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

 

“Teaching marble to lie”: Remembering the dead in early modern monuments

“For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten”. Ecclesiastes 9:5

How will we be remembered we die? Will we be remembered at all? These are questions which occupied minds in early modern England just as much as now. Wealthy men and women in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were very concerned about how they would go down to posterity. Although most of them probably believed in a Christian afterlife, they also hoped to prove the above Ecclesiastes verse wrong by ensuring that their memory lived on after death, thus ensuring an earthly quasi-immortality. This could be achieved most obviously through fame as a statesman, soldier or scholar, but one could also hope to secure remembrance via charitable endowments, building and portraiture, as well as through one’s offspring.

During the Middle Ages, paying for the singing of masses had been used by wealthy people as a means of shortening a soul’s stay in Purgatory, and also as a way of remembering and honouring their deceased kin. In post-Reformation England, however, paying for masses was no longer an option, so people had to venerate their family in more tangible ways. Robert Burton (author of The Anatomy of Melancholy) listed the things which well-off people did in the 16th and 17th centuries to commemorate their memory and the memory of their kin. They would dedicate “tombstones and monuments…epitaphs, elegies, inscriptions, pyramids, obelisks, statues, images, pictures, histories, poems, annals, feasts, anniversaries” and would “omit no good office that may tend to the preservation of their names, honours, and eternal memory”.

Memorial to Charles Wolfran Cornwall, a prominent 18th century politician © Caecilia Dance
Memorial to Charles Wolfran Cornwall,
a prominent 18th century politician. © Caecilia Dance
Late 16th century monument in York Minster showing the deceased man at his prayers © Allan Harris
Late 16th century monument in York Minster showing the deceased man at his prayers. © Allan Harris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One notable development in post-Reformation England was the enormous proliferation of funerary monuments both inside and outside churches. Medieval kings and queens had, it is true, merited elaborate tombs, and some nobles and wealthy merchants had also built themselves funerary monuments, but it was really only in the 16th century that the building of monuments and memorial inscriptions great and small took off, cluttering up England’s churches in the attempt to obtain a lasting remembrance on Earth.

Building a memorial for oneself or a family member was, as well as a means of remembering the dead, a sign of piety and worldly status. Only the gentry and wealthy merchants had the money and the social standing necessary to go about erecting memorials in church. The antiquary John Weever wrote that “every man…desires a perpetuity after death, by these monuments”, and a Jacobean antiquary remarked that a man could “perpetuate the reverend memory of his honourable parents, ancestors, and much beloved friends departed” by building them funerary monuments.

It has been estimated that between 1530 and 1600, around five thousand carved stone monuments were set up in churches across England; there were also innumerable cheaper panels of engraved stone, brass or wood for those who were not quite important or wealthy enough to merit the elaborate stone memorials. In the later 17th and 18th centuries, funerary sculpture grew ever more ambitious, featuring portrait medallions, pictorial reliefs and dramatic figural groupings.  One Jacobean antiquary described the “lively counterfeiting resemblance[s], effigies [and] pyramids” with which people decorated their memorials. A common “counterfeiting resemblance” seen on 16th and 17th century monuments is the depiction of the dead and their family, with children dutifully kneeling in a row at the bottom of the monument.
The Denny Monument at Waltham Abbey. Sir and Lady Denny with their 10 children. © Richard Croft
The Denny Monument at Waltham Abbey. Sir and Lady Denny with their 10 children. ©Richard Croft
A memorial to John and Grissell St Barbe of Romsey, also depicting their "fower sonns" © Caecilia Dance
A memorial to John and Grissell St Barbe of Romsey, also depicting their “fower sonns”. © Caecilia Dance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post-Reformation memorial inscriptions frequently contained a moral message, though it was less often a memento mori than a stern exhortation to lead a virtuous life. One 17th century Berkshire monument, after enumerating the qualities of the various members of the Yate family, ended with “Reader, depart, imitate”. Reading about the supposed merits of the deceased was intended to edify the onlooker and encourage them to better behaviour. Archbishop Matthew Parker (1502-75) admitted that the eulogistic epitaph which he wrote for his own tomb had less to do with his actual merits than a desire to make readers aspire to the virtues attributed to him.

Not everyone approved of this: Alexander Pope had no time for such ideas and condemned much of what was written didactically on funerary monuments as “sepulchral lies” (his own epitaph read “[Here] lies one who ne’er cared, and still cares not a pin/ What they said, or may say, of the mortal within”). The poet Matthew Prior wrote in 1714 of memorial inscriptions, “Yet credit but lightly what more may be said/ For we flatter ourselves and teach marble to lie”.

“Sepulchral lies” or not, the past few centuries have bequeathed us a rich collection of funerary monuments in churches across the country, both large and small. On a recent trip to Winchester Cathedral and the nearby Romsey Abbey I was able to see many excellent examples of early modern memorial inscriptions, ranging from the dull to the witty, from the pompous to the pithy.

Some were poignant testimonies of the unpredictability of life in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. I found many memorials dedicated to women who died in childbirth, sometimes just a year after getting married, along with inscriptions which reveal a high rate of infant and child mortality.

Near this place are interred
the remains of Mrs Ann Moody:
She Died January 14th 1780,
Aged 19 Years;
Also her infant Son,
aged 9 Weeks.
Look on this Monument,
Ye Gay and Careless,
think of its date,
and boast no more of to-morrow.

                       *    *    *

In Memory of Mary the Wife of John May
who died the 29th November 1781.
Also in Memory of all her children
Mary died in her Infancy
Ann died the 1st of May 1787 aged 17 Years
Mary died in June the same Year aged 11 Years
and Elizabeth died the 20th August 1791 aged 18 Years.

“If e’er the offspring of thy virtuous love bloom’d to thy wish, or to thy soul was Dear, this plaintive Marble asks thee for a tear”. 

Although one always expects to find a certain amount of eulogising on the larger memorials, I was surprised by the very secular character of several inscriptions. They seemed more fit for the description of a heroine in an 18th century sentimental novel than for the remembrance of a dead lady, however highborn she might have been. Take, for instance, the memorial inscriptions for Frances Viscount Palmerston and Elizabeth Montagu:

In Memory of Frances Palmerston:

Her Sense was Strong her Judgement accurate,
Her Wit engaging and her Taste refined,
While the Elegance of her Form,
The Graces of her Manners,
And the natural Propriety
That ever accompanied her Words and Actions,
Made her Virtues doubly attractive,
And taught her equally to command
Respect and Love.

*    *    *

Elizabeth Montagu
Daughter of Matthew Robinson Esquire
who possessing the united advantages
of Beauty, Wit, Judgement, Reputation and Riches
and employing her talents more uniformly
for the benefit of Mankind
might justly be deem’d an ornament
to her Sex, and Country.

Other epitaphs were simple yet touching; a welcome respite from the monuments which listed every last detail of a distinguished career, or eulogised the apparently endless Christian virtues of the dead. Romsey Abbey had an unusual memorial inscription commissioned by someone for a deceased family servant, “Honest Caspar”, and Winchester Cathedral featured a plaque dedicated to a charitable physician:

HONEST CASPAR,

Whose Remains are near
this Place deposited under a black Marble Slab.
His many good Qualities, and
long and faithful Service in the Family he lived,
during Sixty Years,
Justly claim this Act of grateful remembrance
from his surviving Master
as also hereby to commemorate
to the rising Generation,
in his Line of Life, to
imitate his worthy Example
He dyed the 26th May 1785
Aged 72 Years.

*    *    *

To the Memory of William Widmore,
He was (which is most rare)
A friend without guile,
An Apothecary without Ostentation.
His extensive Charity in his profession
Entitles him to be call’d
The Physician of the Poor.
Let other inscriptions boast
Honours, Pedigree, and Riches,
Here lies an honest Englishman.
Who died the 19th Day of June 1756

Although unusual in the early modern period, witty epitaphs and inscriptions were not unheard of. A famous example is the epitaph of the judge John Strange (1696-1754), which reads “Here lies an honest lawyer – that is Strange”. I found a humorous inscription on a gravestone just outside Winchester Cathedral, erected in memory of Thomas Thetcher, a young soldier who died of a fever contracted by drinking small beer on a hot day:

Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer
Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall
And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all.

Thomas Thetcher's gravestone in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral. © Supertechguy
Thomas Thetcher’s gravestone in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral. ©Supertechguy
———————
Further Reading
———————
Nigel Llewellyn, Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England (2009)
Nigel Saul, English Church Monuments in the Middle Ages: History and Representation (2011)
Peter Sherlock, Monuments and Memory in Early Modern England (2008)
Keith Thomas, The Ends of Life. Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England (2009)