Thursday, October 13, 2016

Another Me by Eva Wiseman

Another Me is a story set in 14th century Strasbourg, France during the time when the bubonic plague was spreading throughout Europe. The spread of bubonic plague throughout the region led to many pogroms in various cities. This was because Jews were believed to be poisoning the wells used by non-Jews in the city. News from Bern and Zofingen that Jews had confessed under torture to poisoning the wells there, led some of the citizens of Strasbourg to suspect the Jewish population of their city too. However, the Jews in Strasbourg were under the protection of the Catholic church and the city which they paid a high fee in return for protection.

Sadly, ignorance about the cause of bubonic plague which was spread by rats and poor hygiene and determination by the butcher and tanner's guilds to rid Strasbourg of the Jewish population resulted in the massacre of two thousand Jews on February 14, 1349. This event is recounted near the end of Wiseman's novel.

The story opens in October 1348 with seventeen year old Natan folding the used clothing his father had purchased and placing them into the cart so they can be taken to Drapers' Row to be sold. The drapers then turned the used clothing into luxurious garments for the wealthy. It is almost Shabbos (Sabbath) and Natan's father has not returned with his cart from the drapers, so Natan and his younger brother Shmuli set out to find their father. Traveling down Judenstrasse, the Street of the Jews and across town to Draper's Row they fail to find their father. Eventually they find their father in the lane behind their house, badly beaten, his leg broken.

After arguing with his parents, Natan's father reluctantly agrees to allow him to take the cart but only to Wilhelm's shop in the center of Draper's Row. When they enter Draper's Row a boy steals some clothing from their cart. When they chase him, Natan meets Elena who is the daughter of Wilhelm the draper who tells them to let the boy go. Almost immediately Hans, who is Wilhelm's journeyman-apprentice appears, asking Elena if she requires any help. When Natan informs Wilhelm of his father's accident, the master draper consoles him and gives Natan a gold coin.

After helping to unload Natan's cart, Elena invites him in for a tankard of ale, against the wishes of their cook, Vera. Back home, Natan finds himself completely smitten with the draper's beautiful blue-eyed Elena. Fortunately for Natan he is sent back to the drapers to purchase some red yard so his mother can finish a beautiful tapestry she is working on. Elena and Natan manage to spend a few moments alone before they are interrupted by Hans. Elena arranges to meet Natan in the lane behind their house at eleven o'clock. Natan returns that night and spends the entire night in Elena's kitchen talking. The two meet several times every week into November.

In November of 1348, Natan decides to meet Elena at the city well. His mother warns him that she has heard about a letter from from the city of Bern which tells of the plague having arrived in the city and that the Jews were accused, arrested and tortured into confessing that they had poisoned the city wells.She tells Natan that Rabbi Weltner's brother has written to warn them that they same thing might happen in Strasbourg. When Natan heads to the well he finds a mob attacking a Jewish moneylender. Natan recognizes Hans who is attempting to stop the attack and tells him to get Wilhelm. When Natan attempts to intervene, he is knocked unconscious.

Natan regains consciousness and learns that he is resting at the home of Elena and her father, after having been carried there. Natan spends several days at their home recovering and then decides to return home but before he leaves he overhears Hans proposing to Elena. She refuses him telling Hans that her heart belongs to another.

One day in February of 1349 Natan receives an urgent message from Elena to meet him at her home. She tells Natan that she has overheard her father talking to the Ammeister, Peter Schwarber. Schwarber told Elena's father that at an assembly in the Alsace region, delegates from the cities of Bern and Zofingen stated that Jews in their cities confessed to poisoning the wells, causing an outbreak of the plague. These delegates managed to convince those from Basel and Freiburg that they should kill all the Jews in their cities. Elena tells Natan that Schwarber refused but she doubts his sincerity because he has ordered the city well covered.

On his way home, Natan secretly discovers three men dumping garbage into the well. When they attempt to throw a cat into the well, it escapes and reveals Natan hiding in the shadows. Kaspar the butcher grabs Natan recognizing him as the boy who tried to save the Jewish moneylender. When Natan threatens to tell the Ammeister the truth about who poisoned the well Kasper murders Natan so that their deed will remain a secret. But in a surprising twist, Natan may be able to fulfill his intention to save the Jews of Strasbourg from certain death once the poisoned well has been discovered.


Wiseman makes use of a belief in Judaism that involves transmigration of the soul. In Another Me, Natan becomes an ibbur which Rabbi Weltner explains as occurring "when a righteous person's soul take up residence in another's body." In Natan's case, his soul has migrated into the body of Hans, hence the title "Another Me". As to why this has happened, Weltner explains to Natan that "It happens when someone's time here on this earth ends before he can fulfill a promise or complete a task important to our people." The rabbi believes that it is Natan's task to warn the Ammeister that the accusations against the Jews of Strasbourg are false.  And so Natan with the help of Elena sets out to try to accomplish this in Hans body. The rabbi warns Natan and Elena about telling her father the truth of what has happened to Hans and Natan but he agrees to accompany Natan to talk to his parents.

Thus through the eyes of Natan/Hans we learn the fate of the Jews of Strasbourg. The horrific massacre is presented in to young readers in unflinching detail. "When we got to the cemetery, we saw that several huge wooden platforms had been built over the graves. Beside them were piles and piles of firewood. Our masters drove us up the platforms like cattle...Finally Kasper lit the wood around the first platform. Schwarber lit the second and third, until the fire spread to all the platforms. Soon, the sound of screams and the stench of roasting flesh filled the air."

Painting of the pogrom of 1349 by Emile Schweitzer
Wiseman is able to portray the reality for the Jewish citizens of Strasbourg in the 14th century. The Christians of Strasbourg and other cities throughout medieval Europe had placed numerous restrictions on Jewish citizens. They often had to wear identifying badges so that Christians like Elena did not become unknowingly involved in an intimate way with Jews, something that was forbidden. Certain occupations were forbidden to them and they could not own land. Instead most Jews were involved in commerce and banking, often as moneylenders. They were often difficult to deal with but this was likely because they were forced to pay large taxes for protection by the city and in turn passed these large fees onto their clients who then complained about them. Many Jews were threatened to either convert and be baptised or to face expulsion from their cities. When the plague broke out in the mid-14th century the Jewish people were blamed. This was due to the many superstitious beliefs that persisted about the Jewish people. It was thought they were poisoning the city wells but this accusation made no sense because they too used the same wells. Fewer Jews contracted the plague likely because of their ritual hand washing upon arising in the morning and before meals but this only made Christians suspicious. During Natan's meeting with the Ammeister and the councilors, the superstition based on misunderstanding and ignorance is portrayed. "The Jews don't die from the pestilence like the rest of us," Adolf said. "That's true," Felix the barber replied. "It is said that they die at half the rate we do. I have heard they made a pact with the devil to protect themselves." Despite this pervasive superstition Pope Clement VI issued several bulls repudiating the superstitious beliefs of Christians and asserting the humanity and dignity of the Jewish citizens in Europe.

Wiseman accurately portrays the ignorance and superstition of people in the 14th century regarding illness. Medicine in this century was largely based on superstition and very strange ideas. For example when her father takes ill, Elena decides she needs to get the surgeon because "Everybody knew that bloodletting worked miracles." Bloodletting using leeches or cutting remained a choice treatment for almost two thousand years and was practiced into the 18th and 19th centuries.  It was based on the concept that blood and other fluids which together were called "humours" needed to be balanced. Elena tells Natan that the surgeon will "balance Papa's humors and restore his health."  When the surgeon arrives he tells Elena that "Bloodletting will reduce the hotness of his blood."

Readers see how the citizens of Strasbourg dealt with the Black Death. Homes of those sick with the plague had a red cross painted on the door and no one was allowed in or out. During this time there were so many sick that the streets were deserted. Elena finds the parish priest dead in the church. Everyday corpse bearers with their death cart traveled through the streets calling for people to bring out their dead. The dead were so numerous that they were buried in pits outside the city walls and no one was allowed near the pits.

In spite of all this trouble Another Me has a tender subplot of two star-crossed lovers, the Jew Natan and the Christian Elena. If Natan had lived they would never have been allowed to marry as marriage between Jews and Christians was forbidden. His return as an ibbur is temporary although Elena does not know this at the time. She struggles to come to terms with Natan in Hans body which she finds disgusting. But just as she learns to love him once again Elena must face losing her beloved Natan all over again when he leaves the body of Hans.

Another Me is a short historical novel about a little remembered pogrom and an era of history dominated by misunderstanding, ignorance and superstition.

For information about the relationship and history of early Christians with the Jews and Judaism readers are directed to The Church and the Jews in the Middle Ages by Thomas Madden.

Book Details:

Another Me by Eva Wiseman
Northern New York: Tundra Books     2016
233 pp.

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