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.
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).