Tuesday, 8 March 2016

[#2] Hannah Meyer, ‘Gender, Jewish Creditors, and Christian Debtors in Thirteenth-Century Exeter’ in Cordelia Beattie and Kirsten A. Fenton (eds.), Intersections of Gender, Religion and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages (Basingstoke, 2011), pp. 104-124.

Nota Bene: I will get this review properly referenced in the next few days but wanted to get it uploaded today in order to mark International Women's Day.

While the role of the medieval Anglo-Jewess in medieval society was first considered by Michael Adler (1939), it was not until R. B. Dobson shone light on the topic once more, during the 1990s, that interest in Jewish women in medieval England began to take off. Despite the pioneering work of Dobson, and subsequently Suzanne Bartlet (Bartlet: 2000, 2003, 2009), it was not until Hannah Meyer completed her PhD research that the role of the medieval Anglo-Jewess, that the position of Jewish women in medieval England truly began to be understood. In section one of her thesis, Meyer used an empirical analysis of the evidence relating to the Jewish communities of Exeter, Norwich and York, and the chapter being reviewed here effectively summarises her conclusions on the Exeter Jewry. A theme of this chapter, which is enunciated much more clearly in her thesis, is the argument that Professor Jordan’s conclusions about gendered moneylending practices in thirteenth-century Picardy (namely that women tended to lend small amounts to other women and that men conducted the main business) should not, and cannot, be applied by historians as representative of European lending practices as a whole (Jordan: 1978). While I have a number of problems with this chapter, which I outline below, Meyer nevertheless makes a convincing case that gender did not really impact upon Jewish moneylending practices in thirteenth-century Exeter. She does this in several key ways. In terms of creditors, Meyer demonstrates that Jewish males and females loaned money to Christians at all levels (from small to large loans) thus suggesting that there was no gendered aspect to Jewish moneylending in thirteenth-century Exeter. From the point of view of the debtors, Meyer further highlights that familial connections and historical relationships played a much stronger role in moneylending practices than gender did. Moreover, Meyer demonstrates that this was not just an urban phenomenon but was also representative of rural borrowers as well and also that this was true at all social levels thus demonstrating a much more nuanced understanding of Jewish moneylending that the monochrome, and reductionist, division between ‘men’ and ‘women’.

                That being said, I do have some fundamental problems with specific apects of Meyer’s piece. First, and foremost, is the argument which she first advanced in her PhD thesis, that the Expulsion merely accelerated a process which was already underway. That is to say, Meyer contests that as a result of the heavy taxation and anti-Jewish legislation which was passed in the decades prior to the Expulsion, many Jews had already left England and so, when it came, the Edict of Expulsion merely ensured that the Jews as a whole left England. I have two major problems with this argument.  First, I agree with Robin Mundill’s conclusion that medieval Anglo-Jewry was showing signs of economic recovery by 1290 (Mundill: 2000) and as such can see no reason to suggest that the decline in the Jewish population would have continued after 1290. Second, Meyer fails to substantiate the argument that the decline of the Anglo-Jewish population came about as a result of emigration rather than other internal factors and internal movement (something which she also fails to address in her PhD thesis). Another facet of Meyer’s argument on this point is her suggestion that the reason that Jewish women became more prominent in the business records after 1275 was as a result of the fact that the Jewish men emigrated to start the process of relocating with the intention of the women joining them subsequently. This argument seems to suggest that Jewish women were thus filling the vacuum in business which their husband’s had left. However, as the work of historians like Michael Adler, R. B. Dobson, Suzanne Bartlet, Victoria Hoyle and Meyer herself have all demonstrated, Jewish women in medieval England were not merely passive observers but could play as active a role in business as their male brethren. My final problem with this chapter, or rather the final one that I am going to spell out here, is Meyer’s willingness to accept that in 1290 there was only one Jewish property, still owned by a Jew, in Exeter. This seems to me to be unlikely as it would suggest a much more rapid decline in the Exeter Jewry than can be accounted for, even if you do not question all the points that I have challenged above, and as such I think that it is much more likely that those responsible for recording the Jewish properties in Exeter merely omitted the other Jewish properties so that they could claim the profits for themselves – certainly we know that Hugh of Kendal did this more generally.

                Having said all of that, the issues which I raise are of a historiographical nature and naturally are subject to individual interpretations. It is therefore important to note that I do not take any issue with the fundamental arguments which Meyer advances about the gendered characteristics of Jewish moneylending in thirteenth-century Exeter. Therefore, this chapter is important reading for anybody interested in the role of gender in the Jewish communities of medieval England, particularly for those who do not have access to Meyer’s unpublished PhD thesis (which I would also highly recommend).

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