A discussion of the literary context within which William of Newburgh’s narrative of the York massacre.
As my friends who read this blog will know, I am a massive Tolkien fan. Consequently when I read something about medieval Anglo-Jewry that transports me to the Shire then I’m a very happy person! It is fair to say that such occurrences are incredibly rare, but the opening of this essay by Jeffrey Cohen, where he describes a scene of joviality under a hill in Yorkshire which appears in William of Newburgh’s History of English Affairs, my interest was most certainly piqued. Within the context of the York massacre, I think that Cohen’s paper is really important because historians all to readily focus upon the details that help their narrative rather than consider the context within which the events were written. I should point out at this point that although the writing of remarkably few scholars (discussing the Jews of medieval England) intimidate me, Cohen is one of them and while I’ve read this paper thrice in order to try and write this piece (to say nothing of previous readings) I am almost certain that some context or subtlety has escaped me, so you, dear reader, should most certainly read this paper for yourself. One message which it is possible to take from Cohen’s piece, though, is the way in which Jews and Christians were presented in medieval writing. The former was the antithesis of the modern latter (almost as if the Jews who were resident in the medieval world were those who were accused of having committed the crime of deicide).I’ve never been convinced, however, that this was a situation which could be found anywhere other than in literature and even there, as Cohen goes on to elucidate, Christian-Jewish relations were often much more complicated with cooperation and coexistence – these are the sections of the literature that I focus upon. That is not least because I feel that in order to give sensational accusations the air of credibility then a degree of the mundane and the familiar must also have been included. Following on from this, Cohen discusses the significance of stone to the narrative, with particular emphasis upon the metaphorical way in which it related to Clifford’s Tower and the Jews. Moreover, the way in which the ‘Other’ is presented within Newburgh’s work is discussed in terms of how they of the past and supersceded by the modern English. The Jews present a peculiar problem to this, however, because they lived side by side with Christians and some, like Richard Malebisse, were indebted to Jews. On the basis of the language which was used Cohen makes the intriguing point that whilst the massacre of 1190 marked the immediate (though not permanent) end of the York Jewry, they were already based in the past rather than in the future. Whilst I am not willing to commit to saying that I understand every element of this essay, I am willing to go so far as to highly recommend it – Cohen’s writing is beautiful and if I were to read his work a hundred times then I suspect that I would find something new to talk about each time (which is a brilliant thing!).