This course surveys the social history of the Jewish communities which grew up in the Christian lands of premodern continental Europe through the lens of the people who study them in our modern world: scholars of Jewish History. Following the destruction of the Temple and exile from Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Judeans – now Jews – had to reinvent what it meant to be part of their ethno-religious group. No longer truly united by language or land, the Jews spread out to all parts of the known world, from India to England. In each one of these locations (the “diaspora”), Jewish communities developed new traditions, new identity markers, and adapted to their new homelands. They coexisted and clashed with their new neighbors; in some ways they remained insular, while in many others they absorbed and contributed to outside society.
Since the birth of the professional study of Judaism in the nineteenth century, historians have asked questions about the lives, status, and identities of these Jews and the Jewish communities of premodern Europe. In this reading seminar, we will investigate these questions and debates – known as “historiography” – in order to understand the subfield of Jewish History and how it relates to the wider study of History. Along the way, we will meet scholars influenced by their own times, debates over the meaning of religion, questions about women’s rights and agency, and encounter many different methods of approaching history. We will also think about what it means to study a particularly “Jewish” history; the implications of this should help us figure out what it means to be historians and culturally aware thinkers.