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20.12.04 Fogle, The King's Converts

20.12.04 Fogle, The King's Converts

Lauren Fogle's The King's Converts enters into the conversation about medieval marginalized identities at a moment in medieval studies when many of us are trying to intervene in the language adopted by various hate groups that have fastened onto the field as their social grail. Their medieval, though, is a dangerous fantasy built on dreams of knights and fantasies about power and violence. In this historically fraught moment,The King's Converts serves to remind us of past abuse of power when nonagentic, socially marginalized people were pushed to change their identities. Fogle's sobering book counters the aggressive rhetoric of hate groups by reminding us that the medieval period echoes our own in rendering an unempowered group--namely, Jews--were reframed as a type of social and racial pollution inhabiting the same parcel of land as white, Christian, normative "citizens." Marked by badges and forced to live in ghettoes (or Jewries), Jews were compelled to convert and, as such, encouraged to accept the socially standard world of Latin Christendom. While modern hate groups could potentially applaud the actions of the medieval monarchs who underwrote conversion of Jews as much as those same hate groups admire the crusading knights, said hate groups may be troubled to learn that the monarchs drew from a population of once-Jews, as I call them, to staff their crossbowmen and sergeants at arms (55). In essence, these effectively powerless people--once-Jews employed by the monarchy--mixed into the English "race." These once-Jews found themselves positioned in an (un)bounded, liminal space that simultaneously threatened the definition of Jewish and Christian identities. That is, these converted Jews formed a minority of people who occupied an important but largely unseen space in between the Christian and the Jewish worlds.

By detailing these Jewish converts in a book-length inquiry, Fogle's text continues the critical efforts of Robert Stacey, who in the early 1990s himself continued the work of Michael Adler's Jews of Medieval England when Stacey made visible the Jewish converts to Christianity. [1] Bringing us medievalists to witness the social liminality of the Jewish converts, Stacey's 1992 article embeds itself in the thirteenth century--a period best known for unfurling restrictive laws like the 1275 Statute of Jewry and for ending with the first nation-wide Expulsion of the Jews in 1290. [2] Fogle's book also builds on Stacey's work: Fogle investigates Jewish converts from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, considering the converts before and stretching her study beyond the inherently traumatic thirteenth century. By reaching into the fifteenth century, even more, Fogle The King's Converts provides us with a longer view of the cultural expectations surrounding this deeply marginalized group that, essentially, is neither Jewish nor Christian.

Fogle's book opens in the thirteenth century when Henry III invested his energy in tempting Jews away from Judaism by erecting a complex, known as the Domus Conversorum [House of the Converted]. This Domus provided the converts with a new place to live and a new place to worship (see Figures 7.1, 7.2, and 7.3 on pages 170-171). Many converts remained there for the duration of their lives; some returned to the Domus when they could not successfully become accepted into the Christian world outside the Domus's walls, and still a few others left the Domus and did not return. Henry III saw to it that the Domus was equipped with chaplains and wardens to encourage the converts to continue redirecting their religious energies (21). With the likely aim of providing his Jewish converts the opportunity to serve in his government, Henry III also offered the more promising converts the opportunity to serve as chaplains in the Domus; in the case of John de Sancto Dionisio, this position of chaplain was even elevated to an archdeaconship commission (208 n.8).

In the introduction Fogle tells her readers that she commits herself to studying the "overall understanding of Jewish converts in medieval England," which she rightly describes as "an area of study that, though not completely uncharted, has not been the main focus of large-scale research" (xiv). Chapters 1 and 2 open the book by discussing conversion in twelfth- and thirteenth-century England, respectively. These chapters introduce harrowing stories about the outcome of the early obsession with converting Jews. Injustices followed upon this obsession. While baptism was held up "as an alternative to exile, imprisonment, or even execution" (41), the result of forced conversion was often calamitous, such as when Yomtob of Joigny encouraged his fellow Jews to practice Kiddush ha-Shem in 1190 rather than accept baptism (11-16) and when "a Jewish boy was forcibly converted against his will and that of his parents" (41). In fact, when asked by the parents "to annul the baptism," the king "refused" (52 n.130). Chapter 3 provides information that, while perhaps less heart wrenching, remains equally disturbing. I speak of the allegedly successful lives of converts who worked in service to the monarchs. For one family, in particular, working in the kings' service as messengers/escorts and sergeant at arms extended through at least three generations from Roger (fl. 1256-1272) to John (fl. 1267-1308) and then to Ralph (fl. 1301-1320) (58-62). The population, it is important to note, of these converts who worked for the monarchy extends at least into the fourteenth-century sovereignty of Edward III, as Appendix 2 reminds us. In 1339, for instance, the convert John de Sancto Paulo served as warden while also acting as Keeper of the Great Seal (207, 208 n.16). In chapter 4 Fogle provides evidence that the Domus was partly sustained by Jews. As a case in point, Henry III exacted a commitment from David of Oxford (d. 1244) that upon his death, his house, which brought in "a yearly income of four marks" (90), and other "household objects" would be given to the converts (96). [3] Continuing the policy of having the English Jews support the Domus, Edward I added insult to injury when in 1280, he instituted a "new tax...on the Jewish population to support the converts in London" (99).

More troubling stories unfold in chapter 5--a chapter that also follows the search for new ways to support the Domus. Fogle does not look into a reason for the inhabitants of the Domus's continued complaint "that they had not received their allowances for eight years, dating back to 1297" (113). I, however, have my suspicions that the notions of the so-called "maintenance" of the Domus was probably not equally distributed among "the warden of the house," the "two chaplains," "one clerk of the church" (112), and the Jewish converts. However, Geoffrey Chaucer's king, Edward III, did try to fix matters and "ordered an audit on the account of the warden William de Ayremynne" (115). [4] Chapter 6 returns to a pattern of telling the detailed lives of the converts as was first begun in chapters 1 and 2. For instance, one of these stories about Claricia of Exeter reveals the racialized indelibility of Jewish identity (138). [5] Claricia of Exeter is only one among many converts from the thirteenth century, but I have long wondered why the daughter of Jacob Copin would first convert and then seek sanctuary in the Domus Conversorum. After Claricia resided in the Domus for a bit, she left to marry a Christian man outside its perimeters. After his death she confronted the tenuousness of the social position of the once-Jew: finding herself unable to live long in the world outside the once-Jews' sanctuary (the Domus), Claricia returned there, where she lived out the remainder of her life. Fogle also tells us that in 1335-1336 one of Claricia of Exeter's children, Richard, apparently arranged privileges for his sister, Katherine, to dwell in the Domusand to be granted "an allowance from the king" (143). Fogle leaves this intriguing episode with only the remark that Richard's arrangement for his sister was made "despite the fact that Katherine was not a convert" (143). I suspect that there is a hidden mystery about Katherine's identity and wonder: was Katherine Richard's elder sister? Was Katherine born out of wedlock? Had Katherine expressed an attraction to or interest in Judaism? Or, even worse for an intensely normative--and anti-Jewish--world, was Katherine a woman who drew too much on her mother's previous identity and looked "too Jewish," and was, therefore, marked as too racially different? Why did Richard arrange for Katherine to live in the Domus? These are likely unanswerable questions, yet further digging--and theorizing--were outside Fogle's project. Other tantalizingly mysterious narratives include Susanna's who came to the Domus in 1245 and was listed as "'conversa'" because she was married to a once-Jew (142); John de Sancto Maria's who arrived from Spain in 1368 and sought both sanctuary in the Domus and financial support from Chaucer's monarch, Edward III (145); and Elizabeth, a daughter of one Rabbi Moses who is granted admittance to the Domus in 1400-1401 along with financial support in "a royal letter under the great seal" (146).

Chapter 7 closes The King's Converts by returning readers to issues regarding the "buildings and administration" of the Domus. By the fifteenth century, the Domus had begun to transform into its modern life and had become a repository for public records. In fact, some of the space of the chapel began to double as "the storage place for the records of the chancery" (169). Over time, the home of the once-Jews became in the fifteenth century what Londoners "would have known the Domus as the Rolls Chapel only, just as New Street had become Chancery Lane" (181). The National Archives on Chancery Lane, once a sanctuary for medieval Jewish converts, is now--in an incredibly ironic twist of fate--the site where the records of those same once-Jews are now stored safely as the current resting place of their memories. To continue the irony of this situation, many pages of Fogle's The King's Converts rely on those same records from the Chancery Lane National Archives to tell the stories of the once-Jews.

Over the course of reading the seven chapters of Fogle's book, I was taken by repeated evidence that her title, The King's Converts, was and is ultimately a perfect one: beginning with Henry III's desire to convert Jews, the Domus continued to be supported by the monarchs who followed him.Perhaps, Edward I established this precedent by continuing Henry III's monarchical support of the Domus (175-176). Either way, the monarchs who followed Edward I allotted money for the support of the Domus and tried to provide those converts with housing, bedding, food, clothes, and allowances if converted Jews committed to living in a Christian house and presumably attending services in the attached chapel.

There are some unfortunate flaws with this book, though. Most glaring among these gaffs is an absurdly short index (two pages), so I advise taking careful notes when reading because the lack of a viable index makes (re)finding things quite tedious and time consuming. There is also spotty sentence-level editing, as well as an instance or two where entries are twice repeated, and an appendix that Fogle alludes to as "Appendix C" was published as "Appendix 2." These faults aside, the notes that end each chapter provide ample--and sometimes even quite detailed--evidence of the discoveries Fogle makes. Overall, Fogle's research appears to be correctly documented as I have traced down--and found--a few of Fogle's claims.

I wish to close by noting that there is much to learn in the pages of Fogle's The King's Converts, and I recommend all readers interested in the world of twelfth- to fifteenth-century England to overlook the book's flaws and open its pages. I found much to learn in reading Fogle's discoveries in such repositories as the National Archives and the London Record Office about the records and deeds of the Close Rolls, the Patent Rolls, and the Charter Rolls. Scholars excited by the topic of identity, race studies, and Jewish studies, will find themselves particularly keen to read about the racializing of marginalized and converted Jews in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. For those who are looking for a project, there is also much still to develop about the story of how theDomus seamlessly became a half-way house for French and Spanish Jewish converts in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In all, The King's Converts definitely warrants purchasing for one's own private shelves and also for one's high school, college, or university libraries.



1. Robert C. Stacey, "The Conversion of Jews to Christianity in Thirteenth-Century England," Speculum, 67 (Apr. 1992): 263-283; Michael Adler, Jews in Medieval England(London: Jewish Historical Society of England, 1939).

2. See Robin R. Mundill, England's Jewish Solution: Experiment and Expulsion, 1262-1290 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), esp. 291-293, 249-285.

3. I suspect that David owed Henry III a debt for supporting David's divorce from Muriel (a divorce that was not condoned by the Beit-Din or Jewish court). On this subject see Charlotte Newman Goldy, "Muriel, A Jew of Oxford: Using the Dramatic to Understand the Mundane in Anglo-Norman Towns," Writing Medieval Women's Lives, eds. Goldy and Amy Livingstone (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 227-229.

4. Appendix 2 notes that William de Arymynne (d. 1336) was warden in 1316. In 1325 William resigned the post and became Bishop of Norwich (208, n13).

5. Stacey's article first introduced me to Claricia of Exeter: see his "The Conversion of the Jews," 274, 278.​