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Naomi Lubrich // The Jewish Hat: A Cultural History


From the 12th to the 17th century, a cone-shaped hat called pileus cornutus served as a distinguishing sign for Jews in the German-speaking regions of the Holy Roman Empire. What did the hat signify before, and how did its meaning change after it was imposed on Jews as a mandatory identifying sign in the 13th century? This study, the first attempt to trace the history of the Jewish hat over a wide period of time, will draw on close readings of relevant documents in art, literature, law, and theology by joining methods of discourse analysis with theories of stigma semiotics. Starting in Greek antiquity, a pointed hat (called pilos, or Phrygian hat) was used as a means to identify eastern gods and figures. Transferring – and transforming – the hat lent its name and shape to the Roman pileus, the symbolic headwear worn by emancipating slaves. In the Middle Ages, it was a stigma imposed on Jews. Thereafter, pointed hats began to appear on representations of an increasing variety of religious outsiders – deceivers, real and fictional: heretics, sorcerers, ogres, and dwarfs. Following the course of this travelling concept sheds light not only on an intriguing singular phenomenon; it helps refine our understanding of cultural transfer – or culture as transfer.