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