Dr Dean Irwin, member of the JHSE Advisory Board, on the skeletons found in a well in Norwich

The discovery in 2004 at the bottom of a medieval well in Norwich of seventeen skeletons at the bottom of a was accompanied by much speculation. In 2011, a BBC documentary (‘The Bodies in the Well’, History Cold Case – available on YouTube) explored at length the possibility that these might be the remains of Jews murdered during the attack on the Jewry in February 1190. This hypothesis received further support with the publication of a genetic analysis in Current Biology just last month (https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(22)01355-0). That piece concluded that the skeletons display ‘ancestry similar to modern Ashkenazi Jews, and a combined radiocarbon date of 1161-1216 […] These findings are consistent

The historical record presents challenges to these scientific conclusions in several significant ways, and these require an answer before we can accept that the skeletons were even probably those of Jews. In terms of historical evidence, the argument centres on an entry in the chronicle of Ralph of Diss, Dean of St Paul’s, which notes that in February 1190, the Jewry was attacked, and that those Jews who did not seek refuge in the castle were killed. Crucially, however, no number is given, and nothing is said of what happened to the bodies. A reference to the royal financial records known as the Pipe Rolls reveals that a fine of £1 8s 7½d was paid to the king by the Constable of the Tower of London in 1190. Had around twenty Jews died, with their bodies thrown down a well, we would expect the fine to be considerably higher, since the Jews were highly prized royal assets. Indeed, the scale of the fine is inconsistent both with other fines imposed following the 1189-90 anti-Jewish attacks, and with the Crown’s pressing need at the time to raise as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, to fund King Richard’s crusade. The obvious counter to this point is that the bodies were thrown down the well to mask the extent of the event, but this is not a convincing argument. Norwich was amongst the best documented communities in medieval England and the Crown would have known the size (and economic value) of the community from taxes imposed over the preceding five years and carefully recorded by royal official. Jews could not be made to ‘disappear’ in the much-scrutinised environment of the English medieval city.

Conversely, if the Jews who showed the Ashkenazi genetic markers were not local Jews, but recent migrants from the Continent, then throwing the body down the well might have had the desired effect of concealing the extent of the crime. Thanks to the pioneering work of the late historian Mark Ormrod and his collaborators on the England’s Immigrants project, we now know much more about the presence of migrant communities in medieval England, especially in important centres like Norwich. To claim that the bodies in the well belonged to Jews who were ‘passing through’ and hence not known and scrutinised by the local sheriff on behalf of the Crown as closely as the settled Jews were, requires far more proof. This is so, because the date range suggested by the carbon dating, could also cover the attack on Norwich during the so-called Great Revolt of 1173-4, or the seizure of Norwich castle during the First Baronial Revolt in 1216. Certainly, it was easier to hide evidence of a migrant thrown down the well, who might pass without trace in the royal records, than the traces of members of the well-documented, and highly regulated, community of Jews.

If the conclusions of future research could be reconciled with these historical problems, then that would be a very important discovery indeed. For the moment, the findings so widely reported recently, raise interesting questions. For the moment, we are a long way away from being able to consider that the skeletons are the remains of Jews. Whether that work will be undertaken, remains to be seen. Regardless of the scholarly conversations these findings serve to stimulate, what matters most is that in 2013 the skeletons were given the burial that they were denied centuries ago.

On the burial: https://www.networknorwich.co.uk/Articles/349335/Network_Norwich_and_Norfolk/Regional_News/Norwich/Norwich_News_2011_14/Reconciliation_as_Norwich_well_victims_are_buried.aspx

Members of the JHSE may be interested in the classic study of the Norwich Jewry by Vivian D. Lipman, The Jews of Medieval Norwich (London, 1967), and published by the Jewish Historical Society of England.

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