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When Did The Wandering Jew Head North?

Richard Cole

The landscapes of the north are haunted by several wanderers, whose existence is marked by a supernatural longevity. The most widely described must be Starkaðr, condemned to live the lifetimes of three men, and to commit three evil deeds for each of them. So too is there Norna-Gestr, who lived for three centuries after his mother defied a malevolent norn. In Iceland, with staff and a walrus skinbelt, the hooded Bárðr Snæfellsáss traverses the glacier of Snæfellsjökull, returning whenever his people need him most. Elsewhere, Óðinn himself stalks the sagas, an incognito rambler testing those whose paths he crosses. This surplus of timeless flâneurs make it hard to follow the northbound footprints of medieval Europe’s best known pedestrian: The Wandering Jew. The story needs little introduction, but it may be useful to highlight briefly its most important themes: Now known by many names (Ahasuerus, Buttadeus, Cartaphilus) he once scorned Christ on the way to Golgotha, and was cursed to walk the earth without rest until the End of Days. Incontrovertible written references to the Cartaphilus legend prior to 1500 are attested in Czech, English, French and Italian sources. The most influential of these is arguably that of Matthew Paris in his Chronica Majora. His account of the Wandering Jew replicates an earlier record by Roger of  Wendover in the Flores Historiarum for the year 1228, and Paris then tells his own for the year 1252. However, we should note that the scattered records surviving to date seem to imply a much wider circulation of texts. For instance, the Czech Svatovítský rúkopis is based on the Chronica Majora, and itseems more plausible to imagine a number of lost intermediaries rather than direct transmission between England and Bohemia. Medieval Scandinavia, on the other hand, might be able to lay claim to such a direct connection. In 1248 Matthew Paris was sent to Munkeholmen in Trondheim as a monastic visitor. But if Paris already knew the story of Cartaphilus – and there is no reason to suppose he should not have done – there is no record of any of the Norwegian monks with whom he might have shared it committing anything to vellum. The first identifiable Ahasuerus tales in Scandinavia are all post-Reformation, and derive from the German chapbook Kurtze Beschreibung und Erzehlung von einem Juden mit Namen Ahasverus, published in 1602. But if textual sources fail us, there is certainly a wealth of Cartaphilus material from Scandinavian folklore, some strains of which are clearly conversant with medieval antecedents. Particularly demonstrative of this tendency is the regional tradition of Jøden fra Uppsala – “The Jew from Uppsala”. It is a subset of the Klintekonge – “Cliff king” type, a folkloric motif in which the hollows of certain Danish cliff-faces are said to be the home of solitary, supernatural beings, who may alternately protect or menace the local population.

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