A Remembrance of His Wonders
Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval AshkenazUniversity of Pennsylvania Press Jewish Culture and Contexts
The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed an explosion of Christian interest in the meaning and workings of the natural world—a "discovery of nature" that profoundly reshaped the intellectual currents and spiritual contours of European society—yet to all appearances, the Jews of medieval northern Europe (Ashkenaz) were oblivious to the shifts reshaping their surrounding culture. Scholars have long assumed that rather than exploring or contemplating the natural world, the Jews of medieval Ashkenaz were preoccupied solely with the supernatural and otherworldly: magic and mysticism, demonology and divination, as well as the zombies, werewolves, dragons, flying camels, and other monstrous and wondrous creatures that destabilized any pretense of a consistent and encompassing natural order.
In A Remembrance of His Wonders, David I. Shyovitz disputes this long-standing and far-reaching consensus. Analyzing a wide array of neglected Ashkenazic writings on the natural world in general, and the human body in particular, Shyovitz shows how Jews in Ashkenaz integrated regnant scientific, magical, and mystical currents into a sophisticated exploration of the boundaries between nature and the supernatural. Ashkenazic beliefs and practices that have often been seen as signs of credulity and superstition in fact mirrored—and drew upon—contemporaneous Christian debates over the relationship between God and the natural world. In charting these parallels between Jewish and Christian thought, Shyovitz focuses especially upon the mediating role of polemical texts and encounters that served as mechanisms for the transmission of religious doctrines, scientific facts, and cultural mores. Medieval Jews' preoccupation with the apparently "supernatural" reflected neither ignorance nor intellectual isolation but rather a determined effort to understand nature's inner workings and outer limits and to integrate and interrogate the theologies and ideologies of the broader European Christian society.
"Immensely erudite, enlightening, and stimulating, thoroughly researched and lucidly written, a landmark contribution to our understanding of the intellectual and spiritual currents of medieval Ashkenaz."—Association for Jewish Studies Review
"A meticulously researched study that reflects a highly specialized grasp of the texts and cultures involved, and it is guaranteed to pique the interest of those with a fascination for the phantasmagoric."—American Historical Review
"Groundbreaking . . . [Shyovitz] provide[s] vital new approaches to understanding medieval conceptions of nature, the supernatural, and the role of theology in the development of scientia."—Comitatus
"A Remembrance of His Wonders convincingly expresses a group ideology of medieval Ashkenazic pietists toward nature and the human body through an impressive accumulation of manuscript sources as well as a fresh reading of well-known material. . . . Shyovitz deftly presents the polyphonic nature of this corpus . . . [and] weaves disparate topical and textual threads together to present a convincing and enlightening portrayal of Hasidei Ashkenaz. The contextualization of pietism within Jewish and Christian ambiences reminds modern readers that as much as the pietistic orientation sought to isolate medieval Jews from their surroundings, it nevertheless was nourished by those surroundings as well."—Marginalia Review of Books
"Shyovitz presents a needed corrective to our understanding of the Pietists ideology, namely as active thinkers engaged in inductive and empirical reasoning. . . . Shyovitz aptly counters the presumed parochialism of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, displacing such a view with a more complex and nuanced image of how discourses and cultural practices of inquiry tend to lead to intertwined paths."—Reading Religion
"A Remembrance of His Wonders is an excellent achievement that deals with central research questions regarding the understanding of the wondrous in nature by the Jews of Ashkenaz. David I. Shyovitz presents fascinating parallels between the writings of the German Pietists and contemporary Christian texts, showing that their understandings of nature are quite similar."—Israel Yuval, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
- Awarded the 2021 John Nicholas Brown Prize for the best first book in medieval studies, granted by the Medieval Academy of America