David Shyovitz, A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz, reviewed by Miri Fenton
After reading David Shyovitz’s excellent article on werewolves, and attending his lecture at the World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem this summer, I was very excited to read his first book. In A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz, published earlier this year by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Shyovitz combines creative philosophical thinking and close textual reading to write a new and engaging intellectual history of medieval Ashkenaz.
His book reframes the German Pietists (Hasidei Ashkenaz), and their interests in the supernatural, werewolves, adjuration, and divination as “markers of intellectual sophistication and integration into a broader European culture that was investing unprecedented energy into investigating the scientific workings and spiritual meaning of its natural surroundings” (3). Using texts attributed to Kalonymide circle of German Pietists (mainly to Judah b. Samuel the Pious and Eleazar b. Judah of Worms) Shyovitz argues that, far from adhering to superstition, the German Pietists privileged the human body as a theological construct and saw divine order in the natural world. They did not subscribe unthinkingly to folkloric beliefs over scientific enquiry, a dichotomy that Shyovitz identifies as anachronistic. Instead, “the German Pietists saw the natural world, and particularly the human body, as infused with theological meaning” (205). Their writings attest to their empirical and theoretical study of the natural world and the human body as an integral part of their search for spiritual enlightenment (Chapter 1). Shyovitz argues that this search led to a complex theological system, wherein, amusingly enough, eschatology and scatology met in a coherent set of ideas about the body, the soul, mutability, and bodily “excretions” (Chapter 5).
Through this argument, Shyovitz intervenes in several longstanding historiographical debates about the nature of the German Pietist circle, medieval German Jewish philosophy, and the extent of philosophical overlap with, parallel to, and interaction between medieval German Jews and Christians. Shyovitz makes sure to approach his sources synchronically and diachronically in every chapter. He concisely and thoroughly introduces a very wide range of topics, before delving into their significance for German Pietist theology. Shyovitz is erudite on issues ranging from the rabbinic idea that the temple – or later the human body – is an olam katan, to the medieval Christian concept of nature, and changes in Christian theology regarding the body as a physical or ontological microcosm of the universe (Chapter 2). His synchronic analysis also brings to light contemporaneous German source material, and Shyovitz persuasively argues for the necessity of considering these sources in order to understand the theology of the German Pietists (see especially 105 and 111).
Quite unusually for studies of medieval Ashkenaz, Shyovitz’s continuous comparisons with Jewish philosophy throughout the medieval world contextualize the German Pietists both synchronically and diachronically. By identifying important points of departure between “Ashkenaz” and “Sepharad” with respect to a shared inherited rabbinic tradition, Shyovitz demonstrates the extent to which the theological concerns that preoccupied the German Pietists were at once unique to their local geographical context, and also inextricably bound up with the tradition they inherited.
Especially interesting for me was his analysis of pietistic asceticism (particularly 126-8). Here Shyovitz convincingly and comprehensively analyses German Pietism as part of a larger high medieval pietistic movement. He demonstrates how sometimes violent, dramatic ascetic practices do not indicate a pietistic idea of the separation of body and soul, but rather that pietists subjected themselves to physical punishment in this world in order to avoid equally physical punishment in the world to come (Chapter 3). I think that Shyovitz’s emphasis on physicality, the centrality of the real world, in the theology of the German Pietists strengthens his claim that the writers of these texts, and the beliefs therein, did not typify a fringe extreme sect, but rather were central to the spiritual and devotional trends in Ashkenazi culture as a whole. Although he does not argue this explicitly, it seems to me that a focus on the natural world and the human body as the ultimate paradigm for holiness might have made the practices and exhortations of the German Pietists that bit more accessible.
Methodologically, Shyovitz set out to account for medieval German Jewish-Christian relations without relying on the historiographical paradigm of “influence” or overstating the coherence of the German Pietists’ theology. By combining close reading of Pietist texts with very broad contextualization he successfully treads this fine line throughout the book. Shyovitz’s comparisons of Jewish and Christian theology note points of parallel development, potential overlap, and connection, without arguing that all German Pietistic theology can be boiled down to a single maxim.
This methodological approach enables Shyovitz to identify the key areas and categories in medieval thought that were unstable. Through comparison with Christian theology, he explains that the very notion of the “body,” and “nature” were multifaceted, and that experimental science was contested (Chapter 4). He then imports this complexity into his reading of the German pietists, destabilizing those ideas in their writings. This lends credence to his creative and close reading of the German Pietists, and has potentially significant ramifications for other areas of medieval Jewish thought and across medieval Jewish history.
A Remembrance of His Wonders thoroughly tackles all the subjects Shyovitz proposes in his introduction. There are however a few areas that the book mentions that I would have liked to read more about.
First, Shyovitz does not spend much time talking about the exegetical or experimental method of the German Pietists, even though these techniques are present in many of his sources. He does speak to the nature of experimentation and science for medieval German Christians, but an explicit analysis of the ways in which exegesis and experimental science differently shaped pietistic writing would have been interesting and helpful. Second, Shyovitz does not mention the notion of the “self” at all in the book. While a full discussion of consciousness, the self, or personhood would not have been relevant to Shyovitz’s arguments, these ideas flourished in twelfth and thirteenth century philosophy. Although sleep is raised as a topic in his discussion of the body and the soul, consciousness is not. Though this does not weaken his argument at all, I would very much like to know how Shyovitz sees consciousness, the self, and personhood at work in medieval pietist thought. Finally, although Shyovitz references gender studies and feminist history in his reviews of contemporary literature pertaining to certain topics, women are almost entirely absent from his book. This might not be surprising – his texts were written exclusively by men. Yet, I was pleased to read a range of examples of women being taught moral lessons, as well as discussions of birth and breast milk. Shyovitz also mentions the striya, women with some similarities to vampires, “who perform an action and change their appearance” (154), but he does not go in to detail. I would have enjoyed reading more about this category of unstable women, and understanding the comparison, hinted at by Shyovitz, between male and female bodily instability (perhaps in a future publication?).
The breadth and depth of sources in this book breaks new ground for research into the realia of medieval Ashkenaz. This book is primarily an intellectual history and does not focus on the interactions of regular people. Although Shyovitz does acknowledge that contacts between Jews and Christians were not confined to elite circles, evidence of lay practices is minimal. However, evidence of the possible Jewish-Christian interaction on the basis of theological parallels is intriguing. Towards the end of the book, Shyovitz discusses the recent discovery of a cesspit under a house next to the synagogue in Cologne, in light of sources that attest to medieval communal leaders’ refusal to remove excrement from the pit by taking it out through the synagogue (202-3). Ultimately, this example points to the ways in which Shyovitz’s book may have significant ramifications for the social history of medieval Ashkenaz more broadly, especially the relationships between intellectual culture, governing theological understandings of the world, and the realia of everyday life.
Shyovitz’s book is detailed, systematic, and well organized. It is written clearly, with a lightness of touch, and enough humor to make the closing chapter on excrement and bodily excretions engaging and readable. Shyovitz’s intervention into scholarship on the German Pietists may have helped to open up this area of medieval Jewish intellectual history to a wider audience of students interested in themes across Jewish theology and a wide range of topics in medieval history. As such, this book will be of interest to social historians, art historians, and intellectual historians alike. The questions he raises and the evidence he presents (and translates into English) bring together themes from medieval theology, philosophy and history in ways that will be helpful to students of all of these disciplines, as well as for Jewish philosophers from ancient to modern times. With this book, Shyovitz theologically and philosophically contextualises an important group of medieval Jewish thinkers, and by doing so sheds light on a truly wide range of disciplines. I greatly enjoyed reading A Remembrance of His Wonders and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of medieval Ashkenaz, or in Jewish intellectual history more broadly.
Miri Fenton is writing her PhD in medieval history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She aims to use social history and social theory to investigate oft-overlooked halakhic issues that belie the realities of Jewish communal life. Working with Prof. Elisheva Baumgarten, she is a member of the ERC research team “Beyond the Elite: Jewish Daily Life in Medieval Europe.” Her thesis is entitled “Everyday Life, Identity, and Communal Relations: A Comparison of Kehilot Shum and Aragon, 1100-1347.”