Tuesday, 31 January 2017

New Podcast Link: Jewish Tower of London

The "Curious Connections... Jewish History of the Tower of London" event, held at the Tower on 24 January 2017 is now available via the Historic Royal Palaces: Talks and Lectures Itunes page. If it is also on the internet then I have been unable to find it. Just as a fun fact - mine is the first question during the question and answer session!

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

[#62] David Stephenson, “Jewish presence in, and absence from, Wales in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries”, Jewish Historical Studies, 43 (2011), pp. 7-20.

Ordinarily, when I start a new project, I compile a reading list and spend some time reviewing the previous literature. This is what I did last year when I started a project considering the evidence of “Welsh” Jews. If anybody’s interested, this task could be completed in a leisurely afternoon. Consequently, before I commence with this review, I should state that I very much have a dog in the fight, and though I am not presently permitted to submit my essay on the topic (which at any rate isn’t quite finished), naturally I think that I bring something different to the party. This inevitably impacts upon my reading, and interpretation, of this piece. Today’s review is concerned with David Stephenson’s article “Jewish presence in, and absence from, Wales in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries”. This commences with an interesting literature review and discussion of how historians have (perhaps erroneously) viewed the extant source material in the past. This is followed by, what is for me, the most successful part of the article. That is, the assemblage of references relating to those Jews who bore the toponym “of Caerleon”, and the associated references to nearby Chepstow. Thereafter, we are in slightly murkier water. Though Stephenson does a reasonably good job with the twelfth century evidence, I’m afraid that it is to scant to be convincing. Likewise, the discussion of Jews in Shropshire, though interesting, is far from convincing. This is not Stephenson’s fault, merely an inherent problem with the extremely limited evidence. Additionally, Stephenson discusses the trading relationship between Carmarthen and Bristol during this period. In my piece, I favour the connections between Caerleon and Bristol which I find to be more important, so it should come as no surprise that that is also the view I hold here. Finally, Stephenson concludes with a discussion of why Jews weren’t more widespread in Wales during this period. Again, the evidence simply isn’t strong enough, in my opinion, to support such a discussion, but what is there certainly appears to be reasonable.

I don’t mean to sound all historian-y but, for me, a major shortcoming of this article is the reliance on the source material which has appeared in print. In two particular instances this is particularly problematic for the piece. First, Stephenson correctly notes, based upon the printed calendar, that there are several acknowledgements of debt contained in The National Archives relating to the Jews of Caerleon. What Stephenson could not have known, however, based upon the English summary, is that these are even more remarkable documents than the entry implies. Thus, in a paper which is currently under consideration at Jewish Historical Studies, I argue that they are linguistically significant and may well have been written by the Jew to whom they were acknowledged.[1] Also, just to be a pedant, he missed at least one acknowledgement in a different repository. Second, Stephenson relied on B. L. Abrahams’ summary of the contents of the scrutinies of the archae which were produced after the Expulsion. This is problematic because Abrahams only provides the total extent of each Jews lending with overall total. Therefore, it is impossible to get any understanding of the extent of each Jews’ activities, and also Abrahams didn’t include every detail of the scrutinies which would have answered at least one major problem of Stephenson’s article (what turned into a complex discussion could actually have been resolved very quickly).

                To conclude, this is a pretty decent article. It manages to assemble most of the obvious (though by no means all) entries within the printed records. For me, however, there is one fundamental error. In this article, the modern geographical boundaries of Wales as opposed to adopting the medieval borders. Had this latter definition been adopted then, as far as I can tell from this article and my own research, there is not a single piece of evidence which can be used to place a Jew in Wales. Indeed, every item places the Jews in or around the Marches. Thus, although Stephenson started with the intention of disproving John Gillingham’s argument that there were “no Jewish settlements anywhere in [… medieval] Wales”, for me Stephenson reinforces that argument. The most that the evidence allows is individual Jews in specific locations which were, at the time, English not Welsh. Having said that, for the moment this is one of the only credible pieces of literature on the topic, though there are tentative signs that that may be changing, so I certainly suggest it be used as a starting point.

Additional literature on Jews in Wales

Nota bene: With the exception of Parry-Jones’ PhD thesis, which is very good, these sources should be read with a generous dose of scepticism and large pinch of salt as far as the medieval source material is concerned.

Nathan Abrams, “Jews Were Once Loved in Wales”, Haaretz, 14 October 2012, available online at http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/jews-were-once-loved-in-wales.premium-1.469890, accessed on 18 January 2017.

Cai Parry-Jones, “The History of the Jewish Diaspora in Wales”, (Bangor, unpublished PhD thesis, 2014), pp. 36-40.

Matthew Williams, “The Middle Ages, c. 1066-1290”, Welsh-Jewish History, available online at http://welshjewishheritage.tumblr.com/middleages, accessed on 18 January 2017.

Matthew Williams, “From medieval persecution to thriving communities, the long and fascinating history of Jews in Wales”, Wales Online, 19 August 2016, http://www.walesonline.co.uk/lifestyle/nostalgia/medieval-persecution-thriving-communities-long-11762749, accessed on 18 January 2017.

[1] Dean A. Irwin, “The Materiality of Debt in Medieval England, 1194-1275: New Perspectives”, submitted to Jewish Historical Studies.

Friday, 13 January 2017

[#61] Julie Mell, The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender, (London, 2017), ch. 3-4.

Today I’m writing a review of part of a book which I live in constant terror of. This is not because of the immense calibre of the scholarship (though it could easily be). Nor is it the skill with which the book was assembled (though it could just as easily be this as well). No, what terrifies me about this book is that, since December 2015, it has sat as a print out on one of my bookcases (see photograph). It was not, however, until I had printed out the entire text that I realised that the pages were not numbered! Consequently, should a strong breeze, a vigorous closing of the door, or the careless
removal of another book, could result in catastrophe. This also means that whilst this is a brand new book for you, dear reader, thanks to the generosity of Dr Mell, I’ve spent more than a year thinking about the contents. In that time, I’ve read the book thrice in full – and multiple times in part. The first time I read it, I was far from convinced. Dr Mell’s eloquent and impassioned defence of her book however, meant that I felt compelled to read it a second time with an open mind. This time, I felt more comfortable with the arguments and, consequently, sided with Mell. The final time that I read it, I was inspired to question my own approach to medieval Anglo-Jewish moneylending activities. I do not plan to review the entire book here – not least because large swathes of Mell’s genius intimidate me – however I will (attempt to) consider the two magisterial chapters which are concerned with “merry old England”. In fairness, these two chapters also intimidate me, but at least I’m familiar with the sources and evidence for these chapters.

                Chapter three commences with a wonderful synthesis of the sources and historiography upon which more than a century of scholarship has been based and which Mell seeks to challenge. This is followed by an important section which outlines the nature of taxation in medieval England during this period. Within the context of this discussion, Mell highlights the Jewish tallages which she plans to base her analysis upon. This section inevitably follows the work of Robert Stacey and Robin Mundill. It does not, however, dogmatically adhere to the arguments and interpretations advanced by those two brilliant scholars. For me, this section is characteristic of what makes The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender such a triumph: the combination of old(-ish) scholarship with the new ground breaking material which Mell brings to the table. The significance of these discussions becomes clear for the rest of the chapter where Mell innovatively examines the distribution of wealth within the Anglo-Jewish community (the percentage breakdown – which I shan’t spoil for you – is truly remarkable), as well as considering the implications of the tallage records for calculating the Jewish population during this period. Most historians of medieval Anglo-Jewry would (and have) stop there. Not Mell. Rather in a section which compounds brilliance with genius, Mell juxtaposes the Jewish records with those similar records for the Christian population. As she rightly points out, “the data [assembled here] should be read as a rough and hazy picture. But it is telling all the same”. This chapter concludes with a section which combines the tallage records with the scrutinies of the archae. I think that perhaps too much reliance is placed upon the latter source for me – I dislike them enormously as they only provide a snapshot of one specific point and there is no way of knowing what debts were removed before or added afterwards. What I cannot fault, however, is Mell’s results. Even accounting for my mistrust, she presents to much evidence to be disregarded. By this, I mean that she demonstrates that the majority of Jews who are recorded as having contributed towards the various tallages, had no acknowledgements of debt in the archae, and those that did only had very few. I do think that two areas could have been addressed here thought to strengthen the argument. The first being the significance of networks of credit which were headed by leading Jews and involved multiple lesser Jews. The second is the fact that whilst the scrutinies suggest that a few leading Jews dominated the moneylending field, the majority of acknowledgements of debt relate not to these but to lesser Jews.

                Moving on from this, chapter four considers the legal status of the Jews in medieval England. As with the previous chapter, Mell commences by scrutinising the historiography and I for one am delighted that Maitland comes in for sustained bombardment here. Conversely, the work of Gavin Langmuir is adopted as the model upon which to build. The fundamental premise of this chapter is to dismiss the notion that Anglo-Jewry were serfs. Inevitably, this means that Mell must tackle the tallages – the argument which every historian who has argued for serfdom has used.  Unlike her illustrious forbears, however, Mell does not treat these in isolation. Rather, she highlights that the Jews were not singled out for special treatment but rather form part of a nationwide picture. Similarly, in the following section establishes that Jewish tallages were administered in much the same way as the comparable Christian tax. Moving on from this, Mell considers the way Jewish status is represented in the use of courts and the common law. Here she is up against stiff competition in the work of Hannah Mayer (on manorial courts) and the current research of Rebecca Searby on the Curia Regis rolls (which I only know based on discussions but am looking forward to reading). With this in mind, and given my own research into the archae system, I think that this is, for me at least, not quite as successful as the previous elements. That is not saying very much given the enormous standard which prevails through these chapters. Here, Mell discusses the development and role of the Exchequer of the Jews (and how that worked with the archae system) in order to bolster he attack upon the notion of Jewish serfs. Certainly, I am convinced by her arguments here but think that in the light of other research, it could have been taken further.

                If I have one complaint about this book (and it does border on the verge of excessive pedantry) it is not with my historians hat on, but my readers hat. That is, Mell insists on calling Richard I “Richard the Lionheart”. If it were any other king, I would probably overlook it, however, I seriously dislike Richard so I shan’t. As far as I’m concerned king’s should only have their regnal number, period. That being said, given the complexity and length of this book, it is testament to Mell’s scholarship that that is the largest problem that I can find with it. This book is a seriously adept piece of scholarship which I suspect (and hope) will become an instant classic for students of medieval Jews in general and of medieval Anglo-Jewry specifically. Most of all, however, I am so pleased that I will be able to discuss this book with others after more than a year eager anticipation for its publication!

Monday, 9 January 2017

How I deal with anti-Semites et. al.

I receive quite a lot of anti-Semitic, and other comments, to this blog. I do hope that you haven't come into contact with any of them - I try to delete them ASAP. Additionally, given that I've never made any attempt to hide my e-mail address, I get quite a lot of messages via that medium. I don't believe that it is appropriate to just ignore these messages, however. This is not least because as somebody has reminded me this weekend "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing". With that in mind, six months ago, I developed a template that I send as a response wherever I have contact details. I personalise it in various ways in relation to the message, however, I always endeavour to be courteous - the recipients seem to find that exponentially more offensive. Until Saturday 7 January 2017, the only people who had ever seen the message were the recipients. On Saturday, I sent my first of the year and thought I'd upload the message to Twitter to see whether anybody had another approach which was effective. I didn't expect what I got, however. The Tweet received more than 100 likes, more than 50 retweets and a whole host of personal messages to me. This revived my faith in humanity and I thought I'd upload it here for posterity, for those not on Twitter and so that you could see how I deal with such messages in order to keep this a safe space. (p.s. I am now aware of the error in the first sentence and have corrected it for future recipients). If you have any suggestions of other effective methods, or other comments, then as always feel free to leave them at the bottom of this page, or contact me directly via: Twitter (@medievaljews), the Facebook group or e-mail (deanantonyirwin@outlook.com).

Saturday, 7 January 2017

[#60] Victoria Hoyle, “The bonds that bind: money lending between Anglo-Jewish and Christian women in the plea rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, 1218-1280”, Journal of Medieval History, 34 (2008), pp. 119-129.

I must begin with an apology. In recent weeks I haven’t had the time to devote to this blog that I would like. In my defence, however, I have been active with research into medieval Anglo-Jewry, most of which should come to fruition in 2017. Thus, I shall be giving two conferences papers this year: “Keeping it in the Family: The Business Activities of a Thirteenth Century Anglo-Jewish Family” (Family and Power in the Middle Ages Conference – Canterbury, April 2017) and “Mapping Christian Debtors and Jewish Creditors in the Medieval English Landscape” (Leeds International Medieval Congress – Leeds, July 2017). Additionally, I have two papers in progress which I intend to submit to journals at some point this year with the working titles of: “The Jews of Caerleon (Wales)” and “Medieval Anglo-Jewry in Modern Historical Novels, 1945-2017”. I hope that this convinces you, dear reader, that it wasn’t idleness which prevented me from posting, only incompetence for not having found the time. I do, however, have many plans for the blog for the coming year so do keep reading, asking questions, and contributing.

                One of my primary research interests is the role of women and gender within the medieval Anglo-Jewish community. For those of you who are familiar with the historiography upon this topic, you might expect me to say that I am influenced by Adler, Dobson or Bartlet. Whilst these are certainly very good they are also very general. I tend to prefer the empirical elegance of the scholarship produced by people like Hannah Meyer and Victoria Hoyle. It is the latter who concerns us here today. Her article in the 2008 volume of the Journal of Medieval History, which is based upon her MA thesis completed at the University of York in 2006 (which is also well worth a read). Speaking from a personal perspective, this article has had a profound impact upon the direction of my research.

                After situating her research within the historiography, Hoyle provides the obligatory political overview of Anglo-Jewish history and the legislation which governed them. While this section must, of necessity, be included in a range of publications, not everybody is capable of writing such a survey in a way which engages the reader. Thereafter we get to the good stuff! The basic premise of this article is to consider the ways in which Christian and Jewish women came into contact in the court rolls of the Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews (PREJ), using moneylending as an entry point. This section includes a particularly good discussion of the way in which women featured in PREJ, in what numbers, and in what capacity. As Hoyle notes, however, there is an inherent problem to using PREJ because “all of the cases in the rolls represent credit agreements gone wrong and sour. Amiable borrowing does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Exchequer of the Jews” (p. 123). Additionally, Hoyle provides a section of case studies which, for me, is the best part of the article, particularly because of the calibre of the contextualisation and explanation. I want to draw attention to one of these cases, not least because I will be giving a conference paper later this year which relates to it (if you’ll excuse the shameless self-promotion). That is, Hoyle draws attention to Genta daughter of Cresse, son of Genta. Although this particular entry doesn’t reflect it, Genta was part of a major family business which centred upon her father, but which saw his children (male and female) engage in the family business. I’d like to finish this section by noting an important point that Hoyle makes which I have always endeavoured to avoid (successfully or not is another matter) in my explorations of moneylending: “Jewish historians, and women’s historians too, have traditionally made an unnatural distinction between economic activities and socio-cultural and familial life, which is only just beginning to break down” (p. 128).

                Whilst I like this article enormously, it does have its problems. As Hannah Meyer pointed out in her 2009 doctoral thesis, in using PREJ on its own, in the absence of evidence like tallage rolls and scrutinies, there was the serious potential to gain a false interpretation of the evidence. Moreover, in my own research I treat PREJ with hostility and always try to back up a point using the other governmental rolls which would have had interesting implications for the arguments presented in this article. Having said that, Hoyle was a pioneer. She invariably had to try new things which had never been applied to the medieval Anglo-Jewess before and I think that it was remarkably successful and laid the foundations for further scholarship.