I have just finished reading the last volume of Maggie Anton’s monumental trilogy, ‘Rashi’s Daughters,’ which contains an imaginative reconstruction of the life of a mediaeval Jewish community, and in particular those of three Jewish women. The author has spent many years researching various aspects of life and society in Europe in the Middle Ages, and whoever perseveres with these immensely readable books should come away with a wealth of knowledge about myriad subjects. I certainly did (even though I’m not too certain about how much of it I’ll remember next week).
Not a great deal is known about Rashi the person. All that is known is that he lived in Troyes, France, in the eleventh century, where he wrote his monumental commentary on the Torah and the Talmud. Here and there in his succinct and insightful comments there are glimpses into the life of the Jewish community of the time, including the fact that he had a vineyard and made wine. It is also known that he had three daughters and no sons. There is a tradition that these daughters put on tefillin, and observed various commandments that were not – and still are not – customary among orthodox Jewish women, but this is not documented.
Be that as it may, Maggie Anton has given her readers a glimpse into a world that has previously been largely hidden. Thus, for example, the two focal points around which the lives of both Jews and non-Jews were concentrated in northern France were the winter and summer fairs, which served to attract merchants, many of them Jews, from all over Europe. The additional numbers swelled the Jewish community and many of the men came to Rashi’s yeshiva to study with him. We learn a great deal about the way of life of Jewish merchants, and get a vivid picture of the trials and tribulations, as well as the commercial successes, that were often involved. The period was one in which Jews on the whole were not subject to persecution and discrimination, but all that was destined to change not long afterwards.
But Maggie Anton’s writing focuses mainly on the lives of the women—and what a fascinating kaleidoscope of knowledge, customs and beliefs emerges from the pages of the books. In those days pregnancy and confinement often endangered women’s lives, and an extensive lore of herbalism and superstitious beliefs were employed by the midwives and other womenfolk who tended to women at these times. Thus, we learn how figures were chalked on the floor around the bed, with the names of the protective angels Sanvi, Sansanvi and Semangelaf, in the room where a woman was giving birth, how Adam’s first wife, Lillith, was regarded as a tangible threat, how the tefillin of the woman’s husband were hung on the bedpost and how specific Psalms were recited, all this to ward off the evil eye.
The processes of viticulture and wine-making in mediaeval times are described in considerable detail, and the reader is made aware of the immense complexity of this undertaking. Other aspects of agriculture are also described, as and when these are relevant to the course of the narrative. Maggie Anton displays a deep knowledge of Talmudic and other sources, and the book contains many such citations. As we read we see how the everyday life of the Jews was dominated by the strictures and commandments contained in these sources.
Certain days were considered more auspicious than others, whether for setting out on a journey, holding a wedding or bar-mitzva celebration, or having a baby. The most impressive aspect of the three main female characters is, though, that while accepting the restrictions imposed by their religion and gender, they remain strong individuals with independent minds and the ability to think for themselves and stand up for their rights even within the male-dominated society of their time.
Maggie Anton also attempts to give a picture of the wider, Christian society, as this affected the lives of the Jewish population. The period she writes about also saw the first crusades, with the murder and destruction of the ancient Jewish communities along the Rhine, and these events are also described, rather harrowingly, in the last book of the trilogy. The machinations and dynastic complexities of the local and regional royal houses is also given in not inconsiderable detail, according the reader some idea of the precarious nature of the rule of law at the time.
In brief, this is a truly monumental effort, providing both entertainment and information. The reader benefits from the author’s extensive research that is served up in a form that is essentially a thoroughly good read.