For many of those who pursue history at an academic level, the terms ‘popular history’ and ‘narrative history’ are viewed as abhorrently vulgar expletives. I must confess that I don’t have a problem with this type of historical writing and find these terms to be synonymous with ‘accessible history’ which I think can never be a bad thing. As with academic scholarship, I find that the results can range from the brilliant to the abysmal (and everything in between) and I would never dream of dismissing a piece of writing just because it did not conform to traditional academic standards. The perfect example of this kind of scholarship at its best, which relates to the medieval period, is undoubtedly produced by Dan Jones and for the last few evenings his Divided Realm has been my bedtime reading. Though it is not even remotely Jewish orientated, Jones touches on the Jews in several places and I thought it was worth providing a review of these sections relating to the Jews (rather than the book as a whole, given that mainstream history is really just a hobby for me. I did agonise over whether to include this review on the blog, given that it is, after all, aimed specifically at the Jews, and I do so because I am conscious that I’ve been reviewing some very academic Jewish orientated scholarship, much of which may be daunting to the layman / laywoman.
As regular readers will know, I’m willing to forgive a great deal in a text with a strong historiography section and which is properly referenced. However, in the case of popular history I think that the latter cancels out the need for the former. This is because real people (as opposed to academics – a distinction that was taught to me by the man who inspired this blog) often don’t care for historiographical debate but, in my opinion, expect the author to do the leg work in this department during the research stage and then present the argument which the author finds the most convincing. While Jones does this, his book is well referenced and I’m familiar enough with a number of his sources to know that Jones has really engaged with historiography so I do not begrudge him for being confident enough to assert his own opinions (certainly many academic historians are intimidated by that prospect). For me, in this book Jones does a wonderful thing that most historians forget: he remembers that 1215 was not just important for the Jews in terms of two chapters which were included in Magna Carta at Runneymede, but also that there were real term ramifications for them, as a result of the baronial occupation of London which saw many of their houses pillaged and their stone building blocks used to bolster the defences of London. While Jones doesn’t expand upon this (in fairness Joe Hillaby’s study of the London Jewry during the thirteenth-century did little more than this (1990-1992, p. 102)) the fact that Jones even bothered to say anything on the topic says something about the calibre of his scholarship. Moreover, Jones includes one of my favourite quotations attributed to a (imaginary) Jew from the chronicle of Richard of Devizes, where he draws on that Jew’s description of London which always makes me laugh, and for that alone I would be willing to write a positive review of this book.
One issue that I have with this text, is that at the beginning Jones notes that the Fourth Lateran Council issued ‘commands’ which included orders relating to Jewish clothing. While this is technically true, the emphatic ‘commands’ suggests that Lateran IV had the power to enforce the proclamations which it issued. However, this was simply not the case and it was up to individual territories to impose the reforms which were ordered – something that was good in theory but was problematic in practice. Moreover, in the case of England (which I know best), while it did become the first country to enforce the requirement for the wearing of the so-called tabula in 1218, in accordance with Lateran IV, it was possible to purchase individual and communal exemptions which makes it unlikely that Jews actually wore the badge until the Statute of the Jewry (1253) enforced this requirement (e.g. Hillaby: 2013, pp. 46-47).
Ultimately, I picked up this book to gain a brief respite from the trials and tribulations of academic writing, as well as to reminisce about the times when I could read as much popular history as I liked (in those days I could also have weekends, evenings and school holidays to myself – but such talk now seems apocryphal). However, for general readers of this blog in particular, I think that this book provides a really good introduction upon which to build, particularly as a social history. While this book doesn’t contain much in the way of Jewish scholarship, what little is there is good (and if I got a pound for every time that I said a book / article / chapter could do with more Jewish material, then I’d never have to worry about money again!). While I don’t have access to Jones’ Magna Carta book, I would suggest that that might have more in the way of Jewish material if he provides a discussion of Chapters 10 and 11 (it would be unfair of me to comment on these given that I’m currently working on these two chapters and have quite a controversial viewpoint about their content). I’m conscious that Dan Jones is perfectly capable of marketing his own books but I’ll go ahead and highly recommend this book. Also, I’m not sure if readers actually want reviews of this type (i.e. general / popular history which include material on the Jews) so if you could let me know if you have any thoughts on this (good, bad or ugly) then do let me know.
Hillaby, Joe, ‘London: the 13th-century Jewry revisited’, Jewish Historical Studies, 32 (1990-1992), pp. 89-158.
Hillaby, Joe and Caroline, The Palgrave Dictionary of Medieval Anglo-Jewish History (London, 2013).