Jewish life in medieval England

Many of us in England like to think of ourselves as a fairly tolerant people, accepting of many traditions and ethnic groups. I would venture to say that this has some basis in truth, at least in contemporary Britain – it is true that if you go back a few decades, English society, unused to mass immigration, gave a frequently hostile reception to Caribbean and Asian immigrants. At any rate, when we hear the term ‘anti-Semitism’ we are most likely to think of Nazi Germany, or the Russian pogroms of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet in medieval England, Jews were persecuted and eventually expelled, left to wander the rest of Europe. (After they were allowed back in the 17th century, England became one of the better places in Europe to be Jewish, but that’s another story).

The first written record of Jews in England goes back to the reign of William the Conqueror. In 1070, William invited a group of Jewish merchants from Rouen to England, possibly to help the Crown in financial matters. The Jewish community grew over the next few centuries, during which time the discrimination against English Jews ebbed and flowed. At certain periods, Jews were better tolerated, often for policy reasons. They were granted a number of rights at various points. In Henry I’s reign, a royal charter ensured that Jews were permitted to buy and sell goods and property, to be tried by their peers, to swear oaths on the Torah rather than on a Christian Bible, and to move about the country without paying tolls. It should be borne in mind that a great many English peasants didn’t enjoy the last right, because of the restrictive feudal system which prevented much movement away from the lord’s estate.

By about 1140, Jews were to be found in many of the major English and Welsh towns: London, Oxford, Cambridge, Canterbury, Windsor, Reading, Winchester, Newport, Norwich, Bungay and Thetford. A number of Jews managed to do very well for themselves, at least in financial terms. Aaron of Lincoln, for instance, is believed to have been the wealthiest man in 12th-century England, perhaps even wealthier than the king. Testament to the wealth of certain individuals in the Jewish community is the Jew’s House in Lincoln, one of the earliest extant town houses in the country. Dating originally to the mid-12th century, the house is well-built out of stone, and has impressive features such as elaborate Romanesque windows.

Jew's House in High Street, Lincoln
The Jew’s House in Lincoln

However, for all the concessions granted to English Jews, their overall experience was one of discrimination and persecution. Numerous statutes limited their freedom of action, and they were never accorded the full rights of other English subjects. Petty legal discrimination abounded. For instance, before 1177, Jews were not permitted to bury their dead anywhere outside London, and in 1280 Edward I ordered that ‘Jews and Jewesses’ had to pay a special toll in order to cross the bridge at Brentford. Edward I also stripped Jews of their right to lend money, restricted their movements and activities, and forced them to wear a yellow patch on their clothing.

Frequently the king would seize Jewish assets simply because he needed money and could get away with it more easily than if he imposed onerous taxes on the whole population, which would run the risk of inciting rebellion. The persons and goods of the Jewish community in England were therefore rarely secure. One of the first such recorded incidents is when King Stephen burned down the house of Jew in Oxford when the man refused to pay a contribution to the royal expenses. Further incidents of intimidation and coercion followed. When negotiating an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor in 1168, Henry II abducted the chief representatives of the English Jews and sent them to Normandy, imposing a land tax on the rest of the community to the value of 5,000 marks. Raising money for the Crusade against Saladin in 1188, Henry then demanded a quarter of all Jewish chattels for the purpose, a far greater proportion than was required of his Gentile subjects.

Jews were forced to wear special hats (England, 13th century)
Jews were forced to wear special hats (England, 13th century)

Persecution of the Jews grew increasingly serious, and indeed violent, towards the end of the 13th century. When Jewish moneylenders found themselves unable to fund the war against Wales in 1276, Edward’s response was brutal. He accused English Jews of disloyalty and enacted various punitive statutes. The heads of Jewish households were arrested, with over three hundred taken to the Tower of London and executed. On November 17, 1278, every Jew in England was arrested on suspicion of coin clipping and counterfeiting. Coin clipping was in fact carried out by Christians as well as Jews, but this little detail does not seem to have alleviated the Crown’s harsh treatment of the accused Jews. The Bury Chronicle records how:

“All Jews in England of whatever condition, age or sex were unexpectedly seized … and sent for imprisonment to various castles throughout England. While they were thus imprisoned, the innermost recesses of their houses were ransacked.” 

On a wider level, many English people were anti-Semitic as a matter of course, and augmented discriminatory laws with persecution of their own. Underpinning much of this was the contemporary Catholic attitude towards Judaism. Using the ancient idea that Jews were to be despised as ‘Christ-killers’, the medieval Catholic Church played a shameful role in inciting violence against Jews and their property. All over Europe, rumours abounded that Jews were the malevolent members of a great conspiracy against Christians. Jews were blamed for many unfortunate events; it was commonly believed, for instance, that outbreaks of plague originated from the wicked Jews poisoning wells.

13th century English caricature of the Jew Aaron, son of Satan
13th century English caricature of the Jew Aaron, son of Satan

This anti-Jewish sentiment periodically erupted into mob violence. For instance, when a rumour went around London in September 1189 that the king had ordered a massacre of the Jews, a frenzied mob set fire to houses in Old Jewry, killing those who attempted to escape. Further massacres followed at Lynn, Stamford Fair, Bury St Edmunds, and Lincoln, where the Jews only survived by taking refuge in Lincoln Castle.

The most infamous massacre took place in York in March 1190, on the night of the sabbath. Religious feeling was high at the time, as the crusaders were just preparing to leave on the Third Crusade, off to slaughter the Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land. Anti-Jewish violence in York was increasing, and Josce, the leader of the Jews in York, asked the warden of York Castle to shelter them and their families. They were duly accepted into Clifford’s Tower. However, crusaders surrounded the castle and demanded that the Jews convert to Christianity. The Jews’ religious leader, Rabbi Yomtov of Joigney, advised his flock to commit suicide rather than convert. The father of each family apparently killed his wife and children, beginning with Josce killing his wife Anna and their two children. Josce and Yomtov set fire to the wooden keep; the handful of Jews who did not kill themselves died in the fire, or were murdered by the rioters.

Clifford's Tower, York Castle
Clifford’s Tower, York Castle

The history of the Jewish community in medieval England ended suddenly when King Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, which exiled between 4,000 and 16,000 Jews from the country. A number of Jews favoured by the monarchy were permitted to sell their properties before leaving, but more often, Jewish goods and property were confiscated by the Crown. With a few exceptions, Jews did not return to England until Oliver Cromwell invited them back in 1655.

Expulsion_judios-en.svg
Jewish expulsions in Europe, 1100-1600

The Münster rebellion: the creation of a 16th-century theocracy

Today, Münster is a small and unassuming city in the northwest of Germany, hardly the first place one would think of when asked to identify historical hotbeds of sedition and rebellion. Yet for several surreal months in 1535-6, Münster was the scene of a radical religious and political experiment, an attempt by a small group of radical Protestants to create a totalitarian communist theocracy, a ‘New Jerusalem’ located not in the deserts of Palestine, but in the fertile region of Münsterland.

It all started in Strasbourg, which had become an unofficial headquarters of the Anabaptist movement following the German Peasants’ War of 1525. The Anabaptists formed a radical sect which had sprung up in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. In Strasbourg, an Anabaptist leader named Melchior Hoffmann declared himself the ultimate interpreter of prophecy, and a divinely appointed leader. He claimed that he was one of the “two witnesses” of the Book of Revelation, that the end of the world was nigh, and that Strasbourg was about to become the new Jerusalem, ruling the entire world. Crucially, Hoffmann also suggested that violence could be used with impunity against enemies of the faith (i.e. those who opposed his teachings).

Melchior Hoffmann
Melchior Hoffmann

This heady invocation of prophecy and millenarian visions, combined with more than a whiff of rebellion, proved attractive to quite a few contemporaries, especially to Anabaptists and members of similar religious sects. Hoffmann travelled throughout Germany preaching his gospel, spreading it to particularly great effect in northwest Germany and the Netherlands. His followers called themselves “Melchiorites”, a name which reveals the centrality of his charismatic personality to the movement.

Sensing a threat to the political, social and religious status quo, a group of German rulers had managed to get Hoffmann thrown into prison by 1533. Yet the Anabaptist movement was hydra-headed thanks to its egalitarian  nature; where one leader fell, another quickly rose to take his place. It was therefore difficult for the authorities to entirely crush Anabaptist unrest. In the event, it was a lowly baker from Strasbourg, Jan Matthys, who took up Melchior Hoffmann’s mantle. He claimed to be the second witness of the coming apocalypse, but transferred the soon-to-be capital of the saints from Strasbourg to Münster. In order to pave the way for his arrival in Münster, Matthys sent four ‘apostles’ ahead of him to convert the ordinary folk and sound out the religious sympathies of the town’s leaders.

Jan Matthys
Jan Matthys

Matthys’ apostles found the town council full of Anabaptist sympathisers, who would be a great help and source of support in the coming months. Matthys arrived in Münster, staged a rebellion, and managed to throw out the erstwhile ruler, the Prince Bishop Franz von Waldeck. Matthys and his disciples entered the city in triumph and soon got to work re-baptising thousands of the inhabitants. As part of his program of spiritual purification, Matthys expelled all the Catholics from the city, outlawed money, and forbade anyone from owning property. All goods were now supposed to be held in common.

Franz von Waldeck, meanwhile, was busy getting together an army with which to take back his city. He managed to obtain material help from neighbouring princes, as the presence of such a politically and religiously radical community was not in the interests of any of the naturally conservative local rulers. Once assembled, Waldeck’s troops besieged the city and proceeded to starve out the city’s inhabitants.

This fledgling New Jerusalem suffered the misfortune of losing its leader on Easter Sunday in April 1534. Ever mindful of messages and visions from God, Matthys had prophesied that on that very day, God’s judgement was going to fall upon the wicked (i.e. Waldeck and his supporters). Matthys therefore thought it a good idea to make a sally against Waldeck’s troops with only thirty men. He believed that he was destined to be a second Gideon, imitating Gideon’s slaughter of the Mideonites in the Bible. Whatever the truth of God’s supposed judgement on that day, Matthys’ own judgement proved distinctly abysmal. He and his small band of men were soon cut off by Waldeck’s troops and Matthys was killed, his head severed and placed on a pole for everyone in the city to see. His genitals were also nailed to the city gate, in case the point needed stressing.

A contemporary depiction of the siege of Münster
A contemporary depiction of the siege of Münster

As already mentioned, however, the Anabaptist movement was hydra-headed, so another obscure man soon rose to take Matthys’ place. John of Leiden, one of Matthys’ core disciples, was recognised as Matthys’ religious and political successor. He justified his authority and actions by the apparent receipt of visions from heaven. As Leiden’s authority grew, he proclaimed himself the successor to King David, and adopted royal regalia, honours and absolute power in this ‘new Zion’. Leiden legalised polygamy (he himself took sixteen wives) and reaffirmed the community of goods. Leiden managed to keep most of the townspeople on his side by the sheer force of his charisma, and also by making frequent promises of eternal salvation for those citizens who held out against the besieging forces. His motto for the defence of the city was “Gottes Macht ist mein Kraft” (God’s power is my strength).

Meanwhile, people inside the city were starving due to the siege blockade. After a surprisingly lengthy resistance, Münster was eventually taken by the besiegers in June 1535. John of Leiden and other prominent Anabaptist leaders were captured and imprisoned. Several of them were tortured and finally executed in the city marketplace; after the initial burning, their tongues were pulled out with tongs, before each was killed with a burning dagger thrust through the heart. Their bodies were placed in three cages and hung from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, and the remains left to be picked at by carrion birds. The bones were removed about fifty years later, but the cages still remain on the church tower.

*   *   *   *

The problem with this story is that we don’t really know how much of it is actually true. If the story reads like sensational reporting, it could be because it really was. Much of what we know about the Münster Rebellion, specifically about what went on in the city, comes from hostile sources who would of course play up the scandalous and sensational aspects, in order to discredit Anabaptists and similar groups. In fact, the Münster Rebellion really did mark a turning point for the Anabaptist movement in Germany. It would never again assume such political significance; rulers, both Lutheran and Catholic, adopted stringent measures to suppress them and similar religious groups. Matthys and Leiden had tried their best to create a New Jerusalem, but it was never to be.

The original cages still hang on the steeple of St. Lambert's Church in Münster
The original cages still hang on the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church in Münster