The Neighbour and the Jew in Medieval England

The Neighbour and the Jew in Medieval England

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Should the relationship between Jews and Christians in Medieval England just be characterized by violence and animosity? The answer lies in looking more deeply at the sources, which can reveal some fascinating new details about the daily life between these two communities.

Today, the University of Toronto hosted a lecture today on the topic, “The Neighbour and the Jew in Medieval England,” given by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, where he looks at events in the twelfth and thirteenth century.

Cohen, the Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at George Washington University, was critical of the way historians have focused on two events – the attacks against Jewish communities in 1190, which included a massacre in York, and the expulsion of the Jewish population one century later, in 1290. This portrayal, which he refers to as “a history of tears,” gives the perception that Christians were unceasingly hostile towards their Jewish neighbours.

To refute this perception, Cohen examines overlooked details in many of the chronicle accounts of Jewish-Christian interaction, even those that describe moments of violence. While it is true that in some anti-semitic texts it is hard to find stories of more peaceable inter-faith relations, there are instances where this emerges. He notes how in one story by Gerald of Wales that certain events which happened in a Jew’s home were described by the “family’s servants and nurses, who were Christian,’ despite the fact that Christians were prohibited from being employed by Jews.

He also shows in Matthew Paris’ story of the alleged murder of Little of Hugh of Lincoln, the people had said they had last seen Hugh “playing with some Jewish boys of his own age, and entering the house of one of that sect.” These and other examples by Cohen tell a story where Christians and Jews interacted, worked and played with each other on a day-to-day basis.

He later added that Sarah Rees Jones had recently found evidence that Christians seized Jewish property during the York Massacre, but only so they could return it to them after the violence had subsided. Cohen comments that the only reason they would have taken such a risk was because they were friends with these Jewish people.

Professor Cohen does note that the church and secular authorities in England did proscribe laws to prevent Jews and Christians from having close contact, but while the elites could have lived in segregation in their castles and cathedrals, the same was not true in urban areas, where Jews and Christians needed to interact and work with each other.

The lecture also dealt with some of the perceptions that chroniclers had of the Jews, in particular William of Newburgh, the late-twelfth century writer who provided one of the best accounts of the York Massacre in 1190. Cohen warns that William’s account is often shaped by his own perceptions, in particular his desire to see the Jewish community as unchanged from the people who killed Jesus Christ twelve centuries earlier. Cohen says that for William of Newburgh and other religious writers, the Jews were supposed “to live a kind of petrified life,” where they would have the same characteristics and fate as the Jewish people they imagined back in antiquity.

These writers were especially aggrieved to see Jewish people in England being among the most wealthy members of society, and being able to build stones houses, which William of Newburgh called “little castles”. For these chroniclers, the Jews were not playing the role they set out for them.

Cohen also commented that this was “an amazing time to study Christian-Jewish relations,” as evidence about day-to-day life becomes more available and accessible to historians.

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