Pick up any social history of medieval Northern European (Ashkenaz) Jewry, and sooner or later you’ll come across the statement that next to no evidence survives from England which attests to the social history of Anglo-Jewry. This is half true: there is very little Hebrew evidence. In the governmental rolls however, we have a considerable number of entries which allow us to infer the situation. This is particularly the case of the Patent Rolls during the reigns of both Henry III (r. 1216-1272) and Edward I (r. 1272-1307). In a particularly interesting entry dated 18 November 1238 from the Fine Rolls, we gain a glimpse of Jewish inheritance practices. In Christian society during this period it was conventional for the eldest male heir to inherit, and move to multiple inheritors only in the case of females. Jewish inheritance practices, however, were slightly different. It was conventional for the male heirs, in the first instance, to pay the fine of one third of the deceased’s estate. In this entry Aaron of York, presbyter iudeorum (who we’ve already met), and his brother Benedict agreed to pay a fine of £100 to inherit the estate of their brother Samuel. Both Benedict and Samuel are identified as the sons of Josce, and Aaron was as well though it is not noted in the record, and I think it is pausing briefly on this point. In the older scholarship you’ll find it stated that the brothers were the sons of Josce of York, who died in the York massacre of 1190. This argument comes from Michael Adler and is particularly problematic given that Josce appears in the records of the early thirteenth century alongside his sons. It is now known that Josce, was from Lincoln, as were his sons. Thereafter, Aaron transplanted to York, to be followed as his wealth grew by his father and brothers. I mention this because in a few books and articles that I’ve read in recent months, Adler’s argument has been promulgated. Strictly speaking, if we assume that this was one third the value of Samuel’s estate then this would put its total value at £300. The fact is, however, that in many instances we simply cannot begin to estimate the total size of any Jewish inheritance. These problems are exacerbated by Aaron’s connections at court, which make it possible that the Aaron was able to secure. In any event, the £100 fine was to be paid in instalments of £20 per annum (£10 respectively at Easter and Michaelmas). What is interesting, however, is the final part of the entry, detailing the provision for Samuel’s wife. Typically, she is not named. It seems fairly certain, however, that she and Samuel had no children given that his brothers paid the inheritance fine. When she had married Samuel, a ketubah would have been drawn up, detailing such things as her dowry, so it was a fairly simple matter to assign the appropriate properties / chattels. What I am always struck by is that in this respect it would be better to think of English women rather than differentiating between Jews and Chrsitians because Magna Carta, and its reiterations, had provided for the same thing. I also wonder whether this provision for the speedy assignment of the wife's dowry was a nod to Jewish tradition or an echo of Magna Carta - it's something of a mute point given that either way these were expected but it is interesting to wonder.
“Henry III Fine Rolls Project”, available online at http://www.finerollshenry3.org.uk/content/fimages/C60_36/m11.html accessed on 17 Nov. 16.