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Barton, Contested Treasure: Jews and Authority in the Crown of Aragon (Soifer Irish)

  • 26 May 2017 9:26 AM
    Message # 4854367
    Janna Bianchini (Administrator)

    Thomas W. Barton, Contested Treasure: Jews and Authority in the Crown of Aragon (College Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), 312 pp.  ISBN: 978-0-271-06473-4.

    Reviewed by Maya Soifer Irish

    Rice University

    The relationship between the Jews and their secular overlords is the single most important issue in the historiography of Jewish-Christian coexistence in medieval Europe.  Before anyone objects by calling attention to other weighty topics of arguably greater or equal significance, such as anti-Jewish violence or the vicissitudes of social interactions between Jews and Christians, let me point out that without royal and seigniorial protection, Jewish life in medieval Europe would have never taken root.  Well aware of this fundamental fact essential to their survival, Jews migrated to European principalities only if they were given explicit promises of patronage or at least had good reasons to expect protection upon arrival.  In Spain, R. Asher ben Yehiel, a German-born leader of the Toledan community, argued that the taxes paid by Jews to Christian governments were a defense expenditure that bought them protection from harm.

    For this reason alone, the publication of Thomas Barton’s monograph on the contested jurisdiction over Jews in the Catalan town of Tortosa is a momentous historiographic event.  What makes Barton’s contribution even more significant is his revision of the dominant narrative that the royal claims of exclusive jurisdiction over Jews were effectively and uniformly enforced everywhere in the Spanish kingdoms.  Indeed, such towering figures in Iberian scholarship as Yom Tov Assis and Yitzhak Baer have assumed that since only the royal authorities in Spain could ensure the Jews’ safety, they were the exclusive beneficiaries of the services provided by the “royal treasure” (servi regis).  By focusing on the neglected case of Tortosa, Barton successfully challenges this assumption, showing that other authorities – seigniorial, ecclesiastical, and municipal – “exercised what they understood to be legitimate authority over Jewish communities, sometimes in open opposition to emergent royal claims” (14).

    Barton does not deny that the principle of royal jurisdiction over Jews was widely acknowledged in the Iberian kingdoms.  However, at the local level, the specific needs of coexistence in individual communities, which Barton calls “micro-convivencias” (19), created many variations on the dominant theme.  To show how and why such alternate arrangements could develop, Barton begins, in Chapter I, by arguing that the Jews’ ambiguous jurisdictional status in Tortosa can be traced to the lack of a clearly defined royal Jewish policy by Count-Prince Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona and Aragon, who conquered Tortosa in 1148.  The Crown then further muddled the waters by transferring lordship over the town to the Templar military order and the noble Montcada family.  Unlike many other nonroyal aljamas in Castile and Aragon, which were donated to ecclesiastical institutions or royal servitors through specific grants by the Crown, the Jewish community in Tortosa moved under the control of a seigniorial regime as part of an ill-defined transfer of the territorial lordship to the Templars.  What the Tortosa case demonstrates, in Barton’s view, is that despite the assertive statement of the servi regis principle in the famous fuero de Teruel (ca. 1176), the development of the royal prerogative over Jews in Aragon was much slower and more hesitant than is generally assumed.  As Barton shows in Chapter 2, only in the late 1220s did the king of Aragon, Jaume I, begin to cautiously expand royal authority in Tortosa, regaining some administrative rights there by mid-thirteenth century.

    In Chapter 3, Barton paints a fascinating picture of Tortosa’s micro-convivencia in action.  The Templars and the Montcada family “played the part of the king” by mimicking the traditional royal pledge of honoring the Jewish aljama’s privileges and providing for their safety from outside threats.  At the same time, they opted to leave the community in a state of “autonomy by default,” never attempting to regulate the internal administration of the aljama (85, 94).  When it came to the Jews of Tortosa, then, both the local conditions and the situation in the realm as a whole favored the persistence of the status quo.  The co-lords of Tortosa were focused on consolidating their lordship while resolving internal disputes between the Templars and the Montcada family, and rebutting the Christian citizens’ challenges to their authority.  King Jaume had to tread carefully as well in order to avoid antagonizing Tortosa’s lords by pushing his regalian agenda too forcefully.

    The rest of the study (Chapters 4-6) documents in rich detail the challenges to the status quo beginning in the early 1260s.  Only in the last decade or so of his life did King Jaume significantly accelerate the pace of his engagement with the Jewish community by placing a Jewish bailiff in Tortosa, requiring that the local aljama contribute to the tribute paid by the Jews under royal jurisdiction, and insisting that he possessed exclusive authority over non-Christians living in Tortosa.  His successor, King Pere III, granted mendicants a license to proselytize in the town.  By the time King Jaume II purchased the town from its seigniorial regime in 1294, the Jewish community of Tortosa already functioned a lot like a royal aljama.

    In Barton’s telling, rather than providing a story of the inevitable triumph of royal jurisdiction, the case of Tortosa serves as an illustration of monarchical impotence (171).  In its gradual push for centralization, the Crown had to contend with many competing local interests and constituencies often working at cross-purposes.  While the Jewish community’s desire for self-governance gave the king an opportunity to expand his authority in the town, Tortosa’s Jews also collaborated with the seigniorial regime in an effort to avoid paying taxes with the royal Catalan aljamas.  Tortosa’s micro-convivencia is thus a story of negotiations, conflict, opportunism, compromises, and incremental change.  Grounded in local archival documentation and refreshingly attentive to the historical contingencies of religious coexistence, Barton’s study sets a new high standard in the scholarship on medieval Iberia and Jewish-Christian relations. 


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