Thursday, 21 April 2016

[#17] Cecil Roth, ‘Portraits and Caricatures of Medieval English Jews’ in Cecil Roth, Essays and Portraits in Anglo-Jewish History (Philadelphia, 1962), pp. 22-25.

During my second year as an undergraduate (on a modern history course) I went on a trip to The National Archives, Kew. That was my first time in an archive and I was still finding my feet as far as research was concerned, so I thought that I would order up some of the documents containing caricatures of medieval Jews. I must confess that this was of the most rewarding archival experiences that I’ve ever had (and I have frequented a number, including The National Archives, since). I shall never forget my astonishment as the archivist opened the archival box which now contains the 1233 tallage roll (now unrolled) to reveal the caricature of Isaac of Norwich and others at the top (TNA E/401/1565). Indeed, my surprise was made inexplicable because I’d seen the image hundreds of times reprinted in literature and duplicated – it was just something about seeing the document in the flesh. I’ve grown a lot since that visit but two things remain the same. First, I am always like a child in a sweet shop when I first visit a new archive: I look forward to going from the moment that I start planning the trip and I don’t know what to order up first when I get there. Second, I make it a point to always look up at least one caricature when I’m in the TNA.

            In this very brief article Cecil Roth provides a brief survey of some of the caricatures of Jews. I get the impression, reading the piece, that Roth chose to write this piece in order to show off the fact that he himself owned a manuscript containing a caricature of a Jew named Hake (now the Roth-Hake Manuscript, University of Leeds). In its day, this essay was important because it shone light on caricatures which were not well known (as well as those which were best known) but, as with much of Roth’s scholarship this has now been superseded – in this case by the discussions of the caricatures which have subsequently been produced by Zefira Entin Rokeah (1972) and Joe Hillaby. This is not least because, in this essay, Roth didn’t make any kind of concerted effort to analyse the caricatures to which he referred. That being said, the child in me, which often struggles (successfully) against the academic in me, still grins at the thought that I’ve actually viewed some of the same manuscripts as the great Cecil Roth and the paper is evidence of that fact. However, while I hesitate to rain on my own parade, I would suggest that this essay is of more interest as a brief, easy, summary to the better known caricatures rather than an analysis of them.

Work Cited:

TNA E/401/1565 (1233 tallage roll – Isaac of Norwich).

Hillaby, Joe and Caroline, The Palgrave Dictionary of Medieval Anglo-Jewish History (London, 2013), pp. 86-87.


Rokeah, Zefira Entin, ‘Drawings of Jewish Interst in Some Thirteenth-Century English Public Records’, Scriptorium, 26 (1972), pp. 55-62.

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