Sir Walter Scott's Treatment of Jews in Ivanhoe
by Ibn Warraq (July 2009)
It was argued by Leon Poliakov and others that the portrait of Isaac the Jew in Ivanhoe is generally an unfavourable one, indeed an unflattering stereoptype derived from The Merchant of Venice and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta of the Jew as a contemptible or comic miser. Scott introduces Isaac in chapter five which bears the well-known words from The Merchant of Venice as its motto, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?” However, it seems highly unlikely that an author would choose just such a passage from Shakespeare if he meant to solely denigrate Jews, or that he picked this particular passage at random. One has to feel the fine tone of the entire novel, and its moral nuances before dismissing Scott’s portrait of the Jew as an anti-semitic stereotype.
Cedric, the Saxon father of Ivanhoe, sets the tone when he says, inviting Isaac to join them at their meal and refusing to listen to the prejudices of the other guests present, “my hospitality must not be bounded by your dislikes”. One could take that phrase as being addressed to not only all listeners in his company, but also all the readers of the novel. Isaac and Rebecca are my guests, Scott tells us, whether you like it or not, and they deserve all the respect any human being deserves, “Hath not a Jew eyes?...”.
Scott introduces Isaac with a few deft strokes but adds important explanatory notes,
Scott here picks out two classes of persecutors of Jews, “the credulous and prejudiced vulgar,” and “the greedy and rapacious nobility,” to which he, a little later in the novel, adds a third class, the religious bigot. If the Jew has a mean and unamiable look it is because of the role he has been forced into by years of persecution. Scott seems acutely aware of the plight of the Jews in 12th Century England, “His [Isaac’s] doubts might have been indeed pardoned; for, except perhaps the flying fish, there was no race existing on the earth, in the air, or the waters, who were the object of-such an unintermittiug, general, and relentless persecution as the Jews of this period. Upon the slightest and most unreasonable pretences, as well as upon accusations the most absurd and groundless, their persons and property were exposed to every turn of popular fury; for Norman, Saxon, Dane, and Briton, however adverse these races were to each other, contended which should look with greatest detestation upon a people, whom it was accounted a part of religion to hate, to revile, to despise, to plunder, and to persecute. The kings of the Norman race, and the independent nobles, who followed their example in all acts of tyranny, maintained against this devoted people a persecution of a more regular, calculated, and self-interested kind. It is a well-known story of King John, that he confined a wealthy Jew in one of the royal castles, and daily caused one of his teeth to be torn out, until, when the jaw of the unhappy Israelite was half disfurnished, he consented to pay a large sum, which it was the tyrant's object to extort from him. The little ready money which was in the country was chiefly in possession of this persecuted people, and the nobility hesitated not to follow the example of their sovereign, in wringing it from them by every species of oppression, and even personal torture. Yet the passive courage inspired by the love of gain, induced the Jews to dare the various evils to which they were subjected, in consideration of the immense profits which they were enabled to realize in a country naturally so wealthy as England. In spite of every kind of discouragement, and even of the special court of taxations already mentioned, called the Jews' Exchequer, erected for the very purpose of despoiling and distressing them, the Jews increased, multiplied, and accumulated huge sums, which they transferred from one band to another by means of bills of exchange — an invention for which commerce is said to be indebted to them, and which enabled them to transfer their wealth from land to land, that when threatened with oppression in one country, their treasure might be secured in another.
Obstinate and avaricious, suspicious and timid, the Jews do display such unattractive qualities but these vices could easily be seen as virtues, the virtues of patience, vigilance, diligence, and prudence of which they had need after years of mob hysteria, and the rapaciousness of the King and nobility; how else could they have survived? Nor is Isaac always presented as a cringing coward. When he is thrown into a foul dungeon, Isaac reveals further qualities, of resolution, of hope, and dignity:
Moreover, Isaac is not devoid of a deep sense of gratitude, as when he thanks Ivanhoe for protecting him by offering to lend Ivanhoe horses and harnesses even though there was a strong chance Isaac would never see them paid for: Isaac’s better feelings coming through: “The Jew twisted himself in the saddle, like a man in a fit of the colic; but his better feelings predominated. 'Fare- thee-well! — Yet hark thee, good youth,’ said he, turning about, ‘thrust thyself not too forward into this vain hurly- burly — I speak not for endangering the steed and coat of armor, but for the sake of thine own life and limbs.’ ”
Isaac also manifests courage when he refuses to pay Front-le-Boeuf any ransom unless he receives some guarantee that his daughter, Rebecca, will be safe. Remarkable courage since he is threatened with real torture as the Norman’s Muslim slaves prepare red-hot irons in a charcoal fire:
As remarked earlier, Scott was well aware of the history of Jewish persecution, and knew the plight of Jews during twelfth century England. Scott’s contention that the behaviour of the Jews was very much determined by the historical circumstances, the their social disabilities pushing them into certain professions, for instance, is borne out by the history of Jewish settlement in England. There seem to have been very few Jews before 1066, and certainly no settlements. William the Conqueror invited the first group of Jews from France, in 1070, wanting to take advantage of their entrepreunerial and financial skills. But, significantly, the Jews were severely restricted as to what they could practice; they were not permitted to own land or to take part in the trades apart from medicine. Since Catholics considered usury a sin, Jews figured largely as money lenders.
Or as Rebecca, Isaac’s daughter, tells Ivanhoe, “Heaven in his ire has driven [the Jew] from his country, but industry has opened to him the only road to power and influence which oppression has left unbarred”. There one has all the elements of the stereotypes: they practiced medicine, hence the frequent accusations of necromancy and witchcraft that we also witness in Ivanhoe as Rebecca, Isaac’s daughter, goes on trial; forced to being moneylenders, the Jews were frequently accused of usury, exploitation, avarice. Scott was not inventing the stereotype.
Under Henry II [died 1189], the Jews flourished, establishing themselves as skillful money lenders, and settling in towns such as Norwich, Oxford, Cambridge, Windsor, and of course, London. This situation unfortunately was not to last. There were massacres of Jews between 1189 and 1190 in many towns, such as Thetford, and Colchester, but the most notorious one took place in York, where many Jews killed themselves rather than convert to Christianity as the mob demanded. During Richard I’s absence in the Holy Land, the approximate date of the events in Ivanhoe, the Jews were harassed by William de Longchamp, the Bishop of Ely. They were forced to contribute huge sums to the king’s ransom. On his return, Richard I [died 1199] began the process which led to the establishment of the office of Exchequer of the Jews, making transactions of Jews liable to taxation by the King of England, thereby becoming a tacit partner in all the transactions of Jewish money lending. Moreover, the king demanded two bezants in the pound, that is, 10 per cent, of all sums recovered by the Jews with the aid of his courts.
Under King John [died 1216], the lot of the Jews worsened, as he tried to squeeze as much money as possible from them. At first, John treated Jews with much consideration, “But with the loss of Normandy in 1205 a new spirit seems to have come over the attitude of John to his Jews. In the height of his triumph over the pope, he demanded the sum of no less than £100,000 from the religious houses of England, and 66,000 marks from the Jews (1210). One of the latter, Abraham of Bristol, who refused to pay his quota of 10,000 marks, had, by order of the king, seven of his teeth extracted, one a day, until he was willing to disgorge”. The latter incident is alluded to by Scott.
Scott was also well aware of the religious dimension in the prejudice against the Jews. Pope Innocent III had written to Richard I and other Christian leaders in 1198, “calling upon them to compel the remission of all usury demanded by Jews from Christians." This would render the Jewish community's very existence impossible.
On July 15, 1205, the pope laid down the principle that Jews were doomed to perpetual servitude because they had crucified Jesus”.
Indeed, the most frightening, and hateful figure in the novel is Lucas de Beaumanoir, the Grand Master, the implacable head of the religious establishment of the Knights Templars. He delighted in tormenting Jews, or as Rabbi Nathan says to Isaac, “to do foul scorn to our people is his morning and evening delight… Specially hath this proud man extended his glove over the children of Judah, as holy David over Edom, holding the murder of a Jew to be an offering of as sweet savor as the death of a Saracen. Impious and false things has he said even of the virtues of our medicines, as if they were the devices of Satan — The Lord rebuke him !”
This “ascetic bigot” rails and rants against the Templars for their lax morals, and lack of discipline, and never misses an opportunity to demonize Jews and Saracens, “They [the Templars] are forbidden by our statutes to take one bird by means of another, to shoot beasts with bow or arblast, to halloo to a hunting-horn, or to spur the horse after game. But now, at hunting and hawking, and each idle sport of wood and river, who so prompt as the Templars in all these fond vanities? They are forbidden to read, save what their Superior permitted, or listen to what is read, save such holy things as may be recited aloud during the hours of refection; but lo! their ears are at the command of idle minstrels, and their eyes study empty romaunts. They were commanded to extirpate magic and heresy. Lo! they are charged with studying the accursed cabalis- tical secrets of the Jews, and the magic of the Paynim Saracens.” 
The Grand Master receives Isaac rather unceremoniously, “ ‘Jew,’ continued the haughty old man, ‘mark me. It suits not our condition to hold with thee long communicatiots, nor do we waste words or time upon any one. Wherefore be brief in thy answers to what questions I shall ask thee, and let thy words be of truth; for if thy tongue doubles with me, I will have it torn from thy misbelieving jaws.’ ”
When Isaac approaches with extended hand, The Grand Master reacts, “ ‘Back, dog!’ said the Grand Master; ‘I touch not misbelievers, save with the sword. — Conrade, take thou the letter from the Jew, and give it to me.’ ”
Isaac’s daughter Rebecca is immediately suspected of practising the black arts in curing a Templar of a malady, and the Grand Master is ready to deal with her,
In the above examples, Scott has delineated with consummate skill the terrifying irrationality of religious bigotry, which is able to so easily translate transparent acts of charity, compassion, and care into dark acts of Beelzebub himself, all designed to ensnare Christian souls.
Scott was an accomplished historian and perfectly aware of the wave of anti-semitism that the preaching of the First Crusade in 1095 inspired in Europe, especially in the Rhineland where entire communities of Jews were massacred. It is not surprising then to see how critical he is of the Crusades, and Crusaders. He paints severe portraits of several Templars in Ivanhoe, their cruelty, rapaciousness and lack of scruples. The abiding impression as one comes to the end of Ivanhoe is not of Scott’s anti-semitism but the anti-semitism of the main actors,- Scott, ever the realist, even makes Ivanhoe partake in anti-semitism, albeit of a mild kind- fanaticism, ideals perverted and channeled into unworthy goals, the cruelty of the Normans- “The description given by the author of the Saxon Chronicle of the cruelties exercised in the reign of King Stephen by the great barons and lords of castles, who were all Normans, affords a strong proof of the excesses of which they were capable when their passions were inflamed.” 
And of course, the almost transcendental goodness and beauty of Rebecca, to whom we shall now turn.
Scott does not spare himself in his opening remarks about the true heroine of Ivanhoe, “The figure of Rebecca might indeed have compared with the proudest beauties of England, even though it had been judged by as shrewd a connoisseur as Prince John. Her form was exquisitely symmetrical, and was shown to advantage by a sort of Eastern dress, which she wore according to the fashion of the females of her nation. Her turban of yellow silk suited well with the darkness of her complexion. The brilliancy of her eyes, the superb arch of her eyebrows, her well-formed aquiline nose, her teeth as white as pearl, and the profusion of her sable tresses, which, each arranged in its own little spiral of twisted curls, fell down upon as much of a lovely neck and bosom as a simarre of the richest Persian silk, exhibiting flowers in their natural colors embossed upon a purple ground, permitted to be visible — all these constituted a combination of loveliness, which yielded not to the most beautiful of the maidens who surrounded her. It is true, that of the golden and pearl-studded clasps, which closed her vest from the throat to the waist, the three uppermost were left unfastened on account of the heat, which something enlarged the prospect to which we allude. A diamond necklace, with pendants of inestimable value, were by this means also made more congnicuous. The feather of an ostrich, fastened in her turban by an agraffe set with brilliants, was another distinction of the beautiful Jewess, scoffed and sneered at by the proud dames who sat above her, but secretly envied by those who affected to deride them.”
Rebecca’s moral qualities are equally without blemish- she is devoted to her father, religiously observant without self-righteousness or spiritual pride, generous, compassionate, a ministering angel to those taken ill- all illustrated by Scott with the lightest of touches.
Like her father, Rebecca had learnt much from years of anti-semitism, years of reflection leading her to much wisdom, “Rebecca was now to expect a fate even more dreadful than that of Rowena; for what probability was there that either softness or ceremony would be used towards one of her oppressed race, whatever shadow of these might be preserved towards a Saxon heiress? Yet had the Jewess this advantage, that she was better prepared by habits of thought, and by natural strength of mind, to encounter the dangers to which she was exposed. Of a strong and observing character, even from her earliest years, the pomp and wealth which her father displayed within his walls, or which she witnessed in the houses of other wealthy Hebrews, had not been able to blind her to the precarious circumstances under which they were enjoyed. Like Damocles at his celebrated banquet, Rebecca perpetually beheld, amid that gorgeous display, the sword which was suspended over the heads of her people by a single hair. These reflections had tamed and brought down to a pitch of sounder judgment a temper, which, under other circumstances, might have waxed haughty, supercilious, and obstinate.” She bore herself with “proud humility” despite the “arbitrary despotism of religious prejudice.”
The most touching and romantic scenes in Ivanhoe are those where Rebecca looks after the wounded Ivanhoe with loving care, “[she] lost no time in causing the patient to be transported to their temporary dwelling, and proceeded with her own hands to examine and to bind up his wounds. The youngest reader of romances and romantic ballads must recollect how often the females, during the dark ages, as they are called, were initiated into the mysteries of surgery, and how frequently the gallant knight submitted the wounds of his person to her cure, whose eyes had yet more deeply penetrated his heart.” These scenes, where Ivanhoe and Rebecca develop increasing tenderness for each other, turn out to be misleading, and their outcome evidently disappointed countless generations of readers, who were led to believe that the romance would end with Ivanhoe marrying Rebecca. Scott was greatly criticised for making Ivanhoe evenually marry the the rather colourless Saxon princess, Rowena. But on aesthetic grounds, Scott could be defended for his decision. One could argue that moral and historical realism demanded that Ivanhoe, a Saxon, should marry a Saxon, Rowena, however romantic an elopement with Rebecca may have seemed. Neither Isaac, Rebecca’s father, nor Cedric, Ivanhoe’s father would have allowed such a match for cultural reasons. Besides a careful reading of the scenes where Rebecca tends to Ivanhoe’s wounds shows Scott’s realism. Ivanhoe had looked on Rebecca with growing tenderness but as soon as he hears that she is a Jewess, his manner changes:
Surely the above passage is a prime example of Scott’s moral and historical realism: Ivanhoe, Rebecca reluctantly acknowledges, shares the prejudices of his age, and acts accordingly. However, despite himself, Ivanhoe retains a certain amount of affection for his nurse. There are other clues to Scott’s reasons for not allowing Ivanhoe and Rebecca to come together. He tells us that Normans and Anglo-Saxons had not managed to come together, and thus it is doubly unlikely historically that his Saxon and Jewess should either, “Four generations had not sufficed to blend the hostile blood of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons, or to unite, by common language and mutual interests, two hostile races, one of which still felt the elation of triumph, while the other groaned under all the consequences of defeat.”
Second, in an Introduction written some ten years after the first edition of Ivanhoe, Scott tells us why he could not join the fates of Ivanhoe and Rebecca, apart from the prejudices of the Middle Ages,
Having allowed Scott his share of realism, I must concede that it is also obvious that Ivanhoe is a romance, where all manner of liberties have been taken with probability, possibility and plausibility. Ivanhoe and Rebecca in reality would never even have met, and since he had already taken such poetic license with sundry scenes and characters, it would have been well-within Scott’s authorial privilege to marry off Ivanhoe and Rebecca at the end.
Scott is equally critical of the two, the Saxons and the Normans. He holds Richard the Lion-Heart, the Norman, to be irresponsible, disregarding the needs of his countrymen in pursuit of worthy but ultimately futile ideals, while Cedric, the Saxon, is castigated for holding onto a mythical past, and for refusing to look at the reality of he present.
As A. N. Wilson has pointed out in his Introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of Ivanhoe, what Scott wrote in Letters of Malachi Malagrowther, 1826, is relevant to the political import of Ivanhoe, “For God’s sake…let us remain as Nature made us, Englishmen, Irishmen, and Scotchmen, with something like the impress of our several countries upon each.” Wilson himself draws the implications of these sentiments for our reading of Ivanhoe, “If the book [Ivanhoe] has a political message, it seems to have two very incisive points of view, hard, but necessary to reconcile. One is that there is a wickedness in failing to preserve our racial and ethnic heritages; that Jews and Saxons and Normans are all totally different, and it is grotesquely dishonest to suppose otherwise. At the same time, no society can work without recognizing our interdependence and our common good. Inevitably, this will mean that one racial or social group will have predominance, and it will not necessarily be the oldest inhabitants, or the most morally worthy. But the ruling caste trample on the treasured traditions of the minor ones not merely at their own peril, but at the peril of the nation as a whole.”
Rebecca’s purpose was to plead the ways of the Jews to the Christians. Scott was able to show Isaac’s love and loyalty to his daughter despite the threats of torture, and contrast it with the disloyalties of the Saxons, and the fratricidal tendencies of the Normans. It is Cedric, the Saxon, who disowns his own son, Ivanhoe, and John, brother of Richard the Lionheart, who plots his sibling’s assassination. In the meeting of Rebecca and Ivanhoe, the chivalric tradition is contrasted with the ideals of the Hebraic-Christian tradition, and it is the the former that is found wanting. Rebecca is able to point out the moral dubiousness of a code that glorifies violence, and makes a virtue of bloodshed.
“Rebecca," he [Ivanhoe] replied, "thou knowest not how impossible it is for one trained to actions of chivalry, to remain passive as a priest, or a woman, when they are acting deeds of honor around him. The love of battle is the food upon which we live — the dust of the mêlée is the breath of our nostrils! We live not — we wish not to live longer than while we are victorious and renowned — Such, maiden, are the laws of chivalry to which we are sworn, and to which we offer all that we hold dear.
"Alas! " said the fair Jewess, "and what is it, valiant knight, save an offering of sacrifice to a demon of vain glory, and a passing through the fire to Moloch ? — What remains to you as the prize of all the blood you have spilled — of all the travail and pain you have endured — of all the tears which your deeds have caused, when death hath broken the strong man's spear, and overtaken the speed of his war-horse?"
"What remains?" cried Ivanhoe; "Glory, maiden, glory! which gilds our sepulchre and embalms our name."
"Glory?" continued Rebecca: "Alas! is the rusted mail which hangs as a hatchment over the champion's dim and mouldering tomb—is the defaced sculpture of the inscription which the ignorant monk can hardly read to the inquiring pilgrim — are these sufficient rewards for the sacrifice of every kindly affection, for a life spent miserably that ye may make others miserable? Or is there such virtue in the rude rhymes of a wandering bard, that domestic love, kindly affection, peace and happiness, are so wildly bartered, to become the hero of those ballads which vagabond minstrels sing to drunken churls over their evening ale?"
"By the soul of Hereward!" replied the knight, impatiently, "thou speakest, maiden, of thou knowest not what. Thou wouldst quench the pure light of chivalry, which alone distinguishes the noble from the base, the gentle knight from the churl and the savage; which rates our life far, far beneath the pitch of our honor; raises us victorious over pain, toil, and suffering, and teaches us to fear no evil but disgrace. Thou art no Christian, Rebecca; and to thee are unknown those high feelings which swell the bosom of a noble maiden when her lover hath done some deed of emprise which sanctions his flame. Chivalry!— why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection — the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant — Nobility were but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword."
"I am, indeed," said Rebecca, "sprung from a race whose courage was distinguished in the defence of their own land, but who warred not, even while yet a nation, save at the command of the Deity, or in defending their country from oppression. The sound of the trumpet wakes Judah no longer, and her despised children are now but the unresisting victims of hostile and military oppression. Well hast thou spoken, Sir Knight, — until the God of Jacob shall raise up for his chosen people a second Gideon, or a new Maccabeus, it ill beseemeth the Jewish damsel to speak of battle or of war."
As Rosenberg observes, Rebecca only has to point to herself and her father to refute Ivanhoe’s claim that chivalry has been the guarantor of freedom, protector of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances. Indirectly, she does so when she concludes “the argument in a tone of sorrow, which deeply expressed her sense of the degradation of her people.”
When his friend Fontanes asks him why it was that Jewish women were so much more attractive than the Jewish men, Chateaubriand replies as a poet and Christian,
As noted above, readers were disappointed at the unromantic ending of Ivanhoe. Thackeray set about correcting this literary wrong in Rebecca and Rowena, A Romance Upon Romance . I doubt, however, that any admirer of Scott’s original-except of course its ending- would find much consolation in Thackeray’s vulgar farce. Despite extravagant praise for Rebecca and Rowena from the likes of Trollope who called it, “of all prose parodies…perhaps the best in the language.” Thackeray’s crude burlesque is without wit or invention, and would certainly not please any avid reader of Ivanhoe. Hen-pecked Ivanhoe goes off to France to join Richard the Lion-Heart as the latter beseiges some castle. Ivanhoe returns to England to find that Rowena has married Athelstane, thinking that our hero was dead. Both Rowena and Athelstane die, and Ivanhoe returns to his chivalrous ways, makes his way to Spain where he kills hundreds of Saracens, and eventually finds Rebecca, who, in the meantime, has converted to Christianity, and marries her.
The absurdity of such an ending has been well described by Rosenberg, who quite rightly remarks that “any permanent alliance between him [Ivanhoe] and Rebecca was foredoomed from the start; and anyhow it would have turned Scott’s novel into the sheerest humbug. Historically the marital problem could have been solved in the way Scott’s predecessors solved it, and as Thackeray solved it in his parody, by allowing Rebecca to submit to baptism. In that case she would have compounded the venial sin of bombast with the mortal sin of hypocrisy, and her function in the novel would have lost what meaning it has. She has to stick it out with her father, if only to make good her protests and act out her creeds. The only way in which Scott could have eaten his cake and had it too would have been to recruit Ivanhoe for the synagogue.”
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