Interview: Madison Tarleton

School/Institution:

University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology Joint Doctoral Program in the Study of Religion

Areas of Interest/Research:

Medieval Judaism in Christian Europe and early forms of anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic material culture

What is it about your field that you love researching?

While my research is often challenging to work, I find purpose and meaning in its current, real-world application. As recently as the events that unfolded at the U.S. Capitol, I was reminded, once again, how under educated many Americans are/were about the long history of anti-Judaic and antisemitic messaging, media, and material culture. Even COVID brought a host of viral metaphors and messaging that associated virus spread with Jewish people and Jewish communities. This was not a new tactic– it simply took on a new life. The way that Jewish communities have been used as scapegoats for centuries has, unfortunately, not changed. I do this research because I know that it has purpose, meaning, and educational benefits beyond the academy. 

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

My main “big” idea is to re-think how we talk about medieval material culture, specifically about Jews. I believe that by creating useful categories of anti-Judaic or antisemitic material culture, we can use this as a starting point to better educate the general public about changing attitudes towards Jews throughout history. It is in no way a perfect model, but my goal is to work towards a public-facing way to talk about the long history of hate that has manifested in images, objects, and material artifacts. 

What is your current research about?

My dissertation research is two-fold. First, I am arguing that the culture in Spanish Europe in the high middle ages allowed for changing attitudes towards Jews that escalated from anti-Judaic to antisemitic. Second, by looking at representations of Jews in primarily Spanish, Christian Europe, we can use Dr. Gavin Langmuir’s theory to discern whether they are representative of nonrational anti-Judaism or irrational antisemitism. By applying Gavin Langmuir’s theoretical model of the nonrational and irrational to material culture, I hope to create an analytical tool to evaluate and question medieval representations of Jews, the impact these representations had on Spanish European Jewry, the attitudes towards Jews from both Christian and Muslim communities, and the ways in which nonrational and irrational depictions create useful categories of visual anti-Judaism and visual antisemitism.

Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

My research and my dissertation project have been heavily influenced by the scholarship of five women: Dr. Sara Lipton, Dr. Ruth Mellinkoff, Dr. Debra Higgs-Strickland, Dr. Anna Sapir Abulafia, and Dr. Miri Rubin. I find these women admirable because of the work they that have done, the paths they blazed, and the incredible effects they had on me. I began working on this research topic when I was 19 or 20 years old. These women are important because many of them were the first scholarly works that my mentor at the time gave me to read. Their works have stuck with me because of how integral they are to my own research, but because these women were the first that I read where I felt like I could succeed as an academic. I remember being terrified to read some of their books. I had never had to read an academic book on my own. Their books were challenging and engaging, but it felt (and still feels) like they are speaking to me and to my work. 

What books have been formative for you in your study? Why were they so important? How did they shape you?

I like book lists better than book paragraphs, so I’ll offer that. Many of these books have been instrumental to my project because they opened a new door or a new perspective. In short, I would not be doing this project, nor would be able to complete this project, without these books or these scholars: 

  • Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg
  • Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography by Sara Lipton
  • History, Religion, and Antisemitism by Gavin Langmuir
  • Toward a Definition of Antisemitism by Gavin Langmuir
  • Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art by Ruth Mellinkoff
  • Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews by Miri Rubin

Do you have any publications we can showcase?

Where can we follow you online?

@madisontarleton on Twitter, Instagram, and Strava, I guess, if you’re into running!

If we ran into you at a conference and you didn’t want to talk about your field what would you want to talk about?

I jokingly call myself an “exerciser,” but I am an athlete at heart. I have been competing in triathlons for the last five (almost six) years. I enjoy talking to people about their own health and fitness journey, or what things they find most enjoyable! I recently learned how to play golf, and I have a new found appreciation for a sport that I once found quite boring to watch! I am also a youth swim coach and an ex-collegiate swimmer so I could talk about all things swimming for an exhaustively long time. 

What research/writing project are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

Currently, I am working on a conference paper with Matthew H. Brittingham of Emory University on the usage, ramifications, and spread of the #COVID1948 hashtag that began popping up in May. We are looking at how virology and virus metaphors have been used against Jews over time. We are co-presenting at the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology’s Graduate Student Association’s e-conference: “Defining Justice in an Age of Turmoil.” 

>> Thank you so much, Madison, for taking the time to share a bit about yourself and your work.


Are you a PhD student or Early Career Researcher working in Religion or Biblical Studies? If so, we’d like to hear from you. This website is dedicated solely to interviewing PhD students and ECRs on who they are, what they love about their work, and what has inspired them. If you’d like to be interviewed, head over to the Contact page and fill out the form. There’s no catch. Don’t be shy. Self-promotion is a virtue.

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