Mother of Mercy, Bane of the Jews: Devotion to the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Norman England, by Kati Ihnat

Anti-Semitism was a key pillar of the carefully built cult of Marian worship, says Rachel Moss

January 12, 2017
Icon of the Virgin Mary
Source: iStock

Given the multiple reports of anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on schools and in cemeteries and parks in the wake of the US presidential election, it feels strangely apposite that this book has risen to the top of my reviewing pile. Kati Ihnat offers a careful exploration of the way in which 11th- and 12th-century monks painstakingly developed the cult of the Virgin Mary, in part by casting the Jewish people as her prototypical enemy. In the current climate, this is a study that has much to offer not only for medievalists but also, more generally, for scholars with an interest in religion, culture and the ways that hatred of minorities can be fostered.

Ihnat focuses on England between 1066 and 1154, a period of significant reform within the English Church – and also of the first settlement in England of a small Jewish community, who came with the Normans post-conquest. She overturns the common misconception that the growth of the Marian cult was the Church’s response to a popular desire for a merciful mother figure. Devotion to the Virgin was carefully cultivated by monastic writers, for whom she was the “most influential hagiographical model adopted for reform objectives” in the Anglo-Norman Church. In an age of reform, she was a potent symbol of monastic ideals such as obedience and chastity that could be used to bind Christians together.

A key way of doing this, Ihnat argues, was the development of Mary’s “two faces”: the mother of mercy and the instrument of vengeance. In both these personas, Jews were key, because to her most obstinate enemies Mary could demonstrate the full extent of her powers. Having brought Christ into the world, she was seen as a gateway to salvation, and stories showed penitent Jews converted by her mercy. Intractable Jews, meanwhile, were punished.

These narratives were written to find new ways to understand Mary and to showcase good devotional behaviour. Their authors were not especially interested in the “real” behaviour of living Jews, and it can be difficult to ascertain the impact of these elite texts on a wider audience. Ihnat is cautious about extrapolating direct social impacts from the works she studies – but she does note that in “the very act of hearing, retelling, and internalizing these images of antagonism, through years of exposure to liturgy, sermons, and art, there was a risk that an underlying belief might develop that what they said about Jews was true”.

In the mid-12th century, the Benedictine monk Thomas of Monmouth wrote a now-infamous account of the ritual murder of a child. It is the first known case of blood libel, the accusation that Jews sacrifice Christian children and make use of their blood. The blood libel soon spread across Europe, and where it was levelled against specific individuals it typically resulted in mob hysteria and violence – and not just in the Middle Ages, as the targeting of a rabbi in Massena, New York in 1928 shows. Thomas’ book, The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich, contains echoes of many Marian miracle stories, which built on pre-existing structures of anti-Semitic discourse to create a hateful new level of fear of the Jews. It is one that had, and continues to have, real-world consequences.

Rachel Moss is Leverhulme early career fellow in the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford.


Mother of Mercy, Bane of the Jews: Devotion to the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Norman England
By Kati Ihnat
Princeton University Press, 320pp, £34.95
ISBN 9780691169538 and 9781400883660 (e-book)
Published 30 November 2016

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Print headline: Full of grace – and holy terror 

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