Wednesday, 31 August 2016

[#46] Robin R. Mundill, ‘English Medieval Ashkenazim – Literature and Progress’, Aschkenas, 1 (1991), pp. 203-210.

Academic Entry:

A historiographical survey into scholarship on medieval Anglo-Jewry.

General Entry:

Since 1987 three historiographical surveys have been produced which consider the state of scholarship into medieval Anglo-Jewry (Stacey: 1987; Mundill 2011). For me, the best of those is also the least commonly cited and the hardest to get hold of – it is not available online and I only have a Microsoft Word copy which does not include references, so if anybody knows where it can be found properly please do let me know. Unlike the survey produced by Robert Stacey four years prior to this one, Mundill takes a more considered approach to his survey, acknowledging the contributions of the likes of Michael Adler and Cecil Roth, rather than considering them in a disparaging way. Given that I think that Michael Adler in particular produced some ground breaking scholarship for the time, it is not difficult to see why I prefer Mundill’s endeavour over Stacey’s (I’ve never quite gotten over Stacey’s suggestion that Alder ‘had done little more than plunder the printed records for curious details’).

In this article, Mundill commences by outlining the significance of the sectocentenial commemorations of the York massacre (1190) for the study of medieval Anglo-Jewry. Despite two decades of increased, and sustained, scholarship between the writing of this article and now, I am saddened to see that a sentence at the start of this article may be just as valid today as it was in 1990: ‘It is a surprise to most Englishmen [and women] that in the wake of the Normans a community of Ashkenazi  Jews began to colonise England.’ Following on from this, Mundill discusses the importance of the published volumes of the Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews – though I have a more sceptical view about these volumes, arguing that for all the information that they provide to historians, they are also hugely problematic. Subsequently, Mundill starts his survey of historians with Cecil Roth, which I find slightly disappointing as there was no attempt to engage with scholars from D’Bloissiers Tovey onward. That being said, Mundill does make the important point that Roth’s work inspired at least a generation of scholarship, as did H. G. Richardson. This point is elucidated by moving on to discuss two scholars who benefited greatly from Roth’s scholarship: V. D. Lipman and R. B. Dobson. Finally, Mundill highlighted the work of Zefira Entin Rokeah and Joe Hillaby and concludes by summarising the work of Robert Stacey and himself with the hopes that the increased interest in the subject would be maintained subsequently – which, it is fair to say, has been achieved in academic circles at least. Consequently, if you can get hold of this article then I highly recommend it as it is a wonderful read and, although circumspect, provides you with information on all the key players that you need to know, and who I talk about a lot.

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 1066-1290’, History Compass, 9 (2011), pp. 572-601.

Robert C. Stacey, ‘Recent Work on Medieval English Jewish History’, Jewish History, 2 (1987), pp. 61-72.

Monday, 29 August 2016

A Note on Comments

Having completed the distasteful task of deleting racist comments from the blog this morning I feel that it is necessary to reiterate the house rules as far as comments are concerned. I make it a policy that anybody can comment on this blog (or the associated Twitter and Facebook pages), but there is an expectation of civility in accordance with the following:

  1. The clue is in the name, this is a forum for the discussion of 'medieval Anglo-Jewry', and I don't want it to degenerate into a space to attack Jews or promote Zionism (or anything in between).
  2. Linking in with that, I'm not interested in seeing well trodden debates regards the Israel-Palestine conflict regurgitated here - I have strong opinions on this subject but, with the exception of friends who read the blog, none of you will ever know those views and I'd appreciate it if you could keep yourself.
  3. The use of any kind of racist, defamatory or derogatory language (basically if you can include the suffix 'anti-' - e.g. anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim, anti-English etc.) will see the comment removed.
Other than that you're pretty much welcome to say whatever you want (within reason), but this blog will not become a medium through which one group can attack another.

Also, to the person who says I can't specialise in women's history because I'm not a woman I say that I'm not medieval or Jewish either but I shall continue to specialise in those areas as well.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

[#45] David Stephenson, ‘Colchester: A Smaller Medieval English Jewry’, Essex Archaeology and History, 16 (1984), pp. 48-52.

Nota bene: This article is available online at:

Academic Entry:

A basic survey of the Colchester Jewry.

General Entry:

In this article David Stephenson attempts to provide a survey of the Colchester Jewry from a historical and archaeological perspective. This set off alarm bells for me at the outset, because to try and do that in less than five pages is, to be frank, ludicrous. He commences by outlining some of the more famous pieces of historical evidence, though this is done at such speed that the reader is in danger of getting whiplash. There is, however, no serious attempt to engage with more general or specific sources (see below). Subsequent to this, Stephenson moves on to discuss the archaeological evidence in the form of the Bodleian Bowl and the Colchester coin hoards. As far as I can tell, the former is done to a decent level of scholarship, the latter, however, is not. I’m no expert in numismatics but I suspect that if one really tried more could (and probably has) be deduced from these hoards by looking at the coins themselves. Moreover, I think that these hoards, combined with the evidence that Stephenson omits, speak to the wealth of the community in a way that he failed to realise. This article finishes, in a way that is never going to win any support from me, by focusing on the sublime and the fantastic, by trying to demonstrate communal integration without questioning the veracity of the sources (incidentally I do think that Stephenson was heading in the right direction but he stopped well short of the mark).

Colchester may have been a small Jewish community but, in my opinion, it punched well above its weight class. I must make a confession here, Colchester is (after Lincoln) my favourite Jewish community to study. Consequently, I’ve looked at a lot of evidence relating to the Colchester Jewry and I think that this casts a very different light on the community than Stephenson was able to assemble here. I am cautious about citing the documents in the Westminster Abbey Muniments because these only became well known after Ann Causton drew attention to them with the publication of her English calendar of the documents (Causton: 2007, pp. 49-64). Conversely, I’ve accessed the documents in question and they’re not difficult to find with the assistance of the Scott catalogue contained on site at Westminster Abbey, so I think that these documents could certainly have been integrated into this analysis. Equally, a scrutiny of the Norwich and Colchester archae survives in The National Archives (or the Public Record Office as it was when Stephenson was writing), and these records present an additional level of detail which makes for fascinating reading (TNA E 101/698/35). Part of the reason that I think that Stephenson failed to produce a more comprehensive survey is that he accepted defeat at the very beginning by noting that it would not be possible to emulate Vivian D. Lipman’s study of the Norwich Jewry – which was (and is) true to an extent but large swathes of Lipman’s study could have been used as a model for a more successful article. Ultimately, I think that I must label Stephenson’s article as a highly selective synthesis which draws attention to the Colchester Jewry, but it would be very easy for easy the most basic survey to supersede this – it’s just that nobody has yet.

Work Cited:

Medieval Jewish Documents in Westminster Abbey, ed. and trans. Ann Causton (London, 2007).

TNA E 101/698/35.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Q. #7 Can you recommend any academic societies which would allow me to keep abreast of information pertaining to the Jews of England?

This question comes from Stephen in Dublin (Ireland).

Yes, I can recommend several academic societies which allow you to keep up-to-date with the latest academic developments in Jewish Studies generally and medieval Anglo-Jewry as well:

  • ·         The European Association for Jewish Studies – this is a general organisation which encompasses information on all aspects of European Jewry. The website includes a directory of scholars working in the field, CFP’s, information on new publications and a database for funding (though you have to be a member to access this last section). For some reason I’m not a member of this yet, but I can say that the newsletter, released monthly, is excellent for keeping tabs on new information. Also, the EAJS is currently looking for a new administrator so if you feel that you are qualified for that then please do consider it for a very worthy academic society (though I’ve put in an application for that position so perhaps I shouldn’t advocate more competition!).
  • ·         The Jewish Historical Society of England – established in 1893 this is one of the oldest academic societies, for Jewish history, in Europe (from memory I think it is the second oldest). It’s journal, which has recently become fully peer-reviewed, now called Jewish Historical Studies has an excellent track record of publishing material on the history of medieval Anglo-Jewry (all of these articles are available when you purchase membership). Also, the JHSE awards grants annually, I was a recipient this year, so if you have a project in mind then do consider that for next year.
  • ·         The British Association of Jewish Studies – this is a general association for Jewish Studies and much can be learned from its newsletter. The website of the BAJS also contains a great deal of information on such things as conferences, jobs and grants. 

Monday, 15 August 2016

Q #6 Are you qualified to talk about the Jews of medieval England and, if so, would you?

This question comes from a lecturer who wishes to remain anonymous.

I'll answer that in two stages:

1) Am I qualified?

That depends entirely upon your definition of 'qualified'. If you are asking 'Do you have a PhD?' then the answer is no. If, however, you are asking whether I am sufficiently knowledgeable and confident to talk about the history of medieval Anglo-Jewry (see below for my specialisms) then the answer is an emphatic yes. As far as my academic qualifications are concerned I am just finishing my MA, and my dissertation, as well as my coursework, ("Sciant universi quod ego [...] debeo": An Analysis of the Westminster Abbey Acknowledgements of Debt) focuses specifically upon the moneylending activities of medieval Anglo-Jewry. Also, if you were asking the former, then I would point out that Joe Hillaby, who has dominated the field of medieval Anglo-Jewish history since the mid-1980s, doesn't have a PhD either.

2) Am I willing?

Provisionally, yes. That being said, you'd have to give me a good reason as to why I should. Also, I should point out that I'm in the process of job hunting, so I will be unable to commit to any date prior to obtaining employment (though if you can convince me that I'll try to be as accommodating as is possible).

Topics that I'm most comfortable with:

  • The general history of medieval Anglo-Jewry
  • The sources for the writing of medieval Anglo-Jewish history
  • The economic activities of medieval Anglo-Jewry
  • Jewish moneylending activities in thirteenth century England (prior to the Statute of the Jewry, 1275)
  • Methods of recording debt
  • The materiality of records
  • Women and gender within medieval Anglo-Jewry

Sunday, 14 August 2016

[#44] Suzanne Bartlet, Licoricia of Winchester: Marriage, Motherhood and Murder in the Medieval Anglo-Jewish Community, post. ed. Patricia Skinner (London, 2009).

Academic Entry:

A discussion of the role of women within medieval Anglo-Jewry with particular emphasis on social structures and Licoricia of Winchester.

General Entry:

There are several historians who I draw inspiration from in my research – none more so that Suzanne Bartlet, who first inspired my interest of the role of women, and subsequently gender, within medieval Anglo-Jewry. She wrote two truly superb articles on the topic over the course of her explorations (Bartlet: 2000, 2003), and was working on this book when she died (it was subsequently completed by Professor Patricia Skinner). Licoricia herself interests me immensely because she is the perfect case study which illustrates a very different gender dichotomy among England’s Jews than Christians during this period. Indeed, I would regard Licoricia as one of England super-plutorcrats in the mid-thirteenth century, alongside men such as Aaron of York, Hamo of Hereford and David of Oxford (who was her second husband). I also have a less critical reason for being fascinated with Licoricia. I once traced the career of Aaron of York through the published records and it was little short of my own personal hell – one of the most common names for male Jews being ‘Aaron’ meant that working out who was who, in an age before standardised surnames or spelling, was most difficult (not the phrase I used at the time but it’ll do for our purposes). In contrast, as Bartlet points out, Licoricia was an uncommon name and, consequently, it is fairly simple to distinguish her from others.

                Licoricia was first discussed properly by Michael Adler in 1939 and, for me, his survey takes some beating (Adler: 1939, pp. 39-42). I think, however, that Bartlet does surpass Adler with this book (though I’m less certain that she surpasses her own published work). First, Bartlet contextualises the environment in which Licoricia lived, discussing the Anglo-Jewry generally and the Winchester Jewish community specifically. This contextualisation is fairly decent but there is nothing especially innovative about it and it’s certainly not the approach that I would have adopted. In particular, chapter two is just a regurgitation of her article on three Jewish women (Bartlet: 2000). Chapter three discusses David of Oxford and his relations with Licoricia. Again, this is decent but I’m hardly blown away by the discussion and think that it could have been handled better. Where Bartlet really comes into her own is in second half of the book where she discusses Licoricia in her widowhood (chapter four), her children (chapter five), and the implications of the Montfortian Rebellion for Licoricia and her family (chapter six). This is particularly successful because it shows Licoricia not just as an individual woman (which is often the temptation with biographical accounts) but as the matriarch of a ‘family business’ (to cite the modern term). What I do not like is the emphasis that she places upon Benedict the Guildsman from chapter seven onwards – I think that Bartlet is far too trusting of her sources on this point.

When I read anything academic, the first criteria that I judge the piece on is whether the title and the text are meant for each other. In the case of Bartlet’s book, I am forced to conclude that this is not the case. Given the title, I think that the reader would expect a biography of Licoricia and that simply isn’t what is presented here. That is not to say that Licoricia’s story is not superbly woven through the narrative. On the contrary it is, but it has to be said that this is more of a study of the medieval Anglo-Jewess than anything else, which is something that Bartlet had already doing in 2003. This feature is a double edged on for me. On the one hand my love of the role of women among medieval Anglo-Jewry loves this yet, on the other hand, I think that to write a biography proper in the case of Licoricia would not be that difficult a task. A major impediment for this, in my opinion, was Bartlet’s decision to rely on printed sources for her study – I can list at least a dozen archival sources which were omitted relating, in one way or another, to Licoricia which would have added an interesting addendum to the narrative (especially in relation to her children). If we leave that aside, then this is still a book which has its faults. There are a lot of simple errors – for example, in discussing the David of Oxford divorce case (1242) Bartlet expands the ‘W.’, archbishop of York, as William when, in fact, it was Walter de Grey who was archbishop at that point. Just as a final point, which reveals the cynic in me, I think that a trend which permeates this book in its entirety is Bartlet’s willingness to trust what her sources say, and I would have liked to have seen a bit more critical discussion. Having said that, I would recommend this book in a heartbeat for what it can teach about the social history of medieval Anglo-Jewry – though less so as a biography of Licoricia.

Work Cited:

Michael Adler, ‘The Jewish Woman in Medieval England’, in Michael Adler, Jews of Medieval England (London, 1939), pp. 17-45.

Suzanne Bartlet, ‘Three Jewish Businesswomen in Thirteenth-Century Winchester’, Jewish Culture and History, 3 (2000), pp. 31-54.

Suzanne Bartlet, ‘Women in the Medieval Anglo-Jewish Community’, in Patricia Skinner (ed.), Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives (Woodbridge, 2003), pp. 113-127.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

[#43] ‘Latin Documents from Westminster Abbey Muniment Room’ transcribed in Vivian D. Lipman, The Jews of Medieval Norwich (London, 1967), pp. 187-312.

Academic Entry:

Transcriptions of the Latin Jewish documents relating to Norwich contained within the Westminster Abbey Muniments collection.

General Entry:

A few weeks ago I spent two days in the Westminster Abbey Muniments, looking at the acknowledgements of debt to Jews. It was when I was confronted with the first document, which happens to be one that Lipman transcribed in this collection, that I realised the value of his efforts. The document in question was one of the most heavily abbreviated that I’ve ever worked on and it was little short of a trial by ordeal to work through the document – though given that I looked at nearly 300 such documents over the course of the week, it’s fair to say that I quickly got the hang of it. In comparison, Lipman’s transcriptions are a thing of beauty, written in perfect Latin and, being typed, there is no need to decipher handwriting. Moreover, Lipman generously provides a brief overview of the content in English (including modernised by dates). So, ‘What’s not to like?’ I hear you cry. Well, as you ask so nicely I shall enlighten you, the short answer is ‘Quite a lot actually’. Now I don’t mean to go all historiany but quite a lot can be learned from the way in which a text was abbreviated, yet Lipman makes no attempt to denote where the abbreviations have been made. Equally, if you show me the original document, I can tell you who wrote it and where in under a minute, but there is so little detail Lipman’s volume that one would struggle to work out whether the record was even written on a chirograph. Incidentally, that’s not me being boastful, as I shall shortly be submitting an article, ‘The Materiality of Debt in Medieval England’, outlining my methodological approach. Finally, a document is more than a convenient method to convey text, but can actually be analysed in and of itself (again something I do in my article) – the details which would facilitate such an analysis are, however, omitted from Lipman’s study. So to the recommendation, for students and those with a general interest this is a reasonably good source. For those historians working on these records professionally, make the trip to Westminster Abbey yourself – if an idiot with a degree and a mediocre grasp of Latin can end up making a plethora of ground-breaking discoveries, imagine what a you, as a proper historian, could do!