It is something of a cliché within the discipline of medieval Anglo-Jewish scholarship to say that the Jews of medieval England are the best documented of medieval Ashkenazic communities. To an extent this is true, certainly the plethora of Latin source material which was produced in relation to the Jews means that they are disproportionately represented in the English source material, but in reality this is just a half-truth. That is to say, the Latin source material was largely produced by and for the government of the day to regulate the Jews of medieval England, while remarkably few Hebrew writings survive from this period. This disparity of evidence has been translated through the historiography, with a heavy emphasis being placed on the Latin source material while the Hebrew evidence has remained in the shadows. However, I have a feeling that a decade or two from now, when a historiographical survey of recent literature on Hebrew literature produced in medieval England is being conducted, this essay by Pinchas Roth and Ethan Zadoff will be viewed as a turning point. Indeed, this process of rescuing the Hebrew literature from obscurity has already begun, and while I am unaware of anything else produced by Zadoff (in fairness that could be due to my own ineptitude, given that I am one of those culpable of focusing on the Latin source material), Roth is doing some very exciting work on the English Jewish community – he has already produced one article on the subject (Roth: 2014) and has a couple more awaiting publication.
This article is divided into two sections, the first part being written by Zadoff and the second by Roth. At its heart is an exploration of the writings of Elias Menahem, something which is successful in its own right and is enhanced when you consider this chapter in conjunction with Robin Mundill’s article which considered the presence of Menahem within the Latin source material (Mundill: 1994-1996) – it would be interesting to see some kind of symbiotic union between these two bodies of evidence to construct a proper biography of Menahem. For his part, Zadoff provides a coherent discussion of the emergence of an English Talmudic community after 1150 and outlines some of the key figures in that movement: both in inspiring it (like Benjamin of Cambridge) and perpetuating it (like the family of Moses of London). In addition, Zadoff provides a discussion of the Talmudic writings of Menahem of which there are two interesting features that are worth noting here. First, the extent to which he, and by extension England, was integrated into the wider Ashkenazic community in terms of intellectual culture. Second, Zadoff points out that some of Menahem’s writings were less concerned with framing instruction within the intellectual framework as would be traditional and more so in terms of outlining what the rules were leading Zadoff to conclude that these were intended for society in general (something which can also be seen in France and Germany as well during the thirteenth-century). One problem that I have with Zadoff’s contribution to this essay is that he touches on the fact that the writings of Maimonides seem to have resonated with intellectual writers in England but he fails to address what the implications of this may been for Anglo-Jewish life more generally – though admittedly this issue could probably fill a monograph.
In the second part of this paper, Roth provides a discussion of Halakhah or Jewish law (I have absolutely no idea how to decline this particular noun so shall stick with the latter to save offending anybody!). I think that Roth makes an interesting point at the start of his section by noting that historians have traditionally distinguished between Jewish law in Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities ((very) roughly north and south of the River Loire respectively at this point) but have been much slower to recognise internal differences. Moreover, while the major communities like France and Germany have now received comparative attention, those communities on the margins remain neglected. Roth demonstrates, through a discussion of two responsa produced by Menahem, that this perception of being different to those on mainland Europe based upon the language that he utilised which has biblical connotations. For me, the responsa which Roth provides in translation are incredibly exciting because they provide a glimpse into the social history of medieval Anglo-Jewry which can rarely be gleaned from the Latin material. From these is it clear that the intellectual Jewish community resident in medieval England enjoyed a much fuller national identity than might otherwise be expected. Leading on from this, Roth discusses the legacy of English Jewish law in post-Expulsion Europe, and highlights that particularly in Provence, English responsa continued to be drawn upon from the fourteenth-century, which he explains is a result of the fact that the Jews of Provence were also trying to maintain their own independent identity as the Jews of England had done. It is hardly surprising that this portion is just as convincing as the material presented on England given that Roth’s work has primarily been concerned with southern France (Roth: 2014) – though he handles the English evidence with the same dexterity.
Finally, if this is a topic that you are interested in then I can highly recommend a talk that Roth gave a couple of years ago now entitled ‘The Rabbinic Culture of Medieval England’, which provides a good general discussion, a link to which can be found on the ‘Links to Lectures, Podcasts and Blogs’ page. I recommend this not least because it is an excellent resource but also because this is a topic with which I have had only fleeting contact (primarily through Roth’s work) and intellectual history in particular isn’t my cup of tea.
Mundill, Robin R., ‘Rabbi Elias Menahem: a late-13th-century English entrepreneur’, Jewish Historical Studies, 34 (1994-1996), pp. 161-187.
Roth, Pinchas, ‘New Responsa by Isaac ben Peretz of Northampton’, Jewish Historical Studies, 46 (2014), pp. 1-17.
Roth, Pinchas, ‘Legal Strategy and Legal Culture in Medieval Jewish Courts of Southern France’, AJS Review, 38 (2014), pp. 375-393.