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Miscellanies: A Medieval Anglo-Jewish Seal?

Cecil Roth

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Miscellanies A MEDIEVAL ANGLO-JEWISH SEAL? IN May, 1942, I purchased, in a Cambridge antique shop, what is apparently one of the very few medieval Anglo-Jewish relics, other than business documents, now in existence. The object is a shield-shaped seal with a maximum measurement of three and two-fifth inches at its longest and three and nine-twentieth at its broadest point; the material is lead, well-weathered and with a distinct patina. The term ?seaP needs a word of qualification, for the letters are cut through from side to side, as in a stencil, and it might be imagined that it was in fact a badge?perhaps for display in a window. However, the letters are slightly bevelled, winch would have been pointless if they were intended to be looked at from the obverse; and this fact makes it obvious that the object was used as a matrix. The characters are perfectly plain, thus :? The first word, in letters about one inch high, is quite clear; it is the Hebrew kasher or 'ritually fit.' The interpretation of the three letters on the second line, a little more than half the height (0.6in.), with abbreviation marks between the first and second, and second and third, is not so easy. It is obviously a contraction, and might conceivably indicate a name (e.g. Joseph ben Jacob). But more probably they have a more pointed significance?e.g. c-, Israel may bless therewith' : or *?- The House of Israel may bless (therewith)', a reminiscence of Psalm cxv. 12; the significance being, that normative benedictions might be pronounced over the object so marked, without qualms as to ritual unfitness. The characters, although admirably executed, are too few for any definite palaeo graphical description. But the view has been expressed that they are Franco-German of the thirteenth or fourteenth century, the style, that is, that was current in medieval England before the Expulsion of 1290. This provenance is suggested also by a label, apparently about a hundred years old, which was tied round the object at the time of purchase. On this was written in faded ink? Found in an old press or cabinet in the former house at Garth in Montgomery? shire. Exhibited by the Rev. E. A. Bridgman. This description makes it fairly certain that the seal was not, as might have been imagined, brought to this country in comparatively recent times by some tourist; and it is assuredly not a sufficiently significant relic to have been imported in the heroic days AA 283</page><page sequence="2">284 MISCELLANIES of the Grand Tour. Hence it is probable that it has been here since the Middle Ages, and that it was certainly used, if not manufactured, in medieval England, before the Expulsion of the Jews in 1290. There is no evidence, however, that Jews were resident in Garth in the medieval period). Expert archaeological opinion which I have consulted, sees no reason to doubt its English provenance or its thirteenth century origin, though the shape of shield copied in the seal was only beginning to come into use at the time. As to the use of the seal, more than one hypothesis is likely. There were at least four commodities which the strictly observant medieval Jew might regard as kasher, and from which he would abstain if they were not prepared under Jewish auspices?meat, bread, cheese, and wine. We may take them in rotation. (i) The term kosher is today generally associated with meat. But, in the Middle Ages, the Jew would either prepare his own meat for food, or would obtain it from a Jewish butcher. Labelling therefore would generally be unnecessary. Of course, it was not unlikely for a cut of meat to be sent from one place to another, but so large a seal as this would have been superfluous for the purpose. (ii) We know that Rabbi Elijah of London, the great financier and rabbinical authority of the middle of the thirteenth century, disapproved of eating bread not made under Jewish auspices; but the terms of his statement make it plain that all his co? religionists were not so particular. Those who were would either bake their bread at home, or else (though in view of their paucity of numbers this was not likely) have it prepared for them by a local Jewish baker. In either case, sealing would have been unnecessary. fiii) Regarding the consumption of cheese, the medieval Jews were more meticulous ; in part because it might be made of the milk of an 'unclean5 animal, in part because of the possible use of an animal product as rennet. Mordecai ben Hillel, in his glosses to the Tractate Abodah Zara, ?829, mentions the practise of sealing 'kasher' cheeses in the thirteenth century with a wooden seal, citing in connexion with this the name of Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre, the teacher of many of the English Rabbis of the period (The practice is mentioned also by other contemporary scholars, such as Isaiah of Trani). There is extant even (it has been described in the Bulletin of the Palestine Jewish Exploration Society, xxi, 72 ff.) a medieval seal for this purpose, probably oriental, bearing, however, only the simple word berakha ('blessing'). It is possible that the seal now under discussion was intended for this purpose. But there is another, and more probable ascription. (iv) The use of Kasher wine was all but universal. It is true that, in the twelfth century, continental authorities expressed surprise at the fact that ?in the land of the Isle they are lenient in the matter of drinking strong drinks of the Gentiles and along with them . . . But perhaps there would be great ill-feeling if they were to refrain from this.' Nevertheless, this was contrary to the views of the majority, and in their houses greater strictness was observed. Even Matthew Paris (i. 358) was aware that Jews would not drink wine unless it was prepared by Jewish hands. Moreover, Jewish ritual prescribed the use of wine for the ceremony of Sanctification on every sabbath eve, and for this at least ordinary wine would not have been admitted. As a matter of fact, the scarcity of wine in England is known to have caused the rabbinical experts of the period some difficulty, and special provision was made to permit the use of some alternative at the parallel ceremony of the Habdalah on Saturday night. In contrast to other commodities, Kasher wine definitely required the use of the seal. Its ritual fitness did not in this case depend only on origin, but also on the subsequent</page><page sequence="3">A MEDIEVAL ANGLO-JEWISH SEAL ? 285 record. The primitive Christians in Rome abstained from meat, lest at the moment of slaughtering the butcher might have muttered an invocation to the gods; and their Jewish contemporaties abstained from ordinary wine, lest it might have been dedicated to pagan worship. Hence it became mandatory not only for Jews to produce their own wine, under surveillance, but to see also that no opportunity was given to Gentiles to interfere with it after it was made, lest they should dedicate it to their own religious purposes. Thus even wine produced under Jewish auspices was considered unfit for consumption, once the cask or container had been left open in such circumstances that a non-Jew might have touched it. Hence, while it was not under perpetual surveillance, it had to be properly and unmistakeably sealed. A lengthy passage of the Talmud is devoted to the regulations concerning this, which are further discussed in detail in the medieval North French (and English) glosses known as the Tosaphoth. The question of sealing is in great evidence in the records, which indeed comprise a specific reference to the use of seals in connexion with England : 'Wine bought by Gentiles in Germany and exported by them to England under a single seal for sale to Jews was permitted for use towards the end of his days by R. Jacob of Ramerupt [d. 1171], since the Gentile would not trouble [to imitate the seal] for fear lest the Jews would discover it.' (Tosaphoth Abodah Zar a f. 61 [omitted in the editions]. It seems impossible to escape the con? clusion that the seal here under discussion is a medieval wine-seal, used while the wine was in transmission. It might have been used to seal the bung-hole of a cask. But we know from the medieval code of Abraham ben Nathan of Lunel, Sepher haManhig, composed in the early years of the thirteenth century (f. 88), that in the Middle Ages earthenware jars were used as wine-containers, larger ones being customary in France and smaller in Spain; and it would seem that the seal here under discussion would have been best adapted for marking such a jar, perhaps on the shoulder. From a variety of medieval sources, it is possible to obtain some idea of the manner in which the medieval English Jews obtained their wine from abroad. It appears that in consequence of their foreign connexions, and of the imperative need for wine for their own purposes, they imported it on a relatively large scale, ultimately for the use of others as well as for their own. Thus they were occasionally enjoined to furnish various royal nominees with a supply of it, or were sometimes permitted to reckon the value of wine taken for the King's use as part of their tallage dues. We are informed of one striking episode in connexion with Aaron of York, the great Anglo-Jewish magnate and presbyter judaeorum under Henry III. In 1243, he sent a certain Milo or Meir of Northampton abroad to France, with ten marks and five shillings (i.e. a little under ?7, worth perhaps ?200 in modern values) to obtain wines for his household. The Constable of Dover seized the messenger and his money, and the King himself had to intervene to secure his release (Close Rolls, 1243, p. 111). But, as we have seen, sometimes the importing was done by non-Jews. Thus in 1280 we find Arnold Peleter, of Gascony, acknowledging that he owed to Master Elias of London and Aaron fil' Vives his colleague 'seven tuns of good wine made according to the Jewish rite,' which in default of delivery was to be levied from his goods and chattels in Gascony (Close Rolls, 1280, p. 60). This wine would as we have seen travel under seal: for otherwise it would automatically have become ritually unfitted for Jewish consumption. Pre? sumably, the 'seven tuns' would have been split up into smaller consignments for distribution to the scattered Jewish communities or to individuals in various parts of England, to whom they would necessarily be conveyed in most cases by Gentile hands. The containers would once again therefore have had to be sealed; and it was for such</page><page sequence="4">286 MISCELLANIES a purpose, presumably, that the seal here under consideration was used. Non-Jews might of course be the middle-men, but in this case sealing was all the more necessary; we are informed in the Decisions of a medieval German Rabbi, Eleazar ben Joel, how the merchants of Dreux bought wine from the Jews in Paris under seal to dispose of to the Jews of Dreux, and doubtiess the same happened for the purpose of export. Our discussion of Kasher wine throws light on some passages of medieval sources which otherwise seem a little curious. In 1203, we find a group of Jews?Bonechose Judaeus, Benedictus Parvus, Hakelinus brother of Isaac, Melinus, and Joppin fiT Isaac? fined one mark 'for the sale of wine against the assizes' (Pipe Roll, 1203, p. 193). So considerable a conspiracy for so small an object appears strange; and it would seem that this group of Jews were simply engaged in handling wine for Jewish use, which they were unwilling to leave in non-Jewish hands.1 Wine is again mentioned in the traditional Charter of English Jewry, first issued by Henry I and confirmed by all of his successors down to the eve of the Expulsion: 'And we command, that the Jews be quit throughout England and Normandy of all customs and tolls and prisage of wine, as our proper chattels.' It is not easy to understand why wine should be specifically mentioned in this connexion : after all, the amount involved is not likely to have been great, and it was hardly worth while to mention it separately. But when one realises that by the opening of the casks by Gentile hands and the abstraction of a 'prisage' from the contents the entire cask became unfitted for Jewish consumption, according to the stringent standard of observance which then almost universally prevailed, the matter becomes more plain. The cause was as it were a guarantee of religious rights. It remains only to say a word on the palaeographical and epigraphic side. While a mass of medieval Anglo-Jewish documents and one or two manuscripts survive, there are hardly any inscriptions, and there is little or nothing with which the lettering on this seal can be compared. Mediaeval Anglo-Jewish tomb? stones are said to have been discovered long ago at Oxford and elsewhere. We have the text of an unimportant funerary inscription from Cambridge and several (most of them garbled) from London, as well as that of an extraordinarily interesting graffito found three hundred years ago in Winchester referring to the arrest of the Jews of England in 1287. It is said too that numerous verses from the Psalms inscribed by captive Jews in Hebrew were formerly to be seen in the Castle of Canterbury. Of all but one of these, nothing other than the text has survived, and it is not known what the letters looked like. All that we have is the facsimile of a London inscription dis? covered just two centuries ago, which has escaped historians' notice?not surprisingly, as it is all but unintelligible, and the outline of the letters is not sufficient to enable us to draw any epigraphical conclusions.2 The only lengthy and important medieval Anglo-Jewish inscription of which the original as well as the text has survived is that on the Bodleian Bowl, now transferred, most confusingly, to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. But, though found in England, it is far from certain that it is English in origin. Of the half-dozen seals of medieval English Jews of which specimens have been preserved, two only I believe (those of Samson ben Samson and Bonfey ben Barton) bear Hebrew lettering, but it is so small as to be of little use for comparison. Our medieval seal, here under discussion, may thus have a wider interest and importance. Cf. my Jews of Medieval Oxford (Oxford Historical Society, 1951), pp. 12, 14. Gentleman's Magazine, XXIII, 369 : the original has disappeared, but there is a drawing the MS, department of the British Museum.</page></plain_text>