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