Catastrophe and its Consequences

Susan Einbinder, professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and Comparative Literature, has devoted most of her work to the study of catastrophe.  Professor Einbinder, a leading scholar on medieval French Jewish literature, is the author of two monographs on medieval French Jews, Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom from Medieval France (Princeton 2002) and No Place of Rest: Literature, Expulsion and the Memory of Medieval France (Philadelphia 2008).  In these works, she has documented, through the examination of a variety of literary sources from gravestones to laments, Jewish response to the traumatic experiences of expulsion, persecution, and martyrdom that occurred throughout the Middle Ages.  In her most recent work, which focuses on Provence and Iberia, Professor Einbinder questions whether those in the past experienced trauma the way people do today or if what we conceive of as trauma is a modern, western construct.

During Professor Einbinder’s year as a fellow for the 2015-2016 academic year with the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute, she drafted the chapters of what will become her latest monograph, a study of Jewish responses to the Black Death in Iberia and Provence. The book emerges as an expansion of a chapter dealing with the subject in her previous work, No Place of Rest; and her textual materials come from a variety of genres and sources, including laments, gravestone epitaphs, medical literature, and forensic archaeology. 

Why study the “century of catastrophe,” as the 14th century is known, marked by the Black Death which was responsible for the destruction of 30-60 percent of the population of Europe? Einbinder explains that learning about Jewish responses to the Black Death provides a better understanding of both the Jewish communities that were affected throughout Europe as well as the broader communities’ responses to their Jewish neighbors.  Depending on the severity of the plague in various locales, responses could range from peaceful cohabitation to violent persecution.

The initial outbreak of the Black Death occurred in Europe in 1348 with subsequent waves occurring until the end of the 1800s. The plague was spread by infected fleas transported by rats and other rodents. The lethal bacteria was responsible for a devastating and swift mortality rate among Europeans whose rapid population loss resulted in major economic, social, and political upheaval, challenging the limits of scientific knowledge and impacting social and humanitarian policy as well as religious thinking.

Today’s research in medieval science and medicine has embraced both a scientific and humanities approach to the study of the Black Death, and recent research in 2010 was able to isolate from the skeletal remains in mass graves DNA evidence of the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the bacteria responsible for bubonic plague, which many scholars had long suspected was the cause of the Black Death. This corroborative evidence on the source of the Black Death from the scientific community is of particular interest to Professor Einbinder because scientific study of the remains of plague victims can now establish as fact what couldn’t be known with certainty before.  

As she studies the medical tractates of the fourteenth century, Professor Einbinder finds record of a community of physicians who continued to treat plague victims while often acknowledging their powerlessness in the face of the mysterious pandemic.  Knowledge of disease spread was unknown to these scientists and thinkers, and the lack of such knowledge sometimes led to scapegoating.  Thousands of Jews were murdered when Europeans became suspicious that Jews were intentionally poisoning wells to spread the disease.  Thus, the catastrophe for Jews in the 14th century was not limited to contracting the Black Death but also to being held responsible for it. 

Professor Einbinder’s research extends beyond the literature of the period to the evidence found at mass graves where Jewish victims of persecution can be found.  According to Einbinder, the weapons used, based on the wounds received by the victims, are not limited to those that would be found in a peasant mob but also include swords, indicating that frenzied peasant mobs alone were not responsible for the massacres.  By examining the perpetrators of violence against Jews, their motives and relationships to Jews in the area, Professor Einbinder hopes to shed light on the psychology of these individuals, thereby shedding light on analogous instances in the modern world where scapegoating, bias, and fear are also present during times of catastrophe. 

Professor Einbinder has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Studies, the NY Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars & Writers, and the National Humanities Center.  We look forward to learning more about her fascinating research!

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