Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Jewish blacksmith's wife forging nails for the crucifixion
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This image is an illustration of a Jewish woman, married to a blacksmith, who is forging nails for Christ's crucifixion. It appears in the Holkham Bible Picture Book which presents over eighty pages of drawings. While the woman's dress does not mark her identity, she has glowering eyes, dark brows, a bulbous nose, as well as a grimacing expression. These kinds of grotesque facial distortions were first associated with Jews in the late twelfth century in scenes of Christ's mockery before the crucifixion. By the early fourteenth century, they had become an anti-Jewish stereotype. Such a depiction is not just a reflection of antisemitism. Rather it is thought to be an early artistic rendition of a Jewish woman who appears different from her Christian counterparts. Just twenty years before the illustration in the Holkham Bible, the very same scene of the Jewish blacksmith's wife in the Queen Mary Psalter was depicted quite differently. The woman had small and fair features, appeared graceful, and was not distinguished in any way from the Christian women depicted in the text. This change in illustration embraces societal values that marked Jewish difference as both moral and physical.

    Michelle Brown has argued that the Holkham Bible Picture Book originated as an artist's pattern book of scenes from the life of Christ for textiles or altarpieces. It was then expanded to include more full-page illustrations from Genesis and the Apocalypse. A prefatory illustration shows a Dominican instructing the artist: "Now do it well and thoroughly for it will be shown to rich people." The artist replies: "Indeed, I certainly will, if God lets me live, never will you see another such book." The illustration suggests that the manuscript was revised for a lay audience. When the illustrations were completed, a brief commentary was added in Anglo-Norman French. The Holkham Bible, through its over 230 illustrations and text descriptions, provided direct access to many stories from the Bible and the Apocrypha.

    The story portrayed in the image above concerns a Jewish woman whose husband refused to forge nails because he did not want to have any part in the crucifixion. He told those who ordered the nails that his hand was crippled. When asked to show his hand, God rendered his right hand unusable. At that point, his wife volunteered to make them. It was the Christians’ perception of the Jewish people's role in the crucifixion of Christ that turned a generalized anti-Jewish belief into anti-Semitism. There was a shift in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries from a religious divide between Judaism and Christianity, to a significant hatred of Jewish people by Christians. New forms of affective piety emphasized Christ's suffering at the hands of Jewish tormentors. Additionally, in England Jewish people were active in finance, often lending money to many people in urban areas. This provided Christians with more reasons for enmity, blaming Jews for monetary problems and claiming they had robbed them. In the late thirteenth century, a series of anti-Jewish laws were enacted, culminating in King Edward I's expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290.

    Throughout medieval Europe resentment and violence against Jewish people was not uncommon, and researchers note that violence was often directly targeted at Jewish women. They were blamed for inspiring their husbands to fight back and even for fighting back themselves. Accounts of female martyrdom date back to the Hellenistic period in Maccabees (a mother who commits suicide after exhorting her sons to resist) and to the Babylonian Talmud. Medieval Jewish chronicles from France and Germany recognize women killed in pogroms and those who chose suicide over attacks by passing Crusader armies. In 1196 Dolce of Worms and her two young daughters were killed by local intruders, while her husband, his students and the couple's son were wounded. The attackers were likely attracted by Dolce's work as a moneylender. Her husband, Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, wrote two elegies in their honor: What a rare find is a capable wife [31:10]: Such a one was my saintly
    wife, Mistress Dolce.
    A capable wife [31:10]: the crown of her husband, the daughter of
    community benefactors. A woman who feared God, she was
    renowned for her good deeds.
    Her husband put his confidence in her [31:11]: She fed him and dressed
    him in honor to sit with the elders of the land [31:23] and involve
    himself in Torah study and good deeds. …
    She was like a merchant fleet [bringing her food from afar] [31:14] to
    feed her husband so that he might immerse himself in Torah. Her
    daughters saw her and declared her happy [31:29] for her merchandise
    was excellent
    [31:18]… Poetic Elegy 1 (trans. Judith Baskin; quotations from Proverbs)

    … Let me tell about the life of my younger daughter [Hannah]. She
    recited the first part of the Sh'ma prayer every day.
    She was six years old and spun and sewed and embroidered. She
    entertained me and she sang.
    Woe is me for my wife and for my daughters! I cry out in lamentation.…Poetic Elegy 2 (trans. Judith Baskin)

    In categorizing all Jews as hateful and morally corrupt, medieval Christians established a classification that would have a profound impact and would generate exclusionary practices for additional groups of people. The antisemitism perpetuated in the fourteenth century and amplified by the Holkham Bible still has a large presence in the world today.

  • Source: British Library
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Antisemitism Jesus Christ- Passion in Art Jews Wives in Art Work in Art
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 14
  • Date: ca. 1327- 1335
  • Related Work: Full manuscript page including the blacksmith's wife, Holkham Bible Picture Book, British Library, Add Ms 47682, fol. 31r.
    Christ mocked and scourged (upper scenes), Holkham Bible Picture Book, British Library, Add Ms 47682, fol. 29v. The Jewish tormentors are caricatured with grotesque noses, bestial faces and pointed hats.
    Smith's wife forging nails,Queen Mary Psalter, British Library, Ms Royal 2 B VII, fol. 252v.
  • Current Location: London, British Library, Add Ms 47682, fol. 31r
  • Original Location: Southeastern England, London (?)
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Manuscript illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Inks
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 26.5/20/(image and text space)
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    Baskin, Judith. "Dolce of Worms: The Lives and Deaths of an Exemplary Medieval Jewish Woman and Her Daughters." Judaism in Practice: From the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period. Edited by Lawrence Fine. Princeton University Press, 2001. Pages 429-437.

    British Library, "Add MS 47682." Description and images. Available open access.

    Brown, Michelle P. The Holkham Bible Picture Book: A Facsimile. British Library, 2007.

    Caroselli, Susanna Bede. "Illuminating Difference: Christian Images of Jews in Medieval English Manuscripts." Jews in Medieval England: Teaching Representations of the Other. Edited by Miriamne Ara Krummel and Tison Pugh. Springer, 2017. Pages 191-207.

    Einbinder, Susan. “Jewish Women Martyrs: Changing Models of Representation.” Exemplaria 12, 1 (2000): 105–27.

    Heng, Geraldine. England and the Jews: How Religion and Violence Created the First Racial State in the West. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    Kirkland, Brad. "'Now thrive the armourers': The Development of the Armourers’ Crafts and the Forging of Fourteenth-Century London." PhD diss. University of York, 2015. Available open access. See sections concerning women in Chapter 3, The Armourers' Households.

    Lavezzo, Kathy. The Accommodated Jew : English Antisemitism from Bede to Milton. Cornell University Press, 2016.

    Lipton, Sarah. “What’s in a Nose? The Origins, Development, and Influence of Medieval Anti-Jewish Caricature.” The Medieval Roots of Antisemitism: Continuities and Discontinuities from the Middle Ages to the Present Day. Edited by Jonathan Adams and Cordelia Hess. Routledge, 2018. Pages 183-203.

    Lipton, Sarah. “Where Are the Jewish Women?" Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography.” Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2014. Pages 201- 238.

    Strickland, Debra Higgs. “Gazing into Bernhard Blumenkranz’s Mirror of Christian Art: The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles and the Jewishness of Jesus in Post Expulsion England.” Jews and Christians in Medieval Europe: The Historiographical Legacy of Bernhard Blumenkranz. Edited by Philippe Buc, Martha Keil and John Tolan. Brepols, 2015. Pages 149 – 187. The book is available open access.