Thursday, 7 April 2016

[#9] M. D. Davis, ‘An Anglo-Jewish Divorce, A.D. 1242’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, 5 (1892), pp. 158-165.*

* Nota Bene: If you do not have access to Jstor then this text has been made available at https://archive.org/details/jstor-1449916.

This is not the review that I intended to complete today. However, as a result of the fact that I have just found out that I will be giving a conference paper on the topic of David of Oxford’s divorce in June, it seemed prudent to go back to review the literature on the topic prior to writing my paper and I thought that it made sense to review this piece. That being said, this review is more circumspect than it might otherwise be for two reasons. First, I don’t want to go into all of the details of my research prior to giving (or indeed writing) my paper. Second, my interpretation of the David of Oxford case has been heavily influenced by a forthcoming article on Jewish courts in medieval England, written by the exceptional historian Dr Pinchas Roth, who was kind enough to share his research with me, and as such I do not want to divulge his arguments prior to their appearance in print.

            In this foundational text, Meir Davis brought to light the divorce case of David of Oxford, which is illuminated by two entries in the Close Rolls for 1242, a topic which has subsequently been examined by a plethora of other historians. I don’t usually go in for extended quotations in this blog, mainly because I try to keep my comments to under one-thousand words, but I think it’s worth quoting Davis’ assessment of why these entries are so exceptional verbatim, if only because it is my favourite description of historical records ever:

As a rule, a record does not profess history. It simply registers a fact or an incident, gives a copy of a regal order or writ, states the terms and periods conceded to debtors for the payment of their obligations to Jews, speaks of forfeitures, fines, the passing of property from individual to individual, and sundry other matters of a heterogeneous character. […] The entry introducing David of Oxford, although small in compass, went far beyond this.
I think that it would be unfair to judge this article within the context of modern knowledge for a couple of reasons. First, as has already been noted, this was a foundational text which first brought the case of David of Oxford’s divorce to light – a topic upon which much ink has subsequently been spilt (including some of my own ink). Second, Davis’ article was written in the light of historiography at the time. Thus, he relied on Adolf Neubauer’s study of the Oxford Jewry (1890) but since then Cecil Roth’s (1945-1946) study on the same topic has superseded the earlier study has changed the way in which one would go about interpreting this case. As a result of this, it would seem to me to be anachronistic to judge Davis’ work on the basis of what has followed in the same way that it would be to judge the medieval period based upon modern standards.

            That being said, I do have a couple of problems with this paper which I am willing to expand upon. First, Davis’ narrative does not take into account that both of the Close Roll entries were issued on the same day which gives the impression that there was a gap between the two orders during the interval of which, Muriel appealed her case to the Paris bet din. However, the entries make it clear that the order to allow David of Oxford’s divorce to be enforced, and for Muriel and her male brethren to answer for their actions came at the same time demonstrating that these two entries were the culmination of a series of somewhat tumultuous inter-marital events, rather than part of them. The second problem that I have with this paper is more based on my personal approach to academic history and is a problem that I have with the majority of the literature which was produced prior to the mid-twentieth-century. I should confess that I am one of those weirdoes who loves references and I tend to get irate if a text employs endnotes rather than footnotes. Therefore, reading literature from the turn of the century period is always something of a taxing ordeal which usually results in me shouting at what I’m reading: “Good point, but where’s the sodding reference so I can check?” – this necessitates that I don’t read such material on public transport!

            To conclude, this is article is not the cutting edge of historical research on the subject of the David of Oxford case. However, I think it is well worth reading because many of those articles which have subsequently been produced follow Davis’ model in the general details – though the specifics have been adjusted according to our understanding of the field of medieval Anglo-Jewish history. Moreover, as you may have gathered, I actually really love historiography and seeing how the field has developed as much as I do medieval Anglo-Jewish history, so surely that is enough of a reason to read this paper.

Work Cited:

Neubauer, Adolf, ‘Notes on the Jews in Oxford’ in Montagu Burrows (ed.), Collectanea (Oxford, 1890), pp. 278-316.

Roth, Cecil, The Jews of Medieval Oxford (Oxford, 1945-1946).

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