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The Role of Jewish Women in Medieval England (Presidential Address)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Barrie Dobson
Christ’s College University of Cambridge
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In devoting its attention to the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, the Ecclesiastical History Society has self-evidently addressed a theme as fundamental as it is often distressing to the practitioners of both religions. For many historians of the English Church, as for many of this Society’s members themselves, that relationship presents the additional irony that it would have been almost impossible actually to encounter a Jew in this country during those three centuries which tend to interest them most. As it is, Edward I’s expulsion of all his Jewish subjects from his realm on 18 July 1290 (‘without any hope of ever remaining there’) not only aborted a still inconclusive experiment in religious co-existence, but for centuries relegated the lives of the Jews and Jewesses of Anglo-Norman and Plantagenet England to the obscurity of the historically irrelevant. No longer in 1991 does that seem at all so obvious; and one supposes that nothing would have surprised Henry III and Edward I more than that their treatment of the Jewish minority within their realm should now often seem more ‘relevant’ to the churches of the modern world than any other feature of their respective reigns. For that reason, above all, there must be every prospect that the relationship between Jews and Christians in twelfth- and thirteenth-century England will soon be subjected to more detailed analysis than ever before. Nor, for similar reasons, has it ever been quite so obvious as it is today that the study of medieval Anglo-Jewry is too important to remain the exclusive preserve of historians who are themselves Jews.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 1992


1 Chronicle of Bury St Edmunds, 1212-1301, ed. Gransden, A. (London, 1964), p. 61.Google Scholar

2 See, e.g., Stacey, R., ‘Recent work on medieval English Jewry’, Jewish History, 2 (1987), pp. 6172 Google Scholar; Hillaby, J., The Worcester Jewry, 1158-1290: portrait of a lost community’, Transactions of the Worcestershire Archaeological Society, ser. 3, 12 (1990), pp. 73122 Google Scholar; Mundill, R., ‘Anglo-Jewry under Edward I: credit agents and their clients’, TJHSE, 31 (1988-90), pp. 121.Google Scholar

3 Abrahams, I., Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (London, 1896), pp. 113210 Google Scholar; Rabinowitz, L., The Social Life of the Jews of Northern France in the Twelfth to Fourteenth Centuries as reflected in the Rabbinical Literature of the Period (London, 1938), pp. 13765 Google Scholar; Agus, I. A., Urban Civilisation in Pre-Crusade Europe: a Study of Organised Town-Life in Northwestern Europe during the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries based on the Responsa Literature, 2 vols (Leiden, 1965), 2, pp. 554690.Google Scholar

4 Rabinowitz, , Social Life, pp. 1645.Google Scholar It might still be argued that most Jewish women of the eleventh and twelfth centuries seem to have escaped the so-called ‘family revolution’ which allegedly did so much to depress the status of prominent Christian women in north-western Europe at this period: see , F. and Gies, J., Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages (New York, 1989), pp. 12132 Google Scholar; Duby, G., The Knight, the Lady and the Priest: the Making of Modem Marriage in Medieval France (New York, 1983 Google Scholar); Brooke, C. N. L., The Medieval Idea of Marriage (Oxford, 1989 Google Scholar); and (for a very different perspective) Biller, P., ‘The Common Woman in the Western Church in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries’, SCH, 27 (1990), pp. 12757.Google Scholar

5 Rosenthal, J. T., ed., Medieval Women and the Sources of Medieval History (Atlanta, Georgia, 1990), p. viii.Google Scholar For a pioneering attempt to expose ‘the contradictory ideas about women formulated during the Middle Ages’, see Power, E., Medieval Women (Cambridge, 1975), pp. 934.Google Scholar

6 Adler, M., ‘The Jewish Woman in Medieval England’, in Jews of Medieval England (London, 1939). P. 39.Google Scholar

7 Ibid., pp. 17-18.

8 The long-awaited fifth volume in the series of Calendars of the Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, inaugurated by J. M. Rigg in 1905 [hereafter Cal. Jewish Plea Rolls], appeared too late to be consulted for the purposes of this paper.

9 PRO, E. 9/4, memb. 4d; Rigg, J. M., ed., Select Pleas, Starrs and other Records from the Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, 1220-1284 - Selden Society, 15 (London, 1902 Google Scholar) [hereafter Rigg, Select Pleas], pp. 11-12.

10 Cal. Jewish Plea Rolls, 1, pp. 103-4; Adler, ‘Jewish Woman”, p. 36.

11 PRO, E. 9/4, memb. 4d; Rigg, , Select Pleas, pp. 1112.Google Scholar No member of the Jewish community at Warwick in 1244. can have been particularly secure: only ten years earlier all their predecessors had been temporarily expelled from the town and county there: see Roth, C., A History of the Jews in England, 3rd edn (Oxford, 1978), p. 58.Google Scholar

12 For several examples of murder-allegations brought against Jewish women in Bristol and Oxford, see Adler, , ‘Jewish Woman’, pp. 345.Google Scholar More intriguing is the case of Milo or Meir of York, who accused three Christians of killing his wife, a crime he apparently committed himself because of his affair (‘rem’) with Belina, another Jewess, : Curia Regis Rolls of the Reigns of Richard [John and Henry III, 16 vols (London, 1922-79), 5, p. 256 Google Scholar; Dobson, R. B., The Jews of Medieval York and the Massacre of March 1190–Borthwick Papers, no. 45 (York, 1974), p. 39.Google Scholar No doubt much more common (but much less often recorded) is the experience which befell an Exeter Jewess named Henna, who had stones thrown at her in South Street by a boy attending the city school: Unity and Variety, a History of the Church in Devon and Cornwall, ed. Orme, N. (Exeter, 1991), p. 47.Google Scholar

13 Roth, , History of Jews, p. 91.Google Scholar If anything, however, the persecution and insecurity undergone by Jewish women in northern France during the late thirteenth century was even more protracted than in England: Chazan, R., Medieval Jewry in Northern France: a Political and Social History (Baltimore, 1973), pp. 154205.Google Scholar

14 Hanawalt, Cf. B. A., The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (Oxford, 1986), pp. 10755 Google Scholar; Barron, C. M., ‘The golden age of women in medieval London’, Reading Medieval Studies, 15 (1989), pp. 3558.Google Scholar

15 PRO, E. 101/249/24, discussed in Dobson, R. B., ‘The decline and expulsion of the medieval Jews of York’, TJHSE, 26 (1979), p. 51, n. 78.Google Scholar

16 Lipman, V. D., The Jews of Medieval Norwich (London, 1967), pp. 368 Google Scholar; Roth, , History of Jews, pp. 91, 93, 276.Google Scholar

17 Lipman, , Jews of Medieval Norwich, p. 38.Google Scholar According to Ephraim Bonn, the most reliable authority for the atrocity, approximately 150 Jewish men and women lost their lives at Clifford’s Tower during the (not necessarily total) massacre of the York Jews in March 1 too (Dobson, Jews of Medieval York, p. 15).

18 PRO, E. 101, 249/3; printed in Stokes, H. P., Studies in Anglo-Jewish History (Edinburgh, 1913), PP. 25275.Google Scholar

19 Rotulorum originialium abhrevatio (London, 1805–10), I, pp. 73-0; Abrahams, B. L., ‘The condition of the Jews of England at the time of their Expulsion in 1290’, TJHSE, 2 (1896), pp. 76105.Google Scholar

20 These figures are cited from the draft (June 1991)of the forthcoming report on the Jewbury excavation to be published as York Archaeological Trust AY/12/3. For a preliminary indication of the importance of the site see Turnbull, P., ‘Jewbury’, Interim Bulletin of the York Archaeological Trust, 9 (1983), pp. 58.Google Scholar

21 The reasons why so many English Jewesses bore French rather than Hebraic first names, and why so many of their sons were identified by their mothers’ rather than their fathers’ names, are only two examples of issues which deserve much further consideration. For a very incomplete list of ‘Names of Jewesses in England’, see Adler, Jewish Woman, p. 21; and cf. the brief account of ‘Nomenclature’ in Mundill, R. R., ‘The Jews in England, 1272-1290’ (D.Phil. thesis, St Andrews, 1987), pp. xviiixix.Google Scholar

22 Lipman, , Jews of Medieval Norwich, p. 47 Google Scholar; Roth, cf. C., The Jews of Medieval Oxford–OHS, ns, 9 (1951), pp. 1645 Google Scholar; Dobson, , ‘Decline and Expulsion’, p. 43.Google Scholar

23 See also the particularly informative accounts of receipts from Jews in the Tower of London between 1275 and 1278 (Cal. Jewish Plea Rolls, 4, pp. 148-94).

24 Stow, K. R., ‘The Jewish family in the Rhineland in the High Middle Ages: form and function’, AHR, 42 (1987), pp. 108597.Google Scholar

25 This problem is largely unaffected by the recent argument that after 1275 the English Jewry experienced a fundamental ‘change from moneylender to credit agent’: Mundill, R., ‘Anglo-Jewry under Edward I: credit agents and their clients’, TJHSE, 31 (1988-90), pp. 121.Google Scholar

26 Jacobs, J., ‘Aaron of Lincoln’, TJHSE, 3 (1899), pp. 15779 Google Scholar; Roth, , Jews of Medieval Oxford, pp. 409 Google Scholar, 87-8, 132-3; Dobson, , ‘Decline and Expulsion’, pp. 456.Google Scholar The names of the major Jewish contributors to the tallages of 1221, 1223, and 1225 are now conveniently listed in Hillaby, J., ‘A magnate among the marchers: Hamo of Hereford, his family and clients, 1218-1253’, THJSE, 31 (1988-90), pp. 301.Google Scholar

27 Goldberg, P. J. P., ‘Female labour, service and marriage in northern towns during the later Middle Ages’, NH, 22 (1986), pp. 325 Google Scholar; ‘Mortality and economic change in the Diocese of York, 1390–1514’, NH, 24 (1988), pp. 42-53.

28 Bennett, J., Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Brigslock before the Plague (Oxford, 1987), pp. 4864, 198.Google Scholar

29 Prynne, W., Short Demurrer (London, 1655-6), pt ii, p. 136.Google Scholar

30 Richardson, , English Jewry, pp. 445.Google Scholar

31 Cal. Jewish Plea Rolls, 1, pp. 145-6; cf. pp. 200-1.

32 Ibid., 1, pp. 43-4; CCR, 1272-79, p. 487.

33 For the plausible suggestion that pledging of chattels to the Jews was not only very common indeed, but led them into contact with ‘all classes of society, from clergy and knights down to thieves’, see Richardson, , English Jewry, pp. 768.Google Scholar

34 Rigg, , Select Pleas, pp. 89.Google Scholar Cf. ibid., p. 11; Cal. Jewish Plea Rolls, 1, p. 73, for examples of Jewesses being accused of coin-clipping.

35 For some unusually explicit examples of the purchase and sale of town houses by several Jewesses of Canterbury in the early thirteenth century, see Adler, , ‘The Jews of Medieval Canterbury’, in Jews of Medieval England, pp. 689, 72.Google Scholar

36 See Comitissa of Gloucester’s explicit declaration before the Justices of the Jews in 1220 that she would ‘prove as Jewess against Jew’ the conspiracy whereby her late husband had been thrown to his death from the walls of Gloucester Castle: Cal. Jewish Plea Rolls, 1, p. 45; Hillaby, cf., Worcester Jewry, pp. 91, 100 Google Scholar; and for examples of Jewesses’ appearances before the Beth Din, see Adler, , ‘Jews of Medieval Canterbury’, p. 73 Google Scholar; Davis, , ed., Shetarolh: Hebrew Deeds of English Jews (1180-1290) (London, 1888) [hereafter Shetarolh], pp. 5, 29, 40.Google Scholar

37 Roth, , Jews of Medieval Oxford, pp. 13650.Google Scholar

38 Rigg, , Select Pleas, p. 114.Google Scholar

39 Ibid., p. Iv; Roth, , History of Jews, p. 105 Google Scholar; Richardson, , English jewry, pp. 767, 1878.Google Scholar

40 Complete Peerage, 12 vols (London, 1910-59), 1, pp. 355-6; Denholm-Young, N.. ‘The York-shire Estates of Isabella de Fortibus’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 31 (1934), pp. 389420 Google Scholar; Seignorial Administration in England (Oxford, 1937).

41 Shetaroth, p. 60; Adler, , ‘Jewish Woman’, p. 19.Google Scholar

42 Ibid., pp. 39–40; Koth, Jews of Medieval Oxford, pp. 55-6. More characteristic of the fines imposed upon Jewish widows to receive delivery of their husbands’ moveables and houses is the 400 marks paid by Floria on the estate of Master Elias of London: Rigg, , Select Pleas, pp. 1312 Google Scholar; cf. ibid., pp. 35, 42, 61.

43 Rabinowitz, , Jews of Northern France, pp. 14057 Google Scholar; Agus, , Urban Civilization, pp. 55495.Google Scholar For the argument (quite probably applicable to thirteenth-century England) that diametric oppositions between the elite culture of Jews and Christians could nevertheless coexist with similar perceptions of marriage, see Cohen, E. and Horowitz, E., ‘In search of the sacred: Jews, Christians, and rituals of marriage in the later Middle AgesJournal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 20 (1990), pp. 22549.Google Scholar

44 For ‘the most famous divorce of the period’, of Muriel of Oxford from her husband David, see Adler, , Jewish Woman’, pp. 289 Google Scholar; Davis, cf. M. D., ‘An Anglo-Jewish Divorce, A.D. 1242’, JQR, 5 (1893), pp. 15865 Google Scholar; Rabbinowitz, , Jews of Northern France, p. 163.Google Scholar

45 Paris, Matthew, Chronica Majora, 7 vols, RS (1872-83), 5, pp. 51619 Google Scholar; Rigg, , Select Pleas, pp. xxxxxxii.Google Scholar

46 Registrum Ricardi de Swinfield episcopi Herefordensis, A.D. 1283-1317, ed. Capes, W. W., CYS, 6 (1909), pp. 1202.Google Scholar The local context of this wedding is interestingly discussed in Hillaby, ‘Magnate among the Marchers’, pp. 74–5.

47 Abrahams, , Jewish Life, pp. 186210 Google Scholar; , T. and Metzger, M., Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (New York, 1985), pp. 22733 Google Scholar, including a photograph of the only illustrated Kethubah (from Krems in Austria, dated 1392) known to have survived from the medieval West.

48 Shetaroth, pp. 32, 43-6, 94.

49 Ibid., pp. 298-302, tr. in Adler, , ‘Jewish Woman’, pp. 435.Google Scholar

50 Cal. Jewish Plea Rolls, 1, p. 192; Shetaroth, p. 136.

51 For the principle that Jewesses ‘ought not to be distrained after the death of their husbands in the dowers they have of tenements, goods and chattels for any fines due from their late husbands’, see CCR, 1279-88, p. 47; Adler, ‘Jewish Woman’, p. 30.

52 Lipman, , Jews of Medieval Norwich, pp. 13740 Google Scholar, provides an exceptional insight into the marriage relationships which characterized this ‘typical Jewish middle-class family’.

53 Cal. Jewish Plea Rolls, 1, pp. 152, 154, 163; Stokes, , Studies in Anglo-Jewish Hislory, p. 164.Google Scholar

54 Jacobs, J., The Jews of Angevin England: Documents and Records (London, 1893), pp. 28, 445, 332 Google Scholar; Stokes, , Studies in Anglo-Jewish History, p. 128.Google Scholar

55 PRO, E. 101, 249/22; Cal. Jewish Plea Rolls, 4, pp. 16-17, 139-94; Hillaby, , ‘Worcester Jewry’, pp. 10613.Google Scholar Proof that almost 300 Jews were hanged for alleged currency offences in 1278-9 is now provided by Rokeah, Z. E., ‘Money and the hangman in late thirteenth-century England: Jews, Christians and coinage offences alleged and real’, TJHSE, 31 (1988-90), pp. 83109.Google Scholar

56 Henna, regularly called widow of Aaron of York throughout the 1270s, seems to have died soon after she received—in 1280—a royal licence (as Henna, daughter of Leo de Eboraco and mother of Elias) to sell one of her houses in Coney Street: CPR, 1272-81, p. 380. Licoricia’s murder was investigated by a specially appointed Winchester jury in 1277: Cal. Jewish Plea Rolls, 3, pp. 248, 293.

57 Cal. Jewish Plea Rolls, 1, pp. 181, 186, 210-11; Paris, Matthew, Chronica Majora, 5, p. 136 Google Scholar; Adler, , ‘Aaron of York’, in Jews of Medieval England, pp. 12773.Google Scholar

58 Cal.Jewish Plea Rolls, 1, p. 270: 3, pp. 31, 78, 102, 156, 202, 244, 278; Dobson, , Jews of Medieval York, pp. 434.Google Scholar

59 Roth, , Jews of Medieval Oxford, pp. 547 Google Scholar; see n. 42, above.

60 Stokes, H. P., ‘A Jewish family in Oxford in the thirteenth century’, TJHSE, 10 (1925), pp. 193206 Google Scholar: Adler, Jews of Medieval England, p. 92.

61 Henry III’s personal intervention on Licoricia’s behalf in her complex plea against the Charlecote family in 1253 is well documented in Rigg, Select Pleas, pp. 19-27. For the ‘inexplicable absence’ of Licoricia from the tallage of 1239–42 see Stacey, R., Politics, Policy and Finance under Henry III, 1216-1245 (Oxford, 1987), p. 151.Google Scholar

62 Dobson, , ‘Decline and Expulsion’, pp. 446 Google Scholar; Chazan, cf., Medieval Jewry in Northern France, pp. 1834 Google Scholar; Roth, , History of Jews, pp. 56, 274 Google Scholar (for the best-known case of personal patronage of a Jew by a member of the English royal family, Richard of Cornwall).

63 Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II and Richard I, RS, 82 (1884-9), 1, pp. 322-4; cf, the translation by Dr Biller, P. P. A. in Clifford’s Tower Commemoration (York, 1900), p. 38.Google Scholar

64 Keene, D., Survey of Medieval Winchester–Winchester Studies, 2 (Oxford, 1985), pp. 769, 3856, 3245, 3847, 10345 Google Scholar; Hillaby, , ‘Hamo of Hereford’, pp. 745.Google Scholar

65 Rigg, , Select Pleas, p. xlix.Google Scholar

66 Ibid., pp. 33, 38, 108-9. Such cases can sometimes be hard to distinguish from instances of Christian males borrowing from Jews on the security of items of household equipment or of their wife’s clothing (see CCR, 1261-64, PP. 19–20).

67 The nurse in question later migrated to Normandy with her ward ( Rigg, , Select Pleas, p. 75 Google Scholar).

68 Cal. Jewish Plea Rolls, 3, p. 293.

69 CCR, 1234-37, P. 13; Rigg, Select Pleas, pp. xlviii, lv; The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich by Thomas of Monmouth, ed. Jessopp, A. and James, M. R. (Cambridge, 1896), p. 89.Google Scholar The long-standing canonical denunciation of unduly close propinquity between Christian and Jew reaches its English climax with Edward I’s 1275 Statute of Jewry, forbidding Christians to live in Jewish households: see Watt, J. A., ‘The Jews, the law, and the Church: the concept of Jewish serfdom in thirteenth-century England’, SCH.S, 9 (1991), p. 163.Google Scholar

70 Rigg, , Select Pleas, p. 104.Google Scholar

71 It seems less than clear whether Edward I’s famous mandate of 1280 instructing his sheriffs to ensure that Jews should attend the new conversionary sermons to be preached throughout the realm by the Dominican friars were meant to apply to women as well as to men: see CPR, 1272-81, p. 356; Tovey, D’Bloissiers, Anglia Judaica (Oxford, 1738), pp. 21516.Google Scholar

72 Adler, Jews of Medieval England, pp. 350-2.

73 Logan, F. D., ‘Thirteen London Jews and conversion to Christianity: problems of apostacy in the 1280s’, BIHR, 45 (1972), pp. 216, 227.Google Scholar

74 Rigg, , Select Pleas, pp. 423 Google Scholar (confirming that female converts to Christianity forfeited their bonds to the Crown not to their husbands).

75 Adler, , Jews of Medieval England, pp. 678.Google Scholar

76 London, PRO, E. 9, 4/17, memb. 12d; Cal. Jewish Plea Rolls, 2, pp. 209–10; 3, pp. 18, 41, 111.

77 Roth, , History of Jews, p. 90 Google Scholar; Cohen, J., The Friars and the Jews: The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Semitism (Cornell, 1982), pp. 1316, 24264 Google Scholar; L’Étal moderne: genèse: bilans et perspectives (Actes du Colloque tenu au CNRS à Paris. 19-20 September 1989), ed. Genet, J.-P. (Paris, 1990), pp. 713, 26181.Google Scholar

78 Todeschini, G., ‘Families juives et chrétiennes en Italia à la fin du moyen âge: deux modèles de développement economique’, Annales, 45 (1990), pp. 787817 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Goitein, S. D., A Maditerranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, III, The Family (Berkeley, 1978 Google Scholar).

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