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Picturing Maternal Anxiety in the Miracle of the Jew of Bourges
Carlee A. Bradbury
Medieval Feminist Forum: Vol. 47 no. 2, 2011: 34–56
During the middle ages, one of the most popular and most frequently illustrated Miracles of the Virgin Mary was the Miracle of the Jew of Bourges. According to the text of the miracle, the Virgin saves a young Jewish boy after his father throws him into a fiery oven upon learning he attended a Christian mass. Though representations of this miracle appear in a variety of media, late medieval books of hours and illustrated miracle texts from England hold the most complex examples.
Artists frequently visualized the boy’s father, the Jew of Bourges, using the full vocabulary of medieval anti-Semitism. For example, in an image from the Bohun Hours he is hunched over, his face, shown in profile, dominated by a sharply hooked nose (fig. 1).1 Using both his appearance and his violence against his son, artists could vilify this father figure through purely visual devices. The Jew of Bourges belongs to a widespread tradition of visualizing medieval Christians’ irrational, yet pervasive fears of Jews in terms of a singular or group of male figures, found in a variety of media and in subjects ranging from traditional Passion imagery to unique marginal grotesques. These exaggerated and imaginary figures are visual counterparts to Jeremy Cohen’s “hermeneutical Jew,” existing in English imaginations long before, and remaining after, the real population of Jews was expelled from the country in 1290.
Artists had many choices to make when illustrating this miracle. For instance, in another image of the miracle, from the Hours of Mary de Bohun, the artist adds an extra scene (fig. 2).4 In the center of the image a crowd of figures acts as a bridge from the instance where the boy takes communion to the moment when the Jew of Bourges puts his son into the oven. A woman stands in the front of the crowd and points anxiously to both scenes. She is the boy’s mother and though she appears briefly in only a few of the miracle texts, her role is pivotal.