Saturday 21 January 2012

The persecuted Jews of the Middle Ages

Sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. For example, it would be entirely possible to go through school thinking that Hitler was the only person to ever persecute the Jewish people. Indeed it's sometimes easier to believe that antisemitism is limited to a handful of insane Nazis in the 1940s. However, history at its best can make you feel uncomfortable and question many of your underlying assumptions about such issues.

Take a look at the picture above. It's taken from a medieval tax record of all the Jews paying tax in Norwich in 1233. Most tax records have very little that's interesting about them (as any accountant will no doubt tell you) but this is definitely an exception. For me, the most engaging aspect of this Middle Ages doddle is that we know who many of the characters in the picture are meant to be and once you have figured out the characters there's a sinister message lying underneath. Before you read on perhaps look at the picture and try and figure it out.

The three faced man in the middle is Issac fil Jurnet, one of the richest Jews in England. He made his fortune from money lending; something which Christians were fobidden from doing. As you can imagine this made him very unpopular. His wealth made him almost like a king, hence the crown on his head. His three faces are meant to represent the devil and sexual excess.
Detail of E 401/1565The man wearing the pointed hat and the woman are meant to be Mosse Mokke and Abigail. Both were Jews who worked for Issac. I find it fascinating that we know who these people were and something about their lives almost 800 years on. For example, Mosse Mokke was eventually executed for dodgy financial practices in 1242. Human stories are sometimes the most interesting aspect of the past.

However, the darker side of people is also loud and clear in this drawing. The cartoon is thoroughly racist in a way that offends our 21st century sensibilities (my year 7s were outraged!). The reference to the characters' noses is perhaps the most obvious racial stereotype. Having been obviously identified (their names are also printed by their heads) the cartoon links all Jews with the devil, hell and damnation. Sometimes sources like this give us a great view into how people in the past thought about their world which can be endearing. Not so in this case. This source gives us a window into the hatred and prejudice of one medieval writer and probably most of medieval England.

Indeed, a little wider reading will tell you that this writer was not the only person with this attitude. In 1190, 150 Jews were massacred in York and in 1290, Edward I expelled Jews from the country entirely (they weren't officially allowed back until 1655). As one of my pupils noticed "Jews have had quite a hard time in History".

Whilst exploring persecution is not an enjoyable theme, I think it's really important. When looking at 20th century history many people think that the worst excesses of depravity could not possibly have happened in England as if our society is somehow immune from this type of behaviour. I would beg to differ. History, at its most interesting, gives an uncomfortably honest view on what people are capable of and we shouldn't try to isolate the worst parts of history from "our national story". To do so would be lying to ourselves.

Much of this content is taken from the national archives website

If you are a History Teacher you will probably have used stuff from here before. Though, History teacher or not there's amazing stuff on there and I would thoroughly recommend checking it out.