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Encyclopaedia Judaica

Jews in England 01: Middle Ages

Jews coming with William the Conqueror 1066 - tolerance - accusations - crusade fanaticism - pogroms - discrimination after the third Lateran Council 1215: badge and taxes - expulsion 1290

from: England; In: Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 6

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)

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The British Isles were unknown to the Jews until a late date, and the settlement of the Jews in medieval England was among the latest in Europe. It is possible that a small nucleus was to be found there under the Romans and that in the Saxon period, isolated Jews extended their commercial activities as far as the British Isles. But the slender evidence formerly adduced in support of this (e.g., the references in the Liber Poenitentialis ascribed to Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, 669) has no validity.

[since 1066: Jews in England since William the Conqueror - Jewish financiers - locations - tolerant time under Rufus and Henry I]

The Medieval Period.

Jews were settled in some numbers in the continental possessions of William the Conqueror. With the Norman Conquest in 1066, it was inevitable that some should follow him to England, even if (as sometimes reported) he did not specifically invite them. The new community thus had a comparatively artificial origin, and possessed a remarkable homogeneity, being composed almost entirely of financiers and their dependents. It may thus be regarded as a type of late medieval Jewry in composition and in occupation as well as in its close subjection to royal control.

The community originated in the main in northern France, of which it was to some extent a cultural, linguistic and economic offshoot. A minority came from Germany, Italy, and Spain, while one or two came even from Russia and the Muslim countries.

By the mid-12th century, communities were to be found in most of the greater cities of the country, in *Lincoln, *Winchester, *York, *Oxford, *Norwich, and *Bristol. However, the *London community was always the most important. Until 1177 the only cemetery allowed was in London. No communities were found west of *Exeter or north of York. The Jews were treated tolerantly by the Norman monarchs. William Rufus (1087-1100) is even said to have encouraged them to enter into disputations with Christian clerics. Under Henry I (1100-1135), an exemplary charter of liberties, the text of which is no longer preserved, was probably granted to the Jews.

[Bad accusations destroy the tolerance - fines and blood libel cases]

In the course of the 12th century, anti-Jewish feeling began to manifest itself. In 1130 the Jews of London were fined the then enormous sum of £2,000 on the charge that one of their number had killed a sick man. The first recorded *blood libel took place at Norwich in 1144 and was imitated at *Gloucester in 1168, before the precedent came to be followed outside England.

Similar accusations were made before the end of the century at *Bury St. Edmunds (1181), Bristol (before 1183), and Winchester (1192). Nevertheless, the community grew in wealth and numbers, and its financial importance became increasingly recognized and exploited by the Crown.

[Henry II: Jewish taxes]

In 1168 a tallage (an arbitrary tax, theoretically levied only in emergency) of 5,000 marks (a mark was two-thirds of a £) was imposed by Henry II. In 1188 a tax of one-fourth of the value of their (col. 747)

movable property was levied upon London Jewry. The amount raised, according to the rough contemporary estimate, was £60,000, as against only £70,000 raised from the general population. The annual revenue obtained by the state from the Jews is conjectured to have averaged at this time £3,000.

[Jewish financier Aaron of Lincoln]

*Aaron of Lincoln (c. 1125-1186) was the greatest English capitalist of his day. His financial aid made possible the completion of several English monasteries and abbeys, besides secular buildings. On his death, his property and credits were claimed by the Exchequer, where a special department was set up to deal with them.

Map of English Jewish communities in
              the Middle Ages
Map of English Jewish communities in the Middle Ages (from: England; In: Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971, vol. 6, col. 749-750)

Jewish communities in the Middle Ages are in: Exeter, Wilton, Winchester, Canterbury, Devizes, Marlborough, Calne, Wallingford, Berkhamsted, Oxford, Gloucester, Colchester, Sudbury, Ipswich, Cambridge, Bedford, Northampton, Warwick, Worcester, Hereford, Weobley, Coventry, Huntington, Leicester, Stamford, King's Lynn, Norwich, Lincoln, and York

[September 1189-1190: Crusade fanaticism as a spiritual poison against Jews under Richard I - pogroms and massacres - conversions - suicides]

The period of relative tranquility ended with the spread of crusading enthusiasm under Richard I. At his coronation, a riot began at the doors of Westminster Hall, which ended in the sack of London's Jewry and the murder of many of its inhabitants (September 1189). The example spread throughout the country in the following spring. The leaders were in many cases members of the lesser baronage whose religious ardor was heightened by their financial indebtedness to the Jews.

At Dunstable, the handful of Jews saved themselves by accepting Christianity. At Lynn (later *King's Lynn), foreign sailors exterminated the entire little community. At *Stamford and Norwich, all who did not take refuge in the royal castle perished. The most tragic episode occurred in York. There, the community, headed by R. *Yom-Tov b. Isaac of Joigny, escaped massacre by voluntary death (March 16-17, 1190).

[Debt relief - losses for the state - "Ordinance of the Jewry" of 1194 - financial institutions founded]

These outrages had been accompanied everywhere by the burning of the deeds of debts due to the Jews. The Crown, which derived much revenue from the profits of the moneylenders, thus suffered considerable loss. Accordingly, after his return from captivity (to supply ransom the Jews of the country had been made to contribute three times as much as the citizens of London) Richard, by his "Ordinance of the Jewry" (1194), ordered the establishment of an *archa or chirograph chest in principal cities, under the charge of Jewish and Christian "chirographers", in which duplicate records of all debts contracted with the Jews were to be deposited. Thus, whatever disorders might occur, the Crown's dues were henceforth secure.

As coordinating authority over these provincial centers, ultimately some 26 in number, there came into being the Scaccarium Judaeorum or "*Exchequer of the Jews" - an institution with both judicial and financial functions. Closely connected with it was the office of Presbyter Judaeorum or *archpresbyter - not a chief rabbi, as once believed, but official representative and expert on Jewish matters appointed by the Crown.

Of the occupants of this post, the names of Jacob of London (appointed 1199), Josce (1207), *Aaron (fil' (i.e., son of) Josce) of York (1236), *Elias le Eveske (1243), Hagin (Hayyim) fil' Moses of Lincoln (1258) and Cok Hagin fil' Deulecresse (1281) are known. In the Exchequer, the Jews of England had an organization acting in the royal interest equaled in no other European country. Its records, preserved in unparalleled completeness, yield minute information as to their condition.

[1201: charter of liberties - since 1210: high tax - Christian barons organize new pogroms - anti-Jewish clause in the Magna Carta when people are dying in their debts]

The English communities never fully recovered from the blow they received at the time of the accession of Richard I. John indeed favored them at first and in 1201 confirmed their charter of liberties. However, later in his reign he began to squeeze money out of them by a succession of desperate expedients culminating in 1210 in the harshly-ex-acted Bristol Tallage of 60,000 or 66,000 marks (though this figure may have been used merely to describe a vast sum) which reduced them to the verge of ruin.

Nevertheless, the barons viewed the Jews with aversion, as instruments of royal oppression; in the course of armed baronial resistance to the Crown, the Jewry of London was sacked. A clause in the Magna Carta (omitted in subsequent reconfirmations) (col. 748)

restricted the claims of Jewish creditors against the estates of landowners who had died in their debt.

[since 1222 under Henry III: Council of Oxford with anti-Jewish legislation of the Lateran Council of 1215 - badge, taxes etc.]

During the minority of Henry III, the Jews recovered some degree of prosperity. This was, however, counterbalanced by the introduction of the Council of Oxford (1222) of the discriminatory legislation of the Fourth *Lateran Council of 1215, which was enforced in England earlier and more consistently than in any other part of Europe. The most important of these provisions was the wearing of the Jewish *Badge which here took the form of the two tables of stone.

From the beginning of the personal rule of Henry III in 1232, the condition of the Jews rapidly deteriorated. Tallage succeeded tallage with disastrous regularity. A "Parliament of Jews", consisting of six representatives from each of the major communities and two from the smaller centers, was (col. 749)

held at *Worcester in 1241 in order to apportion one such levy. When nothing further could be extorted from the Jews directly, Henry exercised his rights as suzerain by mortgaging them to his brother, Richard of Cornwall. They were subsequently made over the Edward, the heir to the throne, who in turn consigned them to their competitors, the Cahorsins. The Crown, however, resumed its rights before the expiration of the period.

[Measures of the "Christian" church against Jews - Baron's Wars with pogroms against all Jewish communities]

Meanwhile, ecclesiastical enactments against the Jews were enforced with unprecedented severity. A new synagogue built at London was confiscated on a frivolous pretext (1232). There was a whole series of ritual murder accusations, culminating in the classical case of Hugh of *Lincoln in 1255. In 1253 a decree was issued forbidding the Jews to live henceforward except in towns with established communities.

With the outbreak of the Barons' Wars in (col. 750)

1263, the Jews found themselves exposed to the animosity of the insurgents who regarded them as the instruments of royal oppression. From 1263 to 1266, one Jewish community after another was sacked, with considerable loss of life, including those of London (which suffered twice, in 1263 and 1264), *Cambridge, *Canterbury, Worcester, and Lincoln.

The Expulsion.

[since 1272: Edward I: impoverished Jewry - foreign bankers overtake the finance positions - 1275: Statutum de Judaismo against usury - limited merchant permissions - further usury - imprisonments and death penalties in 1278]

On his accession in 1272, Edward I found the Jews so impoverished that their importance to the treasury had become negligible. Moreover, foreign bankers who enjoyed a higher patronage had begun to render the services for which the Jews had formerly been indispensable. By the Statutum de Judaismo of 1275, the king endeavored to effect a radical change in the occupations and mode of life of his Jewish subjects. The practice of usury was forbidden. On the other hand, they were empowered to engage in commerce and (for an experimental period) to rent farms on short leases. They were not, however, permitted to enter the Gild Merchant, without which the privilege to engage in trade was virtually useless; nor were they given the security of tenure necessary for agricultural pursuits.

The Statutum failed in its purpose. A few of the wealthier began to trade in wool and corn (though this was in many cases a mask for moneylending) but others continued to carry on clandestinely the petty usury now prohibited by law; while some eked out a living from their capital by clipping the coinage. This led in 1278 to widespread arrests and hangings, in may cases on the flimsiest pretexts.

[18 July 1290: Expulsion decree for the expulsion at the 1 November 1290 - migration to France, Flanders, and Germany - Domus Conversorum with foreigners and adventurers]

Edward may have contemplated a relaxation of the situation by permitting a resumption of usury but for a variety of economic and political reasons, and from sheer rapacity, he finally decided to resolve the problem drastically. On July 18, 1290, he issued an edict for the banishment of the Jews from England - the first of the great general expulsions of the Middle Ages - by All Saints' Day (November 1). Most of the refugees made their way to France, Flanders, and Germany.

The English Jews of the Middle Ages perhaps numbered fewer than 4,000, though contemporary chroniclers put the figure far higher. They formed, intellectually as well as politically, an offshoot of the neighboring Franco-German center, even speaking French among themselves. Their interests were accordingly halakhic rather than literary, though no name of the first importance figures among them.

Outstanding scholars included *Jacob b. Judah of London, author of the ritual compendium Ez Hayyim; the grammarian *Benjamin of Cambridge; Isaac b. Perez of Northampton; *Moses b. Hanassia of London who wrote the grammatical work Sefer ha-Shoham; *Meir of Norwich, a liturgical poet; *Moses b. Yom-Tov of London, halakhist (col. 751)

and grammarian; and his sons *Benedict of Lincoln (Berechiah of Nicole) and *Elijah Menahem of London, physician, scholar, and financier, the greatest luminary of medieval English Jewry.

Their expulsion in 1290 cleared England of the Jews more completely than was the case in any other European country. the *Domus Conversorum founded by Henry III in London in 1232 continued indeed to function until the beginning of the 17th century, but ultimately its few inmates were in every case foreigners. The only professing Jews known to have come to the country were half a dozen individuals in 1310 (perhaps to negotiate conditions for readmission), one or two physicians who were invited professionally, and occasional wandering adventurers.> (col. 752)

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Encyclopaedia Judaica: Jews in England,
                          vol.6, col. 747-748
Encyclopaedia Judaica: Jews in England, vol.6, col. 747-748
Encyclopaedia Judaica: Jews in England,
                          vol.6, col. 749-750
Encyclopaedia Judaica: Jews in England, vol.6, col. 749-750
Encyclopaedia Judaica: Jews in England,
                          vol.6, col. 751-752
Encyclopaedia Judaica: Jews in England, vol.6, col. 751-752