stone with footprints in it. What miracle is attested by those footprints? Well, it seems in 1496, a Jewess stole the eucharist and attempted to drown it. Her attempts were unavailing, and the divinity sunk her feet into stone. It seems, in fact, that the Jews around Sternberg were always bludgeoning eucharists, making them bleed, and in general showing their hard heartedness. A corrupt priest, it was said, delivered a lot of consecrated hosts to the Jews to redeem items pawned by his concubines, and of course they started sticking these things with knives, as was their habit. Hard hearted, these folks. To test just how densely the fibers of their hearts were contracted, the church had sixty five of them tortured, burned twenty seven of them on a hill still known as Judenberg, and expelled the rest.
Such is the history of the Catholic church in a less than life lovin' mode. But these things happened long ago (although certain Catholic bishops, notably the one appointed by the Church to serve the Argentine military, have hopes of reviving Jew-baiting any day now). Bynum’s inventory of objects in the Sternberg church include, quaintly, the heavily scored table at which the Jews assembled to attack the hosts, the iron pot that the concubine got back after the delivery of the hosts, and even a container in which the hosts were stored. The question, of course, is what is one to make of these things now?
In Sternberg, the answer has been, partly, to enroll these objects in the indictment both of the small, distant massacre of the Jews in 1492 and the larger one in the 1933-1945 period. Bynum reports that, in Sternberg’s economic history, the 1492 massacre was no small thing – it made Sternberg the site of a pilgrimage. Sternberg was not alone – it was a common late medieval motif, this of desecrating Jews and miraculously rescued hosts. According to Bynum’s reconstruction, the story of the desecrating Jews as a cause of a pogram is an innovation – in an earlier epoch, the chronicles would recount things like: visitation of grasshoppers, Jews all killed. Afterwards, the desecration story would be woven – not so much to excuse killing Jews, a self explanatory Christian act, but to attract pilgrims, an profitable source of income.
Bynum’s survey leads into Bynum’s argument – that the mass of anti-Jewish objects created in Germany between the 14th and 16th centuries should not be destroyed. They should be preserved both to be studied and as probes, as it were, of past cultures. With this argument, LI agrees, even if Bynum’s argument about the aura of objects (Bynum adduces her mother’s old wooden pie rollers) seems, partly, to be the rationalization of an inveterate pack rat impulse.
Now, I could imagine someone pointing out that the Church is no longer a center of anti-Semitism, and has repented quite extensively of its past role. That's true. And, of course, it is also true that the Church is much bigger than its bigotries. To think that it isn't is the mistake, ultimately, of such as Mencken -- it is a foreshortening of the imagination, the critic's vice.
On the other hand, one must remember that the motive for repentence (of certain of those bigotries) came from outside the church – the horror at intolerance, the horror at anti-semitism, were sentiments generated by liberal, secular thinkers, promoted by their controversial disciples, transmitted via outlaw organisations and bohemian enclaves (well, sometimes), and fought against, bitterly, by the Church for two hundred years. Liberal secular thinkers did the Church a favor – in a sense, they brought it much closer to the teachings of Jesus. Moral is: don’t give up now, liberal secularists.