Thursday, 22 September 2016

[#52] Christopher Johnson and Stanley Jones, Steep, Strait and High: Ancient Houses of Central Lincoln (Woodbridge, 2016).

Academic Entry:

A consideration of certain houses in the center of Lincoln.

General Entry:

Ordinarily, I would not have purchased this book – it doesn’t really fall into one of my main research areas (though that it not to say that the topic doesn’t interest me). It was purely by chance of the fact that I was trading e-mails with one of the authors that I thought it only polite to have a look at the book. So, I purchased the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. In particular, with every page that I read I could not help thinking of one of my favourite quotes which comes from the great English historian G. M. Trevelyan who wrote that ‘[t]he poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow’ (Trevelyan: 1949, p. 12). Conventionally, this is meant in general terms, however, in the case Christopher Johnson and Stanley Jones’ book, Trevelyan’s quotation becomes incredibly literal. That is to say, by viewing history through the medium of individual properties, one actually gets to see the successive generations be replaced by the next generation. For me, that makes this a wonderful piece of scholarship in its own right – I don’t really care about the great men doing great deeds in, what was undoubtedly, a great way. Rather, I want to know about real people lived and I think that this is a wonderful format for presenting such explorations.

                Given that this blog is ostensibly about medieval Anglo-Jewry, I suppose that I should say something about the content which discusses the Jews of medieval Lincoln. The authors make the point in the introduction that such a format is not the place to stage a full reappraisal of the Lincoln Jewish community. I don’t think that that is necessarily a bad thing, however, given the considered way in which Jews were introduced into the narrative of this text. In cooking terms, I think that it’s fair to say that this is a well-balanced book, with the right proportion of Jews in it (I shall leave that analogy there or risk offending people). In a number of the chapters, it is made clear that at one point or another there was a Jewish resident in the property concerned. I find this fascinating because, whilst the work of urban historians like Sarah Rees Jones has demonstrated that Jews and Christians lived in the same areas as each other (see, for example, Rees Jones, 2013), but this book elevates that to a whole new level by illustrating how, in a relatively short space of time, properties moved from Jewish to Christian ownership. In particular, there are some first rate explorations of individual Jewish owners of various houses. As a result, I would highly recommend this book, from both an English history and a medieval Anglo-Jewish perspective. It’s a wonderful piece of scholarship which is truly an enjoyable read (and it has a CD-Rom in it which is always a winner for me – yes I’m that childish!).

Work Cited:

Sarah Rees Jones, ‘Neigbours and Victims in Twelfth-Century York: a Royal Citadel, the Citizens and the Jews of York’ in Sarah Rees Jones and Sethina Watson (eds.), Jews and Christians in Angevin England: The York Massacre of 1190, Narratives and Contexts(York, 2013), pp. 15-42.


G. M. Trevelyan, An autobiography and other essays (London, 1949).

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