It is conventional (or at least it is in the part of the world that I’m from) to complain profusely about ones A-Level texts, yet I was lucky in having two texts by Dr Richard Huscroft: Ruling England 1042-1217 (2005) and Expulsion: England’s Jewish Solution which have heavily influenced my life as a history student – both in terms of becoming a medievalist and somebody who spends far too much time thinking about medieval Jews. Certainly, it is impossible not to trace, what some have labelled as, my ‘obsession’ with medieval Jews back to this book. I should point out that that does not mean that I do not complain profusely about this book at times – more specifically at times when I’m neck deep in taxation records or when somebody asks me what my work-life balance is like and I have to ask what that is – but on the whole this is the book, which shaped my academic interests and made it impossible for me to do anything history related without thinking about the connotations for Jewish history. That is not to say that I was inevitably going to pursue the history of medieval Anglo-Jewry as tenaciously as it turns out that I have. On the contrary, when I first came across this book in January 2011 as part of my A-Level course, I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to work on the topic of Jews in medieval England. In contrast, when I found myself doing the same course twelve-months later, I fell in love with the study of the Jews of medieval England – so admittedly not love at first sight, but better late than never and it has turned out to be my longest and most successful relationship!
Huscroft’s book, Expulsion, is a synthesis of previous work which draws heavily on the publications of academics like Cecil Roth, H. G. Richardson, Vivian D. Lipman, R. B. Dobson, Joe Hillaby, Robert C. Stacey and Robin Mundill – scholars who I recently labelled under the collective category of ‘a vanguard of exceptional historians’ who have ‘spearheaded’ the development of medieval Anglo-Jewish scholarship (Irwin: 2015, p. 248). While this book does not provide any ground-breaking research in its own right, I do not think that that makes it any less significant given that it was the first chronological survey of the subject to be produced since Paul Hyams’ article on the subject in 1974. Moreover, in providing a coherent narrative, which a feature of Huscroft’s work more generally, this book also transforms an incredibly complex series of events over a period of more than two centuries comprehensible to the layman or laywoman. In order to do this, Huscroft adopts the model which was utilised by Roth in dividing his book into periods: the Anglo-Norman period; the Angevin period; the Jews under Henry III; the Jews under Edward I; and a final chapter which discusses the Expulsion. There is also a chapter inserted into the middle of this book which considers ‘Jewish life and lending’ and this, for me, is the least successful chapter in the book which I think reflects the fact that Huscroft is, first and foremost, and a legal and political historian. This is reflected in the other chapters but is to their credit and is what I feel makes this book such a success. I also suspect that Huscroft is one of the few mainstream historians who could write this kind of book on Jewish history given that his (brilliant PhD) research into Robert Burnell would have made him confront issues of Jewish history in a way which would not usually be the case for mainstream historians (Huscroft: 2001).
That being said, I have a number of problems with this book which are more to do with my own approach to the study of medieval Anglo-Jewry than anything to do with Huscroft’s approach (though looking back at my notes from the first couple of times that I read this book, it was only after I’d given a serious amount of consideration to the history of medieval Anglo-Jewry that I began to have these problems). First and foremost, at many points this book reads more like a history of the London Jewry than medieval Anglo-Jewry as a whole – given that two detailed (and, for me, highly problematic) articles have been produced which consider the London Jewry by Joes Hillaby, this would seem to offer opportunities for Huscroft to go beyond the London focused narrative (Hillaby: 1990-1992, 1992-1994). However, from the point-of-view of a political history of medieval Anglo-Jewry this is an inevitable trend. Secondly, in his use of primary source material, Huscroft uses a range of chroniclers but I would have liked some more reliance on the governmental material – though again this is a personal perspective and there are very valid reasons for Huscroft’s methodology. In addition, Robert Stacey long promised history of the Jews in medieval England will hopefully redress this imbalance – when, and if, it appears.
Ultimately, despite my issues with this book, it inhabits a place in my top three favourite texts on the history of medieval Anglo-Jewry ever written – the other two being Roth’s The Jews of Medieval Oxford (1945-1946) and Mundill’s The King’s Jews: Money, Massacre and Exodus (2010) – and has impacted upon my academic career more than I could ever acknowledge. This book is also consistently the book which I recommend to anybody interested in learning more about this history of the Jews in medieval England (along with Mundill’s books). I do that again here in recommending, dear reader, that if you only go off and read one of the texts which I consider on this blog then make it this one, I assure you that you won’t regret it and you never know, maybe you to will fall in love with this understudied topic (or maybe like me you’ll take some convincing!). Finally, you can listen to a talk that Huscroft gave at the Tower of London a few of years back, which I was lucky enough to be in attendance at, via the ‘Links to Lectures, Podcasts and Blogs’ page.
Hillaby, Joe, ‘London: the 13th-century Jewry revisited’, Jewish Historical Studies, 32 (1990-1992), pp. 89-158.
Hillaby, Joe, ‘The London Jewry: William I to John’, Jewish Historical Studies, 33 (1992-1994), pp. 1-44.
Huscroft, Richard, ‘The political career and personal life of Robert Burnell, chancellor of Edward I’ (King’s College London, unpublished PhD diss., 2001).
Huscroft, Richard, Ruling England 1042-1217 (Harlow, 2005).
Hyams, Paul, ‘The Jewish Minority in Medieval England’, Journal of Jewish Studies, 26 (1974), pp. 270-293.
Irwin, Dean, ‘[In Memoriam] Dr Robin Mundill, 2015-1958’, Jewish Historical Studies, 47 (2015), pp. 248-250.
Mundill, Robin R., The King’s Jews: Money, Massacre and Exodus (London, 2010).
Roth, Cecil, The Jews of Medieval Oxford (Oxford, 1945-1946).