Friday, 28 October 2016

[#56] Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman and Donald N. Yates, The Early Jews and Muslims of England and Wales: A Genetic and Genealogical History (Jefferson, 2014).

This review was completed at the request of a number of readers. I am grateful to Eurospan, who administer McFarland’s activities in Europe, for providing me with a review copy of this book – I only wish that I could have given it a better review because of that generosity.

Academic Entry:


General Entry:

In recent years interest in the family history and genealogy has boomed. This is illustrated by the success of television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? and websites like Ancestry. Within the academe, however, this is often treated with disdain and it is assumed that it isn’t proper history (whatever that is). Personally, I have no problems with it, providing that it is done empirically and without simply trying to link yourself with famous people. This, combined with the fact that I have researched (and written about) the Jews of medieval England and Wales, made me excited to receive this book. The basic premise of this book is that there was a continuous Jewish presence in medieval England from the Roman period onwards. Thus, this book commences roughly a millennium prior to the establishment of Anglo-Jewry under William the Conqueror in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. Reading this text, I was reminded of medieval genealogical rolls which were produced to chart the history of the Crown. These linked the ruling family in a direct line to the likes of King David, and interwove other ancient Hebrews into the narrative as well. The difference between the medieval and the modern, is that the latter was a scholarly exercise and thus need to be substantiated. Let’s not beat around the bush here, the premise of the book is a controversial one. Indeed, the authors even comment that it “will probably earn us a less than enthusiastic reception in some quarters” (p.9).

                Chapter one highlights the significance of DNA evidence to the arguments encapsulated in this book. The authors are also honest enough to highlight the significant problems with historical DNA which is effectively based on mapping rather than accurate pinpointing (making me dubious). Equally, they highlight the presence of Jews in Roman England. I have to say, I think that they would have been better to keep this discussion in abstract terms, rather than using the case study of Pomponia Graceina. This woman, wife of Aulus Plautius the first governor of Roman Britain, cannot be proven to have visited England or even to have been Jewish – to put it nicely this is a tenuous link. Chapter two, suggests, upon the basis of apocryphal evidence from centuries later, that both Jews and Muslims played a role in filling the vacuum left when the Roman Empire withdrew. Moving on from this, chapter three outlines the evidence for Jews in relation to trans-continental trade. Whilst some of this is a decent survey, I don’t follow the assumption that it provides definitive evidence that the Jews would also have set up communities in England as they did on the Continent. Equally, I would need a whole lot more evidence to even begin to contemplate the Jewish connection that the authors draw to Charles Martel. Likewise, the Jewish connection to William the Conqueror in chapter four is, as far as I can tell, unsubstantiated with the exception of evidence derived from names and an ambiguous fifteenth century chronicle which has been used to reach a desired conclusion. Chapters five and six attempt to argue that Domesday Book contains evidence for Jews and Muslims in medieval England based upon etymological analysis. In the absence of any supporting evidence, however, I think that this must be regarded as a series of quaint lists. The next chapter, and the least successful in the entire book, charts the Jews in England between 1066 and 1290. Yet, there is no attempt to draw on the records which would allow for genealogical reconstructions (and have been by Joe Hillaby – who is not cited at all in the book, though his work was very obviously used with reference in an earlier chapter). Instead of focusing upon those Jews who were in England, the authors attempt to discover crypto-Jews (a blast from the past if ever there was one!) – Henry of Huntigdon being one who they highlight as having had Jewish connections. In the final chapters, the authors attempt to do the same thing for medieval Wales, England after the Expulsion, where they apparently remained, and under the Tudors.

                I’ll be honest, I wasn’t in the slightest bit convinced by this book or the arguments embodied in it. That being said, however, I think that it does two things well. First, it demonstrates how Jews have been incorporated into local legend and myth making. Equally, I do not believe that surveys of Jews in medieval England should begin in 1066. Having said that, I don’t think this is an especially good book. The fundamental problem that I have with this book is not that it is controversial. On the contrary, I actually like controversial scholarship – and mine probably falls into that category as well. Rather, if you are going to be controversial, then you need to bolster your arguments with as much evidence as you can. Regrettably, this text doesn’t do this (I’m not sure that the evidence is there to use in the first place). In essence this is an exercise in etymology. Whilst a Jewish (or Muslim) name can be suggestive of a person’s origins, it cannot be treated as incontrovertible evidence as these authors do (particularly in chapters five and six). Anybody who has worked on the evidence of medieval Anglo-Jewry from the thirteenth century will have come across a Jewish sounding name borne by a Christian. Thus, if you use names as a starting point, you then have to prove a Jewish connection which I’m afraid that this book doesn’t do. An additional source of evidence which underpins the argument here is literature. The authors contend that the significant role that Jews occupied in pre-Norman literature cannot be accounted for, unless Jews were present in England at the time. I find this to be a truly baffling assumption given the central role that Jews inhabited in Christian theology justifies this position (the archetypal bad guy as it were). Moreover, as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once commented, “If Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him”. It is understood within the historiography that medieval Jews were largely invented (the “virtual” Jew as one scholar termed it). Therefore, in the absence of these two types of evidence, this book really doesn’t hold water. Finally, or the final problem that I shall spell out here, this book is written almost entirely in the present tense which makes for an incredibly irritating reading experience. 

To conclude, I think that a geneaological history of the Jews in medieval England should, and could, be written. That being said, I'm not sure that this is such a text. Such a text would be focused and would compile a large source base to support it (and would probably begin with an online project). 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

King John and the Jews

It has become fashionable in recent years to quote Professor John Gillingham in describing King John (r. 1199-1216). That is: he was a ‘shit’. Ordinarily, with my historian’s hat on, I would attempt to argue that this was an oversimplification, or that he wasn’t all bad. In seeking to address John’s relations with the Jews, however, I cannot think of a sincere way to do that which I actually believe. This is despite my well known soft spot for John on the whole. Nevertheless, I thought that I would subject you, dear reader, to another tedious bit of my writing by outline of John’s relations with the Jews. So, Richard I, having been stupid enough to stand still in front of the walls of Chalus without any amour on, died on 6 April 1199. It was not immediately apparent who would succeed him. With the support of men such as William Marshal and Hubert Walter, however, King John was quickly crowned king of England. It took a bit longer to sort out affairs on the continent but effectively by May 1200, with the treaty of Le Goulet, John seemed to have things under control with his lands in France.

                The first real evidence that we have on John’s interactions with the Jews comes from 1201. In that year, John issued a charter to the Jews which was basically a reiteration of the charters which Richard had issued in 1190. The only exception being that John’s was to all of the Jews of England and Normandy rather than just individuals. This was obtained by the Jews for the princely sum of 4,000 marks – though it was payable in four instalments. It is, however, important to note that it was conventional during this period for such a charter to be paid for. Two years later, in a letter addressed to the mayor of London, John reiterated his protection of the Jews (presumably in response to some kind of attack) by saying ‘If we had given our peace to a dog then it ought to be inviolably observed’. Historians have traditionally highlighted the language which was employed here, however, I’ve never associated John with tact, unless he had to use it. Consequently, I think that the fact that John was prepared to issue any kind of support to the Jews is important – even if the language used could have been better. What is more significant, for me, is that at roughly the same time, John was fast losing Normandy to Philip Augustus. Now, given that Anglo-Jewry was an off shoot of the Rouen Jewry, one would expect that the implications of this for the Jews had been widely examined. I don’t think that any satisfactory explanation of those implications has ever been given, however. This is not least because we know that the Jews had networks of communication with the Continent so this is an important oversight (though not one that I’m qualified to address).

                Thereafter we know little of John’s relations with the Jews until 1207. In that year not only was a tallage of 4,000 marks imposed upon the Jews, but so was the demand of 10% of the value of all Jewish moneylending transactions. Another tallage followed in 1210. This year was described by Cecil Roth as a ‘black year for the Jews’ when the so-called Bristol tallage was levied. This was a demand for 66,000 marks, which is thought to have come because John was dissatisfied with the receipts which had come in 1207 (though it is difficult to say given the lack of sources). At this point, one cannot help but stop and remember W. L. Warren’s comments about John’s ingenuity, imagination and creativity when it came to extracting money out of people – here’s  the masterclass. First, he ordered that every Jew in England should be arrested, male and female. Again it is difficult to say how far this was complied with, but it seems most likely to me that this was only done in the case of the leading members of each community. Having said that, however, it is not impossible that the order was carried out in full. Thereafter, a number of leading Jews either agreed to pay the sum that had been assessed upon them or were executed and had their goods confiscated. Famously (or perhaps infamously) one Jew from Bristol had one tooth removed daily until he agreed to pay (Matthew Paris tells us that he lasted seven days – OUCH!). This is the last major interaction that we know John had with the Jews. Certainly, chapters 10 and 11 of Magna Carta could be cited, but those were forced upon John – and in any event the barons weren’t particularly nice to the Jews either given that they tore down a number of Jewish houses in order to repair and reinforce the walls of London. 

Friday, 14 October 2016

[#55] Elisheva Baumgarten, Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance (Philadelphia, 2014).

Academic Entry:

A study of how piety manifested itself in the social and gender history of medieval Ashkenazi Jewry focusing particularly on Germany and northern France.

General Entry:

If you study medieval religion for long enough then, sooner or later, you will be confronted by a tedious tome upon medieval piety. Oft times, when reading these, you get the urge to scream that the perceptions of a few members of the intellectual elite cannot, and should not, be treated as representative of medieval life and attitudes. I am delighted to say that Elisheva Baumgarten’s Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz is not such a tome. It is no secret that I have been a fan of Baumgarten’s since I first read her work several years ago. This book in particular provides a lively discussion of the way that social and gendered structures manifested themselves among the Ashkenazic Jewry within the framework of practical piety. Anybody who is familiar with Baumgarten’s scholarship will know that she excels at the study of women and gender, as well as considering the social context of medieval Jewry. Certainly, this book encapsulates both of these elements at their best – it is also a tour de force for feminist theory more generally (I do not mean that as a criticism – I like historians to take a position and stick to it!). Finally, before I outline the contents of this book, one of the most successful elements of the text, for me, is the social history element of the study. This is because, there is a tendency among historians (I am guilty of it myself) to write about the Jews as a homogenous group who only lived together and were isolated like an island in a sea of Christianity. As Baumgarten convincingly demonstrates in this book, however, medieval Ashkenazi Jews lived alongside, and were influenced by, the Christian majority in all facets of their lives, even if they did retain their cultural identity.

                In chapter one, Baumgarten considers the role of the synagogue within the Jewish communities covered by her study. This is where her gendered approach is especially important because the role that women could play in the synagogue is well known. Consequently, by considering the reality of Jewish life during this period, she paints an intriguing, and convincing, picture of the role that women could, and did, play in the Jewish community. Moving on from this, in a chapter which I may actually be in love with, Baumgarten discusses the role of fasting and atonement in medieval Jewish society. I think that this is a particularly successful discourse for two reasons. First, the way in which this chapter is juxtaposed with the previous – the self versus the place as it were – is incredibly thought provoking. Second, the way in which she incorporates the significance of the Christian context into the development of this aspect is exceptionally well thought out. Sticking with the theme of self-improvement, in chapter three the importance of charity is discussed. One of the things that I associate with Judaism is charity, so Baumgarten’s consideration of the role of gender in charitable donations through the lens of Nurnberg is fascinating. Given my love of women’s history, it should come as no surprise that I think that chapter four is little short of epic.  Here, Baumgarten explores how women could, in reality if not theory, inhabit male spaces by fulfilling roles that are traditionally thought to have been the preserve of men. In the final chapters, the role of appearance in portraying piety, as well as attempting to exude piety that people simply didn’t have, are considered. For me, the constancy of piety in the lives of medieval Jews makes this one of the most important studies on the social lives of medieval Jewry currently available. I have no doubt that the calibre of the scholarship and the writing combined will make this text required reading for decades to come.

                Whilst this is an excellent monograph, I would have liked it a lot more if it was purely a study of Germany and Northern France. At the beginning of the book, Baumgarten makes a statement which has been repeated time and again in the historiography (in various formats). That is:

I have not included the Jews of England as a distinct group in this discussion, since sources from that community are not plentiful enough to provide an adequate picture of daily pious practice. However, following scholars have suggested that English customs most closely resembled the practices of Jews in northern France, I refer to evidence from England at various points in this book.
Such a statement irritates me endlessly. If that is the case then, as I see it, the historian has two options. Either, acknowledge that the evidence is insufficient in the case of England to discuss in this way, or use different sources. Having said that, my personal bugbear is not enough to ruin the reading experience and does not detract from the quality of Baumgarten’s scholarship. Therefore, I have no problems recommending this book. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that anybody who is interested in medieval religion, social structures or Jews should make it required reading!

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Establishing the Piggy Bank - The Norman Conquest and the Jews

I was planning to write something this week to coincide with the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. I wasn't really sure what I was going to write, however, though I knew that it would be loosely Jewish in nature. So as to avoid having to confront this issue, I turned to Twitter for a bit of procrastination. There I came across the ever brilliant Leonie Hicks’ piece for BBC History Magazine, in which she played with the concept of ‘behind every great man is a greater woman’ (you’ll get no argument from me!). This made me think, what would be the comparable analogy for Anglo-Jewry? For me it’s that of a piggy bank. First you establish it, then you nurture it by depositing your pocket money into it. This will continue for some time. Sooner or later, however, your willpower will be tested and you’ll try and squeeze a few coins out on various occasions. The final stage will lead to you irrevocably opening your piggy bank, spending the contents and then disposing of the evidence. Perhaps, I’m being a bit facetious, but that could be used as the basic framework by which a history of Anglo-Jewry could be (and has been) written. Here, I want to write about the establishment of Anglo-Jewry, and by 1 November (the anniversary of the Expulsion I aim to have finished it, following my crude analysis).

                The ordinary person on the street might be forgiven for not knowing that there is a Jewish context to the Norman Conquest. To take one example, in her great survey of the historiography on the Norman Conquest, Marjorie Chibnall, did not discuss the Jews at all. Her work is not exceptional in this respect, however. Conversely, historians of medieval Anglo-Jewry have regularly cited 1066 as the date for the establishment of a Jewish community in England. The evidence relating to the Jews in the eleventh century is difficult – even more so for the pre-Conquest period. We can, however, assert with a reasonable degree of certainty that there were no Jewries in Anglo-Saxon England. That being said, it seems probable that individual Jews had visited England as merchants and traders prior to the Expulsion. Equally, scholars such as Andrew P. Scheil have demonstrated, there was a strong Jewish influence within the literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England. Conversely, across the Channel in Normandy, a Jewish community had been established at Rouen by the beginning of the new millennium. Over the following fifty years we know that this community remained as an important Askenazi Jewry. It is difficult to say what, if any, role the Jews might have played in the prelude to the Conquest. It has been suggested that Duke William’s mother might have been a Jewess from Falaise, though there is no evidence to support this. By the same token, it has been suggested that William might have turned to Jewish creditors in order to help fund the Conquest. There is no evidence to support this either, though this perhaps a more credible suggestion. This is not least because, despite the impressive revenues of the Duchy of Normandy, William may well have explored every avenue possible to fund his expedition, particularly in the short term. Consequently, having a wealthy Jewish community in the capital might have been an avenue worth exploring.

                We are on no firmer ground in seeking to discuss the Jews in the aftermath of the Conquest. The battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October and William was crowned as king of England on 25 December. It would seem reasonable to assume that the establishment of a Jewish community in England would only have taken place once William had secured his position in England to such an extent that he could ensure the security of a Jewish community. The evidence does not, however, survive to allow use to provide a firm (or even speculative) date upon this establishment of such a community. That a Jewish community was established at all during the reign of William I is testified by the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing some six decades after 1066. As will be outlined below, there is no reason to dispute this statement. If it is difficult to say anything substantive regarding when an Anglo-Jewish community was established, we can at least say where, it was established: in London. We still have reminders of the first Jewish community in the form of place names ‘Old Jewry’ (ironically, the Bank of China is now located upon the same street) and ‘St. Lawrence in Jewry’.

                This community would, on the whole, have been made up of Jews from the Rouen community. The London Jewry would continue to be a satellite of the Rouen Jewry for some time (though exactly how long has never been answered). We know this because in the following century there are records which illustrate the same Jews owning properties in London and Rouen. Whilst the Jews of medieval England would become almost synonymous with moneylending from the end of the twelfth century onwards, during the eleventh century the Jews are more commonly associated with mercantile activities – trading in fine or luxury goods – and pawnbroking. It was suggested by Robert Stacey that William I brought the Jews to England so as to ensure its economic prosperity. If this was the case, then the notion was quickly abandoned as England’s, and London’s, merchants and economic elite quickly established themselves under the new regime.

                That the London Jewry was established by William’s death in 1087, is suggested by the fact that in following decade in 1096 when the First Crusade was launched, the Jews of Rouen were able to flee to London to escape the anti-Jewish attacks that accompanied that event. There are some scant references to the Jews in London during the reign of William Rufus – notably the apocryphal debate between the bishops and the Jews where the King was said to have promised to convert if the Jews won (more a statement about William Rufus than anything else). It is not until the end of the 1120s that we start to see firm evidence of the Jewish community in England, and it would not be until the end of the 1130s that Jewish communities would be established outside of England. I hope that, if nothing else, this brief discourse has given you, dear reader, a different perspective on the Norman Conquest than purely military and political approaches. Additionally, I highly recommend Dr Hicks’ essay in BBC History Magazine which I cited above ( which gives another different perspective. 

[#54] Patricia Skinner, ‘Confronting the “Medieval” in Medieval History: The Jewish Example’, Past and Present, 181 (2003), pp. 219-247.

Nota bene: I wrote this while waiting for a job interview so hope that it is up to standard - it certainly couldn't be worse than the interview - I will check it in a few days to make sure.

Academic Entry:

A discussion of the impact and implications of periodisation in the case of Jewish history during the Chiristian middle ages.

General Entry:

In 1991 Robin Mundill commented that ‘[i]t is a surprise to most Englishmen that in the wake of the Normans a community of Ashkenazi Jews began to colonise England’ (Mundill: 1991, p. 203). Two decades later Robin wrote a much more enthusiastic endorsement of the field, writing that it had come ‘out of the shadows and into the light’ (Mundill: 2011). As ever, I take a more cynical view of the picture than Robin did. Far from concluding from his article that it was time to put up the bunting, I felt (and still feel) that the end of the first decade of the twenty first century also marked end of a chapter for medieval Anglo-Jewish studies which had begun in 1887. That is not a bad thing though. From my perspective, this is incredibly exciting. I do not mean this in terms of the number of historians working in the field – though this has certainly burgeoned in recent years. Rather, I mean this in terms of the approaches which historians are adopting and the sources which they are using. Consequently, I think that 2010 was a watershed which will shape scholarship for the next century, and I’d love to organise a conference that brought these new strands together to present the ‘new perspectives’, as it were, in the unlikely event that any funding bodies are interested! With hindsight, there were signs that these developments would take place, one of which was this article by Patricia Skinner. Whilst medievalists like Robert Bartlett had included the Jews in his textbook, this was not typical of scholarship (Bartlett: 2000, pp. 346-360). For me, Skinner’s article makes such omissions much more difficult, however, because she expertly outlines the case for the inclusion of the Jews in medieval scholarship.

                Skinner commences with an excellent discussion of periodisation. Like everybody who has studied history at university level, I have strong feelings on this. I think that ‘medieval’ is very Christian, male, and European. Consequently, I loathe using the term, particularly in a Jewish context. That being said, I don’t have a better solution and tend to think that Winston Churchill’s quotation ‘democracy is the worst of government, except for all the others’ could be used within the context of periodisation. Building upon this discussion within the field of medieval history, Skinner goes on to explore how historians have defined the ‘Jewish Middle Ages’. These two strands are then brought together in the following section of Skinner’s article where she explores what medieval means in terms of the Jews who lived in Europe during this period. Of course, for a medieval period at all, there must be a period which follows that is categorised (by modernists) as ‘modern’. Consequently, what this means in the Jewish context is also discussed by Skinner in a particularly intriguing (if brief) discourse.

                Anybody who works on any aspect of Jewish history is aware of the ever present, long shadow of the first half of the twentieth century. This is an element of the historiography which requires tact as well as scholarly discussion (consequently, it’s not something that I write about!). A historian of Skinner’s calibre, however, has no problems providing a succinct, yet inoffensive exploration of this theme. The same could be said of her discussion of the role that the state of Israel has had in influencing the study of Jews during this period. Finally, Skinner concludes with a theme which I think has no place in a discipline that I love: postmodernism. I don’t want to see historian reinforcing old barriers and writing ‘Jewish’ history as a separate entity. Rather, in the vein of 1989, I want to see sledgehammers taken to barriers in whatever guise they come in, and I want to see the process of unification begin. Thus, I want to see all peoples, regardless of race, gender religion or anything else, included under the same roof. Consequently, I think that this thought provoking essay by Patricia Skinner if definitely worth a read!

Work Cited:

Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225 (Oxford, 2000).

Robin R. Mundill, ‘English medieval Ashkenazim – literature and progress’, Ashchkenas, 1 (1991), pp. 203-210.

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.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

[#53] Pinchas Roth, ‘New Responsa by Isaac ben Peretz of Northampton’, Jewish Historical Studies, 46 (2014), pp. 1-17.

Academic Entry:

The publication of four responsa by Isaac ben Peretz of Northampon, complete with translation, explanation and introduction.

General Entry:

At the moment, one of my favourite historians is Pinchas Roth. I love the original way in which he approaches the discipline of medieval Anglo-Jewish studies, and the panache with which he writes.  I think that I am right in saying that, as yet, this article on Isaac ben Peretz of Northampton is the only sole authored article that has been published on the subject of medieval Anglo-Jewry – though there are a few more that will be published at some point in the near future, which I can’t wait for others to see.  As a slight divergence, it should be noted that, Roth’s work on Provence is equally epic.  So, onto this article. I must confess that the first time that I read this, I had absolutely no idea who Isaac ben Peretz was. Despite the fact that I’d read a couple of the references that Roth highlights as having mentioned him, he had made no impression upon me. I think that the reason for this becomes clear in the opening section of this article. As Roth elucidates, whilst Isaac appears in the responsa, he is hard to trace in the Latin sources. If truth be told, I think that Roth spends a bit too much time exploring the Latin source material (not something I ever thought that I’d say!). As is rightly demonstrated, we can’t know who Isaac was from the Latin source material so I’m not sure what is served by outlining the multiple Isaacs of Norwich – though this section was both well researched and well written.

                In the following section, Roth outlined the presence of Isaac ben Peretz in the published responsa. In particular, two decisions are singled out, both of which relate to moneylending and debt (which will inevitably attract my interest). This laid the foundations for the following sections in which Roth presents the ‘new’ responsa. Here Roth provides an overview of Isaac’s intellectual activities which demonstrates that he was a more important figure than has been represented in the traditional historiography. Moving on from this Roth transcribes and translates each of the responsa which form the basis of his article. What I love about this, or rather what I love most, is that Roth does not attempt to repackage published material as new but actually goes to the manuscript sources. I always enjoy seeing the results of historians’ endeavours in the archives rather than just in the printed material. Ordinarily, I would summarise and perhaps explain the response in question, but Roth has done such a superb job at that himself, that I couldn’t hope to improve upon his discussion. Consequently, I shall limit myself to saying that the documents in question provide a wonderful insight into the social history of medieval Anglo-Jewry.

                To conclude, Roth has written a historiographical survey of ‘rabbinical scholarship’ which shall shortly be published (sooner, rather than later, one would hope). When this comes to be updated a few decades hence, I am confident that this piece will be treated as a watershed which radically changed the way in which historians approach this topic. Consequently, it almost goes without say that I highly recommend this piece – but just in case: I highly recommend this piece.