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Book Notes: Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, preserved in the Public Record Office, Vol. V, Sarah Cohen (ed.)

Barrie Dobson

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Book Notes Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews preserved in the Public Record Office, Volume V (Edward 1,1277-79). Edited by the late Sarah Cohen, revised with preface by P. Brand, indices by W. M. Schwab and P. Brand (Jewish Histori? cal Society of England, 1992) viii + 247 pp. ?50. Nearly forty years ago, in September 1955, Sir Hilary Jenkinson lectured the Jewish Historical Society of England in characteristically forthright manner on 'the real Importance of completing our Task [his italics] within some predictable and reasonable period of time'. Needless to say, the task in question was the compre? hensive publication of the Plea Rolls, the placita, of the medieval Exchequer of the Jews, a task which this fifth volume in a celebrated series does indeed take very measurably closer to completion. Indeed a reviewer's only conceivable cause for regret on this occasion is that neither Sir Hilary himself nor the editor of these plea rolls, Dr Sarah Cohen, is still alive to greet the publication of this volume with the relief as well as the congratulations it self-evidendy deserves. Like so many ambitious scholarly enterprises first envisaged towards the end of the reign of Queen Victoria, like the Victoria County History of England itself, the struggle to publish the surviving medieval Jewish Plea Rolls has proved - during the 20th century - a victory of strenuous if erratic personal effort in the face of increasingly adverse financial odds. Now that freelance scholars of the calibre of James Rigg, who inaugurated this series of Jewish Plea Rolls in 1905, are virtually extinct; and now too that the Public Record Office itself has been more or less completely compelled to terminate (mirabile dictu) its own scholarly publication of the nation's records, this volume seems an especially welcome oasis in an increasingly dry landscape. Here, to say the least, is the single most important contribution to our knowledge of the sources for the history of the medieval Anglo-Jewry since the late H. G. Richardson's fourth volume in the series was published exactiy twenty years ago. The appearance of Volume V of the Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews is, ironically enough, all the more to be applauded because it has existed in typescript form for almost forty years. In his short preface to this edition, Dr Paul Brand tells the interesting story of how the late Sarah Cohen, who emerges from his pages as a somewhat tantalizingly obscure figure, first copied all the Plea Rolls in this volume shortly before the Second World War only to suffer the mortifying loss of the only copy of her transcript when the Mocatta Collection in University College London was destroyed by an enemy air raid late in 1940. As those who have consulted these records in their original form will agree, they are often very difficult indeed 373</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes to decipher with complete conviction; and it is accordingly much to Sarah Cohen's credit that as soon as they were again available for consultation in the Public Record Office (1946), she made a second transcript which eventually formed the major part of her 1951 University of London thesis on Tlea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, Michaelmas 1277-Hilary 1279'. References to this thesis have of course occasionally adorned the footnotes of serious students of the 13th century English Jewry ever since; but now, and for the first time, thanks above all to the labours of Dr Paul Brand on the Cohen transcripts, it is possible to form an overall impression of the legal and business activities of the English Jews between 1277 and 1279 - and that with the aid of a series of four magnificent indices. Of the latter, both the index to Jewish names and that to non-Jewish names and places set new standards in the identification of the sometimes almost unidentifiable. These are of course all the more commendable, indeed essential, in view of the central role that issues of nomenclature are certain to play in the future course of medieval Jewish historiography. More impressive and unusual still is Dr Brand's highly detailed and carefully constructed 'Analytical Table of Contents'. The latter, divided into the three main sections of litigation, non-contentious private business and administrative busi? ness, is something of an intellectual tour de force. Whether or not it altogether serves its intention of providing 'a general guide to the contents of this volume', this is a table which exposes the types of business recorded in these plea rolls in a highly novel and informative way, thus pardy compensating for the lack of a full introduction to the documents themselves. As a result it seems clearer than ever before that the correct elucidation of the contents of Jewish plea rolls is highly dependent on the precise interpretation of complex legal issues. One can only hope that Dr Brand himself, now uniquely qualified to do so, will soon be able to write at length on the legal principles and practices which underlie the often cryptic entries in these rolls. Meanwhile Dr Brand has had to face another difficult and more immediate decision, namely whether to print Sarah Cohen's transcrip? tion of these plea rolls in their original Latin and (occasionally) French or to provide translations and/or calendars of the entries instead. In choosing the former, more austere, alternative - on the assumption that the 'main users of an edition of the plea rolls would be scholars' - Dr Brand has pardy broken away from previous practice in the series but may well be proved correct to do so. Increasing ignorance of medieval Latin may also make this a less cited (at least in the short term) edition than several earlier volumes in the series; but then one concedes that it is an increasingly valid principle to do what one can to destroy the misconception that medieval legal documents can be properly understood except in the language in which they were originally written. At first sight, the contents of the six plea rolls printed in this volume (PRO, E 9/25-9/30, supplemented by some duplicates and additional material) may strike its readers as somewhat less vivid and informative of Jewish mores in Plantagenet 374</page><page sequence="3">Book Notes England than most of their predecessors. If so, the explanation would not be hard to find. Between 1277 and 1279 the so-called 'Edwardian Experiment' was already fully under way, the 1275 Statutum dejudeismo had begun to convert the leading English Jews into what Dr Robin Mundill has recendy called 'credit agents', and most Jewish communities were moving into a rapidly accelerating period of demo? graphic and financial decline. It has sometimes been observed that it is one of the less happy paradoxes of the history of the medieval Anglo-Jewry that it comes to be best documented exacdy when its end was within sight. That said and partly acknowledged, it must also be emphasized that the cumulative impression left by this substantial volume (972 separate entries within the space of only two years) is of a highly regulatory legal machine supervising a remarkable range of activities on the part of the King's Jews. No historian in his senses would wish to measure the efficiency of a legal system by means of the records produced by that system; but, on the evidence provided here, the English Jews of the late 1270s were still worth subjecting to an intense variety of judicial and administrative supervisory pro? cedures. Admittedly, criminal pleas are recorded comparatively infrequendy in these rolls. Apart from a reference to an appeal brought against those allegedly responsible for the death of the celebrated Licoricia of Winchester in 1278, perhaps the most dramatic case of assault and murder recorded in this volume was the suffocation, reported in gruesome detail, of Juliana, daughter of William Roscelyn, by a group of Jews in Bristol. It is in this volume too that one can find the full details of the extraordinary case, first brought to light in Rigg's Select Pleas, of a certain Isabel of Lockerley who accused - almost certainly falsely - Cresse son of Lombard of robbing and raping her in the town of Windsor. The fact is that the more one turns the pages of this remarkable edition the more vivid, after all, the life of the late 13th-century English Jewry begins to seem. As in the case of the four previous volumes of the Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, many of the entries comprise fragmentary little narratives of which we will never know either the beginning or the end. Who, for instance, was that 'certain man' allegedly killed by Benedict son of Bonenfaunt between Bedford and St Neots in or before 1278? However, for future historians of the English London and provincial Jewries much the greatest achievement of this edition will prove to be that it exposes, often very sharply indeed and over a comparatively short period, some of the more generally obsessive themes affecting Jewish existence in early Edwardian England. To take perhaps the most alarming example, several references in this volume to Crown prosecutions of Jews for alleged coin-clipping offences seem to throw light on the impending major crisis on this issue in 1279 80. Not unnaturally, debt in all its possible complexity caused more litigation than any other subject in 1277-9; and mat mis volume provides the material for a more sophisticated treatment of Jewish credit transactions and their consequences in this period than has yet appeared can go without saying. But then an edition of this significance and quality (it is an extremely well-produced book) inevitably raises 375</page><page sequence="4">Book Notes too many issues to be raised in any review. That Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, Volume Fwill continue to be read, and continue to reveal new secrets, for decades and perhaps centuries to come there can be no doubt at all. Thanks to the labours of Dr Paul Brand, Mr W. M. Schwab and the officers of the Jewish Historical Society of England, Sarah Cohen's long-awaited edition of the Jewish plea rolls from 1277 to 1279 not only exceeds expectations but inevitably reinforces Sir Hilary Jenkinson's well-founded plea for the 1'Importance of Complet? ing Our Task\ Barrie Dobson</page></plain_text>

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