Wednesday, 22 March 2017

[#63] Elisheva Baumgarten, Ruth Mazo Karras and Katelyn Mesler (eds.), Entangled Histories: Knowledge, Authority, and Jewish Culture in the Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia, 2016).


I am greatful to the University of Pennsylvania Press for providing me with a review copy of this book. You can purchase it from their website here.
Entangled Histories is an edited collection concerned with my favourite century, containing contributions by some of my favourite historians. Consequently, it was with a great deal of excitement that I received my review copy of this book from the University of Pennsylvania Press. That excitement was tempered somewhat by two concerns. First, would this be another study which professed to cover European Jewry but in fact was one where ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’ (to quote Alexandre Dumas)? Second, given the background of two of its editors, would it be a study of women masquerading as a more general study? The answer two both turned out to be an emphatic and resounding no! On the contrary, this book is diverse in its every particular. Ordinarily, that would be the most remarkable feature of a book of this type. Not so here. The overwhelming success of this book comes from its basic premise. That is, rather than adopting the monochromal outlook of previous scholars, it is very much a shares of grey book. As many of the essays in this collection demonstrate, it is no longer enough to talk of ‘influences’. Instead, we should think of ‘integration’ and ‘absorbing’ ideas. Although there is little in this volume on England, I took something from every chapter which is applicable to the historiography on medieval Anglo-Jewry.
The first section of this book “Intellectual Communities and Interactions in the Long Thirteenth Century” confronts the basic premise of scholarship on medieval Jews. That is, the division between Ashkenazi and Sephardi. The essays in this section demonstrate that the two groups were not hermetically sealed, nor were themes received in the same way in different areas of the same religion. Ephraim Kanarfogel’s essay, for example, demonstrates that “matchmakers” were common among Ashkenazi but were practically unheard of in Sephardic communities. He goes on to Argus, however, that while in France girls under the age of twelve could have marriages arranged for them, while this was rare in Germany. Similarly, Mordechai Cohen’s article illustrates that the same intellectual idea could emerge in both regions, but in very different ways as a result of the cultural heritage that they were part of (i.e. incorporating Christian or Muslim ideas). At the same time he demonstrates that ideas could be transmitted to the opposite region – Rashi, for example, influenced the work of Nahmanides. Adopting a different approach again, Avraham Reiner’s study of Rabbenu Tam demonstrates that Jews could also be involved in intellectual discussions with the wider Christian world. Indeed, Reiner even demonstrates how the latter could impact upon Jewish biblical interpretations. The influence of the wider Christian world is picked up on in the final essay in this section by Judah Galinsky. This essay highlights that at the end of the eleventh century the Germany communities, which had been intellectually superior until the massacres of the 1090s l, were surpassed by the French tosafists. Not only does Galinsky demonstrate that the character of French intellectuals was different that of their German cousins, in that the latter wrote for other intellectuals where the former targeted all levels of society (though some were more elitist than others). One reason that is ascribed to this is the proximity of writers to the Parisian book trade. As far as this chapter is concerned, I would have liked some discussion on who was producing these books, on what scale, and how that rioted into the Christian production of books (in the vein of Marc Epstein’s work on illumination).
It should come as no surprise, given that I work primarily on secular issues, that my favourite part of this book is section two: “Secular and Religious Authorities”. Luke Yarborough’s essay on the role of the Madrasa highlights that this institution was important in driving Christians and Jews from the upper echelons of society not because of the ideas that they promulgated but the networks that they created over time. For me, the stand out essay of the entire collection is Rebecca Winer’s on notarial culture in Perpignan and Barcelona. This chapter explores the way in which debts were recorded and challenged. To be perfectly honest, I was astounded by the similarities between our work (down to the fact that the same person commented on both). If Winer’s article is my favourite, then the one that I find most intriguing is Kati Ihnat and Katelyn Mesler’s essay on wax images. As with so many items venerated by Christians during this period, there were serious worries that Jews would desecrate the holy images. The final essay in this section, written by Piero Capelli, provides an interesting discourse on the role of the apostate Nicholas Donin in the Paris Talmud Trial. 
The final section of this volume, ‘Translations and Transmissions of Texts and Knowledge”, which was, for me, the most challenging section of the book. I’ve never claimed to be an expert in anything, but my weakest point has always been intellectual history. That being said the chapters in the section are just as interesting, and rewarding for those who decipher their meaning  (I’ve read them twice already and still am not convinced that I’m at that point). Yossef Schwartz’s essay provides a fascinating discourse on two men who were part of the same community, with the same intellectual influence and yet divereged markedly. Moreover, the fact that they were involved in translation: from Latin and Arabic to Hebrew respectively, is a particularly interesting point. Following on from this, S. J. Pearce provides a remarkable discussion of the Mamonidean influences of a volume of the Alexander Romance. I love this chapter in particular because she lets the manuscript which she is focusing upon do the work, rather than trying to manipulate it to serve here purposes, and for me that is what history is all about: observation and consideration. Uri Shachar’s essay then provides an intriguing new discussion of a topic well known to medievalists: crusading rhetoric. What is new about this essay is that it considers a wide range of source material (including Muslim sources) to highlight repeated literary tropes across the religions. Finally, Elisabeth Hollander concludes by demonstrating the way that a text could be interpreted in diffident geographic regions.
Above I have simplified the contents of a superb book – in some places monstrously so (this is also necessary given the platform which I am using). What I now wish to convey is that Entangled Histories is, for me, one of the most important publications of the last decade (if not two). The framework which it provides is both original and invigorating. It opens up a world of possibilities, away from the negativity of the past, to ask genuine questions of how Jews and Christians interacted on a human level. I also think that this book opens the door to a whole range of future projects. I have already noted the similarities between Rebecca Winer’s and my own work on moneylending and feel that it would be a really good first step to explore that theme of moneylending through Europe and North Africa generally in a similar way.  Equally, to use the concept of entanglement on a national / regional, secular, level would also have remarkable results. I am thinking specifically of England here, but I suppose any other area could be studied in a similar vein. So, I think that this is a vital study, and suspect that in years to come it will be perceived as an instant classic, and would highly recommend that you, dear reader, obtain a copy with all possible haste.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

1 year anniversary

This week marks the one year anniversary of the establishment of Towards a Bibliography of Medieval Anglo-Jewry. In that time I've hit a number of milestones which I think are impressive for a blog about the Jews of medieval England. I've completed 62 reviews to help make pieces of literature accessible.

These are the stats that Blogger provides me with, showing that there have been 24,3000 "Pageviews"in the past year. (I have no idea how accurate this information is). And the same information by geography.



















In the past year, my own records demonstrate that, I've sent 483 anti-Semitism rejection letters to those whose efforts simply don't meet the required standard (that is to say, all of them). Of those, 69% have been sent since the election of Donald Trump.

The kind of support that I actually love comes from the readers and the publishers who've generously provided me with review copies of book:


  • Princeton University Press
  • University of Pennsylvania Press
  • Wayne State University Press
  • McFraland
In the next year you can expect:
  • More reviews
  • More OTD features - I received a lot of negative comments about this in terms of breadth so will be revising it to focus upon my favourite type of source: acknowledgements of debt.
  • At least one guest review
  • Anything else that people ask for

Sunday, 5 February 2017

New Resources:

Paul Brand, "The 'Protection' of the Jews in England, 1189-1290: How royal protection shaped the legal status of the Jews and led to their expulsion", Oxford University Chabad Society, http://www.chabad.org/multimedia/media_cdo/aid/2994932/jewish/The-Protection-of-the-Jews-in-England-1190-1290.htm accessed on 5 Feb. 2017.

Hugh Doherty, "Magna Carta and the Jews: How the complex legal status of the Jews of England shaped the Magna Carta", Oxford University Chabad Society,http://www.chabad.org/multimedia/media_cdo/aid/2994915/jewish/The-Magna-Carta-and-the-Jews.htm accessed on 5 Feb. 2017.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

New Podcast Link: Jewish Tower of London

The "Curious Connections... Jewish History of the Tower of London" event, held at the Tower on 24 January 2017 is now available via the Historic Royal Palaces: Talks and Lectures Itunes page. If it is also on the internet then I have been unable to find it. Just as a fun fact - mine is the first question during the question and answer session!

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

[#62] David Stephenson, “Jewish presence in, and absence from, Wales in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries”, Jewish Historical Studies, 43 (2011), pp. 7-20.

Ordinarily, when I start a new project, I compile a reading list and spend some time reviewing the previous literature. This is what I did last year when I started a project considering the evidence of “Welsh” Jews. If anybody’s interested, this task could be completed in a leisurely afternoon. Consequently, before I commence with this review, I should state that I very much have a dog in the fight, and though I am not presently permitted to submit my essay on the topic (which at any rate isn’t quite finished), naturally I think that I bring something different to the party. This inevitably impacts upon my reading, and interpretation, of this piece. Today’s review is concerned with David Stephenson’s article “Jewish presence in, and absence from, Wales in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries”. This commences with an interesting literature review and discussion of how historians have (perhaps erroneously) viewed the extant source material in the past. This is followed by, what is for me, the most successful part of the article. That is, the assemblage of references relating to those Jews who bore the toponym “of Caerleon”, and the associated references to nearby Chepstow. Thereafter, we are in slightly murkier water. Though Stephenson does a reasonably good job with the twelfth century evidence, I’m afraid that it is to scant to be convincing. Likewise, the discussion of Jews in Shropshire, though interesting, is far from convincing. This is not Stephenson’s fault, merely an inherent problem with the extremely limited evidence. Additionally, Stephenson discusses the trading relationship between Carmarthen and Bristol during this period. In my piece, I favour the connections between Caerleon and Bristol which I find to be more important, so it should come as no surprise that that is also the view I hold here. Finally, Stephenson concludes with a discussion of why Jews weren’t more widespread in Wales during this period. Again, the evidence simply isn’t strong enough, in my opinion, to support such a discussion, but what is there certainly appears to be reasonable.

I don’t mean to sound all historian-y but, for me, a major shortcoming of this article is the reliance on the source material which has appeared in print. In two particular instances this is particularly problematic for the piece. First, Stephenson correctly notes, based upon the printed calendar, that there are several acknowledgements of debt contained in The National Archives relating to the Jews of Caerleon. What Stephenson could not have known, however, based upon the English summary, is that these are even more remarkable documents than the entry implies. Thus, in a paper which is currently under consideration at Jewish Historical Studies, I argue that they are linguistically significant and may well have been written by the Jew to whom they were acknowledged.[1] Also, just to be a pedant, he missed at least one acknowledgement in a different repository. Second, Stephenson relied on B. L. Abrahams’ summary of the contents of the scrutinies of the archae which were produced after the Expulsion. This is problematic because Abrahams only provides the total extent of each Jews lending with overall total. Therefore, it is impossible to get any understanding of the extent of each Jews’ activities, and also Abrahams didn’t include every detail of the scrutinies which would have answered at least one major problem of Stephenson’s article (what turned into a complex discussion could actually have been resolved very quickly).

                To conclude, this is a pretty decent article. It manages to assemble most of the obvious (though by no means all) entries within the printed records. For me, however, there is one fundamental error. In this article, the modern geographical boundaries of Wales as opposed to adopting the medieval borders. Had this latter definition been adopted then, as far as I can tell from this article and my own research, there is not a single piece of evidence which can be used to place a Jew in Wales. Indeed, every item places the Jews in or around the Marches. Thus, although Stephenson started with the intention of disproving John Gillingham’s argument that there were “no Jewish settlements anywhere in [… medieval] Wales”, for me Stephenson reinforces that argument. The most that the evidence allows is individual Jews in specific locations which were, at the time, English not Welsh. Having said that, for the moment this is one of the only credible pieces of literature on the topic, though there are tentative signs that that may be changing, so I certainly suggest it be used as a starting point.

Additional literature on Jews in Wales

Nota bene: With the exception of Parry-Jones’ PhD thesis, which is very good, these sources should be read with a generous dose of scepticism and large pinch of salt as far as the medieval source material is concerned.

Nathan Abrams, “Jews Were Once Loved in Wales”, Haaretz, 14 October 2012, available online at http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/jews-were-once-loved-in-wales.premium-1.469890, accessed on 18 January 2017.

Cai Parry-Jones, “The History of the Jewish Diaspora in Wales”, (Bangor, unpublished PhD thesis, 2014), pp. 36-40.

Matthew Williams, “The Middle Ages, c. 1066-1290”, Welsh-Jewish History, available online at http://welshjewishheritage.tumblr.com/middleages, accessed on 18 January 2017.

Matthew Williams, “From medieval persecution to thriving communities, the long and fascinating history of Jews in Wales”, Wales Online, 19 August 2016, http://www.walesonline.co.uk/lifestyle/nostalgia/medieval-persecution-thriving-communities-long-11762749, accessed on 18 January 2017.




[1] Dean A. Irwin, “The Materiality of Debt in Medieval England, 1194-1275: New Perspectives”, submitted to Jewish Historical Studies.

Friday, 13 January 2017

[#61] Julie Mell, The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender, (London, 2017), ch. 3-4.

Today I’m writing a review of part of a book which I live in constant terror of. This is not because of the immense calibre of the scholarship (though it could easily be). Nor is it the skill with which the book was assembled (though it could just as easily be this as well). No, what terrifies me about this book is that, since December 2015, it has sat as a print out on one of my bookcases (see photograph). It was not, however, until I had printed out the entire text that I realised that the pages were not numbered! Consequently, should a strong breeze, a vigorous closing of the door, or the careless
removal of another book, could result in catastrophe. This also means that whilst this is a brand new book for you, dear reader, thanks to the generosity of Dr Mell, I’ve spent more than a year thinking about the contents. In that time, I’ve read the book thrice in full – and multiple times in part. The first time I read it, I was far from convinced. Dr Mell’s eloquent and impassioned defence of her book however, meant that I felt compelled to read it a second time with an open mind. This time, I felt more comfortable with the arguments and, consequently, sided with Mell. The final time that I read it, I was inspired to question my own approach to medieval Anglo-Jewish moneylending activities. I do not plan to review the entire book here – not least because large swathes of Mell’s genius intimidate me – however I will (attempt to) consider the two magisterial chapters which are concerned with “merry old England”. In fairness, these two chapters also intimidate me, but at least I’m familiar with the sources and evidence for these chapters.

                Chapter three commences with a wonderful synthesis of the sources and historiography upon which more than a century of scholarship has been based and which Mell seeks to challenge. This is followed by an important section which outlines the nature of taxation in medieval England during this period. Within the context of this discussion, Mell highlights the Jewish tallages which she plans to base her analysis upon. This section inevitably follows the work of Robert Stacey and Robin Mundill. It does not, however, dogmatically adhere to the arguments and interpretations advanced by those two brilliant scholars. For me, this section is characteristic of what makes The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender such a triumph: the combination of old(-ish) scholarship with the new ground breaking material which Mell brings to the table. The significance of these discussions becomes clear for the rest of the chapter where Mell innovatively examines the distribution of wealth within the Anglo-Jewish community (the percentage breakdown – which I shan’t spoil for you – is truly remarkable), as well as considering the implications of the tallage records for calculating the Jewish population during this period. Most historians of medieval Anglo-Jewry would (and have) stop there. Not Mell. Rather in a section which compounds brilliance with genius, Mell juxtaposes the Jewish records with those similar records for the Christian population. As she rightly points out, “the data [assembled here] should be read as a rough and hazy picture. But it is telling all the same”. This chapter concludes with a section which combines the tallage records with the scrutinies of the archae. I think that perhaps too much reliance is placed upon the latter source for me – I dislike them enormously as they only provide a snapshot of one specific point and there is no way of knowing what debts were removed before or added afterwards. What I cannot fault, however, is Mell’s results. Even accounting for my mistrust, she presents to much evidence to be disregarded. By this, I mean that she demonstrates that the majority of Jews who are recorded as having contributed towards the various tallages, had no acknowledgements of debt in the archae, and those that did only had very few. I do think that two areas could have been addressed here thought to strengthen the argument. The first being the significance of networks of credit which were headed by leading Jews and involved multiple lesser Jews. The second is the fact that whilst the scrutinies suggest that a few leading Jews dominated the moneylending field, the majority of acknowledgements of debt relate not to these but to lesser Jews.

                Moving on from this, chapter four considers the legal status of the Jews in medieval England. As with the previous chapter, Mell commences by scrutinising the historiography and I for one am delighted that Maitland comes in for sustained bombardment here. Conversely, the work of Gavin Langmuir is adopted as the model upon which to build. The fundamental premise of this chapter is to dismiss the notion that Anglo-Jewry were serfs. Inevitably, this means that Mell must tackle the tallages – the argument which every historian who has argued for serfdom has used.  Unlike her illustrious forbears, however, Mell does not treat these in isolation. Rather, she highlights that the Jews were not singled out for special treatment but rather form part of a nationwide picture. Similarly, in the following section establishes that Jewish tallages were administered in much the same way as the comparable Christian tax. Moving on from this, Mell considers the way Jewish status is represented in the use of courts and the common law. Here she is up against stiff competition in the work of Hannah Mayer (on manorial courts) and the current research of Rebecca Searby on the Curia Regis rolls (which I only know based on discussions but am looking forward to reading). With this in mind, and given my own research into the archae system, I think that this is, for me at least, not quite as successful as the previous elements. That is not saying very much given the enormous standard which prevails through these chapters. Here, Mell discusses the development and role of the Exchequer of the Jews (and how that worked with the archae system) in order to bolster he attack upon the notion of Jewish serfs. Certainly, I am convinced by her arguments here but think that in the light of other research, it could have been taken further.

                If I have one complaint about this book (and it does border on the verge of excessive pedantry) it is not with my historians hat on, but my readers hat. That is, Mell insists on calling Richard I “Richard the Lionheart”. If it were any other king, I would probably overlook it, however, I seriously dislike Richard so I shan’t. As far as I’m concerned king’s should only have their regnal number, period. That being said, given the complexity and length of this book, it is testament to Mell’s scholarship that that is the largest problem that I can find with it. This book is a seriously adept piece of scholarship which I suspect (and hope) will become an instant classic for students of medieval Jews in general and of medieval Anglo-Jewry specifically. Most of all, however, I am so pleased that I will be able to discuss this book with others after more than a year eager anticipation for its publication!

Monday, 9 January 2017

How I deal with anti-Semites et. al.

I receive quite a lot of anti-Semitic, and other comments, to this blog. I do hope that you haven't come into contact with any of them - I try to delete them ASAP. Additionally, given that I've never made any attempt to hide my e-mail address, I get quite a lot of messages via that medium. I don't believe that it is appropriate to just ignore these messages, however. This is not least because as somebody has reminded me this weekend "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing". With that in mind, six months ago, I developed a template that I send as a response wherever I have contact details. I personalise it in various ways in relation to the message, however, I always endeavour to be courteous - the recipients seem to find that exponentially more offensive. Until Saturday 7 January 2017, the only people who had ever seen the message were the recipients. On Saturday, I sent my first of the year and thought I'd upload the message to Twitter to see whether anybody had another approach which was effective. I didn't expect what I got, however. The Tweet received more than 100 likes, more than 50 retweets and a whole host of personal messages to me. This revived my faith in humanity and I thought I'd upload it here for posterity, for those not on Twitter and so that you could see how I deal with such messages in order to keep this a safe space. (p.s. I am now aware of the error in the first sentence and have corrected it for future recipients). If you have any suggestions of other effective methods, or other comments, then as always feel free to leave them at the bottom of this page, or contact me directly via: Twitter (@medievaljews), the Facebook group or e-mail (deanantonyirwin@outlook.com).