Today, I'm pleased to welcome my guest blogger author Michelle Cameron. Michelle Cameron is an historical novelist whose debut novel, The Fruit of Her Hands, was published by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, on September 8, 2009. The Fruit of Her Hands tells the story of Michelle’s 13th Century ancestor, the renowned Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg. Michelle is also author of In the Shadow of the Globe, a verse novel about Shakespeare, published in 2003 by Lit Pot Press. She lives in Chatham, NJ, with her husband and two college-aged sons.
Jewish Marriage and Labor Customs during the Middle Ages
Thank you, Jeri, for inviting me to pay a visit to your blog! In researching The Fruit of Her Hands, set during the 1200s in France and Germany, I learned a great deal about the customs of medieval Jewish women. For this, I am indebted to two books in particular – Elisheva Baumgarten’s Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe and Avraham Grossman’s Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe. I thought I’d share some of these customs – particularly as they related to marriage and labor – with your readers.
My heroine, Shira, is just eleven when receives her first proposal of marriage. Jewish girls were generally betrothed earlier than their Gentile counterparts. I was surprised to learn that the matchmaker was usually a man and the father, not the mother, was responsible to engage his daughter’s advantageously. After the betrothal ceremony, young girls were sent to their husbands’ family home to await puberty under the watchful eye of their mothers-in-law. Betrothal was considered as binding as marriage itself.
Weather permitting, the marriage ceremony would be held outside. The bride would wear an unlaced bodice, signifying that the only ties to bind her would be wedding bonds. The wedding ring was worn on the right finger, the one closest to the heart. To recall the separation from Zion, the bridegroom would often wear a cowl, the young couple would be strewn with ashes and ― in a ritual practiced to this day ― a wineglass would be smashed. The newly-wed couple would be taken off to a private room, to eat a small repast consisting of a chicken and an egg – signifying fertility, of course.
With pregnancy a leading cause of death during the Middle Ages, it’s understandable that a plethora of superstitious evolved around keeping mother and baby safe. Throughout pregnancy, woman would wear her husband’s leather belt as an amulet, often decorated with red stones and protective verses. Before the mother was confined, an iron knife was kept under her pillow to defend her against ill luck. The knife was iron, because the letters of the word iron in Hebrew – BARZEL – invoked the names of the matriarchs Billah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Leah. The mother was confined for three weeks after delivery in the room where she gave birth. The sheets of the birth bed were not changed during all that time, which must have made for some uncomfortable sleeping.
The myth of Lilith frightened all medieval women. Lilith, Adam’s scorned first wife, was said to devour babies in revenge. She was committed to killing a hundred newborns every day. The newborn was never left unattended and amulets were hung on the door outside, inscribed with the names of three angels – Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof – who had the power to keep Lilith at bay.
In Germany, this custom merged with the Gentile custom of Frau Halle, who was said to bind newborns to her and who filled her pitcher with mother’s tears. To confound her, it became customary Jewish mothers to give their child a “baby” name (what we’d call a nickname) in a ceremony where young children raised the child’s cradle three times, exclaiming “Holekreisch, Holekreisch, what shall the child be called?”
Many of these customs (as well as others) found their way into my debut historical novel, The Fruit of Her Hands. I hope your readers will check it out!
Thanks to Michelle for stopping by. Her book sounds extremely interesting. Give it a try!