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.

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