*Nota bene: If you purchase a subscription to the Jewish Historical Society of England (which is very reasonably priced, and goes towards a good cause) then you get access to this, and all other articles that have been published in the Society’s journals. For full details see of how to become a member of the JHSE see: https://jhse.org/product-category/membership/.
I agonised at length about whether I should write and upload this review because while I find the piece itself to be problematic, I have a great deal of time and respect for the historian who wrote it. However, I now know that Dr Mell has the capacity to defend herself if she so wishes so I feel more comfortable about throwing my thoughts out there. I should also stress, as there seems to have been some confusion in the messages I’ve received, that my expression of a different historiographical position is not an attack on the research contained within the piece under review – that’s particularly important to remember in the case of this article which I most certainly differ with. Trust me, I’m a man with all the subtlety and tact of a sledge hammer and when we get to a piece of literature which I think is built upon poor research foundations, you will have absolutely no problems discerning it, not least because as far as I am concerned shoddy research is unforgivable and should, correspondingly, be condemned to Tartarus for all eternity!
In this article Mell attempts to argue that the Jews of medieval England were not on par with serfs in terms of their status as has traditionally been argued by historians (for whatever reason) but were much more akin to freemen (e.g. Watt: 1991). As I’ve already suggested, I find this to be a highly problematic piece. That being said, there are aspects of this article that I really like and are features of my own approach to the discipline – for example, not differentiating between context of Christians and Jews on the basis of their differing religions. For me, this is one of the great strengths of this article and particularly in her analysis of the administration of the Worcester tallage (1241) and the way in which common law was integrated into the Exchequer of the Jews. However, unlike Mell, I don’t find these features especially surprising facet of Anglo-Jewish life given that England had an incredibly sophisticated bureaucracy and it makes sense that the Jews would be fitted into these structures. To focus specifically upon the case of the common law (though I have strong opinions on all aspects of the article, but I leave those points to you, dear reader), I think that Mell would need to address two key points before I could even come close to agreeing with her on this argument. First, the Exchequer of the Jews was established, and given authority, by the king so presumably, the king could make an exception in favour of ‘his’ Jews so as to more effectively regulate them. Second, and more important, I’m not convinced that the use of the common law in the court of the Exchequer of the Jews was intended for the Jews, due to the fact that it seems to me that many internal Jewish disputes were probably resolved in the bet din, and as such it was only in a setting where cases involving Christians (i.e. freemen / freewomen) where the common law was applied (and it would have been a very messy affair for two different legal standards to be applied there. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a legal historian by any stretch of the imagination, and the only thing I’ve really read on the subject of the common law is the work of Professor Brand (1992), but these seem like glaring issues which require resolution.
However, while I don’t agree with the conclusion that the Jews I still really like this article. It’s written with style and panache and I would much rather a historian consider the evidence and draw their own conclusions, rather than a historian who timidly puts forward an argument like a puppy seeking approval. Moreover, I have absolutely no problems with challenging traditional approaches to topics – again I would rather read that than somebody regurgitating the same old arguments. Finally, and most significantly, this was an article which really made me think. Don’t get me wrong, I love an material which is an easy read, that I can read on the train into university, where I nod and smile politely, but this is the type of literature that I love. Not only does it force the reader to either agree or disagree with the authors stance but it is also such a brilliantly written that you can’t just say ‘I disagree with that’ – you really have to work at a counter-argument. Thus, despite all of the problems that I have with it, I would still much rather read this article than much of the sycophantic material which is produced by historians who are two worried about what other historians will think of their work to come up with their own arguments.
Brand, Paul, The Making of the Common Law (London, 1992).
Watt, J. A., ‘The Jews, the Law, and the Church: The Concept of Jewish Serfdom in Thirteenth-Century England’, in Diana Wood (ed.), Studies in Church and Sovereignty c. 590-1918: Essays in Honour of Michael Wilks (Oxford, 1991), pp. 153-172.