Why German Jewry did not Leave in 1933 Pt. 2: Revolution and Reform

“They bind our hands and then complain that we do not make use of them.” –Moses Mendelssohn

In 1848, a series of revolutions, called the Spring of Nations, swept across Europe. In the German states, support for and participation in the Revolutions of 1848 stemmed from popular discontent with traditional political and social structures, desire for constitutional rights, and aspirations towards German unification.

These goals attracted German Jewry, as they were deeply tied to the cause of Jewish emancipation; extension of constitutional rights to the general population meant that Jews would be entitled to equal treatment under the law, and German unification would make it easier for Jews to agitate for greater legal equality. Non-Jewish German liberals, for their part, advocated for Jewish emancipation out of the belief that discriminatory laws were anachronistic and morally unjust, and out of the old hope that legal emancipation would hasten Jewish assimilation and conversion to Christianity.

Jewish participation in the Revolutions of 1848 was a result of over half a century of reform and assimilation. As Jewish Enlightenment thinkers such as Mendelssohn urged Jews to embrace secular ideas, and as German thinkers argued for Jewish emancipation as a vehicle for assimilation and conversion, German Jewry responded in ways anticipated perhaps by neither Jewish nor non-Jewish thinkers.

German Jews wanted to be accepted as Germans, but not at the cost of their Jewishness; instead of assimilating via conversion, German Jewry instead refashioned German culture on their own terms.

The 1806 abolition of rabbinic courts and the authority of the Jewish community allowed German Jewry to shape their religious expression as they wished. Reform leaders introduced to the synagogue behavioral standards conforming to middle class—meaning Christian middle class—standards of propriety. They removed the prayer for the return to Zion from the liturgy to demonstrate that German Jewry had ceased to view itself as part of a dispersed nation. They introduced to the synagogue German-language sermons, choirs, clerical robes, confirmation ceremonies for boys and girls, and the use of the organ. By 1860, Reformed Jewish congregations had more in common with the church than with Orthodox synagogues, and by 1870, Reform was dominant type of Judaism practiced in Germany.

With daily life no longer operating under rabbinic authority, Jews were free to determine their own standards of behavior and interaction with both their German and Jewish identities. German Jews used the German tradition of Bildung—which links philosophy and educational attainment with the process of personal and cultural maturation—to shape their integration and assimilation. Bildung appealed to German Jews because they did not have to be born with it, but could acquire it through university attendance and participation in the right social groups and organizations. In Bildung, German Jewry saw their chance to achieve social mobility while maintaining their ethnoreligious identities.

The Revolutions of 1848 did not result in the legal emancipation of the Jews. However, they did strengthen the national identities of German Jewry, and increased Jewish and non-Jewish mixing to higher levels than ever before in German history.

In these calm, post-Revolutionary, mid-century years, every German Jew had access to an elementary level education. They could read and write in German, and were over-represented in secondary schools and universities. Through this educational attainment and social interaction, German Jewry came to understand that social and economic integration were just as important to the cause of Jewish emancipation as legislation.

Why German Jewry did not Leave in 1933 Pt. 1: The Enlightenment and Napoleon

“They bind our hands and then complain that we do not make use of them.” –Moses Mendelssohn

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, anti-Semitic violence in the German-speaking lands (there were over 300 at the time) was the exception, not the rule. However, when popular violence did erupt, it stemmed from long-held superstitions (such as blood libel), occupational immobility (money-lending was one of the few occupational niches Jews were allowed to inhabit as the Church forbade Christians from money-lending, leading non-Jewish society to cast Jews as greedy money-grubbers), and foundational Christian myths (“the Jews killed Jesus,” basically). It was not until much later that biological constructions of “Jewishness” as an inherent, racial state would come into play.

In this period, German Jewry existed in self-sustained communities. The German governments did not deal with individual Jews, but with the leaders of the Jewish community: rabbis, rabbinic judges, cantors, and teachers. These communal authorities were responsible for governing the individuals, which included levying taxes, maintaining social order, imposing legal recourse on offenders, and handling all litigation between Jews in accordance with Talmudic law. German Jews did not live in total isolation from Christian populations, often living among and coming into frequent contact with them through business dealings. However, the separation was enough that, when combined with the myths and stereotypes described above, it enabled non-Jewish German society to form deep-seated understandings of the Jew as the mysterious and predatory Other.

By 1780, the Jewish community structure began to lose ground to the allure of the Enlightenment. A series of Jewish reformers, the most prominent of whom was Moses Mendelssohn, began to argue that Judaism must adapt to and become part of German civil society as envisioned by Enlightenment thinkers. At the same time, liberal non-Jewish German thinkers began to argue for the emancipation of (the extension of equal rights to) German Jewry, hoping that it would lead to the dissolution of the Jewish communities, and eventual mass conversions to Christianity.

The first step to the achievement of these goals, on the part of both the Jewish and the non-Jewish thinkers, was to abolish the power of the Jewish communities. And this abolition came in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Napoleonic Wars swept through Europe between 1803 and 1815. In July, 1806, Napoleon began to bring portions of the Rhineland and West Germany under French control. On October 1, 1806, King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, angered by French interference in the Prussian sphere of influence, declared war on Napoleon. In less than two weeks, Napoleon emerged victorious.

During the years of Napoleonic rule in the German states, he and his subsidiary governments abolished the rabbinic courts, revoked the authority of the Jewish community, and emancipated the Jews of the German states, granting them the full rights extended to all inhabitants of French vassal states. He remained in control of the German states until the disastrous 1812 Russia campaign. In 1813, Prussia joined with Austria, Russia, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Sweden, Spain, and a number of other German states (the “Sixth Coalition”) to fight against Napoleon and French continental hegemony. In the War of the Sixth Coalition (1812-1814), the Coalition defeated France, and Napoleon went into exile.

Prussia regained most of its pre-1806 territory, and the other German states regained their independence after some reorganization. One of the first steps the German states took after winning independence was the repeal of some of the changes made under Napoleonic rule. German Jewish emancipation suffered severe setbacks, with several states annulling their Edicts of Emancipation and expelling their Jewish populations.

With the new spirit of German nationalism which took hold in the immediate post-Napoleonic years came a new type of anti-Jewish hatred, one which seamlessly blended religious hatred with anti-modern, anti-French, and anti-capitalist sentiments. For example, in August, 1819, widespread unrest resulting from unemployment and food shortages came together with the post-Napoleonic breed of anti-Semitism in a swell of violent anti-Jewish riots.

These riots, known as the “Hep! Hep! Riots,” broke out on the Bavarian city of Wurzburg. What began as a university riot quickly spread throughout the city. Mobs ran through the streets looting and demolishing Jewish homes and businesses while shouting “Hep! Hep! Jude verreck,” which translates to “Death to all Jews.” While the origins of “Hep! Hep!” are obscure, historians theorize that it was an acronym of the Crusader chant “Hierosolyma est perdita,” Latin for “Jerusalem is lost.” The riots swept through Bavarian towns and villages to central and southwest Germany.

However, the riots died down as quickly as they began, and relations between Jews and non-Jews calmed. Indeed, Jewish memoirists born in the 1820s compared the more tolerant and accepting atmosphere of their youths to the anti-Semitic atmosphere of the later decades of the nineteenth century.

Ban Zhao: Women’s Education Advocate, Historian, Educator, and Librarian

Confucian thought, in its most simplistic form, holds that the balance of the universe rests upon the upholding of relationships—the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, parents and children, husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, mother and daughter in-laws, and reverence of elders and the deceased. Each relationship has a dominant and a subservient half, and if one half begins to act outside of their role, then the order of the universe is disrupted, plunging the world into chaos. Within these roles, wives, daughters, and daughters-in-law functioned as the subservient halves.

This said women, were able to achieve great status and power even within their assigned roles. Ban Zhao (45-116 CE) is one of these women. She is the first known female Chinese historian, and was an influential advocate for the education of women and girls.

Born to Ban Biao, a successful official and respected intellectual, she married Cao Shishu at the age of fourteen. Though her husband died when she was very young, she was known at court as Venerable Madame Cao. She never remarried, devoting herself instead to a life of scholarship.

Her father died in 54 CE, leaving his life’s work, a history of the Western Han dynasty, unfinished. Ban Zhao’s older brother Ban Gu took over the project, but he too left it unfinished when he died in prison in 92 CE. The emperor then called on Ban Zhao to complete the work.

She not only completed it with distinction, but began to teach the palace women—one of whom was Empress Deng Sui—subjects such as the classics, history, astronomy, and mathematics. When Deng Sui became the regent of the empire in 106 CE, she often turned to Ban Zhao for advice on government policy.

Her experiences teaching the court ladies inspired Ban Zhao to begin her advocacy for female education and to write arguably her most influential work: Admonitions for Women. In this work, she objects to the fact that families teach their sons to read while neglecting the education of their daughters, while urging women to be submissive to her husband and male relatives. She emphasizes what she perceives to be the inherent differences between the natures of men and women, and advises her readers that nothing is more worthy than obedience, humility, and self-sacrifice, especially in marriage.

Her advocacy for female education, then, came from the view that an educated woman could serve her husband—and thus the realm, if we keep her Confucian socialization in mind—more effectively than an uneducated woman would be able to. Admonitions became one of the most commonly used texts in the education of girls, and remained popular for centuries as a guide for women’s conduct.

In addition to teaching, history writing, and educational advocacy, Ban Zhao also worked as a librarian at court. As such she supervised a staff of assistants, and trained younger scholars; she rearranged and edited Liu Hsiang’s Biographies of Eminent Women in the course of her library work. She maintained a lifelong interest in math and astronomy, and was also known for her varied writings.

Upon her death Empress Dowager Deng Sui dressed all in white to mourn her passing.

The Warring States Period, or, A Wild Confucius Appears

In 771 BCE the Zhou Dynasty moved its seat from Hao, to the eastern city of Luoyang, precipitating a long period of gradual decentralization, spanning from 770-221 BCE. This period of Chinese history is divided into two segments: the Spring and Autumn Period (770-479 BCE), and the Warring States Period (479-221 BCE).

The Zhou kings retained their technical status as supreme monarchs during the Spring and Autumn Period. However, their once centrally governed fiefs increasingly began to function as independent, competing entities. Frequent intermarriage between the ruling families of various states made for messy succession disputes, and states constantly plotted with and against each other to maintain a balance of power. Sometimes the states would even attack the Zhou monarch.


Map courtesy of Wikipedia; no further source material provided despite geographic accuracy.


Map courtesy of East Asia: a Cultural, Social, and Political History by Patricia Ebrey and Anne Walthall.


See attribution of first map.

The states of Qin, Jin, Qi, and Chu emerged as the most powerful actors as the Spring and Autumn Period drew to a close. They made official their dominance by styling themselves as kings, a direct challenge to the charade of a Zhou-centered power balance which had endured through the Spring and Autumn Period.

This new balance of power represented the fifth century beginning of the Warring States Period. This period saw dramatic changes in modes of warfare as chivalric codes of warfare fell by the wayside, as the increased use of defensive walls led to the development of siege warfare, as the states adopted the use of the crossbow, and as militaries began dressing in the style of nomadic groups to ease the transition to cavalry warfare. Where Spring and Autumn Period military campaigns typically lasted no longer than one season and battles lasted no more than two days, Warring States Period campaigns lasted for years, and were fought over many fronts.

However, changes more profound than pure military innovation occurred. The combined social and political instability of both the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Period led to a flowering of intellectual thought, the impact of which has never truly been absent from Chinese thinking, culture, and subsequent history.

As various states fell, the nobility of each successive state lost its status. The lower ranks of these defunct nobilities, the shi, began to serve as advisers to victorious rulers. As the shi competed for influence within this ever-changing socio-political environment, they set into motion an intellectual movement known as the “Hundred Schools of Thought.”

The most famous and influential of the shi, Confucius, began his career in the state of Lu in the mid-sixth century BCE. Failing to gain much influence in his home state, Confucius wandered with a group of his students until he found a ruler interested in his philosophy, which put forth the idea that sets of interdependent relationships between superior and inferiors must be followed in order to maintain the balance of the universe.

The third century BCE founders of Daoism disagreed with Confucian thinking, focusing instead on the flow of the universe, and the effect of human action on that flow. The Legalist school of thought emerged in the third and fourth centuries BCE in response to the fear of various rulers that their polity may be next to fall. This school places emphasis on rigorous laws and obedience as necessary to the existence of a state.

Other schools of thought and thinkers which emerged out of this period included Mohism, a school of thought opposed to Confucianism founded by Mozi in the fifth century BCE. Mohism stresses universal equality and is opposed to decadence on the part of rulers; it was rediscovered in the twentieth century after falling into disuse a few centuries after its founding.

There was Mencius, a fourth century BCE Confucian scholar who rose out of a school eager to defend Confucianism against Mohism. He argued that human nature was inherently moral. The fourth century BCE Xunxi, a Confucian rival of Mencius who opposed the Mencian perception of human nature, argued that people are born selfish, and may only become moral through education and ritual.

Sunzi’s third century Art of War stressed the importance of discipline, spying, and manipulation in the course of warfare, and argues that great generals are not those who charge uphill against overwhelming odds, but those who advance only when positive that they will emerge victorious.

The Warring States Period ended as the state of Qin emerged victorious in 221 BCE. The Qin Dynasty was quickly supplanted by the Han Dynasty in 206 BCE. The Hundred Schools of Thought came to an end alongside the Warring States Period as the First Emperor (the self-styled title of Zhoa Zheng, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty), a staunch Legalist, ordered a mass burning of scholarly works beginning in 213 BCE.

The Jewish Enlightenment: A Brief Overview

there was a jewish enlightenment?
I would like to hear more about the Jewish Enlightenment

Oh yes there was, and I am beyond willing to do a deep dive!

It’s fairly long complex process, so I’ll give you a general rundown, and then after reading it, you (or any interested party) can tell me what aspects you’d like to hear more about (if any) and I can write more specific posts for you.

So, after the general European Enlightenment, rulers of various German polities were like “Hey, now that we’re Enlightened, maybe we should stop treating the Jews like crap?” and then others were like “Yeah and once they see how great it is to be part of German society they’ll convert to Christianity and this be officially part of The State(tm)! What a great plan!” So over the course of the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries, you see the rulers of various German polities emancipating their Jews.

Some Jews were not interested in becoming part of German society, but others, like Moses Mendelssohn, embraced the opportunity, perceiving acculturation as a path out of oppression. Mendelssohn was one of the, if not the, founding thinkers of the Jewish Enlightenment, and his writings and the intellectual circles he founded influenced most post-Emancipation German Jewish thought and behavior in bourgeois circles. The Hebrew term for the Jewish Enlightenment is Haskalah.

While it did result in conversions to Christianity—especially amongst Jewish women—it also led to the German Jewish Reform Movement, created unique patterns of assimilation, and significantly altered Jewish conceptions of gender. German Jewish Enlightenment thinking and action is part of the reason why the actions of the Nazi Party took the Jews so by surprise in the 1930s, and is part of the reason why the German Jews had so much trouble taking Hitler seriously, at least in the early years.

The Haskalah reached Eastern European Jewry in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century—a fictionalization of this process may be seen in Fiddler on the Roof; the daughter who sings “Far From the Home I Love” marries a maskil, or a secular scholar of the haskalah. In Eastern Europe, the haskalah intersected with the embrace of revolutionary and socialist ideals.

As German and Eastern European Jewry immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1920, their encounters with the haskalah in Europe affected the processes of assimilation they underwent in America.

Assurbanipal(King of the Universe, king of Assyria)’s Library

The other day I was walking into my apartment with a friend, excited to introduce her to the masterpiece that is Summer Heights High, when all of the sudden a name popped into my head: Assurbanipal. And I was like “Why is an Assyrian-sounding name popping into my head?” It was clearly a sign.

Assurbanipal (685 BCE– 627 BCE) was the last great emperor of the neo-Assyrian Empire. Despite his popularity amongst his own people, he was known for the brutality he showed to his enemies; he once put a dog chain through the jaw of a defeated king and forced him to live out the rest of his life in a dog kennel, and he celebrated his conquest of Elam by displaying the head of the defeated king Teumann in the port of Nineveh. However, this is not a post about Assurbanipal’s military activities and regional hegemony; this is a post about something way more awesome: his library.

Assurbanipal was a highly literate collector of texts and tablets. Though Assyrian rulers before him had begun to build a library, he was responsible for the most active and aggressive collecting; in the year 648 BCE alone he accessioned more than 2000 tablets into his collection. He sent scribes into every corner of the empire to collect texts from temples and vassal states, and he used his violent reputation to acquire texts from unwilling donors.

He collected all kinds of texts, including royal inscriptions, mythological/religious texts, legal documents, medical documents, administrative documents, grants, decrees, incantations, and so forth. Included in the library were such texts as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish, the story of Adapa, the Epic of Atrahasis, and the Descent of Ishtar. He also collected textual commentaries.

He was not merely a collector, but he devised a standard format and script for all of the texts within his collection. Though he had the originals of the majority of the texts he collected, he had his scribes re-copy each text using a standardized cuneiform script and layout with each text ending with an identification stating that the text belonged to the “palace of Assurbanipal, king of the universe, king of Assyria.” The scribes doubled as translators when the originals were written in languages, such as Sumerian, which had died out of usage.

Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians, the Scythians, and the Medes in 612 BCE. They burned the palace, and instead of destroying everything as they had intended, the heat from the fire baked the clay tablets on which the majority of the texts in Assurbanipal’s library were recorded, ensuring their preservation.

According to Persian and Armenian tradition, it was Assurbanipal’s library which inspired Alexander the Great to create his own library. Though he died before he could put his plans into motion, his friend and successor Ptolemy I began work on it, and that project grew into the great Library of Alexandria. Of course, this is arguable as Alexander was active after the destruction of Nineveh, but it is possible that the memory of the library was still active in the region, or that it Alexander had access to the ruins.

Either way—and sadly unlike the Library of Alexandria—Assurbanipal’s library remained intact within the ruins of Nineveh until it was discovered at the site of Kouyunjik (located in modern Iraq) first in 1849 by Austen Henry Layard, and then in 1852 by Hormuzd Rassam (Layard’s assistant).

Unfortunately, in the nineteenth century, archaeological excavations in the Ancient Near East were conducted by wealthy young “adventurers” who were searching for Biblical sites. They tended to treat archaeological sites like their own private playgrounds, and remove artifacts as they saw fit with no record of layers, excavation order, or immediate provenance. Upon their arrival in Europe, the tablets taken from the Kouyunjik site were so thoroughly mixed up that is has proved nearly impossible to reconstruct the original order.

The majority of these texts are held in the collections of the British Museum. Information regarding ongoing work with this collection by the museum in cooperation with the University of Mosul in Iraq may be found here: The Ashurbanipal Library Project.

Judith Sargent Murray: Colonial Advocate for Women’s Education

“We can only reason from what we know, and if an opportunity of acquiring knowledge hath been denied us, the inferiority of our sex cannot fairly be deduced from thence.”

Not only is Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) one in a long line of women throughout history who have spoken out against the gender-based double standards in their respective societies, but she used these women in her writings to support the argument that women had the same intellectual capabilities as men.

Murray grew up in Gloucester Massachusetts to a family wealthy enough to be able to provide an education to their children. She was taught to read and write and had a passable understanding of French, but she was denied the opportunity to study beyond those subjects. When her brother Winthrop, who was two years her junior, was given the opportunity to study the Classics, she became aware of how society cut off the potential of women through denying them access to a full education.

In response, Murray became self-taught. She specialized in history, and devoted herself to writing on the idea that women have the same intellectual capacity as men, and that education was the key to female empowerment and success. She put forth these ideas in her 1790 essay, On the Equality of the Sexes.

Her first essays regarding gender equality were published under a male pseudonym (typically “Mr. Vigilius”) so that her words would be taken seriously by male readers. However, her landmark 1798 three volume work, The Gleaner, was published under her own name; this work dealt with such issues as philanthropy, pacifism, and gender equality, and was purchased by such people as George Washington and John Adams.

She also made vast inroads for freedom of religion in the new American republic, and for the role of women within Universalist Christianity. Her name was included in documents used to expel the Gloucester Universalists for refusing to pay taxes to the Congregational church, and that expulsion led to the first freedom of religion ruling (by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, in this instance) in the United States of America.

After her first husband died in the West Indies, Judith married John Murray, a celebrated Universalist theologian and preacher, and the first Universalist preacher in the United States. She helped him edit and publish his books, and she is considered by historians of Universalist Christianity to be the reason why women of that denomination have always had access to leadership roles.

Most fascinating about Murray, however, is her awareness of her place within history. At the age of 23, she began to create copies of all of her letters, essays, and books in order to create a historical record of herself for future researchers and historians. These copies—comprising 20 volumes in all—were discovered in 1984. They are currently held in the collections of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and are available for researchers in microfilm form. This collection of her works is one of the few surviving collections of female writings from the Early Republic period of American history.

Because of the relative newness of the discovery of her work, scholars have only recently begun to study her impact, legacy, and contributions.

Portrait (ca. 1770-1772 by John Singleton Copley) courtesy of the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Anna Comnena: Historian, and Chronicler of the First Crusade

“Whenever one assumes the role of historian, friendship and enmities have to be forgotten.”

Anna Komnene/Comnena (1083-1153) was a brilliant scholar. Her writing remains the most important source of information we have about the twelfth century Byzantine Empire and the First Crusade.

She was born in 1083 to Emperor Alexios I and his wife Irene Doukaina. When she was born it was assumed that she would inherit the throne, and she was given access to an amazing education in order to prepare her for this. She was trained in history, math, the sciences, and philosophy; she had been forbidden from studying ancient poetry, as her parents objected to their often sexual themes, but she studied it in secret with a court eunuch. As a result, Anna was one of the most brilliant and educated women of her time.

Because she was presumed to be the heir at the time of her birth, she was betrothed in her infancy to Constantine Doukas, the son of Emperor Michael VII—because the Komnene family had obtained the Byzantine throne under decidedly questionable circumstances, it is likely that this betrothal served to legitimize the family’s rule.

However, in 1087 a son named John was born to Alexios and Irene, and Alexios favored John for the throne over Anna. Soon afterwards, Constantine died, and Anna was instead married to a nobleman with claims to the throne called Nikephoros Byrennios at the age of 14. Byrennios was a respected politician and historian. The marriage lasted until Byrennios’ death 40 years later, and produced four children.

John’s birth and status was a major source of conflict between Anna’s parents; Irene supported Anna’s claim to the throne while Alexios supported John’s. When Alexios fell ill in 1112, it seems as though things were going to work out in Anna’s favor. Irene was put in charge of the government, and she put Byrennios in charge of administrative duties. It is probable that she put him in charge in order to pave the way for Anna’s assumption of power.

However, John decided to take matters concerning the throne into his own hands. The story goes that one day John visited his sick father. While embracing him, John removed the emperor’s ring from his father’s finger, and when Alexios died in 1118, John used the ring to back his bid for the throne. It worked, and John was crowned emperor in the same year as his father’s death.

As John was crowned and proclaimed the new emperor, Anna felt that she had been cheated out of the throne. She took part in several plots which aimed to murder or overthrow him, however, those plots came to nothing and she was forced into exile along with her mother.

Byrennios died in 1137. After his death Anna entered and spent the rest of her life in a convent founded by her mother. She was 55 at the time of her entrance.

Anna was not alone in the convent; she surrounded herself with some of the most brilliant minds of the time and was praised by many, including the Bishop of Ephesus, for her brilliance. Despite this, her writings show that she experienced loneliness and isolation, saying that, though she was hidden from view at the convent, many hated her, and that she in turn hated the isolated status that had been forced upon her.

It was in the isolation of the convent that Anna began her life’s work. Byrennios had begun to write a series of essays called Materials for a History–which focused on the reign of Alexios I. Before his death, and Anna picked up the writing where he left off. Eventually this chronicle of the reign of Alexios I and the history of the Comneni family grew into the 15 volume work we know today as The Alexiad.

Anna, understanding the importance of objectivity to the writing of history, attempted to remain objective in her writings on her father and mother. However, despite her best attempts, because of her fondness for her parents, and because many of the events she spoke of in the work occurred in her youth, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the The Alexiad is equal parts journalism, memoir, and history.

All of that aside, her account of the First Crusade in The Alexiad is the only Hellenic eyewitness account of that event available. And truly, her point of view is indispensable to our understanding of the First Crusade, and to our understanding of medieval Europe. In addition to its status as an invaluable historical resource, The Alexiad also gives us an extraordinary insight into the experience of elite women in the twelfth century Byzantine Empire.

The Mitfords

From left to right: Jessica Mitford (1917-1996), Nancy Mitford (1904-1973), Diana Mitford (1910-2003), Unity Mitford (1914-1948), and Pamela Mitford (1907-1994); photo taken in 1935.

Deborah Mitford (1920-present); photo taken in 1940.

A few years ago, I learned that JK Rowling probably modeled the characters Bellatrix Lestrange, Narcissa Malfoy, and Andromeda Tonks after three sisters from an aristocratic British family with fascist sympathies: Unity Mitford, Diana Mitford, and Jessica Mitford. The family was described by a contemporary as “nature’s fascists.”

Unity Mitford, the likely inspiration for Bellatrix, was in love with Hitler (who often used her to make Eva Braun jealous), and attempted to kill herself via a gunshot to the head when Britain declared war on Germany. However, she did not die until 1948.

Diana Mitford, the likely inspiration for Narcissa, married Bryan Walter Guinness in 1929, and left him in 1932 for Oswald Mosley–the head of the British Fascist Party. She and Mosley were married in 1936. Diana remained an unrelenting Fascist and anti-Semite until her death in 2003. Interestingly, Diana and Oswald spent most of their post-war life in a wealthy community outside of Paris, and their neighbors were none other than the Duke and Duchess of Windsor: the former King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

Diana and Unity giving the Nazi salute

Jessica Mitford, the likely inspiration for Andromeda and lone Communist of her family, ran away from home in her teens to fight in the Spanish Civil War. She married her Communist second cousin, Esmond Romilly, at the age of 19; Unity once informed Jessica in a letter that, while she would not hesitate to kill Jessica’s Communist husband for the sake of Nazism, she hoped they could still be friends. Jessica and Esmond moved to America in 1939. He died two years later on his way back from a bombing raid over Germany. In 1943, Jessica married Jewish Hungarian civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft. She spent the rest of her life as a writer, investigative journalist, and activist. She died in 1996.

Jessica during the Willie McGee campaign

In 2002 JK Rowling stated that “My most influential writer, without a doubt, is Jessica Mitford. When my great-aunt gave me Hons and Rebels when I was 14, she instantly became my heroine. She ran away from home to fight in the Spanish Civil War, taking with her a camera that she had charged to her father’s account. I wished I’d had the nerve to do something like that. I love the way she never outgrew some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics–she she was a self-taught socialist–throughout her life. I think I’ve read everything she wrote. I even called my daughter after her.”

As for the three other Mitford sisters–Nancy, Deborah, and Pamela–Nancy was a prolific writer, close friend of Evelyn Waugh, and the first to cash in on (so to speak) the public fascination with her family. Deborah, the only living Mitford sister, is the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and has written a dozen non-fiction works. Pamela was, perhaps, the most low-key of the sisters; she married and divorced millionaire scientist Derek Jackson, and spent the later years of her life with Italian horsewoman, Giuditta Tommasi.

Though I only really focused on Jessica, Unity, and Diana and their politics, Pamela was purported to be a massive anti-Semite, and it is likely that the same can be said for Deborah (who once dined with Hitler along with Unity and their mother). There was also a Mitford brother, Thomas, who died in 1945 while stationed in Burma.

The six sisters kept in constant contact via letters, with the exception of Jessica and Diana, whose political views caused a permanent rift between them. They all had nicknames for each other, and Unity’s was “Bobo.” This created situations in which she would conclude letters to her sisters with lines like “All my best love to the boys! Heil Hitler, Love, Bobo.”

Oh my. Can I really ask for any historical period? Let’s have the Renaissance then, if you wouldn’t mind?

The Renaissance is an interesting one. It fascinates me how people perceive the Renaissance as a literal rebirth of knowledge in Europe, when in reality, the pursuit of knowledge in Europe never really disappeared. The pursuit of knowledge in Western Europe–outside of the walls of monasteries and convents–ceased for six or seven centuries in the wake of the fall of Rome (as defined in my post on the subject). However, during what we commonly think of as the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire was going strong in Eastern Europe, and the Islamic Caliphate was approaching its golden age.

The pursuit of ancient, Classical knowledge never died in those areas. That ancient knowledge, the science and the math and the philosophy and the medical teachings, lived on in those two civilizations, especially within the Islamic one. Here is a map of Europe, Northern Africa, and the Near East during the Medieval period to illustrate the general proximity of these three civilizations to each other:

So, it always seemed odd to me that we’d celebrate the re-birth of knowledge in Western Europe, but ignore its continued presence throughout Islamic civilization and the Byzantine Empire. It is very Western-centric.