postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies (2014) 5, 336–345. doi:10.1057/pmed.2014.24

‘The history of an incorrect term’: Agamben, etymology and the medieval history of the holocaust

Heather Blurtona

aDepartment of English, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA



In his discussion of the word ‘holocaust’ in Remnants of Auschwitz, Giorgio Agamben identifies the twelfth-century English historian Richard of Devizes as the first to connect the term ‘holocaust’ to the murder of Jews, concluding with an indictment of its use: ‘it … contains a heredity that is from its inception anti-Semitic.’ This essay will take as its starting point twelfth-century usage of the term ‘holocaust,’ alongside the two key Latin terms flagged up by Agamben – immolare [‘to burn’] and sanguisuga [‘bloodsucker’]. Ultimately, the essay will suggest that, contrary to Agamben’s understanding of this moment, Richard of Devizes was not intending to portray the death of Jews as a sacrifice pleasing to God, but rather that he was demonstrating an alert awareness of the extent to which Christian culture and Jewish culture are deeply imbricated. The essay concludes by considering the implications of its own methodology.

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