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!

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