Sexing the Jewish Body: Male Menstruation Libel and the Making of Modern Gender

Dentler, Jonathan

Recent scholarship on the history of anti-Semitism in Europe has made much of an intriguing and puzzling charge by some early modern Christians that Jewish men menstruated. This particular anti-Semitic libel seems to have been widespread throughout early modern Western Europe, not only within clerical circles, but within secular and popular society as well. Evolving from roots at least as far back as late antiquity, it arrived in its “mature” form in select thirteenth century texts, in which Jewish men suffered monthly flows of blood from the posterior region, either anally or from the penis. This is a difficult topic for the modern mind to study because contemporary conceptions of embodiment and gender are radically different from medieval thought on the subject. However, it is the very difficulty of understanding how identity constructs change over time that makes male menstruation libel such a fascinating and relevant topic for discussion. What are the ancient and medieval roots of the myth of Jewish male menstruation? At what point did these representations become sexed/gendered? What ideological purposes might this gendering have served and what can we moderns learn from the history of Jewish male menstruation libel about what it means for gender to be “modern” in the first place? A critical examination of the theological and medico-scientific origins of the menstruation libel reveals that its production was a contingent historical process that required many permutations and contributions to crystallize. Nevertheless, as early as the thirteenth century, versions of this narrative clearly feminized Jewish men. These representations became more widespread in early modern Europe and constitute an essential shift toward more modern notions of sex, gender, and embodiment that naturalized the role of Jewish men in European society, physically marking them with a badge of difference.



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September 6, 2011