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Flora Cassen discusses her new book, Marking the Jews in Renaissance Italy

By Miriam Levy-Haim

On Friday, Nov. 10, the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY, hosted a talk by Flora Cassen on her new book, Marking the Jews in Renaissance Italy:
Politics, Religion, and the Power of Symbols, recently released by Cambridge University Press.

The book, based on Cassen’s doctoral dissertation, explores the practice of forcing Jews to wear discriminatory marks on their clothing, which started in the Middle Ages but was applied with new vigor in 16th-century Italy as a result of the Spanish conquest and the Counter-Reformation. Cassen is associate professor of history and Van der Horst Fellow of Jewish History and Culture at UNC Chapel Hill.

Cassen began the talk with a story about her grandparents, which she said was a personal story and a badge story. Her grandparents became engaged in Belgium directly before World War II, and the order requiring Jews to wear a badge was issued while they were planning their wedding. The families began arguing about whether or not to wear the badge and proceed with the wedding at the city hall. They ultimately decided to wear the badge, and her grandmother never forgot how people looked at them when they went out with it. Some people avoided them, others glared but no one was indifferent. Her grandparents’ story, Cassen explained, is a good example of how clothing can be used to impact and regulate society.

The practice of marking Jews by dress began with the Fourth Lateran Council, though distinguishing clothing varied over time and by place. The book begins with a sartorial study of different types of marks and their symbolism. The second half of the book explores microhistories of anti-Jewish discrimination found in archives across three Italian city-states: Milan, Genoa and Piedmont.

Cassen mentioned one particular case of an elderly deaf woman named Laura who was the only Jew of her town. Though the townspeople knew and recognized Laura as a Jew, and she was not trying to hide her identity, she was arrested for not wearing the badge. Cases such as Laura’s suggest that these badges were not intended to simply distinguish Jews from Christians, as the Lateran Council states, but also to impart a stigma.

One of the attendees questioned the outsized emphasis placed on regulating the Jewish presence in Northern Italy, when the community was so small. In some instances, local cases involving the Jewish badge were sent to the Spanish governor, or even the Spanish king. But the fear of the “other” is always outsized compared to the actual risk. And conversations about how minorities are otherized and demonized remain starkly relevant in today’s political discourse.

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