April 18, 2016

          David Warga is the recipient of an Undergraduate Student Research Award for his article entitled: “The Rhenish Chronicles and Christian Martyr Culture: Jewish Origins and Cultural Re-Appropriation.” He received First Place, including a $1,000 prize, for demonstrating exceptional achievement in the use of library and information sources at Trinity University.

The article is now available on the Trinity University Digital Commons here.

Below, David walks us through his research process and strategies:

            My capstone paper “The Rhenish Chronicles and Christian Martyr Culture: Jewish Origins and Cultural Re-Appropriation” is a study of German Jewish historical chronicles from the Rhineland, written in the wake of the 1096 Rhineland Massacres. These were a series of pogroms carried out against the Jewish communities of Germany by the army of the First Crusade, which was traveling through the region on its way to seize Jerusalem from Islamic rule. My paper analyzes the Rhenish Chronicles in consideration of their greater historical context, with the purpose of determining how surrounding Christian influences and older Jewish traditions might have impacted the Rhenish historians' own depiction of martyrdom. The focus of this study was the result of a research process which centered around one consistent theme: the reaction of non-Christian communities to the ideals of Christian martyr culture during the Crusader Era. What inevitably led to my focus on the Rhenish Chroniclers, specifically the impact of Christian martyr culture on their own approach to martyrdom, was a process which consisted of three phases. In my first phase of research I sought to analyze the impact of Christian martyr influences on non-Christian communities with a specifically geographic emphasis, aimed at analyzing how non-Christian communities dwelling within areas that were under Christian political power might have responded to Christian martyr influences differently from non-Christian communities who lived under their own political rule. In my second phase of research, I narrowed this focus to an analysis which aimed to specifically compare the reactions of the European Jewish community to those of the Islamic World. In my final phase, I narrowed my scope even further to a study of the Jewish community alone, particularly the German Jewish population. To do this, I sought to use the Rhenish Chronicles as a case example to exemplify the multifaceted ways in which the German Jews reacted to the martyr influences of their dominant Christian surroundings.

            I began to isolate the central theme of my essay in the first two months of my capstone course, Death and Dying in the Middle Ages. My professor, Dr. Marafioti, set regular research assignments with the aim of helping me narrow the scope of my project. Often, these would consist of bibliographic lists and annotated bibliographies which could relate to death and dying in any period of the Middle Ages. It was during this phase of the research process, while I was searching through citation entries in the International Medieval Bibliography that I came across an article by Thomas Sizgorich. Sizgorich's article contended that a 9th century Christian hagiography, concerning the martyrdom of a Christian convert from Islam named Antony Rawh, blended cultural-theological elements with the purpose of reaching both Christian and Islamic communities. I found this example of cohesion between disparate cultural elements fascinating, in particular the way that martyrdom, an act of self-sacrifice in the name of religious ideals, could be presented in a way that appealed to both Christians and non-Christians alike. While Sizgorich's article itself was concerned with the Islamic impact on Christian martyr literary tradition, it also inspired questions as to how the Christian martyr tradition might have influenced theological developments in the Islamic world, and how this influence might have differed from the impact of Christian theology on non-Christian communities that fell within regions of Christian political control.

            Having isolated what I felt to be a compelling central theme for my capstone paper, I began exploring scholarly works that engaged with themes concerning the impact of Christian martyr theology on Medieval Islam. Utilizing Coates Library's Inter Library Loan to access citations I had found on online sources including Google Scholar and the International Medieval Bibliography, I read a number of interesting works by Islamic theologians such as Mahmoud Ayoub. In a large scale survey, Ayoub contended that popular Islamic theology went through three phases of interpretation when it came to the false crucifixion of Christ (according to the Quran, Christ was never sacrificed on the cross, but instead someone else was given his likeness and executed in his place.) Ayoub argued that in the first phase, it was widely agreed among popular Islamic theologians that it must have been an enemy of Christ who was sacrificed on the cross, this being because it was assumed that God would not be willing to sacrifice a holy man. By the final phase, Ayoub contends that popular interpretation had shifted towards an apostle of Christ, and that this shift was the result of the impact of Christian influences, more permissive towards the idea of sacrificing righteous men, during the Crusader Era.

            At the same time that I was reading Islamic theologians like Ayoub, I was also looking for examples of Christian martyr influences on non-Christian communities residing within the Christian political domain. It was during this search that I discovered a translation of the Rhenish Chronicles in the Coates Library collection. The Rhenish Chroniclers were German Jewish writers who had composed separate histories in the wake of the Rhineland massacres, a series of pogroms carried out by the Army of the First Crusade in 1096 C.E. Interestingly, all of these authors described the victims of the Rhineland pogroms in a manner strikingly similar to elements I had isolated from Christian martyr culture, in particular the depiction of victims as a sacrifice or purification directed towards the divine. These similarities motivated me to explore the Christian martyr influence on the German Jewish community as a point of comparison for the Christian influence on Islamic theology.

            As I began to construct the initial outline for my capstone paper, it quickly became apparent that I would not be able to effectively incorporate both the Islamic and German Jewish communities into my analysis. To do this, I would have had to present a comprehensive Christian contextual overview as a baseline for comparison, conduct an in depth analysis of the Rhenish Chronicles in relation to their greater historical context, conduct an analysis of Medieval Islamic theological development in light of Christian martyr influences, and finally compare both Jewish and Islamic reactions to each other. A 20-25 page paper would not be enough space for me to do this in a way that did justice to the complexity of my historical questions. Additionally, as I continued researching the Rhenish Chroniclers, it became apparent that my analysis of the German Jewish context would require more attention in my paper than I had originally intended. There has been a lot of scholarship conducted in the last two decades which has unearthed a host of evidence suggestive of Christian martyr elements in the Rhenish Chronicles which are deeper and more complex than I had originally imagined. For example, utilizing the electronic sources available on Coates Library's One Search, I discovered authors like Eva Haverkamp, who has produced work that strongly suggests several of the Chroniclers structured their accounts with the intention of emulating specific pieces of contemporary Christian literary tradition, such as the Thebean Martyr Cult.  Additionally, through the assistance of research librarian Michael Hughes, I found Jewish texts from the Hellenic era, such as the Histories of Josephus, which show striking thematic similarities to the martyr stories in the Rhenish Chronicles, and which had just been re-introduced to the German-Jewish community through Christian translations in the century immediately preceding the Chronicles.

            These factors forced me to make the most difficult decision of my research process. Instead of conducting a comparison of Islamic and German Jewish reactions to the Christian martyr tradition, I would instead focus my efforts on the Jewish community alone, specifically with the aim of analyzing the Rhenish Chronicles and the interplay of both Christian and older Jewish influences reflected in the Chroniclers' depiction of martyrdom. The goal of this analysis would be to, through the case example of the Rhenish Chroniclers and an overview of their greater historical context, emphasize the complexity of the cultural actions and reactions that were at play in European Jewish society in the 12th century, and to show how Christian and Jewish traditions mixed together at this time to produce a new popular perspective on martyrdom in the Jewish community. It is this focus on which my final draft is centered and, while it required the sacrifice of a previous goal that I had spent a considerable amount of time developing, I believe it was well worth the insights I was able to produce in the end product. 

Learn more about the Undergraduate Student Research Awards by visiting this site.