Tuesday, 1 November 2016

[#57] Robin R. Mundill, England's Jewish Solution: Experiment and Expulsion, 1262-1290 (Cambridge, 1998).

Academic Entry:

A study of the Jews in England during the reign of Edward I and the impact and implications of the Expulsion.

General Entry:

Today, All Saints Day (1 November), marks the 726th anniversary of the Expulsion. Consequently, it seems appropriate to review something on that topic. It has become something of a cliché to say that this or that writer “wrote the book on” this or that subject. In the case of the Expulsion however, I can confidently say that the late great Robin Mundill wrote the book on it. In his review of this book, Colin Richmond suggested that it was “the last, well-considered word on Edward’s final solution of a so-called Jewish problem”.[1] That wasn’t the purpose of this book and, knowing Robin reasonably well, I feel that it is right to say that few people would have been more disappointed had Richmond’s description proven to be true. Robin never wanted to emulate his hero’s like Sir Barnett Lionel Abrahams or Peter Elman who had written so definitively on the subject of the Expulsion as to put scholars of from revisiting the subject for decades at a time. Rather, I think that with this book, Robin sought to write the introduction to an entirely new chapter, where historians revisited and began to debate afresh this issue. If I am correct, which I (perhaps arrogantly) think that I am, then Robin would be a very happy man right now. In the nearly two decades since this study appeared, a positive plethora of publications have appeared on the subject (by the standards of scholarship on medieval Anglo-Jewry). Some of these can only be described as blasts from the past, picking up where Elman left off, where others have been innovative, and even bizarre (notably the article attributing anti-Jewish sentiment to fluctuations in weather). You, dear reader, should know by now that Robin will only ever receive a positive review from me, and whilst I may have disagreed with him on detail and approach, I tend to think that he was right in terms of the bigger picture.

                This book built heavily upon the Expulsion upon Robin’s PhD thesis: “The Jews in England, 1272-1290” (1987) and as such shares many of the foci employed in that documents – notably the emphasis upon the Jeweries of Hereford, Lincoln and Canterbury. In one key respect, however, the book differs from the PhD: it starts a decade earlier so as to take into account the Lord Edward’s interactions with the Jews before he became Edward I. In the introductory Chapter One, Mundill situates the Expulsion in the historiography, and outlined the sources which his book was based upon. In many ways this survey of the sources could apply to any aspect of Anglo-Jewry during the thirteenth century (I’ve certainly used it thus). Chapter Two sketches the situation in which Anglo-Jewry found themselves prior to the watershed of the 1275 Statute of the Jewry. Building upon this, in Chapter Three, Robin situated the Jews between those two bastions of medieval English society: the King and the Church. The following chapter is does for Edward I’s reign what Robert Stacey did for Henry III’s reign. That is, he provides a comprehensive discussion of the impact and implications of tallages under the new king. This has some really interesting, and controversial points, including that Anglo-Jewry was showing tentative signs of recovery in some quarters by 1290. The following three chapters are the piece de resistance as far as I am concerned – though I would say that given that I work on moneylending as Robin did and these chapters have done more to shape my approach than I could come close to acknowledging in words. Here, Robin used the scurtinies to paint a picture of Anglo-Jewish during this period, and the social backgrounds of their debtors. This is done with such skill and elegance, that I doubt anybody will come close to matching it for decades – I wouldn’t even try with my work. Finally, Robin concludes with a chapter devoted to the mechanisms and procedures which were employed during the Expulsion. I can only think of one word that even comes close to describing it (though falls short): “majestic”.

                To conclude, this is the book that made Robin synonymous with the Expulsion. It combines his skill, charm and eloquence all in the space of a single monograph and it is a pleasure and a privilege to read. If I were asked if I agree with everything in this book then the answer would be an emphatic and resounding no. I disagree with Robin on about a dozen points per chapter. Conversely, when a book is as good as this, it really doesn’t matter, there’s still so much to love and admire. Consequently, I cannot recommend this book enough. Finally, given that today is the anniversary of the Expulsion I shall be raising a glass today in honour of the c. 2,000-3,000 Jews who were expelled from England 726 years ago and to the memory of the scholar who forgot more about the Expulsion before breakfast than any of us could hope to know in a dozen lifetimes and I hope, dear reader, that you might do the same.


From tomorrow I shall be doing a "Jewish" On This Day feature, drawing from printed and archival documents relating to the Jews of medieval England so look out for that.

[1] Colin Richmond, ‘Review: Robin R. Mundill, England’s Jewish Solution: Experiment and Expulsion, 1262-1290’, Reviews in History, May 1999, available online at http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/70 accessed on 1 Nov. 2016.

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