top of page
< Back

Reviews: The Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives (2012), Patricia Skinner (ed.)

C. Phillip E. Nothaft

<plain_text><page sequence="1">REVIEWS The Jems in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives, ed. Patricia Skinner (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2003; paperback reprint 2012), isbn 978-1-84383-733-6, pp. x+ 175, £19.99. As recent publications like the Palgrave Dictionary of Medieval Anglo-Jewish History impressively underscore, the medieval Anglo-Jewish experience may still not be part of the "mainstream" of British historiography, but the days when its study was a marginalized pursuit, left to a few isolated pioneers like Cecil Roth, are thankfully over. A minor landmark in the recent upturn of interest in the subject, which seems to have accelerated considerably in the past ten to twenty years, was the appearance in 2003 of an essay volume on The Jews in Medieval Britain - reissued in paperback format in 2012 - which made a welcome effort to take stock of what is known and knowable about the fate of Britain's (or, rather, England's) Jews during the roughly two centuries of their presence, from the Norman conquest of 1066 to the expulsion of 1290. Following Patricia Skinner's well-crafted and bibliographically rich introductory survey of the status quaestionis, the book begins with a narrative overview in the form of three essays, each written by a distinguished expert in the field. Joe Hillaby (Chapter 1) outlines the patterns of Jewish colonization and settlement as well as the general situation of the communities during the twelfth century, supplemented by a look at the faint traces of Jewish presence in Ireland and Wales (pp. 36-40). In the second chapter, Robert C. Stacy assesses the fate of the English Jews during the long reign of Henry hi (1216-72), during which massive tallages and expropriations did irreparable damage to the country's Jewish community. The splendid historical triptych of Part 1 is completed by Robin R. Mundill, the author of England'sjeimsh Solution (1998) and The King's Jews (2010), who here discusses the final years under Edward 1, from 1275's Statute of the Jewry to the expulsion. As is unavoidable in a situation where the largest contingent of written sources consists of fiscal records, the focus in all three accounts is overwhelmingly on the legal and economic relations between the Jews and the English crown. The origin and nature of these records is Jewish Historical Studies, volume 46, 2014 167</page><page sequence="2">168 REVIEWS elucidated by Paul Brand, whose contribution on "The Jewish Community of England in the Records of English Royal Government" (Chapter 4) opens Part 11 on "Case Studies and New Evidence". As a widely renowned expert on English legal history, Brand is singularly well equipped to guide the lay reader through the terminological forest by explaining the tasks of the King's Chancery or the Exchequer of the Jews (a unique institution in medieval Europe) and the different kinds of documentation their activities generated. Valuable as they are, these governmental records have little to say on the lives of those 90 per cent or more of English Jews who did not create substantial revenue streams for the royal coffers as moneylenders or wealthy merchants. For a broader picture of medieval Anglo-Jewish life one has to turn to archaeology, which can shed light on the size and topography of communities or burial sites as well as the material culture of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Jews. David Hinton (Chapter 6) offers a succinct overview of the major excavation sites and other available evidence, including anti-Jewish caricatures. The role of the Church and ecclesiastical legislation in the mounting repression faced by Jews in the thirteenth century is examined by John Edwards (Chapter 5), who concludes that England was mostly dependent on Continental developments in this area. Suzanne Bartlet, in an essay on "Women in the Medieval Anglo-Jewish Community" (Chapter 7), does an excellent job outlining the kind of information that gender historians can extract from the Pipe rolls and legal documents such as marriage contracts. Another highlight of the volume is Anthony Bale's look at the representation of Jews and Judaism in Christian sources before the expulsion (Chapter 8), which nicely complements his 2007 monograph, The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms, 1350-1500. Following ideas and lines of research opened up by the work of David Nirenberg and Miri Rubin, Bale surveys the variegated ways in which the Jew became a literary topos that could be "shuffled, reconfigured, elided, in whatever was found to be the most meaningful way", often enough pointing to "concerns and fears about Jewish-Christian physical, spatial and theological contacts" (p. 130). Unlike Edwards's contribution, Bale pays due attention to narratives of ritual murder and the boy-martyr cults constructed around them, which command a special interest given England's "pioneering" role in this chapter of the history of antisemitism. The volume closes with a case study of a particular Jewish community, that of York, for which Barrie Dobson (Chapter 9) revisits his own groundbreaking research on the subject (this article previously appeared in Jewish Culture and History, 3, 2000).</page><page sequence="3">The Jews in Medieval Britain, ed. Patricia Skinner 169 One aspect that is more or less absent from the volume's thematic spectrum is the religious, intellectual, and literary history of medieval Judaism, as well as the avenues of Jewish-Christian contact in these fields. Admittedly, the evidence for England tends to be extremely scant (as Skinner points out on pp. 5-6 of her introduction), while some of the most important discoveries have only been published since The Jews in Medieval Britain first appeared in print. This holds true in particular for the phenomenon of Christian Hebraism (briefly touched on by Bale, p. 140), which reached singular heights in thirteenth-century England, even as the Anglo-Jewish community was on the decline. Among the crowning achievements of this English Hebraistic "school" are the writings of Hebert of Bosham (d. c. 1194), whose engagement with rabbinic literature has been scrutinized in recent years by Eva de Visscher and Deborah Goodwin, and a trilingual Hebrew-Latin-French biblical dictionary produced at Ramsey Abbey, whose status as a major centre of Hebrew studies is justly highlighted in the new Palgrave Dictionary. The Ramsey dictionary was edited in 2008 under the direction of Judith Olszowy- Schlanger, who in recent years has written several important studies on the phenomenon of bilingual Hebrew-Latin manuscripts from pre- expulsion England, whose production depended on the collaboration of Jewish and Christian scribes. While these findings may be of greater relevance to Christian than to Jewish intellectual history, they do tell us something about the wider cultural impact of the Jewish presence on medieval England. With all this being said, it is obviously pointless to fault a volume published twelve years ago for no longer reflecting the latest developments in historical research; nor can a conference-based volume contingent on the research interests of its contributors aim for the same kind of comprehensiveness to which a specially commissioned textbook might lay claim. Even so, the range of the present volume is impressive, especially given its slim size. Some users might find it unfortunate that most contributors made little or no effort to tie the results of their research to the general trajectory of medieval Jewish history or to approach their subject from a comparative perspective (Edwards's essay being the major exception). Others, however, will regard this exclusive fixation on medieval Britain as one of the book's greatest strengths - and the principal justification for its reissue, if any was needed. In its accessible and judic- ious presentation of the results of specialist research, the paperback ofThe Jews in Medieval Britain will continue to be a useful resource for teachers and</page><page sequence="4">170 REVIEWS students of medieval English history alike and hopefully inspire a greater number of historians to integrate the Jewish presence on this island into their narratives. C. Philipp E. Nothaft</page></plain_text>

bottom of page