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

Blood feud in early medieval Francia

Francia was the largest and most sophisticated kingdom in early medieval Europe, lasting from the 5th to 9th centuries. At it greatest extent, Francia was twice as large as modern France, stretching from the Pyrenees to Bavaria, from Rome to Saxony. It was huge and unwieldy. Given this, how was a Frankish king supposed to maintain law and order? It seems almost an impossible task. This was a time when horse and rider was the fastest method of communication, and local lords were not always willing to tolerate royal control. As the king could not possibly micro-manage everything, Frankish law and order depended upon complicated local systems of justice which interpreted and enacted the major bodies of centrally composed law codes, with more or less success.

Blood-feud – or the threat of it – was an integral part of maintaining law and order in early medieval Francia. Frankish law presents blood feud as a legitimate way of redressing wrongs; families were allowed to violently avenge insults and injuries perpetrated on a kin member. The mentality behind this sort of retribution is very much of the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” variety. Law codes make it clear that no-one was to interfere in blood vengeance; there is a clause in Lex Salica which forbade killing any man ‘whom his enemies have left mutilated [at a crossroads]’, and any violation of this law incurred the not inconsiderable fine of 100 solidi.

Clearly, vengeance killing was seen as a potent form of justice and a means of recovering a family’s honour, but the fact that it was codified in law seems rather an attempt to regulate killing than to encourage it at all costs. It may be that the threat of ‘mutually assured destruction’ was designed to act as a brake upon lethal crime. J.M. Wallace-Hadrill has argued that the kings of the “Barbarian West” sanctioned blood feud in their law codes as a means of preserving peace in their realms for want of anything better.

Frankish territories from 481 to 814
Frankish territories from 481 to 814

However, this is not exactly what we think of as ‘blood feud’ today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a feud as “a state of prolonged mutual hostility, typically between two families or communities, characterised by murderous assaults in revenge for previous injuries”. Blood-feud as defined in Frankish law, however, was a specific remedy used to avenge one deed. There is no indication that, after the vengeance had been carried out, the family and friends of the victim had any right to continue committing acts of violence against the offender.

The historian David Halsall has attempted to pin down the exact nature of Frankish blood feud as opposed to ‘true’ blood feud, by differentiating between tactical violence and strategic violence. Tactical violence, he maintains, aims directly at the resolution of a dispute, whereas the latter aims not at terminating the dispute directly, but rather at drawing attention to it. Blood vengeance as defined in Frankish law would appear to fit the former definition, whereas the latter approach (strategic violence) seems better suited to the modern understanding of ‘true feud’. I’m not sure how helpful the terms ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ are – they are linguistically interchangeable – but Halsall’s differentiation is nonetheless quite useful.

In a further departure from the classic definition of blood feud, it is clear from Frankish law codes that killing the offender was not supposed to be a measure of first resort. The Lex Salica, a major body of Frankish law, clearly stipulated that the punishment for homicide should be compensation first and foremost; only after a lengthy process of ritual and court appearances should the murderer be killed as compensation, and that only if he could not pay the fine. In 6th century Francia, vengeance could not be exacted until the local count or judge had found in favour of the wronged party. For instance, in the famous feud of Sichar and Chramnesind (585-87), Chramnesind forfeited half of the compensation otherwise due to him, for attacking Sichar’s household contrary to the findings of the tribunal.

In a tight-knit community it may have been more sensible to settle for compensation, since although a dead body restored honour and justice for the victim’s kin, it could not buy seed and livestock like monetary compensation (weregild) could. It would, however, be misleading to suggest that all families of the victim were more eager for money than vengeance. Stephen White, who studied violence in the Touraine around 1100, found that aggrieved parties delayed or rejected compromise and compensation for quite lengthy periods. This allowed them to make the most of their opponent’s contrition, and capitalise upon the community’s awareness that they had suffered a wrong and had the right to avenge it.

King Clovis dictates Salic Law (Lex Salica). 14th century depiction
King Clovis dictates Salic Law (Lex Salica). 14th century depiction

The blood vengeance in early medieval Francia which most closely paralleled the modern definition of blood feud was waged by the Merovingian royal family. Since the king was above the law, and given that the Merovingians often feuded with dynasties in other countries where the same law codes did not apply, one cannot say that Merovingian vengeance attacks were part of a progression of penalties as outlined in the Frankish law codes. Rather, they fit the pattern of classic blood feud in that they often involved a lasting state of hostility between families or family members. Halsall’s argument seems apt here: he observes that a ‘true feud’ is very difficult to terminate, and almost never ended through violence, because the feuding groups are perpetually in a state of  debtor and creditor; every time the debt of blood is paid off on one side, the roles and relationships are reversed, and it keeps on going.

The Merovingians were very into blood feud even by the standards of medieval royal dynasties. They tended to attack opponents in order to avenge insults to their kin. Such feuds could stretch out over generations. Gregory of Tours records Queen Chrotechildis, a Burgundian by birth, urging her sons to avenge the deaths of her parents on the murderer’s sons (her nephews Sigismund and Godomar). It seems that in royal circles, not engaging in blood feud to avenge a kinsman’s death was seen as positively shameful. The mid-9th century Gesta Dagoberti recounts how, supposedly, the sons of Sadregisil did not manage to obtain their heritage because they had not avenged their father’s murder.

Sometimes avenging an injured family member was linked with ideological considerations. For instance, King Childebert invaded Spain in 531 after hearing from his sister Chrotilda that her husband, Amalric of the Visigoths, was grossly mistreating her due to her Catholic faith (Amalaric was an Arian). Childebert defeated the Visigoth army and Amalaric was assassinated after fleeing to Barcelona. Unfortunately, Chrotilda herself never made it back to Paris, dying of an unknown cause en route, but the victory presumably enhanced Childebert’s reputation. Ideological concerns aside, the Merovingians also used blood feud for less exalted ends. One such case developed in the aftermath of a lurid royal scandal involving King Chilperic I (c.539-584). Chilperic murdered his wife, Galswintha, on the instigation of his mistress Fredegund, apparently strangling her in bed. Chilperic’s brothers saw their chance and decided to ‘avenge’ Galswintha by killing Chilperic. This, of course, left the throne open to them, and had the added bonus of being able to steal Galswintha’s dowry  in the process.

Chilperic strangles his wife, Galswintha. 14th century
Chilperic strangles his wife, Galswintha. 14th century
A second depiction of the strangling of Galswintha
A second depiction of the strangling of Galswintha

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We start to see an end to vengeance killing as an official form of justice under Charlemagne, who was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800. He opposed blood feud as part of his campaign against any violence not committed by royal consent. His Capitulare Missorum Generale attempted to ban all blood vengeance. Any attempt to settle a dispute had to be conducted through the medium of Charlemagne’s own officers. A murderer had to agree to pay compensation and the victim’s relatives had to accept it, once paid. Anyone taking vengeance of their own would be punished. It’s impossible to know how strictly these laws were followed; Francia was a huge realm and royal powers to enforce such regulations were limited. At any rate, perhaps it is not too much to see Charlemagne’s laws against blood feud as the beginning of the medieval expansion of more centralised royal justice. It was, however, not until the Holy Roman Empire’s Reichstag in 1495 that the right of waging feuds was totally abolished, with the Imperial Reform proclaiming an “eternal public peace”.

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Sources
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  • Fischer Drew, Katherine (ed.). Lex Salica, 1991, University of Pennsylvania Press
  • Halsall, Guy. ‘Reflections of Early Medieval Violence: The Example of the “Blood-Feud” Memoria y Civilización 2 (1999), pp. 7-29

 

“The Bank of Mum and Dad”, funding students since 1200

Although European society has changed hugely since the Middle Ages, some documents and objects from the time still have the power to speak straight down the centuries and demonstrate that despite radically altered worldviews, we do have things in common with our medieval ancestors. I was reminded of this when I came across a collection of model letters dating from 1200 to 1250, which contained templates for students to send to their parents. The style may be formal and full of allusions to Christian and classical literature, but the content is strikingly similar to students’ emails to parents today. The writer tends to slyly work his way from affectionate greetings and assurances of his hard work, to earnest requests for money or other commodities. Take this early 13th century model letter as an example; my favourite part is when the student says he “cannot now specify” his expenditure:

“B. to his venerable master [father] A., greeting. 
This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with the greatest diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion, as it is now two months since I spent the last of what you sent me. The city is expensive and makes many demands; I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify. Wherefore I respectfully beg Your Paternity that by the promptings of divine piety you may assist me, so that I may be able to complete what I have well begun. For you must know that without Ceres and Bacchus, Apollo grows cold. Therefore, I hope that you will act in such a way that, by your intercession, I may finish what I have well begun. 
Farewell.”

Students in the 2nd half of the 14th century, by Laurentius de Voltolin
Students in the 2nd half of the 14th century, by Laurentius de Voltolin

Clearly the desired response to such a missive would be affectionate, containing liberal promises of monetary aid. However, medieval writers seem to have taken delight in composing parental reproofs full of withering put-downs. In one model answer from a collection in Franche-Comté, an exasperated father writes:


“To his son G. residing at Orl
éans P. of Besançon sends greetings with paternal zeal. It is written, ‘He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster’. I have recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies, whence it happens that you have read but one volume of law while your more industrious companions have read several. Wherefore I have decided to exhort you herewith to repent utterly of your dissolute and careless ways, that you may no longer be called a waster and your shame may be turned to good repute.”

Although these are model letters, we find their content replicated over and over in the following centuries in individually composed letters. Take, for instance, a 1762 letter from Jeremy Bentham to his father, written whilst he was a student at Queen’s College, Oxford. It is startlingly similar, except that he asks to be sent some tea and sugar, not money. Bentham reasons that these commodities are much cheaper in London, thus presenting his request in the light of economical living, although a cynic might view this as a mere ploy for a free home care package!

Bentham's letter of February 5th 1762 to his father
Bentham’s letter of February 5th 1762 to his father

Dear Papa
Queen’s. February 5th 1762.
I hoped to have had the pleasure of hearing from you before now; but as that could not be, I flatter myself I shall not be disappointed of an Answer to this, when it comes to hand. I have the Satisfaction of telling you that I go on briskly in Homer, doing generally a book in two days, which is no very inconsiderable thing, to do exclusive of the College-business. – You cannot expect a long letter from a place so destitute of Novelty as this is, all the news there is here is that the College is not only as full as it can hold but even fuller, there having come 3 or 4 in the little time that I was absent, one of whom his name is Piers; whose father is a wholesale grocer in London; which puts me in mind of my wants, which I hope you will supply; you may guess I mean Tea and Sugar; or else I must be forced to get some here at half as much again as you can get it me for; I have been forced to live upon my Friends these 2 or 3 days. Pray give my duty to Grandmama and love to brother Sammy, and fulfill the expectations of
Your dutiful and affectionate Son
J. Bentham”