By Sara M. Butler; posted 17 April 2017
What’s on your summer reading list? Here are three books that I have recently read and thoroughly enjoyed!
Whitman, James Q. The Origins of Reasonable Doubt: Theological Roots of the Criminal Trial. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.
Reasonable doubt plays a key role in the American criminal justice system: jurors may only convict a defendant of a crime if the prosecutor has proven his/her guilt with certainty. Today, the reasonable doubt clause is understood as a manifestation of concern for the welfare of the defendant: but is that its origin? In fact, as Whitman clarifies, the defendant’s welfare, spiritual or otherwise, has nothing to do with why the clause came into existence. In the medieval world, when felons were regularly punished with execution, judges and juries were anxious primarily about the impact of that sentence on their own chances of obtaining salvation. Might God equate a juror’s participation in capital punishment with homicide? Were judges who carried out a jury’s sentence also murderers? Theologians eager to see justice done found a way to provide moral comfort to anxious jurors and judges: reasonable doubt protected their souls, allowing them to hide in the fact that God knew they were just doing their jobs.
Müller, Wolfgang P. The Criminalization of Abortion in the West: Its Origins in Medieval Law. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2012.
When does life begin? At conception? In the womb? At birth? What exactly is the legal status of a fetus? And when does it transform from embryo to fetus to baby? The modern West is not the first to grapple with such meaningful questions. Müller’s book takes us on a theological ride to refine our understanding of how perceptions of pregnancy and abortion changed throughout the Middle Ages, making sure to emphasize conflict over consensus in the church’s positioning, and to acknowledge the distance between legal theory and law in practice. All those with an interest in the subjects of abortion rights and legal battles over women’s bodies will find that the historical treatment has much to teach us.
Rose, E.M. The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Along with well-poisoning and host desecration, blood libel (the kidnapping of a Christian boy by the Jews in order to torture him to death in a fervent desire to reenact the Passion) became a stalwart
core of the standard pool of accusations levelled against Jews in the medieval world. Historians have long recognized that such rumors have no actual basis in reality, and they better reflect Christian self-doubt than Jewish dogma or action. Rose’s stunning historical investigation addresses the first blood libel, that is the murder of William of Norwich in 1144, later canonized as a martyr in the Catholic church. Rose helps us to understand the various pieces of the puzzle that led officials to see the death as a Jewish conspiracy to undermine Christendom, eventually paving the way for the expulsion of the Jews from England.