Joel Rosenthal

title.none: Skinner, ed., Jews in Medieval Britain (Joel Rosenthal)

identifier.other: baj9928.0403.001 04.03.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joel Rosenthal, SUNY Stony Brook,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Skinner, Patricia, ed. Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2003. Pp. x, 175. $75.00 0-85115-931-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.03.01

Skinner, Patricia, ed. Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2003. Pp. x, 175. $75.00 0-85115-931-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Joel Rosenthal
SUNY Stony Brook

A conference hosted by the Parkes Centre for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations and the Wessex Centre of Medieval Studies--two units of the University of Southampton--generated a group of papers on a topic that is becoming of increasing interest as medieval Jewry now--at long last--seems to be well on its way to becoming a mainstream topic in the world of medieval studies. Some of the conference papers were published in Volume 3 of Jewish Culture and History, where they appeared with an introduction by the volume's guest editor, Colin Richmond. The paper by Barrie Dobson has been published in both the journal and in the volume of nine of the papers under review here, whereas for the papers by Jane McComish ("The Medieval Jewish Cemetery at Jewbury, York"), Suzanne Bartlett ("Three Jewish Businesswomen in Thirteenth Century Winchester"), Anthony P. Bale ("Richard of Devizes and Fictions of Judaism") and Robin Mundill ("Edwardian Jewry: Usurers or Legal Merchants?") the reader must consult the journal. The papers in this Skinner volume are a bit more general; those in the journal lean a little more to the "case study" approach (even when the same author appears in each volume).

The Parkes Centre was founded by (and subsequently named in honor of) James Parkes, who, while working for the Student Christian Movement in the 1930s, tried to alert the world to the pervasive and insidious role that anti-semitism played (or was encouraged to play) in both medieval and modern Christendom. Thus his vision stands as a beacon behind the rapprochement exemplified by the conference and these papers, and Colin Richmond is following in these footsteps by working on a biographical study of this moral crusader. It is particularly fitting that Barrie Dobson's essay appears in both the journal and in this volume of collected papers, since his work of the 1970s on the Jews of twelfth- and thirteenth-century York has been so instrumental in opening doors that once separated in-group and parochial studies of medieval Jews and Judaism--almost all by Jewish scholars, and mostly for a Jewish audience--from secular or non-Jewish inquiries, many of which concentrated on the Exchequer of the Jews and were therefore were constrained to approach the topic from the perspective of administrative and financial history.

Skinner's volume is short, well written, and up-to-date in its scholarly apparatus. It is instructive and concise for use by serious scholars, and broad enough so that undergraduates at any level can profit from its essays. It is an exemplary collection, and the editor's introduction covers the papers that are to follow, some current historiographical issues, and some wider questions about how to "read" medieval Jewish history against the backdrop of a more recent and even more horrendous narrative. Unfortunately the tale the papers tell is usually sad, and tragic more often than not, and notably lacking in good guys (and not many good women either). That, alas, is but the way of the world. There are not many Christian heroes or defenders of Judaism to be found in the two centuries that separate the entry of Jews from the community at Rouen who seems to have crossed the Channel at the behest of William the Conqueror and the final (and pretty comprehensive) expulsion by Edward I in 1290. For every William of Newburgh, who questioned the motives and integrity of those who led the pogroms and who encouraged or condoned the massacres, we have a long list of high ranking apologists for mistreatment, misunderstanding, and abuse and capital punishment. This list includes such luminaries as Robert Grosseteste and Queen Eleanor of Provence (Henry III's queen), all of whom found Jewish otherness, atop the taint of deicide, the blood libel, and their invaluable role as money lenders (and usurers) as more than sufficient justification for whatever was meted out to them by kings, nobles, desperate creditors, rival merchants, and a gullible and unquestioning public.

The first three papers in the volume offer a rough chronological survey, though they are not designed as textbook narratives: Joe Hillaby on "Jewish Colonisation in the Twelfth Century," Robert Stacey on "The English Jews under Henry III," and Robin Mundill on "Edward I and the Final Phase of Anglo-Jewry." These authors all have impressive records of scholarly publication on their topics; we get the quality essays we expect. Hillaby is largely concerned to trace--and to test the data regarding--the dispersal of the Jewish community within the realm, and he shows that the primary London-Lincoln-York axis is just part of the story. By the time of Stephen these special people of the lord king were extending their financial activities, and their communities of residence, across much of the realm. This is confirmed by the Donum of 1159, with its record of 11 contributing communities, and further confirmed by that of 1194, naming 21 different Jewish communities in the list of those being assessed. Of course, the major cities and major centers of Jewish life would lead the way: Londoners contributed 37% of the money raised in 1159, 27% of that collected in 1194 (with Lincoln providing 16% of a grand total of L1742, while Canterbury coughed up 14% and could account for so much wealth from a small community thanks to the profits of doing business with the cathedral chapter and the priory). To some extent dispersal of the island's Jews was a sign of comfortable and quiet times, given their greater vulnerability when clustered in such minor towns as Bungay or Worcester or Wallingford. But hard on the heels of any moments of prosperity and tolerance, if not of civil treatment, was the imminent likelihood of a rapid reversal of fortune. What had been a fairly a comfortable position at John's accession in 1199 had become, as soon as 1210, a story of crippling tallages and fines, of imprisonment and execution, and of flight from the realm. In view of these realties, can we still stretch to consider the twelfth century a "golden age?" Hillaby says that it might well have been, at least when compared with what the thirteenth century had in store.

Robert Stacey covers the long and up-and-down reign of Henry III. The themes that emerge from the tale of varying fortune, the vicious hostility by Simon de Montfort and the baronial faction, and the manipulation of debts owed the Jews that were then confiscated to enrich royal coffers, reinforce the long-term picture of vulnerability and are fierce reminders of the insecurity inherent in a position of marginal acceptance. And any horrors that Stacey can elaborate are at least matched, if not topped, by those that Mundill recounts in looking at the last years of the community. The expulsion of 1290 was but the final straw, preceded as it was by several decades in which the community had to endure a steady tightening of restrictions on places of residence, on the public nature of worship, and on obligation to wear and carry visible signs of Jewish identity, on the insecurity of debts owed, and on personal safety. The sources for the English Jewish community were written (and preserved) in such a way that these chapters have to focus almost exclusively on Jews as outsiders-cum-money lenders. Lost virtually beyond recall is anything other than a fleeting and occasional glimpse at what may have been a complex and rich internal culture, a web of social and community structure, family life at middling and lower levels, and religious thinking and the rabbinical tradition. The Jews of medieval England are the Jews of Christian records, Christian narration and Christian identification. Sartre's comments about anti-semitism are very much in mind.

Some attempt to go beyond the documentary or narrative swipe is offered by the six chapters that follow Hillaby, Stacey, and Mundill, focused as these later ones are on "case studies and new evidence." Here we are admittedly pushing at the margins of the knowable in essays that set the narrative chapters into a broader context and show how, on the odd occasion, we can toy for a moment or two with the merest chip of thick description. Paul Brand talks in his usual magisterial way about "The Jewish the Records of English Royal Government," touching on what was preserved in the records of chancery and exchequer as well as in the more familiar Exchequer of the Jews. John Edwards looks at ecclesiastical legislation about Jews, with an eye on the enforcement or non-enforcement of those many and gleefully constructed strictures and regulations. This chapter takes us to the Continent, as well as to England, since the broader contours of the English story are relevant to all the Jewish communities of the Ashkenaz. Suzanne Bartlet continues her work with a general assessment of women and their role in the Anglo-Jewish community. Here, of course, we mostly see those few women who were able to play a role of some prominence--usually as widows--in the men's world of finance. But what can be winkled out about marriage and the age of marriage, about women's place in domestic and family life, and about health and child-bearing, is also summed up. Where we have enough information to support an assessment, it mostly argues for a community with a reasonable level of internal prosperity and companionate life (though we know nothing of the Jewish poor). Anthony Bale turns to the intriguing (and horrifying) topic of "fictions of Judaism," those bogey-man tales that Christian society loved to elaborate: ritual murder, "derogatory discourse," and the parallels between Jews and various base creatures who figure in the bestiaries. With a nod toward cultural studies, Bale explores "the coercion of texts and images in the articulation of dominance and subjection" (p. 142). Nor, the world being what it is, did such projections and fantasies grind to a halt in 1290 (as we know from reading Chaucer). To learn about the "post-expulsion development of anti-Semitic imagery" is almost as chilling as the pre-expulsion stuff, though at least it would claim fewer victims.

David Hinton's chapter on "the archaeological evidence" about Jewish life and Jewish communities fits nicely with Dobson's paper, as the latter focuses to a considerable extent on how our view of the York community has changed since he first wrote, thanks in good part to the excavation of a Jewish cemetery (Jewbury) there. Hinton deals with a coin hoard here, a finger ring there, a possible fragment of a synagogue wall, a castle within which Jews in flight might seek shelter--all in an effort to weave together a general pattern of material culture. Though he covers an impressive range of mini-topics and he pushes at the crumbling boundary between the world of artifacts and material culture and that of documentary material, not much has survived that talks beyond a reasonable doubt and without considerable ambiguity to the quantity and quality of Jewish otherness. However, in its survey of data and its range of questions posed if not answered, Hinton's paper deserves wide currency as a methodological exploration.

Dobson's "The Medieval York Jewry Reconsidered" is a retrospective assessment of what he covered, or suggested, in his clarion-call work of the 1970s. The two major changes that he notes are marking the intervening years are the impressive stream of new scholarly work and, of exceptional note, what has come to light by way of the publication of the excavation of the York Jewbury (offered in summary in McComish's paper in Jewish Culture and History). Dobson joins Hilton in saying that cemetery finds have has argued against the uniformity of practice or custom in an area we once considered to be revealing of an extremely conservative aspect of social life. Dobson also says--with great modesty--that aspects of the study of England's Jews that he suggested as holding much profit for future work have now been explored to considerable advantage. Still resting on York data, though reinforced by wide general reading, he reaffirms the idea that Jewish women would at times come forward and play a prominent role in Jewish-Christian interactions. He also notes, with pride and a sense of irony, that the city of York has now incorporated, in the most recent version of the guide book to Clifford's tower, the tale of the massacre of 1190.

This volume is a collection of conference papers, not a master narrative. Beyond the commonality that unites papers from a conference, it cannot be expected to run very far beyond its self-imposed boundaries regarding time, place, or generalization. But, in a collective sense, it avoids the pitfalls of parochialism, breast-beating, and venting that would go against its scholarly purpose. It is easy to write Jewish history under the cloud of what I think of as an anti-Whig view of history; that is, we know what is coming and we can fit any and all episodes into the larger and most horrendous mosaic. To the credit of editor and authors, this issue is not, in any explicit fashion, one of concern to them. Another issue, with which they deal implicitly but strongly, concerns "mainstreaming" of Jews and their tale(s). In both our teaching and writing we now are at pains to dispel the idea of western Christendom as a homogeneous culture P one relatively free of "others" (except for heretics). This collection reminds us that even what seems like a hegemonic and relatively seamless culture can be dissected and assessed in terms of its response to challenges regarding its others, its outsiders. At the same time we have to keep our perspective on medieval Jewish history, both for England and elsewhere, focused in a way that makes sense of its tragedies and sorrows so they are comprehensible in and for the world that caused them. We should remember that medieval society was hardly a summer camp run by amiable socialists for the greater good of the many. It usually showed itself as being cruelly oppressive to the majority of its "own," that is the peasantry, the poor, the dispossessed. It rarely had serious qualms about the brutal suppression of heresy and heretics. It considered women inferior to men in body, mind, and spirit, and it was not overly squeamish about treating them accordingly. It organized vast military expeditions to conquer and dominate Moslems, and infidel blood shed during the process hardly detracted from the glory and virtue of the enterprise. It did not trip over its own feet to condemn slavery. Given all this, why should we expect medieval Christendom to have been willing to treat Jews as full-fledged members of the club? These case studies of Jewish life and of the oppression of the Jews of twelfth- and thirteenth-century England represent sensitive and informed scholarship, and that--rather than justice for the long-dead-- is about all we can ask of historians. This small volume acquits itself with distinction.