I’ve long harboured a love of historical novels. More precisely, I love good historical novels. The work of people like Elizabeth Chadwick (whose novels are responsible for my love of medieval England), Sharon Penman, Bernard Cornwell, Hilary Mantel (especially her much underappreciated novel A Place of Greater Safety), C. J. Sampson, Simon Scarrow, Ben Kane, et. al. Consequently, when I was looking for a new research project, I thought it might be an idea (it remains to be seen whether it was a good one) to combine my love of medieval Anglo-Jewry and historical novels. More specifically, I was trying to establish how the Jews of medieval England had been represented in modern “popular” culture using historical novels as a starting point. Now I haven’t managed to obtain every book on my list, but by my count there are at least fifteen pertinent novels, and a number of key themes have emerged. For context, a recent essay exploring the Empress Matilda in historical novels could draw upon only three historical novels. I obviously cannot explore every facet of each novel in my paper – the only thing worse that writing such a document would be reading it! Therefore, I thought that I would use this blog to sketch out my thoughts and notes on the subject. In this post I intend to discuss a novel which has only one scene (of only nine pages) in which Jews appear. The novel is When Christ and His Saints Slept, by Sharon Penman first published in 1994. The novel itself, the first book of the Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy, centres on the Ranulf, a (fictional) bastard son of Henry I (r. 1100-1135) and his exploits during the so-called Anarchy. Although the book only contains one scene with the Jews, this made such an impression on me that in my paper I juxtapose Penman against every other historical novelist (though I think it best not to say why here, you may be able to guess from what I have to say).
Although short, a lot is packed into this scene. Most importantly, Ranulf meets Aaron and Josce, Jewish traders who are returning home to Bristol from Chester. Additionally, we are told that Aaron has a wife, Belaset, waiting at home for him and, rather quaintly, the pair have a dog called Cain. One things that I love most about this passage is its accuracy. Throughout the passage, Penman managed to intertwine a synthesis of the medieval Anglo-Jewish experience, with some general references and other explicit contemporary references, like that to the William of Norwich case. Equally, the approach which Penman adopts is not to represent the Jews as they were presented in contemporary chronicles but, rather, as they are viewed in the governmental records. Thus, Aaron and Josce are presented not as Jews but as Bristolians and English. At the very beginning of the passage, Ranulf is shocked meet Jews, and we know that the vast majority of Christians would never have met a Jew. Soon, however, they are just travellers with a common goal and I think that this is evident in the governmental records and in the work of scholars like Sarah Rees Jones. Of course, there are elements which are not congruous with the historical record. For example, Aaron and Josce are described as “Bristol-born and bred”. Given that the only Jewish community in England until 1135 had been at London, however, it seems unlikely (though not impossible) that this could have been the case in 1148. Equally, the Jews are described as regularly being “accused of […] coin clipping, and sometimes suspected of profaning the Eucharist, stabbing the Host till it bled”. Whilst these allegations would become staples of thirteenth century Jew hatred, they’re not something which I would consider in England during the twelfth century.
I am loath to end on a negative point about this passage, however, even if I do not mean it as an attack, merely an observation. Therefore, I thought I would include a little bit on the influences that I detected. First, and this is the influence that I am less confident about, would appear to be Cecil Roth. Given the date that this book was published, 1994, there were remarkably few sources that Penman could have used which were accessible. I think, however, that I am right in saying that Cecil Roth (or somebody associated with his work) was one of the secondary sources used in researching this passage. This is not least because Penman makes use of Roth’s famous phrase which he used to describe the state of Anglo-Jewry during the reign of Henry III: the king’s “milch cow”. The second, much more obvious, influence that I detected (I’m not sure I can take any credit given the obvious comparison) is Gerald of Wales’ Journey Through Wales. There are a number of similarities between the two passages. First, in both the travellers are journeying through the Marches towards Shrewsbury. More significantly, however, the character of Josce in Penman’s text is evidently modelled on Gerald’s “witty Jew” and the two share the same razor sharp wit across the centuries.
With this project, I am not trying to be a historian condescending historical novelists but rather to see which themes have emerged in the popular imagination. Consequently, with my paper I shall not be considering historical accuracy or criticising novelists. Therefore, if any novelists who’ve written any pertinent to this project would be interested in chatting or even being interviewed for further insights then I would be enormously grateful. You can contact me via the following means:
· E-mail: email@example.com
· Facebook: The “Towards a Bibliography of Medieval Anglo-Jewry” Facebook Group, https://www.facebook.com/groups/163168817403014/
· Twitter: @medievaljews.
 Sharon Penman, When Christ and His Saints Slept (London: Penguin Books, 1995).
 Penman, When Christ and His Saints Slept, pp. 602-610
 Penman, When Christ and His Saints Slept, p. 605.
 Penman, When Christ and His Saints Slept, p. 604.
 Penman, When Christ and His Saints Slept, p. 606; Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1964), chapter 3.
 Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales, ed. and trans. Lewis Thorpe (London: Penguin Classics, 2004), esp. pp. 204-205.