Joseph Shatzmiller

title.none: Mundill, England's Jewish Solution (Shatzmiller)

identifier.other: baj9928.9907.005 99.07.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joseph Shatzmiller, Duke University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Mundill, Robin. England's Jewish Solution: Experiment and Expulsion, 1262-1290. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridg e University Press, 1998. Pp. xxviii, 332. $69.95. ISBN: 0-521-58150-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.07.05

Mundill, Robin. England's Jewish Solution: Experiment and Expulsion, 1262-1290. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridg e University Press, 1998. Pp. xxviii, 332. $69.95. ISBN: 0-521-58150-8.

Reviewed by:

Joseph Shatzmiller
Duke University

The History of the Jews in medieval England extends over a short period of time, some two centuries at the most. Their number was small, if compared to neighboring France: at its peak the island harbored some 5000 Jews; when expelled, at the end of the year 1290, they must have counted about 2000, a far cry from the number of more than 15,000 given by some medieval chronicles. Luckily English archives and libraries conserved considerable documentation (some of it even in Hebrew) concerning for the most part their economic activity and their role as taxpayers to the crown. The membranes of the plea rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews constitute an immense source of knowledge and more information can be gathered from other sources which were not designed specifically to record the activity of the Jews.

Scholars, already in the last century, realized the importance of this documentation, which means that present day students can rely on quite an extensive scholarly bibliography. Still researchers like Dr. Zefira Etin Rokeacch, of Israel, Robin R. Mundill (and with them, an ever-growing cohort of other young historians) do not use secondary works only, but patiently and persistently struggle with 12th and 13th century manuscripts and discover more relevant information.

Mundill's work is a result of commitment to the subject that stretches over almost two decades. Even though his main concern is the "Edwardian experiment" of 1275 that aimed to detach Jews from the practice of money lending, and ended fifteen years later with their expulsion--he cares in the introductions to each of the eight chapters of his study to provide a short history of events and developments that were at the background of the issue to be discussed. Writing about moneylending, to quote one example, he cares even to explain [pp. 108-113] canon-law doctrinal statements that shaped attitudes of Christianity toward the presence of the usurers amongst them.

The verb "to qualify" or the noun "qualification" appear repeatedly in the pages of the book. It concerns some of the important certitudes that we have acquired over the years from the works of C. Roth and H. G. Richardson. Mundill suggest other propositions which are the results of painstaking and detailed examination of known and previously unknown data. Thus we have followed none other than King Edward himself who claimed that the contracts issued by the Jews of his time, contracts which mention wool or cereals, were in fact usurious ones, the commodities mentioned just camouflaging clandestine monetary transactions. Mundill teaches us that such was not the case. Edwardian Jews actually took part in the commerce of these commodities and in some cities their activity was of much significance [pp 108-145]. Similarly, students like myself grew up with the certitude that the Jewish exiles of 1290 were poor and economically exhausted (by royal taxation). Mundill recognizes that poverty existed in the numerically reduced communities, and that most transactions were of quite modest a size. However one discovers, in each of the (provincial) cities examined, families that may be quite qualified as "plutocratic." Some Jews managed to build even financial empires during the "Edwardian experience." [pp. 146-208]

The accepted wisdom concerning the historical geography of Jewish settlement in England is challenged in much detail. Mundill finds Jews not only in the 20 or 30 cities where they are allowed to stay, but in dozens of other localities. [pp. 16-44; 286-290]. The only topic in which Mundill does not act as a revisionist regards the clientele of the Jews. Like many scholars before him (and as some medieval Jewish writers insisted on), Mundill's detailed research brings him to the conclusion that most loans (two thirds of them) were extended to modest debtors hailing from the countryside, while nobility and clergy appear rather rarely in the deeds. [pp. 209-248]

The last chapter of the book deals with a very difficult question, namely what motivated Edward to expel his Jews and why he didn't do it earlier (his first contact with them had been in the year 1262). The first historian of English Jewry, De Bloissiers Tovey, had raised the question already at the end of the 18th century [p. 249] and almost all historians followed. As far as the present reviewer is concerned, the need of money may have been the monarch's prime motive. Jewish talage [cf pp. 45-107] could not have counted even for ten percent of the hundred thousand pounds that he was looking for. The church, the nobility and the burghers could have raised the sum but required a price, as they had done in many cities, even in England, namely the expulsion of the Jews. Mundill is not satisfied with this way of thinking [pp. 249-285]. He takes into consideration factors like the hostility of the church, the activity of the mendicants as well as the religiosity of Edward and his immediate family. Also, Edward has been very much "European oriented" and observed how other princes and cities treated their Jews. In fact the same Charles of Anjou chased the Jews out of his county in 1289. (But, he let them settle in the Provence, under his rule as well!) Edward expelled their brethren from Gascony, his principality in western France. It is thus in a wider European framework that one has to understand the decision taken by him on July 18, 1290.

England's Jewish Solution is the result of long years of hard labor. For this reason alone, one can not reproach the author for omitting issues that would have been of much help to understand the expulsion of 1290. Thus we miss information about the monetary activity of the Italians in England (rhey are mentioned only briefly), as well as of local moneylenders or of the involvement of clergy and church in these condemned "usurious" activities. The part of the Jews in commerce of money would have become more clear and understandable. There is only a single short issue which makes one raise eyebrows: the assertion on page 28 that Jews knew, not only Hebrew and French, but also Latin. If this were the case, why did they have to write on the margins of the Latin deeds the essentials of the contract in Hebrew? On the other hand it is encouraging that our author rejects the "lacrimous conception" of Jewish history. He knows very well about the hatred, accusations, and persecutions to which they were subject [pp.45-71], but he recognizes also that friendship and some cordiality could have marked at times the relationship between Jews and Christians, the preaching of zealots like Archbishop Pecham notwithstanding.