On October 11, Susan Einbinder inaugurated this year’s LCL Lecture Series with her talk “Bone, Stone, and Text: Tàrrega 1348.” Eibinder, who is a professor of Hebrew & Judaic Studies and of Comparative Literature, has earned many of the most prestigious fellowships in the humanities including a Guggenheim, and fellowships at the Center for Advanced Studies at Princeton and at the National Center for the Humanities in Research Triangle Park, NC among others. Her talk presented a case study from her forthcoming book After the Black Death: Plague and Commemoration among Iberian Jews (University of Pennsylvania, 2018) that explores the history of Jewish persecution and its representations during the Black Death in Spain.
Eibinder’s talk gracefully layered archeological findings, a patchy historical record, and eyewitness representations of the events, some of them poetic, to weave together a complex narrative about a massacre of Jews that occurred at Tàrrega, just north of Barcelona, following an outbreak of the plague in 1348. Einbinder reconstructs what she can of the sequence of causes and motives leading to and then following from the massacre. As she does so, she articulates what is particular about the massacre in Tàrrega even as she connects it to a longer chain of Jewish persecutions in response to the Black Death across Europe. Her careful vetting of the evidence then itself becomes a platform from which she asks her audience to recognize conventions that tend to organize testimonies about persecution and violence. She describes how such narratives tend to cast victims and victimizers in fairly stark opposition for reasons that include scriptural tradition, poetic, cultural, and narrative convention, as well as a psychological need to apportion blame unambiguously.
The case of Tàrrega was one in which the violence against Jews was particularly unsparing, and yet, even here we find deviations from the script that neatly divides antagonists and victims. Though the murders at Tàrrega were at least partly the result of religious intolerance among its Catholic inhabitants, counter-intuitively the Catholic court stepped in to punish the perpetrators, including even the mayor and other notables. And yet, although the court imposed fines and required that the town reconstruct its Jewish Quarter, in the end, it never followed through on most of its sanctions. As a result, the few records that have come down to us suggest that those Jews who did survive did not feel safe enough to return to their former homes. And though the evidence suggests a harrowing level of persecution, it turns out that many towns did not experience the levels of violence witnessed in Tàrrega. Ultimately, Einbinder’s work points to a need for special attention when we encounter persecution narratives, not in the aim of dismissing them, but instead with an eye towards restoring what we can of the specificity that they often conceal. What is at stake is not only a better understanding of the causes of ethnic violence, but also a better history and knowledge of how language is used to mobilize, commemorate, denounce or rationalize collective violence.