The Siege of Jerusalem
A Broadview Anthology of British Literature Edition
The Siege of Jerusalem (c. 1370-90 CE) is a difficult text. By twenty-first-century standards, it is gruesomely violent and offensive. It tells the story of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, an event viewed by its author (as by many in the Middle Ages) as divine retribution against Jews for the killing of Christ. It anachronistically turns first-century Roman emperors Titus and Vespasian into Christian converts who battle like medieval crusaders to avenge their saviour and cleanse the Holy Land of enemies of the faith. It makes little sense without frank understanding of medieval Christian anti-Semitism. There is, nevertheless, some consensus that The Siege of Jerusalem is a finely crafted piece of poetry and that its combination of horror, beauty and learnedness makes it an effective work of art. As literary scholar A.C. Spearing has put it, We may not like what the poet does, but it is done with skillful craftsmanship and sometimes with brilliant virtuosity. The tale that the anonymous Siege poet tells, moreover, is an important and still reverberating part of the history of Western thinking about the East. It is, in Yehuda Amichai's phrase, a currency of the past that continues to be negotiated. The first-century destruction of Jerusalem has been understood in both Christian and Jewish traditions as the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora; for medieval Christians it was also a model of successful Christian leadership and justified warfare, an allegory of political and personal spiritual battle. As part of the story of the historical rift between Christianity and Judaism - and of the inevitable victory of Christianity - the destroyed Second Temple was taken as symbolic of the fall of Judaism and the rise of the new Christian era in which anyone who rejected Christ would suffer. Written in alliterative verse in the late fourteenth century, The Siege of Jerusalem seems to have been popular in its day; at least nine fourteenth- and fifteen-century manuscripts containing the poem have come down to us. Yet this is the first volume to offer a full Modern English translation. In addition, appendices provide extensive samples of the alliterative original, a wide-ranging compendium of materials documenting anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages, comparative biblical passages and much else.
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