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, 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, 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,, 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.