The Medieval Review 14.11.08

Rees Jones, Sara, and Sethina Watson. Christians and Jews in Angevin England: The York Massacre of 1190, Narratives and Contexts. York Medieval Press. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2013. Pp. xvii, 351. $90.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9781903153444 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Sara Lipton
Stony Brook University

The most notorious episode in medieval Anglo-Jewish history--at least until the expulsion of the entire community in 1290--was the York massacre of 1190. On the evening of March 19 approximately 150 Jewish men, women, and children fled to a royal castle (arx) seeking refuge from an angry mob. By the next morning almost all had perished, some by fire, some by sword, and some, wishing to deprive their attackers of a triumph, by their own hands. Although there had been several outbreaks of anti-Jewish agitation in England during the preceding months, the massacre nevertheless constituted a shocking break--as Paul Hyams points out in his contribution to the volume under review (125), "nothing remotely comparable in savagery" had occurred in the previous hundred years of Jewish residence in medieval England. In spite of several fine studies of the episode--most notably Barrie Dobson's 1974 monograph, which stressed the anti-royal dimensions of the massacre--the causes and ferocity of the attack have never been fully explained. [1]

Christians and Jews in Angevin England presents the proceedings of a conference convened in 2010 to re-examine the York massacre in light of new sources and interdisciplinary methods. In a useful introduction ("The Moment and Memory of the York Massacre of 1190"), Sethina Watson surveys the historiography of the attack and lays out three major considerations informing the volume: 1) the importance of the massacre to contemporary Latin chroniclers (as opposed to modern historians, who point out that the violence seems not to have had any large-scale lasting effects); 2) the contradictory impressions conveyed by different types of sources (literary/ecclesiastical narratives present the massacre as cataclysmic, while in dispassionate fiscal records it assumes the air of banal routine); and 3) the contingent nature of the massacre. For all the numerous factors that contributed to the calamity, Watson asserts, it was neither inevitable nor timeless.

Part I, "The Events of March 1190," contains five chapters, all written by historians, examining different facets of the immediate events or contemporary texts. This is the most compelling section of the book--it retains a clear focus on 1190, while broadening and deepening our view of the events. In "Neighbors and Victims in Twelfth-Century York: A Royal Citadel, the Citizens, and the Jews of York," Sarah Rees Jones powerfully demonstrates the value of local history. Carefully and finely delineating the social and political divisions in York while never losing sight of the larger questions at issue, she manages to builds substantially on the earlier insights of Dobson. Like him, Rees Jones sees the massacre as a form of resistance to royal rule, but she grounds it more firmly in York society, noting that Anglo-Scandinavians--respectable citizens rather than ragged rabble--predominated among those later fined for the attack. These men not only spearheaded attempts to assert civic liberty, but also were in the forefront of efforts to construct a new civic identity, to which the cathedral and Christian faith were central. She thus supplements Dobson's economic and political reading with welcome attention to religion, or at least the religious component of medieval identity. Although the essay ends with a caution that the causes of the massacre are probably not "fully recoverable," it offers a convincing and deeply informed interpretation of the events, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the massacre, or, indeed, in high medieval urban society. (Unfortunately, several of the contributors seem not to have read it--in spite of Rees-Jones' cautions that we cannot know exactly where the royal arx was located, subsequent chapters take it for granted that the massacre was on the site of Clifford's Tower.)

In a short, crisp piece ("Prelude and Postscript to the York Massacre: Attacks in East Anglia and Lincolnshire, 1190"), Joe Hillaby offers a salutary reminder that although the ferocity of the York massacre was unprecedented, several anti-Jewish outbreaks had occurred in the preceding months. He rightly stresses the heterogeneity of these episodes and, consequently, the importance of local circumstances (most especially the presence or absence of royal officials). But although no single cause explains these disparate events, some attempt at some synthesis or more over-arching interpretation from this knowledgeable scholar would have been welcome. At the very least, we might highlight the significance of information transmission--once a report of a certain kind of violence began to circulate, certain groups were liable to replicate, mobilize, and exploit it.

Nicholas Vincent's contribution, "William of Newburgh, Josephus, and the New Titus," traces the rhetorical and ideological inflections of William of Newburgh's Chronicle. With great erudition he demonstrates that William drew heavily from Josephus in his portrayal of events, especially the conversation in which the Jews decide to kill themselves. Although many read this passage as distinctly anti-Jewish, Vincent highlights its irony, suggesting that William is presenting the attackers rather than the Jews as deluded and hypocritical, even "Jewish." Vincent further notes that Josephus also influenced representations (and perhaps the self-perception) of Richard, who was sometimes likened to a second Titus, though Vincent is less than explicit about how, precisely, such rhetoric might have influenced William or contemporaries' reading of William's chronicle. The piece nonetheless clearly confirms both that one should read William's martyrdom narrative with a large grain of salt, and that Jews were a ready vehicle for saying something about king.

Alan Cooper's article ("1190, William Longbeard and the Crisis of Angevin England") compares the York massacre to a lesser-known episode, an 1196 rebellion against the royal government and the city of London led by a disgruntled crusader called William Longbeard. Both outbreaks, he notes, invoked--or at least inspired their chroniclers to invoke--apocalyptic language, and both pitted the poor and/or their self-proclaimed defenders against ostensibly greedy and corrupt elites. Both can thus be read as outgrowths of and expressions of resentment against recent economic and governmental developments--a rise in urban poverty and a revolution in record keeping, which allowed royal administrators to press harder on subjects. Cooper's discussion thus lends support to Dobson's thesis, while putting it in the larger context of kingdom-wide ferment. (Whether the fact that Jews were not the only victims/targets of protests against growing sovereign power would provide any comfort to their grieving loved ones is, of course, another issue.) More, perhaps, could have been said about the role played by the religious rhetoric attached to both episodes--was it an imposition of monastic chroniclers reading current events through the lens of their own preoccupations, or a central feature of the attacks, powerfully amplifying, anchoring, or channeling deep-seated unrest?

Royal record keeping is the subject of the final piece in the section, Robert C. Stacey's "The Massacres of 1189-90 and the Origins of the Jewish Exchequer, 1186-1226," a meticulous and judicious examination of the intersection of royal finance and politics with Jewish-Christian relations. Stacey notes that the Jewish Exchequer, which was created in 1186 to administer the confiscated estate of the hugely rich moneylender Aaron of Lincoln, significantly strengthened the English Crown's claim to have sole jurisdiction over Jews. Asserting royal prerogatives over Jews thus became a way for the Crown to encroach upon seigneuries. At the same time, the Crown's heightened attempts to profit from its monopoly by taxing Jews led to pressure on their debtors to pay them. Together these trends created considerable anti-Jewish and anti-royal resentment among great lords and lesser knights alike. But Stacey rejects the oft-repeated suggestion that the York attackers' destruction of Jewish bonds led to the creation of the archae system, whereby Jewish loan documents were stored in chests guarded by royal officials, sensibly pointing out that wooden chests can be burned as well as bonds. Stacey's essay thus confirms the centrality of royal policy to the events at York, while de-emphasizing the influence of the massacre on subsequent developments.

Together these five essays build fruitfully upon Dobson's still-compelling analysis, demonstrating how Jews were caught up in broader conflicts and discourses. The other two sections of the volume are somewhat more uneven, though each has strong scholarship and insights to offer.

Part II, "Jews among Christians in Medieval England" widens the focus to encompass Jewish-Christian religious, financial, legal, and intellectual relations in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The overall portrait that emerges is very much in line with the contemporary scholarly tendency to highlight the cultural closeness of medieval Jews and Christians, which nonetheless did not preclude significant differences or, at times, deep antagonism. Thus, Eva De Visscher's rather technical survey of Christian Hebraism ("An Ave Maria in Hebrew: the Transmission of Hebrew Learning from Jewish to Christian Scholars in Medieval England") shows that Christian scholars could regularly malign Jews as blind haters of the truth while adopting Jewish methods of study and revering their own Jewish teachers. And though Paul Hyams is probably right to say that no twelfth-century English Jew would have called himself an Englishman (127), the most interesting take-away from Pinchas Roth and Ethan Zadoff 's overview of "The Talmudic Community of Thirteenth-Century England" is that sixty-plus years after the York massacre, at least one learned rabbi seemed to have a sense of English identity, even patriotism. As none of the scholars discussed by De Visscher or Roth and Zadoff had any connections to York the essays shed little light on the massacre itself, but together they describe a fascinatingly complex situation and set of interactions.

A few of the essays in this section seem in some tension with each other. This is partly because of their different sources and foci, which may well capture differing attitudes and experiences. But not for the first time, I find myself wishing that publishing schedules allowed contributors time to read and absorb each others' work. So, for example, in "Faith, Fealty and Jewish infideles in Twelfth-Century England," Paul Hyams tentatively suggests that a "crisis of truth" appeared around 1200, leading Christians to doubt that Jews, "unfaithful" in the religious sense, could be "faithful" in law or business. Two other pieces provide some evidence to the contrary, however. Robin R. Mundill's survey of "The 'Archa' System and Its Legacy after 1194" shows that well into the thirteenth century some Jews continued to be entrusted with important business indeed. The royal officials known as chirographers, half of whom were Jewish, were charged with "faithfully" fulfilling their tasks, and a 1230 royal order commanded a sheriff to gather together "upright Christians and Jews." And although the essay by Thomas Roche ("Making Agreements, with or without Jews, in Medieval England and Normandy") opens with a Cistercian management roll complaining about the "perfidy of the Jews" and closes by suggesting that Cistercians helped promote the idea of the "perfidious Jew," the bulk of the piece shows that most charters demonstrated no suspicion toward Jews. Roche coins the phrases "hybrid trust" and "hybrid diplomatics" to describe a fluid situation, and concludes that into the early thirteenth century Christians and Jews "shared common devices of trust." I would have loved to see Hyams and Roche address their different findings head on. This could then allow us to explore in what circumstances or through what rhetorical or ideological moves a correspondence between religious faith and faithfulness might be either established or disavowed.

The last article in the section is Anna Sapir Abulafia's "Notions of Jewish Service in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century England," which explores clashing interpretations of the Augustinian articulation of Jewish "servitude." Theologians insisted that Jews be visibly subservient to Christians; kings that they be profitable. She attributes the thirteenth-century decline in Jewish status to mounting ecclesiastical pressure, which led secular rulers to adopt the more punitive approach. I wonder, though, if that is precisely the right formulation of the dynamic. The Church was not, in fact, uniformly successful at pressuring kings to follow its guidelines in other areas. It might perhaps be better to view changes in royal Jewish policy as the cooptation of religious/pious sentiment by kings, turned to their own purpose. And, although Abulafia does not tie her topic to the York massacre, one wonders if the violence did not alert the royal government to both the potential dangers posed by and the power that can be gained from, the arousal and channeling of religious fervor.

Part III, "Representation" is the most heterogeneous section of the volume, containing two essays on Jews in twelfth-century literature, a study of an anti-Jewish Marian tale in artworks from the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, and two ethically-driven musings on historiography, memory, and possible alternative futures. Though each addresses valuable sources, most have some compelling interpretations, and one--"The Future of the Jews of York" by Jeffrey Cohen--contains some beautiful moments, each also has problematic aspects. Heather Blurton's "Egyptian Days: From Passion to Exodus in the Representation of Twelfth-Century Jewish-Christian Relations" explores a range of twelfth-century texts apparently connecting Jews, violence (both by and against Jews), Egypt, and/or exile, concluding that a "rhetoric of expulsion" developed in the 1190s. There is much of interest here, but some of the connections feel forced. Carlee A. Bradbury's "Dehumanizing the Jew at the Funeral of the Virgin Mary in the Thirteenth Century (c. 1170-c.1350)" brings together an important and understudied group of images, but not all her readings are fully convincing, and the larger devotional and artistic considerations influencing Jewish imagery are not discussed. I enormously enjoyed reading Cohen's musings on the "lapidary" language applied to Jews by William of Newburgh and his contemporaries, but it is not clear to me how this differs from the oft-repeated observation that medieval Christians tended to see Jews and Judaism as static and unchanging. And while we would all like to believe that "another world [of religious and ethnic tolerance] is possible," it seems a stretch to read William's brief tale of a ghostly feat in a tumulus as an "invitation to Jewish-Christian commensality." In "Massacre and Memory: Ethics and Method in Recent Scholarship on Jewish Martyrdom," Hannah Johnson calls for an "ethics of memory," but does not clarify how this differs from, or adds to, the self-conscious attention to ideology, bias, point of view, and motivation that we all (one hopes) now recognize as a necessary component of the scholarly endeavor.

Overall, then, the collection is a valuable contribution. Although it does not revolutionize our understanding of the York massacre or the complex causes that lead people to suddenly attack their neighbors, it does strengthen and deepen some key observations that have come to permeate the study of medieval Jewish-Christian relations. First, there was no single attitude toward Jews or uniform Jewish experience in medieval England--Jewish-Christian relations encompassed suspicion and trust, violence and security, familiarity and distance. Second, the essays successfully demonstrate the power of narrative. Old stories can shape current actions; past actions take on life and power when put in narrative form. Finally, and for all the undoubted insights provided by new sources and new methods, what may come through most clearly of all is the enduring power and value of Barrie Dobson's magisterial forty-year-old work.



1. Barrie Dobson, The Jews of Medieval York and the Massacre of 1190, Borthwick Papers 45 (York, 1974).

Copyright (c) 2014 Sara Lipton

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