Wednesday, 8 June 2016

[#32] J. J. N. McGurk, ‘The Jews of Medieval England: Part I – The Late Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries’, History Today, 23 (1973), pp. 313-321.

Academic Entry:

Not Appropriate

General Entry:

When I was perusing through the online archive of History Today I was surprised to realise that there were only three articles relating to the history of medieval Anglo-Jewry (that is the two parts of this article – the second of which will be reviewed subsequently – and Miri Rubin’s article on William of Norwich: 2010). For me this is utterly baffling and nothing short of a travesty, a dozen ideas for articles for a general readership spring to mind without the slightest bit of effort but historians have not utilised this resource to disseminate key themes to a broader audience. Yet, I was also pleasantly surprised to find this article from the early 1970s which is a (very) brief introduction to the early history of medieval Anglo-Jewry, which I had not previously been aware of. As I outline below there are some problems (some of them serious) with McGurk’s essay, but I think many of these are obvious with hindsight as much as anything else. That being said, I think it is a spectacularly good thing that somebody had the foresight to try and generate interest in the subject during the period when only senior academics, like Cecil Roth, were championing the cause of an ‘exotic and esoteric footnote’ on English history (Mundill: 2011, p. 572), so, brownie points and a Blue Peter badge for that (I’m not sure how well those references will translate beyond – or even within – the British Isles, so feel free to make use of Google if they go completely over your head). In terms of content, McGurk covers most of the key events relating to the first century and a half of Jewish presence in England, with emphasis on the charters issued to the Jewry, the early settlements, Aaron of Lincoln, and the massacres of 1189-90. I say ‘most’ because there is one omission so glaring that it hardly needs to be remarked upon: the case of William of Norwich.

                For all of its good, however, this is not an article without serious flaws. First, the chronology is somewhat sketchy and the way that it is presented one gets the impression that the archae were an inherent feature of Jewish life during this period – they were not, they were only established in 1194. Second, McGurk uses Roth’s famous phrase of a ‘Royal Milch Cow’ (Roth: 1964) to describe the Jewish relationship with Henry II – this is not an argument that can be convincingly promulgated or sustained for any aspect of Christian-Jewish relations during the twelfth-century. Third, and finally for the purposes of this review, McGurk advances the argument, which was commonly accepted at the time so there was nothing wrong with it in that sense, that the 1190 marked the beginning of the end for medieval Anglo-Jewry and it was just a spiral of decline until the Expulsion a century later – I cannot state emphatically enough how erroneous this argument is. Having said all of that, I would recommend this article to general readers with the proviso that it be treated with caution (the same advice that  I would give to reading any of my comments).

Work Cited:

Robin R. Mundill, ‘Out of the Shadow and into the Light – the Impact and Implications of Recent Scholarship on the Jews of Medieval England’, History Compass, 9 (2011), pp. 572-601.

Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England (Oxford, 3rd edition, 1964).


Miri Rubin, ‘Making a Martyr: William of Norwich and the Jews’, History Today, 60 (2010), pp. 48-54.

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