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Jews and Christians in Medieval Castile

Tradition, Coexistence, and Change

Jews and Christians in Medieval Castile examines the changes in Jewish-Christian relations in the Iberian kingdom of Castile during the pivotal period of the reconquest and the hundred years that followed the end of its most active phase (eleventh to mid-fourteenth century). The study's focus on the Christian heartland north of the Duero River, known as Old Castile, allows for a detailed investigation of the Jews' changing relations with the area's main power players—the monarchy, the church, and the towns. In a departure from previous assessments, Soifer Irish shows that the institutional and legal norms of toleration for the Jewish minority were forged not along the military frontier with Islam, but in the north of Castile. She argues that the Jews' relationship with the Castilian monarchy was by far the most significant factor that influenced their situation in the kingdom, but also demonstrates that this relationship was inherently problematic. Although during the early centuries of Christian expansion the Jewish communities benefited from a strong royal power, after about 1250 helping maintain it proved to be costly to the Jewish communities in economic and human terms. Soifer Irish demonstrates that while some Castilian clergymen were vehemently anti-Jewish, the Castilian Church as a whole never developed a coordinated strategy on the Jews, or even showed much interest in the issue. The opposite is true about the townsmen, whose relations with their Jewish neighbors vacillated between cooperation and conflict. In the late thirteenth century, the Crown's heavy-handed tactics in enforcing the collection of outstanding debts to Jewish moneylenders led to the breakdown in the negotiations between the Jewish and Christian communities, creating a fertile ground for the formation of an anti-Jewish discourse in Castilian towns. Soifer Irish also examines the Jews' attitudes toward the various powers in the Christian society and shows that they were active players in the kingdom's politics. Jews and Christians in Medieval Castile breaks new ground in helping us understand more fully the tensions, and commonalities, between groups of different faiths in the late medieval period.

About the Author

Maya Soifer Irish is associate professor of history, Rice University.


"Irish's understanding of Jewish history as an integral part of the history of the areas studied is one of the greatest merits of their work. This embeddedness in general developments is also shown, and above all, in their detailed source analyzesDetailed studies are successfully integrated into the overall narrative and always serve to illustrate general developments."—Sehepunkte

"Jews and Christians in Medieval Castile brings to life the situation of the Jews along the Road to Santiago. Working with difficult and often skimpy source material, Maya Soifer Irish not only demonstrates the importance of these communities to the Castilian economy, monarchy, and church, but also undermines conventional assumptions about the importance of the Islamic model for Christian rulers. Without in any sense minimizing the precarious position of the Jews under Castilian rule, Irish shows their wealth, influence, and agency in a perilous but not inflexible regime. Beautifully written, the book is an important revision of the picture of cultural, political, and religious interaction in Spain. –"—Paul Freeman, Yale University

"Rejecting notions of a distinctively Spanish 'convivencia,' and instead approaching the complex status of Castilian Jews within the framework of their European context, Maya SoiferIrish's study of Jewry in the north of the Iberian peninsula promises to become a seminal work. Mining a wide range of local archival sources, Soifer Irish traces the waxing and waning fortunes of the Jewish community over a three-hundred- year period, all the way to the brink of catastrophic violence. Jews and Christians in Medieval Castile examines the rich fabric of a multiethnic society along the Camino de Santiago and beyond toward the expanding military frontier. While untangling the threads of the social, economic, political, and ecclesiastical relationships between Jews and Christians, the author also allows us to zoom in on urban centers such as Palencia, while reminding us of the many Jews who lived in small towns or in rural settings. An impressive achievement, deeply versed in scholarship from both sides of the Atlantic. –"—Simon Doubleday, Hofstra University, and author of The Wise King. A Christian Prince, Muslim Spain, and the Birth of the Renaissance

"Soifer Irish provides a solid overview of the legal status of the Jews of Old Castile from their origin to the era of 1391 and their relationships with royal, Church and municipal authorities, outlining their main economic activities, and analyzing the controversies, tensions and opportunities these generated with elements within Christian society The book is clearly-organized and well-written, suitable for undergraduates as well as scholarly readers; it will be of interest to historians of medieval Spain, Europe and Jewish-Christian relations."—Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies

"This book is a welcome addition to the spate of books which has recently appeared on the history of the Jews in medieval Iberia. In contrast to many other publications its main geographical focus is on northern Castile, where Jewish communitiesourished before the prominent Jewish community of Toledo became part of the kingdom when the city was captured from the Muslims in 1085. This has allowed Irish to consider the nature of relations between Christian rulers and Jews in this area independently from notions of convivencia imported by means of the so-called Reconquista."—Journal of Ecclesiastical History

"From her masterful discovery of neglected documentary sources and a broad interpretation of the relations of Christians and Jews in northern Castile not based on the age-old rehearsal of tolerant and intolerant forces to explain Iberia's multireligious communities, but drawn from a very detailed analysis of the many interactions of Castilian Christians and Jews, Professor Soifer Irish has produced a book that makes her a distinguished intellectual successor of Yitzhak Baer and at the forefront of the group of new scholars who are brilliantly exploring one of Spanish history's greatest vexed questions."—Sixteenth Century Journal

"I frankly found myself dumbfounded, at times, at Soifer Irish's keen ability to discover patterns and fashion sophisticated arguments with much more limited and problematic evidence than I have ever had to contend with. Apart from representing a major advance in our understanding of medieval Castilian history (which naturally plays such key roles within Iberian, European, Mediterranean, and world history), Soifer Irish's finely crafted study should also serve as a model of research, interpretation, and writing for students and seasoned historians alike."—Medieval Review

The Catholic University of America Press


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344 Pages
$69.95 USD
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344 Pages
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