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The New Heathens: Anti-Jewish Hostility in Early English Literature

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 June 2021

Orietta Da Rold
Affiliation:
University Lecturer, Faculty of English, St John's College, University of Cambridge,
Peter A. Stokes
Affiliation:
Senior Lecturer, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
Philip A. Shaw
Affiliation:
Senior Lecturer, School of English, University of Leicester,
Rolf H. Bremmer
Affiliation:
Senior Lecturer in Medieval English and, by special appointment, Professor of Frisian at the University of Leiden.
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Summary

THE ELEVENTH AND twelfth centuries were a transformative period for English literary culture. Consecutive waves of immigration after the Danish and Norman conquests created new audiences for writing in Old Norse, French and Latin, diverting patronage away from Old English. After the death of Archbishop Wulfstan of York in 1023, English works were no longer composed in significant quantities by a single author. Instead, Benedictine monks, based principally in cathedral priories, edited and updated the existing homiletic corpus for a new generation, supplementing it with a thin stream of original translations. The last texts copied in Old English overlap with the earliest works in Middle English, which were composed in the second half of the twelfth century and anthologised at the beginning of the thirteenth. Between the two invasions (1016 and 1066), England began to integrate more tightly into a common northwestern European cultural zone and experienced the first stirrings of the so-called ‘twelfth-century renaissance’. One of the many changes associated with this accelerated period of renewal was a sharp increase in hostility towards the Jews.

The following discussion focuses on references to the Jews as the ‘heathen’ in English pastoral and historical texts from the twelfth century. This usage (and concept) was not current in the Anglo-Saxon period and first appears after the Norman Conquest. There is no reliable evidence that the Jews settled in England or had any sustained form of contact with the English before 1066. When the Anglo-Saxons wrote about the Jews or represented them in art, they were piecing together an image of the Jew from their reading of the Bible, Late Antique historical works, and patristic commentaries. The first Jewish settlers migrated to England from Rouen with William the Conqueror, who employed them as money changers and exploited their trade links with the Rhineland. As the twelfth century progressed, the Jews established communities in many provincial cities under the special protection of the Crown. The settlement of the Jews in England coincides with a rise in anti-Jewish hostility across western Europe; the onset of the crusades in 1095, the foundation of secular schools, the growth of a credit-based economy, and the increasing popularity of affective modes of devotion coalesced to create new and more aggressive forms of anti-Jewish resentment.

Type
Chapter
Information
Writing Europe, 500-1450
Texts and Contexts
, pp. 123 - 146
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2015

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