Saturday, 30 July 2016

[#42] Rebecca Rist, Popes & Jews: 1095-1291 (Oxford, 2016).

Two pieces of housekeeping before I start:

1.       I’m doing some writing of my own so have less time to devote to writing things for this blog, so if anybody has some spare time, I’d really appreciate it if you’d like to contribute something.

2.       In an attempt to fund my research (linking on with the writing) I am selling some of my books, including some Jewish history books, on Amazon, so if you’re looking for a good read then check that out (I’ll accept reasonable offers):

Academic Entry:

A monograph length study of the Papacy, and individual Popes, and the Jews considering the relationship from a number of different theological and literal perspectives as well as by considering the Jews with other Other groups.

General Entry:

I read a lot, so when I say that this book is unquestionably the best book that I’ve read this year on medieval Jews, that should tell you how good it is. I think part of the reason that I liked this book so much is that I expected to find it nothing short of a trial by ordeal. I’ve read Edward Synan’s classic work on the subject, and much of the work on the Jews and Papacy, including the work of people like Kenneth Stow. As a consequence, I thought that this book would just be a regurgitation of old work in a nice, shiny, Oxford University Press dust jacket. This wasn’t the book that I expected though. On the contrary, it is a riveting read, which contained many revelations. I think the major reason that I liked this book so much is that despite its title, this book breaks with the convention of treating the ‘Popes’ and the ‘Jews’ as two homogeneous groups which assumes that the same attitudes prevailed for multiple centuries. The result is nothing short of a masterpiece which will quickly become THE text upon which studies of Papal-Jewish relations are considered and will form the foundations upon which a new generation of scholars work. Moreover, it is worth noting that such is the magnificence of Rebecca Rist’s book that the model would also work for kings or bishops in a local / national context as well.

                In chapter one, Rist addresses an issue that has long irritated me within the context of the historiography is how Jews perceived the Papacy (and individual Popes). Certainly, historians have focused on how the Jews were perceived by the Papacy but rarely has any thought been expended on that perception in reverse. This is followed by two stunning chapters which explore how the Papacy and individual Popes sought to protect the Jews in theory and reality, and the following chapter considers the impact of the crusades upon that relationship. Perhaps my favourite chapter, though it has stiff competition, is chapter four on the Papacy and Jewish money (though I’m slightly bias given that Jewish financial activities are the focus of my research). This chapter is written with such precision that it makes one want to weep with joy – it not only concerns the literal extractions of Jewish money but also the theoretical implications of the Papacy’s attitude to Jewish money. It is worth noting that this chapter will, however, be challenged in a book coming out next year by Julie Mell called The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender coming out next year with Palgrave Macmillan. This chapter is followed by another chapter which breaks with convention. It is fairly common to see some derivation of the phrase ‘the Papacy exercised authority over the Jews.’, but the problem with that sentence is the full stop – historians rarely think to ask why, and was that consistent? The book finishes with two incredibly astute chapters – first what happened when the Popes came into direct contact with the Jews, as opposed to imposing abstract ideas on them at ecumenical councils – and how the treatment of Jews compared with other Other groups (something which also dominates my thinking on Anglo-Jewry).

Finally, I do like to find something to criticise about a book to comment upon but this book makes that exceedingly difficult so, at the risk of clutching at straws, there is a typographical error in the bibliography where ‘Robin’ Mundill is spelled ‘Robert’. I think that in any academic history book where that is the most significant problem that I can find, then that is a massive endorsement, and I highly recommend this book to all readers. This is not least because it is rare to get a book which can be described as a tour de force, still rarer, however, is it possible to find a book where each individual chapter can also have that title applied to it!

Work Cited:

Edward Synan, The Popes and the Jews in the Middle Ages (New York, 1965).

Kennet Stow, Popes, Church and Jews in the Middle Ages: confrontation and response (Aldershot, 2007).

Friday, 22 July 2016

[#41] Sean Cunningham, ‘Remembering England’s Medieval Jews’, The National Archives, 10 March 2015 available online at accessed on 22 July 2016.

As I sit in cafĂ© of The National Archives, twiddling my thumbs waiting for the reading rooms to open I thought that I’d write something brief relating to that. So this week it’s this blog post by Sean Cunningham. I often think blogs run by an institution like TNA are there for two purposes: 1) to inform 2) to show off. I suspect a lot of people would prefer the gaudy codices of the British Library (or similar institutions), but as somebody who works on governmental records, I think that TNA’s collections are particularly hard to beat – and certainly this blog post with some excellent illustrations manages to show off magnificently. This certainly provides a good whistle-stop tour of the way medieval Anglo-Jewish history could be approached via TNA’s collections. Naturally there is great emphasis placed upon the real gems of TNA collections – notably the caricatures of the Norwich Jews from 1233 and Aaron son of the Devil from 1277.  However, the copy of the 1275 Statute of the Jewry is a thing of beauty. So this blog post does what I think blogs like this are supposed to do. On the one hand it informs by providing a brief survey of the medieval Anglo-Jewish experience (drawing on TNA’s collections) and, on the other hand, it shows off magnificently.

If I have a criticism of this piece, it is that one of the most important collections of Jewish chirographs in the country is housed in TNA and yet there is no mention of these. Now it should be noted, that scholars rarely, if ever cite this collection (much less analyse it), but having spent two days already looking at the documents I am now convinced that this is an incredibly underutilised source which rivals (and in many ways supersedes) the collection of chirographs which are housed in Westminster Abbey Muniments Room which scholars have long focused on – certainly in terms of geographical and genealogical diversity TNA collection is nothing short of epic. I think that this is an important omission here because while Cunningham talks about Jews being taxed there is little on how they got their money in the first place (not that that was necessarily by moneylending). That being said I think this is a very good introduction that is competently written and has really good illustrations! A final point before I go and look at more chirographs – Drs Cunningham and Adrian Jobson produced a podcast lecture a few years ago (the link is in the blogs et. al. page on this blog) which is superb (I used it to revise for my A-Level history exam!).

Thursday, 14 July 2016

[# 40] Joe and Corline Hillaby, The Palgrave Dictionary of Medieval Anglo-Jewish History (London, 2013).

Academic Entry:

A dictionary of medieval Anglo-Jewish history which includes entries of topographic, genealogical and general interest which serves as an introduction to the discipline.

General Entry:

This is the most difficult review that I have had to write for this blog, thus far at least. Not because of the content, or because of the arguments, or because I cannot make my mind up about it – those are relatively simple. Rather, I think that this is an important historiographical contribution to a field that I love, and one of the authors, Joe Hillaby, is somebody who I have a great deal of time and respect for, and yet I find this volume somewhat disappointing. As will become clear below I would recommend this dictionary in a heartbeat as an introduction, but I think it has missed the mark by a good way for more advanced scholarship. That being said, when I was in the early stages of my research into medieval Anglo-Jewry, this was one of the first books that I bought and, if I need an answer quickly, then this is the volume that I go to, so I have no problems recommending it, despite what follows. I would also like to start this with a plea: if somebody reading this entry has a more positive outlook on this volume could you please write up your thoughts and send them to be uploaded (I would love people to prefer that entry to mine – in fact I’d prefer to like that entry).

                Having said that I dislike this book, it has a great deal to recommend it to readers, not least the fact that it is an impressive and broad ranging, piece of scholarship. Hillaby presents a number of general entries on various topics, such as the archae, bet din and women (to cite three of those I know best). These entries appear alongside entries which are genealogical and topographic in nature. I must confess that I find this style of research, which has pervaded Joe Hillaby’s scholarship, to be incredibly frustrating – I am of the opinion that you cannot understand medieval Anglo-Jewry on the basis of communal studies or studies of great men. However, in the context of this volume, this style of presentation has serious benefits, so this is the one piece of Hillaby’s scholarship which adopts this approach where I can truly say: ‘I think that there is great value to the genealogical and topographic approach which he adopts’. Moreover, all of the entries are well written introductions which are well referenced so as to facilitate a broadening of understanding.

                The previous paragraph was a veritable joy to write, this one I wish that I didn’t have to but that’s the approach I set out when I started this blog and so I must. I’m not quite certain whether to present this paragraph as criticisms of Hillaby, or as an ‘how I would have done it’ section, so I leave that to you to decide, dear reader. Firstly, I think that this volume came ten to fifteen years late, and it has something its contents are rather traditional and old fashioned. This is particularly evident in the fact that it is a work of history rather than something broader. If ever you’ve wondered why I insist on calling it ‘medieval Anglo-Jewish studies’ then here is the answer – I don’t think conventional history works but rather should adopt an interdisciplinary approach which encompasses lots of other disciplines (notably absent from this volume are literary and religious approaches). I also think that, despite its size, this volume lacks ambition. I’m of the opinion that if you write this type of volume then you should do so in a way which adds to the historiography. Yet in this volume, many of the entries are very traditional, and I am tempted to quote a friend of mine and say this is ‘an almost book’. That it is to say, most of the entries are ‘almost, but not quite’ there and I think that the same could be said of the volume as a whole. There are quite a few errors or oversimplifications and it is clear where Hillaby’s knowledge was weak or based on older scholarship – the entries on the archae and chirographs for example is somewhat garbled because Hillaby does not seem to fully understand the conditions in which they were produced and does not seem aware of an important (but little cited) reference from 1239 which expands the 1194 and 1233 legislation. My final criticism (or the final criticism that I am going to expound here) is that even the best parts of this book are lacking. For example, in the genealogical entries it would have been possible to produce more rounded discussions, and there are some utterly bizarre omissions – notably there is no dedicated entry for Licorica of Winchester!

                To conclude, I stand by my original assertion that I would recommend this volume as a book. I would, however, suggest that it be treated with caution and say that I think that this should be the foundations up which we build for a comprehensive ‘dictionary’ or ‘encylopedia’ of medieval Anglo-Jewish studies, along the lines of the Encyclopedia Judaica or Salo Baron’s Social and Economic History of the Jews.

Monday, 11 July 2016

#39 Joseph Ziegler, ‘Reflections of the Jewry Oath in the Middle Ages’ in Diana Wood (ed.), Christianity and Judaism, Studies in Church History, 29 (London, 1992), pp. 209-220.

This entry and the list in the appendix is based upon a section of MA dissertation and I would, as a consequence, ask that it not be reproduced or used without my permission.

Academic Entry:

A discussion of the ‘Jewry Oath’ which draws on evidence from the Holy Roman Empire considering the way in which the oath was enacted and developed.

General Entry:

For my MA dissertation I am writing about the moneylending practices of 13th century Anglo-Jewry which involves discussing the 1194 ‘Form of Pleas’ which includes a discussion of how Jewish moneylending is to be conducted. There is a section in that which is much underrepresented in the historiography about Jews swearing an oath. I’ve made several comments upon this in a general context, which I’ve based this review on (though expanded). I had not, however, thought that this might be of significance more generally until I attended a talk last week at the Leeds IMC which argued from a legal history perspective and demonstrated, convincingly, that swearing was a much more prominent in the courts than I had realised. I should note, that this does not change the way that I discuss the entry in my dissertation because I am arguing from a purely moneylending perspective, but I suspect that the paper that I heard will be the beginning of the end of the traditional scholarship. One of the pieces of scholarship which I use in my dissertation is this essay by Joseph Ziegler which is basically focused upon the Holy Roman Empire, but it touches on English and French Jewry so I include it in this blog. In his essay Ziegler provides an interesting discussion of the ‘Jewry Oath’, which is truly fascinating. In Germanic  examples, he demonstrates that historians have often focused on the sensational (even bizarre) examples of the oath, which could be very long and intense. Attempting to move away from this to highlight a point of legal context which has been lost within these traditional narratives and, in the case of the Holy Roman Empire, this is an engaging argument. In particular, the ways that this oath developed so as to be supported by Christians and the way that it was perceived in the Jewish sources is fascinating, to me at least. In addition, the way that changes are explained within terms of contemporary contexts is handled well.

One point in this essay that I strongly disagree with is his assertion that the ‘Jewry Oath’ was not enforced in England during the thirteenth-century based upon the fact that no formulae specifying it can be found. This is, I think, to misunderstand the English evidence. As a number of examples from the end of the twelfth-century demonstrate (listed in the appendix below), the oath that the Jews were expected to take in courts and business transactions was effectively the same as the Christian oath with the Torah or the Pentateuch substituted for the Bible. As a consequence, there was little need to write this down for perpetuity – it was not so much a ‘Jewish oath’ as an ‘English Oath’ – and there is evidence in the Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews demonstrating that this continued during the thirteenth century. Moreover, Ziegler struggles to determine what the corresponding consequence for perjury would be – for Christians it was excommunication but for Jews, as the 1194 Chapters illustrate, in the case of England the consequence could be just as severe: forfeiture of goods and property. Thus it would seem that if the conclusions reached in this essay are accurate then the Jews of medieval England operated according to a different model than is true for Germany and France. This also hints at a level of integration and cross-cultural exchange (even trust) which was not present on the continent. That being said, there is a very talented PhD student who, on the basis of a 20 minute paper, I get the impression would argue that this relationship was less beneficial. That viewpoint is formed on the basis of Augustinian perspective, but as I have said repeatedly I don’t really see this from a socio-gendered perspective. However, unlike my thoughts on Ziegler’s paper, I find this point to be a historiographical rather than a factual dispute.


Charter granted to Isaac son of Rabbi Josce by Richard I – Church, State and Jew in the Middle Ages, ed. Robert Chazan (New York, 1980), p. 68.

Charter granted Rabbi Joseph by King Richard I – TNA C 52/21 (my apologies the membrane number is omitted from my notes)

Chapters of the Jews, 1194 Form of Pleas – Chronica Magistri de Houedene, 3, ed. William Stubbs (London, 1870), p. 267.

Charter of Liberties to the Jews by King John – Select Pleas, Starrs and Other Records from the Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, A.D. 1220-1284, ed. J. M. Rigg (London, 1902), p. 1.

Q. #5 How would you like your work to be subjected to such criticism?

This question comes from somebody whose work has been reviewed on the blog, but I shall keep anonymous.

My dear lady, nothing would make me happier than if somebody were to disagree, criticise or argue that my work was wrong. There is a perception that history is a science. It is not! History is an art, in which there are as many interpretations as there are interpreters. The job of the historian is not to deal in absolutes but in interpretations. In the popular world there is the perception that historians deal in facts – we don’t. One (wo)mans evidence which supports a certain viewpoint is what damns it for another historian. The most that historians can do is try to argue his or her interpretation of the evidence. If, however, you’re waiting for universal acceptance of a specific viewpoint then I would suggest that you are likely to hear Angels trumpeting the Day of Judgement first.

So, to answer the question directly, I love history and I like to think that I know a great deal about medieval Anglo-Jewry (certainly I know more about them than I do about the twenty-first century) but that does not mean that I have, or would want, the ultimate answers to the ultimate questions of my discipline. If my arguments don’t bear the scrutiny of others then I’m perfectly happy to change them as I become aware of new evidence, but I’m not going to just accept what I’m told either if I think that another viewpoint is better (though I rarely think that something is wrong – it takes an enormous lack of evidence for me to conclude this). I should also point out that some of the work I enjoy  reading the most is produced by historians with whom I have rarely (if ever) agreed on points of interpretations.  

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Robin Mundill.

4 July marks the anniversary of the death of Dr Robin Mundill. As I cannot review a piece this week because I am the Leeds International Medieval Congress, I thought I'd post a link to these pieces - one published and one unpublished:

Friday, 1 July 2016

[#38] The Jews in Western Europe 1400-1600¸ed. and trans., John Edwards (Manchester, 1994), pp. 25-45.

Academic Entry:

A selection of documents relating to European Jewry during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

General Entry:

It may seem odd to comment on a book which covers a period that begins more than a century after the (English) Expulsion. There are, however, several very good reasons for this. First, the extracts from theological and biblical tracts in chapter one (which is the focus of this piece) are just as relevant for thirteenth century England as they are for, for example, fifteenth century Spain. Second, I really like the publisher – Manchester University Press is a publisher that I admire both academically and ethically. Third, I’ve read around a dozen of the Manchester Medieval Sources volumes in the last few weeks to gain some insight in the series, and this is the only one which relates in any significant way to the Jews. Finally, it’s my blog and I can, so there! As I said, it’s only really chapter one which I am concerned with here, though this book demonstrates European parallels to England in every chapter and I have no problems recommending the book in its entirety.

                The first extracts in this chapter come from the gospels of Matthew, John and Paul (respectively). The major advantage to this is that it presents each of the major biblical comments upon the Jews side by side. As a result, their manifest differences are not only obvious, but also magnified, and while I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of the bible is not what it could be, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking about these particular entries  and find them to be incredibly thought provoking. Document two is a letter which was to have major implications not only for medieval Jews but also for modern historians. It is a letter to the King of France in the 1230s and presents an attack on the Talmud. This was a trope which would be repeated in Papal diatribes across the thirteenth century and, as a consequence, remarkably few medieval copies of the Talmud survive. In the words of James Parkes ‘It is evidence of ruthless efficiency of the medieval Church that among the tens of thousands of medieval manuscripts which fill the libraries of Europe, America and Israel today there is only one complete medieval copy  of the Talmud’ (Parkes: 1962, p. 73). At this point in the chapter, I move from informed reader to fascinated reader as my knowledge of what follows is extremely limited, though that does not mean that I do not find the documents extremely engaging.  Documents three and four, present extracts relating ‘Inquisitions of the Jews’ and the various definitions of the ‘Jew’. I must confess that I find this second part particularly fascinating, and it’s interesting to contrast these views with English thought. The final three documents relate to conversos, a trial, and a counter-reformation attack on the Talmud. I cannot say anything on these beyond what John Edwards has said, so I won’t even try.

Finally, MUP is currently having a 50% off sale and I would recommend this, and most of (medieval history – I haven’t really read any other books that they do) books for this particular publisher. I would also suggest buying directly from the publisher – I recently purchased an MUP book from a noted online supplier, which shall remain nameless (though it shares a name with a river and a rainforest), which turned out to be a misprint but they refused to exchange it because the book had the specified number of pages – so let that be a warning.

Work Cited:

James Parkes, A History of the Jewish People (London, 1962).