Michelle M. Hamilton

"Identity Politics in the Iberian Dance of Death"

Professor Hamilton’s idea of confessional identity/politics is informed by the work of cultural historian Américo Castro, which challenged philologists and Hispano-Medievalists to consider more critically how identities of people in the Iberian Peninsula were constructed along confessional boundaries.  That is, Iberians did not think of themselves only as Jews or Muslims, but also as Spaniards.  This notion of cross-cutting identities provoked philologists and historians to re-evaluate the usefulness of rigid categories of identity for describing Iberian society.

Hamilton suggests that the existence of the Iberian Dance of Death further problematizes the notion of confessional identities.  Her presentation focused on an Alhambra version of the Dance written down in Hebrew by a fifteenth century converso, a new Christian, or Crypto-Jew.  This Alhambra version circulated as edifying reading among Jews, Crypto-Jews and new Christians at different stages of their religious backgrounds.  Its existence, among other better known European versions, prompts the question of what meaning this text, long thought to be Christian in nature, had for conversos and Jews living in 14th and 15th century Iberia.  Further, it demonstrates that these communities created hybrid texts to meet their complex needs as Jews, Crypto-Jews, and Spaniards.

Hamilton proposes that Dance’s linguistic traits, watermarks, historical connections to medieval rulers, poetic forms, and list of Death’s victims establishes that the Alhambra Hebrew version of the Dance of Death was likely written by a courtier of Fernando of Aragon.  While the Alhambra version contains a preponderance of Aragonese-Catalan linguistic traits from the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula, watermarks were the most convincing evidence for the provenance of the manuscript.  Not only did they establish that the document was printed on paper from the Crown of Aragon, which was near Barcelona, they connected the document to Fernando of Aragon at whose 1414 coronation the Dance of Death was reported to have been performed.  Watermarks also connected the document to Alfonso V, who lived in Naples for twenty-nine of the forty-two years that he ruled Aragon, and his wife, Maria de Castillia, who lived in Iberia.  Both rulers surrounded themselves with poets from the Spanish and Italian speaking worlds which supports Hamilton’s thesis that the author of the Alhambra Dance was a member of one or the other’s court.

The Alhambra Dance was written in the Octavos of Realise, a popular poetic form of the 14th and 15th centuries.  In order to compose a work in these Octavos, the author had to be where poetry was written with a sophisticated rhyme scheme and order such as in the courts of Alfonso V and Maria de Castillia where some of the best known converso poets resided.  Hamilton advanced that this poetic form is a clear indicator of the literary culture in which the Dance of Death circulated.  

In the Dance, Death called to its mortal dance victims from all social levels and stages of life.  These included religious figures, the emperor, king, duke, pope, cardinal, and the archbishop.  The Escorial, or Spanish version, included a Rabbi and a Muslim religious leader among Death’s victims.  The absence of these figures in the Hebrew version suggests that perhaps the Sephardic author did not wish to include his own religious authority in this list of corrupt leaders.  Their presence in the Spanish version, however, allows the mention of Muslims and Jews to serve as a counterpoint to the Christian ecclesiastical figures also targeted by Death.  By removing references to Jewish and Muslim religious leaders in the Hebrew version of the Dance, the converso author highlighted the sins of 15th century Spanish Christians and underscored the fact that the venerable Christians, the highest members of the Catholic Church, the ecclesiastical and lay hierarchies would all be treated the same as these new Christians in death—offering equality.

Professor Hamilton further posited that the Dance could have been performed in Jewish and Jewish-Christian funerals and in the celebration of the Jewish High Holidays Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.  Aside from a mural of Fernando of Aragon’s coronation, there is little evidence suggesting that the Dance of Death was actually performed.  However, in the High Holiday liturgy is the image of the horn which is blown which has parallels in the Alhambra Dance where Death’s shofar is blown at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

There is evidence that families of deceased ones contracted professional mourners and musicians as part of the funerary ritual in the Middle Ages.  In a climate of worsening Christian-Jewish relations, hiring professional troops to perform the Dance of Death, a text accepted in Christian circles as well, was a discreet way of honoring the dead without revealing his or her Jewish identity.  The entire community was expected to join in this procession, accompanying the dead to the grave.  A performative display of this sort seems to Hamilton the ideal context for a work such as the Dance of Death. 

For further discussion:
The Iberian Dance of Death seems to have been both text and performance.  Considering that textualization itself is a type of performance, how might we discuss the Dance in terms of different types of performance? 

The author and community that circulated the Dance brought dance and text together creating sites for a type of contestation and scripting of confessional and other identities.   Does this make the identity in each case explicit?

What basic communal significations of the Dance might scribes, witnesses, and performers of the Dance have understood?   

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