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Miscellanies: The Jews of Cornwall in Local Tradition

Venetia Newall

<plain_text><page sequence="1">The Jews of Cornwall in Local Tradition VENETIA NEWALL, M.A., D.Litt. In his paper 'Jew's Houses' the late Cecil Roth observes that numerous ancient sites and buildings in England have nomenclature which brings them into hypothe? tical association with the Jews. He includes in his list the town of Market Jew in Cornwall, noting that 'only a single Cornish Jew is on record throughout the entire Middle Ages'.1 There is a belief, with no apparent substance, that in the decades before Edward I expelled the English Jewry (1290) the Cornish tin industry was 'in the hands of the Jews and not doing well.'2 When the local language became gradually disused, down to its extinction in the eighteenth century, a large number of unintelligible place-names were left and many cur? ious fantasies consequently arose. From place-names like Marazion and Market Jew it was assumed that Jews had emigrated to Cornwall in large numbers after the fall of Jerusalem, and that they were in some cases forced to work in the tin mines. Incorrect etym? ologies were taken for granted and it was the eminent philologist Max M?ller who finally showed the fool? ishness of these notions in a paper entitled 'Are there Jews in Cornwall?' published in 1867.3 A brief account of the last two Earls of Cornwall with more than a titular interest in their domain may help to explain the odd frequency of Jews in Cornish folklore. The Norman Earldom of Cornwall had been established just after the Norman conquest of England in a grant to Robert, Count of Mortain, King Wil? liam's half-brother. In 1216 Henry III came to the throne, and nine years later he in turn gave the county and tin mines of Cornwall to his brother Richard, then aged only 16. Two years later Richard was created Earl, he and his son Edmund (Earl from 1272 to 1299) being the last holders of the title to live in the county. Richard, in fact, turned his energies to Cornish affairs in about 1265, seven years before his death. An ambitious politician, he had in 1257 succeeded in becoming King of the Romans, an ultimately sterile honour for which, however, he obtained recognition in considerable parts of Germany. Although disap? pointed abroad, he was both wealthy and influential at home and by 1265 had been closely associated for at least fifteen years with Abraham of Berkhamsted. Abraham, one of the richest members of his com? munity, had apparently unscrupulously profited from the misfortunes of his fellow-Jews. After an eventful career, he was granted to Richard in 1255 and empow? ered to lend money. That Richard was comparatively well disposed for the period towards the oppressed English Jews, but also fully prepared to exploit them, is clear from various accounts.4 The year 1255 saw not only Abraham of Berk hamsted in particular but also the whole of English Jewry under Richard's aegis, by way of mortgage against the King's debts?a pledge in human form. Nor was this the last time the English monarchy mortgaged its Jews to Cornwall. Richard again received them in pledge about a year before his death, and the process was repeated under Earl Edmund.5 A belief exists that, once the Jews were at his mercy, Richard put them to work in the Cornish tin mines. No evidence supports this improbable tale, though it would accord better with the position of hazard and penury in which most of English Jewry existed at the time than other quite contrary accounts. Hunt, for example, retailed as 'historical fact' that the tin mines were then being farmed out to the Jews.6 In fact, Jewish merchants seem to have had little to do with the tin trade. Among others, they are mentioned as buying tin in Prague three centuries earlier, but there is no hint that their activity exceeded that of other purchasers and it need not, incidentally, have been British tin.7 Almost contemporaneously with Earl Richard's birth, the first initiatives towards the Hanseatic League took place in L?beck and Hamburg and, quite con? trary to popular tradition about the Jews, it was the Hansa which, in Henry Ill's time, came to dominate commerce in tin. By the time Richard actively bent himself towards his Earldom, the two German towns had an agent at Falmouth. As John Hatcher explains, during the thirteenth century an economic and social system based on pre industrial capitalism became dominant in the Cornish tin industry, and even non-working shareholders existed. Oddly enough, the so-called Stannary privi? leges, originally evidently a kind of immunity of which titular remnants still survive, may well have contributed to this. At any rate, the same system was to dominate tin production through the ensuing cen? turies, economic precocity which is the more striking the earlier the period under review. That its initiation coincided exactly with a period when English Jewry was linked to the Cornish Earldom, an era which culminated in the Jews' notorious expulsion from the country, may help to account for their peculiar place in local tradition. It is worth speculating, therefore, 119</page><page sequence="2">120 Venetia New all whether the equivocal attitude of Cornish folklore towards the Jews stems from their having been made whipping-boys, as has so often happened since, for the perennial anti-cosmopolitanism of the exploited. The general attitude towards Jewry in thirteenth-century England is well illustrated by a caricature of 1233. Drawn in the margin of a public document, it has a negative fame as the earliest such caricature to survive. In it, Isaac of Norwich, a slightly older contemporary of Abraham of Berkhamsted, is shown together with his wife and some of his household. Though evidently, from surviving information, a notable philanthropist, vicious horned demons are preparing to drag him and his companions down to hell.8 Deane and Shaw, in their book on Cornwall which I edited, point out that mining communities through? out the world have evolved special fairy stories. In Cornwall the 'knockers' or 'nuggies' were imagined as living in the mine shafts, beneath the ground. A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, a Cornish writer, described them as 'withered, dried-up creatures,' no bigger, apparently, than a young baby. They had big, ugly heads, with faces like old men, and their limbs were dispropor? tionate and clumsy. One opinion has them descending from a forgotten tribe which inhabited Cornwall before the Celts, but the more usual explanation, which is unpleasantly antisemitic, makes them the ghosts of Jews who incited the crucifixion of Jesus. A series of inconsistent beliefs accompany this notion. They were said never to work on major Christian festivals?Christmas Day, Easter Day, and All Saints' Day?as well as the Jewish Sabbath. For fear of offending them, the tin miners themselves tended not to work on these days. A knockers' mass was cele? brated, according to these beliefs, on Christmas Eve in the deeper levels of the mines. Miners have reported listening to them singing Christmas carols on this occasion, with an organ accompaniment.9 The knocker legends apart, quite a number of other terms exist, apparently linking Jews to the tin-mines. A particular type of disused smelting works is a Jew's house, and the bits of tin found in disused workings generally are Jew's bowels. Larger blocks are Jew's tin, while tin mixed up with mine refuse is Jew's leavings. Old mine-workings are Jew's works or Jew's whidn, and earlier were known as Jew's offcasts, a term later applied to the refuse beside them. A scattering of other expressions, while they have no connection with min? ing, are recorded in the immediate vicinity of Corn? wall, if not in the county itself. These include a Jew's eye for something of great value, and 'to Jew' as an offensive verb to describe cheating. Both of these were once widespread terms, not exclusive to south-west England. Jew's ear for a type of red fungus also occurs in Cornwall, but is not peculiar to that area.10 Figures of speech which appear to be specifically Cornish are naturally the most interesting. Besides those connected with tin-mining, seemingly unique to Cornwall except for some usage among Devon miners on the other side of the River Tamar, there are two more. Jew's fish was a name for halibut, sup? posedly because it was among Jewry's favourite deli? cacies, and a type of beetle was termed 'Jew' on the grounds that it exudes a pinkish froth. There is prob? ably a link here with the infamous blood libel, since there was a practice of holding it in the hand and calling out: 'Jew, Jew, spit blood.'11 A number of antiquarian accounts exist of how Jews, as well as Phoenicians, are supposed to have traded with Cornwall in ancient times.12 More inter? esting is the curious notion that Joseph of Arimathea came specifically to Marazion to purchase tin, and that it subsequently became a Jewish settlement.13 In popular etymology the name means Market Zion, and it is further said that, in earlier times, the place was known as Market Jew or Jew's Town. Marazion actually derives from two Cornish words, marchas, which is indeed 'market,' and bichan meaning 'small.' Market Jew itself did exist, but appears to have been a separate place just outside Marghasbighan, the con? temporary fourteenth-century spelling for Marazion, and it was then known as Marghasdiow. '-diow' is probably from the Cornish word dyow ('south'); equally it might hark back to Yow, Cornish for Thurs? day, supposing that the market was once held on that day. Yow is sometimes corrupted to Jew, though in the toponomical context here, this last word seems to have appeared late.14 Another Cornish expression, Market Jew Crow, was the local term for a hooded crow, given this name because the species frequented that particular neigh? bourhood.15 The bird not only has a poor local repu? tation?St. Neot had to impound the whole species every Sunday, because people were absent from church scaring them off the crops?but its appearance is unattractive, so that any racialist undertones may seem unhappy. But this is not necessarily so. There is a widespread belief, based apparently in popular tradi? tion, that King Arthur's soul inhabits a Cornish chough, and this, too, is a type of crow, though, sadly, it is now on the road to extinction. The important point is that King Arthur is the national hero of Cornish myth. NOTES 1 Cecil Roth, 'Jews' Houses,' Antiquity, Vol. XXV (June 1951), 66.</page><page sequence="3">The Jews of Cornwall in Local Tradition 121 2 Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England (London 1871), pp.341, 346. 3 Peter Berresford Ellis, The Cornish Language and its Literature (London, 1974), pp. 140-141. 4 Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England (Oxford, 1964), pp.46-48, 56; H. G. Richardson, The English Jewry under Angevin Kings (London, i960), pp. 16-17; Albert M. Hyamson, A History of the Jews in England (London, 1928), pp.63-6. 5 Roth, History, 67. 6 Hunt, op. cit., 346. 7 John Hatcher, English Tin Production and Trade before 1550 (Oxford, 1973), p.17 8 Alfred Rubens, A History of Jewish Costume (London, 1973), p.94; Veneria Newall, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Magic (London, 1974), p.107; Hyamson, op. cit., 54; Roth, History, 41, 95 n.l 9 Tony Deane and Tony Shaw, The Folklore of Cornwall, Introduction by V. Newall (London, 1975), p.69; A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, The Cornish Miner (London, 1927), pp.294-295. 10 Mrs. Bray, The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy (London, 1838), Vol. III. p.255; Hamilton Jenkin, op. cit., 29, 68-69, 72; Hunt, op. cit., 343; Joseph Wright, ed., The English Dialect Dictionary (London, 1902), Vol. III. p.361; Compact Edition of the Oxford Dictionary (Oxford, 1971), Vol. I, pp.1507-1508. 11 Wright, op. cit., 361. 12 John Bannister, 'Jews in Cornwall,' Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall (1867), No. VIII, 17. 13 Deane and Shaw, op. cit., 63. 14 Friedrich Max M?ller, 'Are there Jews in Cornwall?,' Chips from a German Workshop (London, 1867), pp.305-311; Eilert Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place names (Oxford, 1960), p.314; Bannister, op. cit., 10-19; Ber resford Ellis, op. cit., 140-141. 15 Charles Swainson, The Folklore and Provincial Names of British Birds (London, 1885), pp.74, 86.</page></plain_text>