Study Guide

Ivanhoe Foreignness and 'The Other'

By Sir Walter Scott

Foreignness and 'The Other'

The reception of this person [Isaac] in the hall of Cedric the Saxon was such as might have satisfied the most prejudiced enemy of the tribes of Israel. Cedric himself coldly nodded in answer to the Jew's repeated salutations, and signed to him to take place at the lower end of the table, where, however, no one offered to make room for him. On the contrary, as he passed along the file, casting a timid, supplicating glance, and turning towards each of those who occupied the lower end of the board, the Saxon domestics squared their shoulders and continued to devour their supper with great perseverance, paying not the least attention to the wants of new guest. The attendants of the Abbot crossed themselves, with looks of pious horror, and the very heathen Saracens, as Isaac drew near them, curled up their whiskers with indignation, and laid their hands on their poniards, as if ready to rid themselves by the most desperate means from the apprehended contamination of his nearer approach. (5.14)

Several groups hate each other in Ivanhoe. There are the Saxons and the Normans, of course. Most of the characters have been to the Crusades – medieval holy wars between Christians and Muslims. There are also class differences between the nobility (like Cedric) and their slaves (like Wamba and Gurth). However, all these groups are united by one thing in this scene: their hatred for Isaac of York. Everybody avoids him: the Saxon nobility and the commoners, the Norman monks, even the Arab ("Saracen") slaves traveling with Bois-Guilbert. Scott uses this scene at Rotherwood, with its cross-section of people, to illustrate his claim that the most oppressed people in Europe during the Middle Ages were the Jews. Isaac is the target of a horrific amount of hatred, and this scene emphasizes the prejudice he faces from every group in Ivanhoe.

[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 unintermitting, general, and relentless persecution as the Jews of this period. Upon the slightest and most unreasonable pretenses, 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 teach other, contended which should look with greatest detestation upon a people whom it was accounted a point of religion to hate, to revile, to despise, to plunder, and to persecute. [...]

The obstinacy and avarice of the Jews being thus in a measure placed in opposition to the fanaticism and tyranny of those under whom they lived, seemed to increase in proportion to the persecution with which they were visited; and the immense wealth they usually acquired in commerce, while it frequently placed them in danger, was at other times used to extend their influence, and to secure to them a certain degree of protection. On these terms they lived; and their character, yet obstinate, uncomplying, and skilful in evading the dangers to which they were exposed. (6.63-64)

Ivanhoe's depiction of its Jewish characters is highly problematic. On the one hand, Scott seems sympathetic to the constant, horrible prejudice that Jewish people suffered in medieval Europe. He also explicitly states that both Normans and Saxons took advantage of religious hatred to rob the Jews shamelessly. Scott clearly doesn’t support the anti-Semitism that many of his characters in this novel express.

At the same time… what's going on with that second paragraph? Scott says this constant prejudice and abuse made the Jews as a people greedy, paranoid, and stubborn. That's a pretty big generalization, don’t you think? All Jews are this way? So Scott condemns prejudice against the Jews, but he also repeats some terrible Jewish stereotypes in his characterization of Isaac and of Jewish people in general. For more on this contradiction, check out "Characters: Isaac of York."

"Think not thus of it, my father," said Rebecca; "we also have advantages. These Gentiles, cruel and oppressive as they are, are in some sort dependent on the dispersed children of Zion, whom they despise and persecute. Without the aid of our wealth they could neither furnish forth their hosts in war nor their triumphs in peace; and the gold which we lend them returns with increase to our coffers. We are like the herb which flourisheth most when it is most trampled on. Even this day's pageant had not proceeded without the consent of the despised Jew, who furnished the means." (10.33)

Rebecca is talking here about a problematic kind of power. Yes, the Gentiles (meaning anyone not Jewish) may be horribly oppressive, but they also depend on the Jews to finance their tournaments and wars. Despite the terrible treatment they face, Rebecca perceives that the Jews in the book at least have some power, since the kings and nobles of Europe need them. Not that this makes the hatred and prejudice any better.

Athelstane coloured deeply, for such had been his own fate [to lose his shield] on the last day of the tournament; while Rowena, who was pleased in the same proportion, as if to make amends for the brutal jest of her unfeeling suitor, requested Rebecca to ride by her side.

"It were not fit I should do so," answered Rebecca, with proud humility, "where my society might be held a disgrace to my protectress." (19.11-12)

Scott often describes Rebecca as "humble." She is all too aware of the prejudice her people face, but instead of getting angry about it (like we might), she does her best to make peace with even the rudest and most violent of the Gentiles. Here Rebecca refuses to ride next to Rowena because people might find it disgraceful. What do you think of Rebecca's approach to injustice? Is "proud humility" a good political choice for oppressed people? How might we compare Rebecca's fictional response to medieval anti-Semitism to some real-life approaches to racism and prejudice?

"Submit to my fate!" said Rebecca – "and, sacred Heaven! to what fate? – embrace thy religion! and what religion can it be that harbours such a villain? – thou the best lance of the Templars! – Craven knight! – forsworn priest! I spit at thee, and I defy thee. – The God of Abraham's promise hath opened an escape to his daughter – even from this abyss of infamy!" (24.39)

When Bois-Guilbert demands that Rebecca convert to Christianity, she steadfastly refuses. As she points out, he’s is not making a very strong case for Christianity by being such a jerk to her. Her loyalty to the Jewish faith is one of Rebecca's strongest character traits.

By portraying Rebecca as a Jewish woman who never converts or changes her faith, Ivanhoe differs from a number of the texts Scott refers to in his chapter epigraphs. Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta (Chapter 10 epigraph) and William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice (Chapters 5 and 22 epigraphs) both feature Jewish women characters who wind up converting to Christianity. The strength of Rebecca's faith is a more honest and positive portrayal of a Jewish woman than you might see in some of the English novels and plays that preceded Ivanhoe.

"Pax vobiscum!" said the pseudo friar, and was endeavouring to hurry past, when a soft voice replied, "Et vobis – quoeso, domine reverendissime, pro misericordia vestra."

"I am somewhat deaf," replied Cedric, in good Saxon, and at the same time muttered to himself, "A curse on the fool and his Pax vobiscum! I have lost my javelin at the first cast."

It was, however, no unusual thing for a priest of those days to be deaf of his Latin ear, and this the person who now addressed Cedric knew full well. (26.50-52)

While Cedric hurries through Torquilstone disguised as a monk, he pretends to speak Latin. Unluckily for him, someone addresses him who actually does speak Latin: Rebecca. Rebecca's skill with languages is worth thinking about. While characters like Cedric and Bois-Guilbert express their sense of national identity through the languages they speak, Rebecca speaks Hebrew, Saxon, Norman, and even Latin with equal ease. Her linguistic dexterity shows that she can move through many different social and cultural contexts. But the flip side of this is that Rebecca has to learn multiple languages, since her religious identity as a Jewish woman means that both the Saxons and the Normans exclude her. In a sense, her fluency only emphasizes her lack of belonging and the secure sense of homeland that the other characters take for granted.

The peasant, fumbling in his bosom with a trembling hand, produced a small box, bearing some Hebrew characters on the lid, which was, with most of the audience, a sure proof that the devil had stood apothecary. Beaumanoir, after crossing himself, took the box into his hand, and, learned in most of the Eastern tongues, read with ease the motto on the lid, – "The Lion of the tribe of Judah hath conquered." "Strange powers of Sathanas." said he, "which can convert Scripture into blasphemy, mingling poison with our necessary food! – Is there no leech here who can tell us the ingredients of this mystic unguent?" (37.24)

Beaumanoir is biased and trying to convince the peasants in the courtroom to fear Rebecca by drawing attention to her "foreign" ways. She makes medicine (ooh, how terrifying). She reads Hebrew – which many of the people at her trial seem to think is a sure sign of devil-worshipping and magic spells. Beaumanoir uses the power of his position to present Rebecca in the worst possible light, and he plays on the ignorance and prejudice of his audience to do it.

[Rebecca] withdrew her veil, and looked on them with a countenance in which bashfulness contended with dignity. Her exceeding beauty excited a murmur of surprise, and the younger knights told each other with their eyes, in silent correspondence, that Brian's best apology was in the power of her real charms, rather than of her imaginary witchcraft. (37.32)

Rebecca's gender plays a big role in this biased trial. Beaumanoir distrusts Rebecca because she’s a beautiful woman, and he thinks sex is sinful. But everyone else in the courtroom is impressed by her beauty. Some of the younger Knights Templar even sympathize with Bois-Guilbert for breaking his vows over such a lovely woman. They can see that the only "witchcraft" at work here is Rebecca’s beauty. Both responses – suspicion and attraction – set Rebecca apart from the people in the courtroom. It's not just her religion that’s foreign to the peasants and knights; it’s also her beauty. Rebecca's foreignness makes her vulnerable to misrepresentation and mistreatment by people who don't understand her.