Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David I. Kertzer

The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David I. Kertzer is a book describing the court case surrounding this cause célèbre in 1850s and 1860s Europe. In 1858 a Jewish boy is seized by the Papal States authorities. Supposedly he was baptized by a Catholic servant. The narrative describes the international outrage and various attempts to get him back. Unfortunately the narrative is somewhat scrambled. There will be the occasional aside that jumps ahead 10 or 15 years for a paragraph then it is back to the main narrative. I would have hoped an editor would have caught this.

Kertzer is at his best when describing the geopolitics of the seizure. The French and British became diplomatically involved. This was also at the time of Italian unification. The issues surrounding the larger picture affected how the case was dealt with. I think there's somewhat of an overstatement about the French removal of support for the Papal States being directly related to the case but it is an interesting hypothesis. The book also discusses the media and partisan publications on both sides which would be interesting for anyone looking at the yellow press in this era.

After the main narrative there is a tacked on discussion of the suicide of a servant of the same family years later. The suicide was thought to be a murder by the authorities. Several family members were put on trial. I assume this was included to further underline the anti-Semitism of the community but I don't think it added anything to the narrative.

Recommended even with its flaws the story here is interesting and the history is fascinating. Apparently this is only the second treatment in English and first to use Italian and French sources.

Is available through Abebooks.

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